Skip to navigation | Skip to content


Preta – general Indian term for a ghost, with the particular connotation of a ghost that haunts the cremation grounds. It should be noted that there are a wide variety of terms used to denote ghosts, varying according to ‘type’, context, ideology and region.

Preta can appear, for example, be used merely to denote someone who has died – or more precisely, the spirit of someone who’s died, for whom the rituals of death have either not been performed yet, not correctly, not at all, or not maintained.

Indian beliefs regarding the appropriate treatment of “ghosts” is highly complex. It is not unusual for example, for spirits to be described as pretas if the person they were has been wronged – particularly if this led to their death. Pretas are also sometimes said to be people who were not ready to die, or children who have died in childbirth. Saying a spirit is “malevolent” should not imply that it is evil by “nature” in the western sense – spirits are often malevolent for a reason, which is often given in the narrations around the spirit.

The root of Preta is pre – which refers to notions of movement – for example, to go out or to go forth. Further, although this is something of a simplification, the status of a dead spirit may change according to the current behaviour of its living relatives. Let’s say you have a relative who dies, and you neglect to look after him after he dies – he could well become a preta and be malevolent towards you and other members of your family until you performed the appropriate expiations.

Preta is also used to denote a particular stage that the deceased passes through, and there are a variety of ritual offering sequences that need to be undertaken at specific times which help shape the body of the deceased person and prepare them for their journey to the kingdom of Yama. The necessity of building up merit for the deceased via food offerings and sacrifice is an ancient practice hearkening back to the period of the Rg Veda – and there is a lot that could be said (no time at the moment) about how the correct attention to ritual procedures for the living leads to ‘merit’ in heaven.

In some Theravada Buddhist texts there are encounters between enlightened monks (Arahats) and people who have been born into the hungry ghost realm as the fruition of their actions (kamma) during life. Dhammapāla’s commentary to the Petavatthu gives the backstory to an encounter with a young girl who has become a Peta (which is the Pali term for Preta) because of her past actions – basically, killing living things, having “wrong views” and not giving due reverence and alms to the Sangha (i.e. community monks). In this particular instance, the Peta girl pays respect to the Arahat who came across her, and he himself makes offerings on her behalf, and through these acts, her kamma is transformed and she is no longer a Peta and allowed to reincarnate. It’s noteworthy that gift and food transactions play a key role in these stories, as these are very important elements of Indian religion.

In Buddhist texts, you will often see explanations of “hungry ghosts” as the spirits of people who suffer strong cravings which dominate their life. It is not uncommon for these cravings to be described as “greed” or “selfishness”:

“Lord Buddha has declared the cause
why beings come to birth as ghosts,
torments to endure
For when as men they gave no gifts,
or giving gave with avarice —
They ghostly kamma made.”

So greed for something can lead, in the Buddhist view, to one being born into the Hungry Ghost realm. It may be greed for sensual pleasure, or greed for spiritual enlightenment or giving whilst thinking only of how you will be rewarded by the act, rather than giving selflessly.

In Japanese Buddhist literature, you can also find similar themes being played out. I have read one story where two monks, Jizo (the elder) and Sanukibo are wandering around the underworld when they run into a group of gaki (a Japanese term often conflated with the broader notion of Hungry Ghost). One of the gaki turns out to be Sanukibo’s mother, who demands that her son be fed to her. She asserts that by raising him, she committed many sins, and is now suffering karmic retribution. Jizo fends her off by saying that she is mistaken, and his companion is just someone who looks like her son. When they are out of earshot of the gaki, Jizo acknowledges that Sanukibo is in fact, the son of the hungry ghost, and entreats him to make offerings for her. This story is interesting in a number of ways. Firstly, the salvation of the mother-gaki is dependent on the behaviour of her son, the monk Sanukibo. This, I think relates to the notion often found in India & China, that the birth of sons is paramount to the support of ancestors. Secondly, in medieval Japan, there was a tendency to see women as inherently sinful and the very birth process as polluting. The blood-bowl sutra, for example (which is chinese in origin) has a multitude of women suffering torment in an enormous lake of menstrual blood, and the text says that this is so because the blood from womens’ bodies pollutes the earth and thus offends the earth gods. So the story above could be read as a reference to the inherent sinfulness of mothers.

So the whole notion of Hungry Ghosts & Pretas is more to do with ancestor veneration and the belief that family obligations continue after death than anything else, and some Buddhists say that the hungry ghost festivals in China and Korea are rooted in the offering of food and veneration to spirits who do not have any living relatives to care for them. Festivals like Segaki, where the hungry ghosts are fed, are also about remembering and reaffirming one’s own bonds with ones family dead and offering thanks to those that have died for what they have given you.

Another point which is worth making is that Pretas are thought of differently in Tantric texts, so that one of the “names” of Chinnamasta, for example, is Pretasangaviharini – [She who] plays in the company of pretas. Shiva is also lord of the pretas (also bhutas, ganas, etc) and as these spirits are associated with cremation grounds, anyone who wishes to approach Shiva in one of favourite abodes must be willing to brave the spirits who protect him from being disturbed by the unworthy.

See Online book: Mesocosm: Hinduism and the Organization of a Traditional Newar City in Nepal