Ghosts and Spirits

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By the time of the Buddha, around the fifth or sixth centuries b.c.e., there already existed the Brahmanic notion of a deceased person spending one year as a troublesome, disembodied spirit, or preta, wreaking domestic havoc to coerce still living relatives into performing the śrāddha rites that would provide the deceased with a new body suitable for joining ancestors, as a pitṛ, in heaven.

In early Buddhist scriptures, the figure of the peta (a Pāli equivalent of both Sanskrit preta and pitṛ) is retained, but is transformed from an intermediary, disembodied stage into a fresh rebirth in its own right, though one in which the peta is still dependent upon sacrificial assistance from living relatives.

In the Petavatthu (Peta Stories), the canonical text dealing exclusively with the peta, some petas are said to endure an existence of total and continual suffering, in which they sustain themselves, if at all, on impurities. They exhibit a wretched appearance, and they are frequently found dwelling in such places as the latrine of a former monastery, at doorposts and crossroads, in moats, in forests, or in cemeteries where they feed off the flesh of corpses.

In the MahĀyĀna tradition, the preta is frequently depicted as a "hungry ghost," a creature with a huge belly, but with a needle-shaped mouth through which it is impossible to pass sufficient nutriment to assuage the enormous pangs of hunger.

No such description is found in the Petavatthu, according to which there are, in addition to those petas already mentioned, other petas who are said to resemble devatās (inhabitants of the various heavenworlds) of great psychic power, save for some deficiency that prevents them from fully enjoying the benefits normally associated with their world. Most notable of these are the vimānapetas (petas owning celestial mansions), who seem to be little different from other vimāna-owning devatās, except that their heavenly bliss is interrupted at regular intervals by their being devoured by a huge dog, or by their having to consume the flesh they have already, as "back-biters," gouged from their own backs.

Though they often seem to dwell cospatially with humans, petas belong to a different plane, or dimension. This dimension clearly emerges to be the heavenworld associated with the Four Great Kings, who police that world, which extends from the earth's surface to the summit of Mount Meru, with their troops of yakṢas, nāgas, gandharvas, and kumbhaṇḍas. All manner of other nonhuman creatures, such as piṣācas, bhūtas, and eclipse-causing asuras, are assigned to that world, as are lesser deities, such as household devatās, tree devatās, guardian spirits of lakes, and so on. As Buddhism spread further into Asia, the various local deities and the like that Buddhism encountered were also assigned to this world.

Despite the fact that rebirth as a deva and rebirth as a peta are deemed discrete types of rebirth, the devatā and the peta seem to represent twin extremes of a whole spectrum of nonhuman beings dwelling in the heavenworld associated with the Four Great Kings. They are differentiated solely by the degree to which each is able to enjoy the pleasures of that world.

Individuals become petas due largely to their failure in a former life to show charity to enlightened members of the saṄgha, or to demerit stemming from some previously committed evil deed. In order to understand the former, it is necessary to recall the earlier Vedic practice of pouring an oblation into the sacrificial fire to create a sphere of personal well-being embracing not only this life but also the life to come. In the Buddhist period, the saṅgha performs a function similar to the sacrificial fire, in that, through donating alms to the saṅgha, one brings into being a counterpart of those alms on the divine plane for one's use after death. If one neglects to give alms, one naturally finds, in the life to come, no source of sustenance.

Such postmortem deprivation of the Buddhist peta echoes the inability of the Brahmanic preta to join the pitṛs due to lack of a suitable body. And just as the latter's predicament could be rectified by relatives performing the śrāddha rites, so could the peta have its deprivation ameliorated through still living friends and relatives offering a gift to the saṅgha on the peta's behalf and then assigning the fruit of that donation to the benefit of the peta concerned. Whatever deprivation the peta had been experiencing is immediately rectified and the peta is, henceforth, able to enjoy the pleasures and comforts associated with the heaven-world. This practice, wrongly referred to as a "transfer of merit," involves no transfer of merit whatsoever; rather, the peta is simply assigned the divine counterpart of the alms offered to the saṅgha on the peta's behalf.

There is, however, one proviso: If the reason for existence as a peta is due to, or complicated by, previous demerit, assistance cannot take place until that demerit has been exhausted. Moreover, it is said that part of such a peta's plight is that living relatives forget that he or she ever existed, and thus fail to offer alms on the peta's behalf. For this reason, modern Sinhalese Buddhists, when bestowing alms, do so in the name of any former relatives they may have overlooked.

Although black magicians sometimes commandeer petas against their will to do the magician's bidding, they more often enlist the more willing assistance of other nonhuman beings, such as malevolent yakṣas and bhūtas, to achieve their ends, just as some of the latter have, on occasion, been transformed by powerful monks into Dharma-protectors.

Although the ordination of nonhumans is not permitted by the Vinaya, it is nonetheless practiced (e.g. in modern Thailand), and it is encouraged by certain Mahāyāna scriptures, such as the Fanwang jing (BrahmĀ's Net SŪtra). In East Asia (especially in Japan), ordination frees nonhuman beings from preta status.

A Buddhist festival known as the Ullambana is still held annually in East and Southeast Asia. The festival is aimed at assuaging the suffering of "hungry ghosts."

See also:Cosmology; Death; Ghost Festival; Hells; Merit and Merit-Making


Kyaw, U Ba, trans. Peta Stories, edited and annotated by Peter Masefield. London: Pāli Text Society, 1980.

Masefield, Peter, trans. Vimāna Stories. Oxford: Pāli Text Society, 1989.

Peter Masefield