When a person dies, the soul exits the body and enters the unknown, the unfamiliar cosmos where there are no sign posts, no landmarks, no roads, no maps or GPS to guide the soul. For the disembodied soul, the only familiar features are its own dead body and the place of death which is one of the several reasons why souls are reluctant to leave the spot where they died.
Once the soul has left its body, beyond lies a vast directionless nothingness. Therefore, guidance from other spirits along with specific chants, rituals and time honoured “do’s and don’ts” are crucial for a smooth transition to the other world. Most times, it is the absence of these vital elements or some other aberration in established practices which leads to the phenomena of lost souls or wandering spirits, the bhule-bhatke spirits as they are usually called in India.
Generally, there are greater chances of people who die suddenly in a calamity or tragedy of some kind, especially if it is a mass calamity like a tsunami or an earthquake, getting lost. This covers and extends to other contributory factors such as not getting a proper funeral or burial or other traditional, respectful forms of handling a dead body. Years ago, the Mail &Guardian carried an interesting account titled “Fears of tsunami’s ghosts still haunt Thailand”. Griffin Shea wrote: “Few will actually admit to seeing a ghost themselves, but everyone has heard about them on the once-idyllic Thai island of Phi Phi, still rebuilding after the tsunami killed 700 people. There was a woman who saw foreign tourists struggling to escape the sea almost a year after the tsunami, and the hotel worker who heard ghosts playing on the beach.
“Guards at an ocean front plaza nearby Phuket’s famed Patong beach said one of their men had quit after hearing a foreign woman cry ‘help me’ all night long. Similar stories abound of a female foreign ghost walking along the shoreline at night calling for her child…It’s not so much that the spirits are angry as confused. Many Thais of all faiths say that if people die in pain or by accident, their spirits remain lost until they understand what has happened and can move on… Thai Buddhists have turned to monks to help soothe these lost souls… Muslim, Christian and Hindu religious leaders were also invited to join interdenominational prayer services and ‘merit-making’ ceremonies, which Buddhists believe will help the souls of the dead find a better life…”
Heonik Kwon, anthropologist and award winning author of books like Ghosts of War in Vietnam explained in the Asia-Pacific Journal that ghosts are called by various terms—ma, hon, hon ma, bong ma, linh hon, oan hon, or bach linh or con ma—in Vietnamese and are translated in literature typically as “lost souls” or “wandering souls”. They are different from the ancestors or deities who are placed in the household altar, community temple or elsewhere… “The idea of ‘wandering’ in terms of wandering souls of the dead points to the imagined situation that these spirits are obliged to move between the periphery of this world and the fringe of another world. In short, ghosts are ontological refugees who are uprooted from home.”
Generally, there are greater chances of people who die suddenly in a calamity or tragedy of some kind to get lost.
They are the products of “bad death”—violent death away from home, which the Vietnamese express as “death in the street” or chet duong.
The true spirit is the result of a successful separation of the soul from the prison of the body, whereas a failure in this work of mortal separation results in a ghost… Kwon points out that the moral identity of ghosts is a variable, relational phenomenon.
People would offer food and other votive gifts to ghosts in the way that they would hand over food and valuables to vagabond bandits in the hope of avoiding their menace. However, classical Vietnamese literature gives a very different picture as to the meaning of the gift for ghosts. “Nguyen Du, the eminent eighteenth-century mandarin scholar’s poetic world… introduces a multitude of displaced and wandering spirits of the dead “ . Nguyen Du wrote the following verse, “Calling all wandering souls.”
“Those who died beheaded, Those who had many friends and relatives but died lonely… Those whose death nobody knew about, Students who died on the way back from exams, Those who were buried hurriedly with no coffin and no clothing, Those who died at sea under thunderstorms… Innocent souls who died in prison … All spirits in the bush, in the stream, in the shadows, beneath a bridge, outside a pagoda, in the market, in an empty rice field, on a sand dune… We offer you this rice gruel and fruit nectar, Do not fear, Come and receive our offering, We pray for you, we pray.”
The essence of this verse is recited widely today as a ritual incantation in several modified and improvised versions amongst almost all cultures world-wide as homage to lost souls and wandering spirits. In India, the fifteen day Pitri Paksh, the annual shraadh or homage fortnight for departed Pitris or souls is on and will end on 20 September, on Pitri Amavasya or new moon’s day when Pitris visiting their families are believed to return to their astral abodes.
During this period, ceremonies are performed for one’s ancestors, but the bhule-bhatke spirits, the lost, wandering souls are not forgotten either and the Vietnamese poet’s sentiments are echoed by countless families when performing the shraadh for their own departed loved ones : Bhuli-bhatki atmayein, aapko bhi pranaam—forgotten, lost wandering souls, salutations to you too—come and receive our offering, we pray for you, we pray.