Beliefs and stories about ghosts appear in cultures around the globe that have no contact with each other, and in both small, indigenous religions and major world ones. Some ghosts harm, while others protect. Scholars argue that a psychological function of religion serves to help people both explain the mysteries of death and conquer their fears over it, making ghosts a common religious motif.
Spiritualism is a relatively new religious movement dedicated entirely to the precept that ghosts not only exist, but that living humans can communicate with them. The religion looks for evidence that life after death exists. Spiritualism began in 1848 in New York. The basic tenets suggest that everyone has an immortal spirit, and when a person dies, the spirit goes to live in the spirit world. However, these ghosts are the same people they were in life, without their bodies, and they have an interest in the living world. Communication with these spirits is possible through a medium. Spiritualism also teaches that personal development is a never ending process; both this life and the afterlife are a part of continual development.
Judaism, Christianity and Islam
In Jewish folklore, an evil spirit of a deceased human can posses a living human, and turn him into a dybbuk. The Torah and Talmud do not use the term, but describe stories in which such possessions occur. Christian denominations hold varying views on ghosts. Catholic Church teachings indicate that souls from deceased bodies may end up in a state between heaven or hell called limbo or purgatory, but Catholic teachings differ on whether such souls can come into the living world. Protestant churches reject the idea of an intermediate place, and believe that the spirits of the dead go immediately to heaven or hell. They explain ghosts in the Bible as a phenomenon that took place only in biblical times. Islam also teaches that when people die, they go to a heaven or a hell, and do not linger in the world, but that spirits called Jinn exist. Jinn are less powerful than angels, but can possess humans and punish them by causing harm or disease.
Shintoism and Buddhism
Shintoism believes in spirits that linger after the body dies. Kami can be described as spirits, but the term also incorporates forces of nature. Kami may come from the spirits of deceased humans; Shinto practitioners believe astronomical numbers of Kami exist in Japan alone. Kami can be evil or good. The most significant ones include the Ujigami, or the spirits of ancestors, as well as the ghosts of notable deceased people. While the philosophy of Buddhism does not revolve around a deity or the supernatural, but instead a search for inner enlightenment, the Buddhist religion often blends with other indigenous religions that have beliefs about ghosts and spirits. Such indigenous beliefs include the Chinese and Japanese customs of pleasing spirits of the deceased through offerings.
The Garuda Purana, part of the Smriti, a sacred Hindu scripture, describes the origin of life forms, including humans, and the various stages that a person inhabits in ghostly form. On the 13th day after a person's death, Hindus donate supplies such as water jugs, clothes and small boats to assist the travels of the deceased. Hindus also celebrate the death anniversaries, called thithi, by donating to charities and participating in rituals to benefit the departed. The celebration of Pithrupaksha lasts 15 days in the month of September; during this time, Hindus believe the dead are free to visit Earth. Hindus honor their ancestors, who are not limited to family members, but also include teachers, mentors and people from previous lives.
- The Spiritualists' National Union: Spiritualism
- BBC Religions: Spiritualism at a Glance
- The Spiritualists' National Union: The 7 Principles
- The Jewish Virtual Library: Dibbuk (Dybbuk)
- University of Wisconsin, Madison: Ghosts, Fairies and Omens
- BBC Religions: Kami
- The Times of India: Belief in Spirits is Universal
- Siddha Yoga: Pitru Paksha
- PBS: Bon: A Heterodox System
- Palomar College: Overview of Religion
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