One of the more widely used terms in the Indian philosophical systems, the word ‘bhūta’ refers to the five fundamental ele-ments—pañcabhūtas—viz., pṛthvī (earth), ap (water), tejas (fire), vāyu (air) and ākāśa (ether), the permutations and combi-nations of which result in this physical universe.
These bhūtas have two aspects, the primary and the secondary. In the primary aspect they are ‘sūkṣmabhūtas’ or ‘tan-mātras’. They arise from the Ātman associated with ajñāna or nescience and are called so since each one of them contains only that quality. For instance, the primordial element ākāśa has only śabda (sound or vibration) as its characteristic and hence is called the ‘śabda-tanmātra’. The other primordial elements are: sparśa-tanmātra (vāyu or air), rūpa-tanmātra (agni or fire), rasa-tanmātra (ap or water) and gandha-tanmātra (pṛthvī or earth).
When these five primordial elements combine among themselves by the process of pañcīkaraṇa or quintuplication (See PAÑCĪKARAṆA for details.) they produce the secondary elements, the gross ones, more commonly called the ‘mahābhūtas or sthūlabhūtas’. Further creation takes place out of them, associated of course, with the Ātman.
The word bhūta is also applied to all the living beings as a general term.
Another meaning of the word is ‘spirits, ghosts and goblins,’ belief in whose existence was widespread. They are generally malignant, live upon flesh, roam about mostly during the nights and haunt forests, desolate houses and burial or cremation grounds.
Persons who meet with violent death or commit suicide or for whom no obsequial rites are performed after death, are supposed to become bhūtas or pretas or piśācas (disembodied spirits). Performing such rites or prayers to God by the living, will help them to be liberated from that miserable state.
The art and science of controlling these spirits and using them for fulfilling one’s desires or harming others, called ‘bhūtavidyā’ has been in existence since Vedic times.
One of the eight sections of Āyurveda, the science of health and longevity, is also designated as ‘Bhūtavidyā.’ It deals with the treatment of psychological ailments, believed to be caused by malevolent spirits.