In West Bengal, Even the Spirits Need to Abide By India's Caste System

Sometimes, social hierarchies don't stop at the grave.
The spirit of Brahmin

Turns out even death can’t free you from the clutches of religion and caste.

In West Bengal, a state in eastern India, ghost stories have always been an integral part of Bengali literature, usually narrated to the grandchildren to keep them amused and fearful. One such story is that of the the spirit of a Brahmin who used to roam around the interior parts of the city of Bengal. He was seen in dark alleyways wearing a holy thread representative of his high caste lineage, even though he was an evil spirit.

Or was he? The myths surrounding the ghost have a contrary beliefs—some believe the spirit is an angel while others think he’s a demon. The tale goes that a poor Brahmin lived with his wife in an interior village in Bengal. He was going through some property issues with the local landlord. One night, the "Brahmadaitya," or the Brahmin ghost, became his saving grace. He ordered a hundred ghosts from a nearby banyan tree and told them to cut and store paddy for the poor Brahmin. The ghosts were helpful and helped the poor Brahmin cut the paddy. The Brahmin made some offerings and thanked the God. However, one morning the Brahmadaitya said that by befriending and helping him out, his allotted period on Earth had come to an end. A chariot had been sent to him from heaven and the Brahmin lived a happy life thereafter.

Brahmins are the highest caste in the Hindu stratification. It is a caste that traditionally includes the holy priests, teachers, and the protectors of sacred texts that are to be passed down through the generations. Caste is a contentious issue in India and caste-based discrimination is still prevalent in large parts of India. It is said that the spirit of the Brahmaditya ghost resides in tall evergreen trees like peepul, and magnolia, maintaining his social superiority over others even after death since female ghosts are said to inhabit smaller shorter bushes and shrubs. The Brahmadaitya’s habitat illustrates not only his primacy on the social ladder, but also the gender norms permeating into the “other” world from the human world. It’s ironic that while ghosts are soon becoming an urban legend, the caste system is not.