A Pre-Diwali Celebration
Growing up, the allure of Halloween was undeniable. Commercialized and popularised by media, the spine-chilling Jack-O-Lanterns from Goosebumps, or a Freddy Kruger mask captivated young imaginations. While going from door–to–door demanding candies seemed fun, did you know India presents a fascinating alternative with its own pre-Diwali celebration known as Bhoot Chaturdashi?
Bhoot Chaturdashi: A Night to Ward off Evil Spirits
Celebrated on the night preceding Kali Pujo, Bhoot Chaturdashi revolves around the theme of warding off evil spirits. While it may lack the candy-centric traditions of Halloween, it boasts unique rituals such as consuming 14 types of leafy greens and illuminating 14 lamps around the house. This cultural celebration holds significance in Bengal, with the lamps believed to chase away dark spirits and represent the 14 forefathers.
Choddo Purush and the 14 Forefathers
Intricately tied to Bhoot Chaturdashi is the concept of “Choddo Purush,” signifying the 14 forefathers. Bengalis, steeped in tradition, acknowledge the presence and influence of these forefathers, making the lighting of 14 lamps a symbolic and spiritual act.
The Mahabharat Connection
As per Kolkata-based scholar Sumit Biswas, there is a Mahabharat connection to Bhoot Chaturdashi as well. “After his death, Karna had to first experience Hell, before ascending to heaven. Once he reached the gates of heaven, he was asked what pious deeds he had done in his life. Karna was famed for his donations – including his kavach, which he had torn free from his body to donate. When Karna sat down to eat in Heaven, he was only served gold. The divinity in heaven decreed that since he had only donated gold in his lifetime, that was what he was being served in heaven.”
According to Biswas, the divine told Karna that he was being given only gold in heaven, because that was what he offered the less fortunate and his forefathers, instead of gold. “When Karna told them that he did not even know who his father was, how could he give them water, the divine allowed him to return to Earth for 15 days to offer water to his forefathers. The spirits of the past were so pleased with his tarpan, that they all descended to Earth.”
Biswas revealed that these spirits return to the realms of the dead during Bhoot Chaturdashi. And the light decorating our homes guides them back to the netherworld.
Both Halloween and Bhoot Chaturdashi delve into the eerie realm of ghostly beliefs. The supernatural becomes the focal point, and the narrow boundary between the living and the dead is a shared motif. Halloween’s mythology derives from the opening of a gateway between the dead and the living, allowing spirits to roam the streets. Similarly, on Bhoot Chaturdashi, it is believed that the last 14 forefathers visit their living relatives, bringing an otherworldly presence to the night.
Customs using light to repel evil
A striking parallel between the two celebrations lies in the custom of light to ward off evil forces. While Halloween features gutted pumpkins as Jack-o-lanterns, Bhoot Chaturdashi opts for 14 diyas strategically placed around the house. The symbolism of light as a protective element against dark energies unites these two seemingly disparate traditions.
Vegetables in Rituals and Festive Feasting
Both Halloween and Bhoot Chaturdashi incorporate the healthy practice of using vegetables in their rituals, culminating in a festive feast. On Halloween, pumpkin carving leads to an array of pumpkin-based dishes. On the other hand, Bhoot Chaturdashi involves the consumption of 14 types of leafy greens.
The Tale of the Slacker Brahmin
Legend has it that Bhoot Chaturdashi originated from the neglectful habits of a Brahmin and his wife. Their unkempt home became a haven for ghosts residing amidst the garbage strewn about. A spine-chilling encounter with a specter prompted the couple to clean and purify their dwelling by sprinkling water infused with 14 kinds of leafy greens. This tale not only narrates the origins of Bhoot Chaturdashi but also imparts a moral lesson about cleanliness and spiritual purification.
Protecting Children from Tantrics
In rural Bengal, another narrative intertwines Bhoot Chaturdashi with the safety of children. Believers hold that tantric practitioners of dark magic would kidnap children on the night before Kali Pujo, sacrificing them the following day for sinister powers. Bhoot Chaturdashi, therefore, becomes a custom aimed at safeguarding children by keeping them engaged at home with leafy green foods and various protective rituals.
Lighting the way for ancestors
In West Bengal and Bangladesh, Bhoot Chaturdashi unfolds on the eve of Kali Puja. The belief is that the souls of the deceased descend to visit their loved ones. To guide these spirits home and ward off evil entities, 14 diyas are strategically placed around the house, creating a radiant barrier against darkness. Every corner is illuminated, symbolizing the journey of the forefathers back to their familial abode.
Abhyanga Snan: The Purifying Oil Bath
A crucial ritual on Bhoot Chaturdashi involves the Abhyanga Snan, an oil bath that holds special significance. Conducted in the presence of the moon but before sunrise during the Chaturdashi Tithi, this bath utilizes an ubtan made of sesame oil. The belief is that this ritual protects individuals from various adversities, including poverty and unforeseen misfortunes.
India’s Answer to Halloween
While Bhoot Chaturdashi may not boast the spectacle of Halloween, it encapsulates a unique blend of tradition, superstition, and familial reverence. The ghosts in its stories may differ from the vampires and werewolves of Western lore, but the essence of eerie tales remains. As cultures continue to weave together, embracing and understanding diverse celebrations like Bhoot Chaturdashi opens up new avenues for appreciation and shared festivities. As the 14 lamps flicker in the dark corners of Bengali homes, they not only illuminate the night but also bridge the gap between the living and the departed.
By India (Delhi Agra area) – The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2461073