Bhoot Vidya: Can Understanding ‘Ghosts’ Improve Our Mental Health?
Will Bhoot Vidya legitimise superstition or can it expand the reach of mental health services? 
Will Bhoot Vidya legitimise superstition or can it expand the reach of mental health services? (Photo: iStockPhoto)  

Bhoot Vidya: Can Understanding ‘Ghosts’ Improve Our Mental Health?

We’re a strange and wonderful country where tradition and science often co-exist. But how far can this go?

Banaras Hindu University (BHU) has taken this a step further with the introduction of their new course: Bhoot Vidya or the science of paranormal.

For now it is a six-month certificate course, taught under the purview of the faculty of Ayurveda.

The remedies to psychosomatic disorders and ailments that are caused by unknown reasons that some may consider 'ghosts' will be taught to doctors holding Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery (BAMS) and Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) degree holders.

This new development has left many in the mental health profession wondering: will this legitimise superstition or expand the reach of mental health services? Will it harm or help mental healthcare in India?

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Expert Speak: Decoding Bhoot Vidya

Yamini Bhushan Tripathi, the Ayurveda faculty dean said of the motivation to introduce the course,

“A separate unit of Bhoot Vidya has been created in the faculty of Ayurveda for imparting formal education to doctors about the branch. It deals with the Ayurvedic remedies of treating ghost-related ailments and psychosomatic disorders.”

What exactly is Bhoot Vidya?

Tripathi says that it is one of the eight branches of Ashtanga Ayurveda. “It mainly deals with psychosomatic disorders, diseases caused by unknown reasons and diseases of mind or psychic conditions. Faculty of Ayurveda at the BHU is the first in the country to create a separate unit of Bhoot Vidya and design a certificate course on the subject.”

So far, BHU has only said that the course is focussing on psychosomatic illnesses by an Ayurvedic lens. A psychosomatic illness looks at the relation between the body and the mind: so physical ailments can cause mental distress, and your mental state can worsen the physical disease.

Tarun Vohra, currently pursuing his MPhil psychoanalytical psychotherapy from Ambedkar University in Delhi says, “I feel it's a good start. Though I don't know what the course would include, the idea seems to be a good one. In psychology, psychosomatic illness has its roots in repression, experiences which have been repressed long ago take a form of a ghost and come to the forefront later. It all depends on what is being taken up in the course.”

He added that the time frame of six months seemed too short, and wondered why it was not taught to psychology students.

“It is taught only to doctors, hence I'm assuming there would a biomedical model used which might see the human as a body with illness and not concentrate on the psyche”

Mumbai-based psychiatrist Dr Ruksheda Syeda feels that this may help spread misinformation and further stigmatise mental disorders.

“I don’t know the details of this course or of Ayurveda but I worry that this may lead to a skewed understanding of mental illness. Modern medicine relies on science and reason, and reducing these evidence-based theories to ghosts and superstitions is problematic. This is a free country, but if the course uses the language of psychiatry and ghosts together it is confusing and will lead to a lot of misunderstanding.”
Dr Ruksheda Syeda

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Parapsychology: How Understanding a ‘Ghost’ Can Help Us Heal

There is a branch of psychology called ‘Parapsychology’ that uses a person’s spiritual, religious or cultural context, and tailors the therapy accordingly. So it may incorporate metaphors and examples from your religious texts or cultural practices but it maintains that you are suffering from an illness.

“A psychiatrist may see you have an illness and if you think it’s because of black magic or an evil eye, they will acknowledge that and not try to change your belief system. BUT they will explain that this is a brain condition and give you physical answers like medicines and treatment to change your behaviour.”
Dr Ruksheda Syeda

Much of our knowledge of psychology stems from western theories based on western societies, but Dr Suhir Kakar has been a pioneer of using Ayurveda, tradition and mysticism with psychoanalysis to understand the specific Indian psyche.

In his book, Shamans, Mystics and Doctors, he offers a socio-psychological analysis to understand how to scientifically heal Indians with diverse belief systems. By highlighting the culture’s effect on the unconscious and vice versa, we begin to understand the complexity of the Indian mentality, outside of Western constructions.

In other words, Vohra explains that the language used is vital, “There a spirit possession states that we see in Balaji Rajasthan, Durgahs etc..but reducing them just to ghosts might take away a lot from the mental health field.”

Wait...are we saying ghosts are real?

“What is a ghost?” Vohra asks.

“Something which cannot be seen, felt, but only experienced. Anything which is too abstract to be explained and 'abnormal' becomes a ghost. If I go by a psychoanalytic school of thought, these are repressed parts of your own self which take such a form. To understand in a very simplistic example, it can be your desires which never got a space to be expressed or thought about and it only becomes possible for the person to live those desires by becoming someone else, i.e a ghost.”

He elaborates, “Taking a form of ghost/spirit could be seen as a part of our own self which is not seen before, not heard or experienced by anyone. These are parts of us which we might not want to experience due to various reasons like the culture we come from, parts of us which want to break the societal norms we live in and more.”

Besides, many mental illnesses were often explained through ghosts or spirits, curses or bad karma. But can this course offer a novel way for us to understand and treat psychosomatic illnesses?

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Psychotherapy is About Empowerment: Will BHU Achieve this?

“Psychotherapy is self-empowering. It posits that you have the skills to change yourself and you are in control. If we tell patients they have a bhoot, they are not in charge anymore. This is against the main premise,” adds Dr Syeda.

If this course can merge the two, accept a person’s belief in superstition while informing them of their linked mental/physical disorder and providing medical treatment - this course may, in fact, help.

But for now, too many questions remain - what does the course teach exactly, and how will Ayurveda achieve this? Only then will we know if it is legitimising superstition or simply using that as a way into helping Indians through evidence-based research and medication.

(With inputs from IANS)

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