Ghost Illness among a North Indian Village

Those whom are consumed or taken control over by the deceased are said to suffer from ghost sickness or illness. The individual is possibly obsessed or consumed by the thought of death or a specific deceased individual whom may be the reason for their suffering. Symptoms include fatigue, sleeplessness, appetite decline, digestion, the inability to breath, shortness of breath, hallucination, paranoid activity, and overall sense of danger.

The study I analyzed recorded thirty-eight cases in which demographics and biographical information was related to ghost illness (victims would not mention name of any ghost in fear of being summoned by such ghosts). According to Hindu beliefs, the soul of a person becomes a ghost following death and then lingers in the village for thirteen days, is then judged by Yama (who rules the land of the dead), or Bhagwan (God). The soul is then either reborn or alternatively becomes a traveling ghost. The three main reasons given by villagers for traveling ghosts are: (1) dying before time allotted the soul to live; (2) death by torture; and (3) dying after actions contrary or against village customs.

Ghost illness was primarily defined by fever, convulsions, or other body movement as sign of pain and discomfort. Choking and shortness of breath are seen as the ghosts attempt to take the living soul. Infants can be victim with incessant crying whereas older victims link more with fever during which a voice speaks from within them.

Ruth S. Fred and Stanley A. Fred, “Ghost Illness In A North Indian Village”, Social Science Medicine 30 (1990): 617-623.

Ghost possession is seen as alteration of the mind and body due to the ghosts controlling abilities. After recovering from this semi unconscious mindset, the victim is said to not remember what took place and sometimes have been known to attempt suicide by jumping in front of a train or drawing themselves in a well. Wives whom committed suicide or died a torturous death are said to haunt the second wife, husband, or infants or the second wife.

Many men from the village whom were interviewed believed ghost belief was due to fear and that only women had enough fear to suffer from ghost possession (however, the number of interviewees was not given). Psychological stress was often a strong factor of the belief which held true through a family of four in which all had problematic stressors in their daily lives.

Some people for example, Mrs Fence Sitter turned to Western biomedicine for the cure to treating ghost illness. Modern remedies of the time relieve fever (which is one the primary symptoms). This approach is used more often these days, as people turn to hospitals, clinics, and other indigenous curers however, biomedicine cannot replace these people’s traditional beliefs or curing practices.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Kelly Delorme says:

    To me, culture is a set of beliefs, values, and practices held by a certain group of people. I think culture is always changing as people and generations evolve and as people continue to relocate globally. Culture influences how certain groups of people recognize, treat, and interpret illnesses, as well as how people believe illnesses are caused. Based on my definition of culture, I believe that ghost illness among the North Indian Village that was studied should be regarded as a CBS. Although ghost illness has many symptoms that would be consistent with various biomedical diagnoses, I think that ghost illness is a culture bound syndrome because this group of people has very specific beliefs about the cause of the illness. I think it is important that we don’t automatically disregard the beliefs of other cultures in favour of western beliefs and healthcare. The Hindu people being studied have a clear set of beliefs about the soul and where the soul goes after death. I think that a big advantage of considering ghost illness to be a CBS is that the illness is widely known across their culture so they will be able to effectively treat it. The disadvantage of ghost illness being regarded as a CBS is that health professionals from other cultures will be unfamiliar with the condition and how to treat it effectively. In a different ethnomedical system, such as professional sector, this illness would most likely have a specific, biological, medical diagnosis. It would most likely be treated with prescription drugs and treatments. Depending on the severity of some of the symptoms the patient might be hospitalized or entered into treatment programs to help aid recovery.

  2. Colleen Drabek says:

    I believe culture to be a distinct array of certain beliefs or actions that particular groups of people share. Culture can be centered on many different things such as food, marriage practices or occupations. People can also belong to many different cultures such as at school being a part of the “American school” culture and upon returning home being a part of the traditional Hindu culture. According to the class materials, culture could also be based on what type of medical practices you choose to receive. Some people might be a part of the western medicine culture, choosing to take pills and have biological tests done, and some people might be a part of the folk culture who believe in a spiritual healing which in turn heals the body.
    I think Ghost Illness distinctly fits the description of a CBS. CBS do usually have some distinct physiological symptoms but physiological symptoms can usually be induced if a person thinks about something for long enough or has a strong enough belief. If you believe something bad is going to happen your mind can cause your body to display symptoms such as nausea, light headedness, rapid heartbeat, increased body temp, etc. This could be what is happening with Ghost Illness. People could start to believe so strongly that the deceased are going to possess them that this is the reason for their biological symptoms.
    I think it is advantageous to regard this as a CBS because it doesn’t seem to appear in areas where people share different beliefs. It seems that one of the criteria to receive Ghost Illness is that you must believe and fear the ghosts enough. It seems that the ones that severely fear the ghosts end up receiving this illness. This is a distinct correlation.
    Some disadvantages of regarding this as a CDS is that it might be “written off” as not such a serious condition and people might not be getting the help they need. As stated, many people are committing suicide after contracting Ghost Illness. If people see themselves as doomed after contracting, this is likely to happen. By seeing this as a “real” illness with regards to western medicine, some of the symptoms could be more readily treated and people could get the help that they need.
    In a different culture such as the American western medicine culture, this disease could be seen as severe anxiety. A person would probably receive anti anxiety medicine and receive counseling in order to help them feel more relaxed and hopeful that they will not necessarily contract this illness. The cause would be seen as more internal because the patients mind is creating the worry rather than external where the ghost is really possessing the patient.

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