(This story is remarkable in that it connects the loka katha (folk literature) with the classical in a fascinating and non-intrusive manner.)
Our ancients created a colourful and delightful universe in which there were cognitive existences other than the humans: devas(gods), asuras (demons), gandharvas, kinnaras, apsaras and bhutas (ghosts), among others. In popular talk in Odisha (elsewhere too, we would think), none is treated with greater disrespect than bhuta. In Odia, it is a cover term that includes bhuta, preta, petini, pitasuni, chiriguni, dahani etc. They are believed to be the lowest among all existences in the universe. They populate our loka kathas (popular literature) and oral tales. These supernatural beings, having super human energy and power, are of no interest in themselves; there are hardly any ghost stories in Odia which enlighten us about the ghost community – about their mutual interactions, life styles, struggles, aspirations, etc. They enter the world of the narrative only when they interact with the humans because they are conceptualized as the living human dead (I have not heard about a “snake ghost” or a “tiger ghost”), existing in a non-material form in the world in which they had once lived. In ghost stories, ghosts are most often malignant, revengeful and extremely harmful although one does occasionally come across some friendly ghosts as well. However, no matter how powerful and malignant the ghosts might be, they can be controlled by means of some special (that is, tantrik) knowledge. Those who have that knowledge can overpower them.
Although without material form, they share physical space with the humans and try to harm anyone who they think has invaded their space. They are generally believed to live in ruined and abandoned houses, cremation or burial grounds, some specific trees in lonely places, and the like. In Odia the names of the ghosts often relate to places where they are believed to stay: masani bhuta (ghost of the cremation ground), kaian gacha bhuta(ghost of the kaian tree) a, puri bhuta kothi bhuta (ghost of the Puri ghost house), etc. What names they give themselves, if at all they do, we would never know, but we know the names that humans have given them. It seems the only exception to this naming system is “Babana bhuta”.
Incidentally, bhuta is not restricted to the oral tradition alone. There are references to bhuta in puranic texts also, such as Shiva Purana and Srimad Bhagavat Gita. There are bhutas in Shiva loka. They are among his companions. Srimad Bhagavat Gita says that ghosts are worshipped by some people (9: 25), who upon their death, go to the land of the ghosts (17:4). Unlike the ghosts of loka kathas, these bhutasare not malicious and do not hover over the mortal world. They are of virtually of no interest to the teller of the ghost stories and are of no interest to us either, for now.
There are at least two Babana bhutas in Odia and the story of one of them occurs in Sarala Mahabharata. The other has not yet attracted story tellers’ attention, for probably the same reason why the bhutas of Shiva loka have not. This Babana bhuta is more like a divine servitor of Bhagawan Jagannath. He guards Gundicha Mandira, where the Deities reside for only seven days a year, from the evil forces when the Deities leave the temple. Now, sadly, even the local people have forgotten him, so let us too leave him alone. As for the Babana bhuta of Sarala Mahabharata, no one knows whether it is Sarala’s creation or adaptation of an existing tale. It has no equivalent in Vyasa Mahabharata. Just as parts of classical narratives are said to have their origins in long forgotten oral tales, similarly we wish to think that bits from written literature become part of the repertoire of the oral tradition in the form of tales, proverbs, idioms, wisecracks and the like.
The story of Babana bhuta occurs in Udyoga Parva. Duryodhana’s wife, the virtuous Bhanumati, told him the story. Yudhisthira did not want a war in the family. Neither did Arjuna, Nakula and even Bhima, despite his oaths to drink Dussasana’s blood and break Duryodhana’s thigh. Yudhisthira would be content with just a village, as would Arjuna, and Bhima wanted two villages for himself, as did Nakula – one for Sahadeva and one for himself. Sahadeva knew what was in the avatara’s mind, thus he knew what was going to happen; so when Krishna asked him, he said nothing about whether he wanted or did not want war. He merely told him how to ensure that war took place and by doing so, he served the avatara in the fulfilment of his avataric purpose. Neither Yudhisthira nor anyone else knew what had transpired between Krishna and Sahadeva.
In the Kaurava court, Krishna told Duryodhana that if he gave only five villages to the Pandavas, the latter would not go to war against him as they did not want a fratricidal war. Accepting Bhishma’s advice, Duryodhana was inclined to give the Pandavas two villages but Sakuni counselled him against it. The Pandavas must be given nothing at all and let Krishna empty-handed, he told king Duryodhana. When the noble and the virtuous Bhanumati heard of this, she told her husband the story of Babana bhuta.
In the village named Gyanapura, near the river Tungabhadra, for some unknown reason, its inhabitants became pretas (ghosts) after death. A tantric named Sudraka Raula, came to live in that village with his family and soon gained the good will and the respect of the inhabitants because of his good nature. One day he noticed an unused, cultivable piece of land near the hill and sought permission of the villagers to cultivate it. They had no objection but they warned him against doing so because some notorious ghosts had taken possession of that land. Sudraka told them that he wasn’t afraid and that he would imprison the ghosts if necessary. He sent his ploughmen and labourers to till the land. When the ghosts harassed them, he caught them in a net using his tantric knowledge. Then the ghosts made peace with him and obtained their release by giving him a considerable measure of til (sesame seed). After sometime, their king, Babana bhuta, a very dangerous and wicked ghost, arrived and he was furious to find that their play field had been usurped and was being used for cultivation. Despite the warnings of the ghosts, he possessed Sudraka’s only son, but got terribly scared when the tantric tried to imprison him with iron nails. He was released when he promised Sudraka that he would give him a huge amount of paddy. This his ghosts collected by attacking people of the neighbouring villages.
One would end up like babana bhuta, said Bhanumati to her husband, if one enjoyed the property alone that belonged to all. It was her suggestion and her warning. The kingdom of Hastinapura belonged to the Kurus; that is, the Pandavas and the Kauravas both. Depriving the Pandavas of their share of the kingdom was unjust and would certainly lead to trouble for the Kauravas. Duryodhana did not follow her sage counsel; he told her that if she were not a woman, he would have punished her. He chose to follow Sakuni instead and perished. That story is well known.