Are petas the departed in the antarabhava?

Greetings :wave:

I’ve recently been looking into the science and research behind rebirth (from people such as Dr. Ian Stevenson and Dr. Jim Tucker), as well as rebirth beliefs around the world (from Dr. Gananath Obeyesekere). I’ve also been looking into the conceptions of the dead and the Vedic eschatological models pre-Buddha in more depth.

The main doctrinal appearance of the concept of a peta to which one offers seems to be AN 10.177. A brahmin asks the Buddha if the rituals and offerings for the departed/dead are effective. The Buddha’s answer seems to be that yes, they can be effective, so long as the person’s kamma is not so strong so as to lead them to rebirth in a sphere where they are already born. The word peta is a reflex of Skt./Vedic preta, which simply refers to the departed/the dead. Rituals are performed to assist them in their rebirth to heaven and so forth after dying in the Brāhmanas.

In current research on rebirth, many children’s past lives ended several months to years before their current life where they report memories. Some of them recall a time between lives as well, from right after death to watching people spread their ashes to watching their future parents. This supports the idea that there is a stage where the deceased may hang around and not yet take birth. This concept is supported in the early texts as well, though arguably it seems to refer to shorter time periods (such as in the simile of a fire jumping from one tree to the next), but this need not be the case. Moreover, this concept of an ‘ancestor realm’ or state of the deceased in another world before taking a new birth is part of the fundamental structure of rebirth eschatologies around the world (Obeyesekere 2002).

So what is my point? I think that the concept of a ‘peta’ may have originally just been referring to these recently deceased spirits who have not yet taken rebirth and thus offerings and good wishes may be helpful for them (as the Buddha agreed with the brahmins). Perhaps this ended up changing over time though: because petas feed on gifts and are in a somewhat half-dead-half-alive state, the Buddhist tradition interpreted them as a being which is hungry and suffering, and as an actual rebirth (as opposed to some intermediate state). We already know that the early Buddhists quickly developed more complex cosmologies, classes of beings or new realms, created maps of the universe, etc. so this would not be at all implausible. The ‘soft’ version of this hypothesis then is just that peta simply means ‘the departed’, and is the spirits / continuation of the dead who may in some brief or extended time take another (more stable) birth.

I think we could go a step further and perhaps say that the petas were the ‘beings to be born’ (e.g. SN 12.64) or the beings in an intermediate, pre-birth state identical to the antarabhava. Sometimes this may be much quicker (such as going from one room to another), it may be instantaneous (spontaneous reappearance), or it may be prolonged and beings may hang around here a bit (petas to offer to).

This may be totally incorrect. I’m wondering if anybody has early textual sources that might contradict this hypothesis. Considering the Brahmanical and adaptive context of the word though, I currently find it an attractive theory.

EDIT: A counterpoint is that the ghost realm is given in formulas for lower / bad realms of rebirth, put on the same level as the animal or hell realms for instance. Moreover, noble disciples are said not to go there. Perhaps this would remove the idea that they are equal to the transitionary stage (antarabhava) in the sense of moving from one birth to another, while still allowing petas to refer to general departed ghosts that have yet to settle in a more solid existence.

Mettā!

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Good thoughts, I do recall having heard or read something similar somewhere, and I do tend to agree to a large extent. But I think the term is used in a few ways.

In the suttas peta (and related terms like pecca) at least in general just means ‘departed’. This I belief can also refer to departed in a very general sense, not to a specific state per se, whether as a “hungry ghost” or in-between state “ghost” or even just not knowing where “the departed” may have gone.

But it does seem to refer to the in-between state specifically as well. Kp7 is probably the most relevant text.

However, there are also texts which list the petas as a bad realm, alongside the animal realm, like AN10.176. And there are also plenty references to being “reborn” as a peta. Perhaps we can consider the in-between state also a bad realm, though, where one in a sense is reborn. (Edit: I now see your edit.)

Likely the word was not strictly defined, which tends to happen with these kind of ideas in wider society.

Interestingly, I did a very quick search for “peta” in my digital books, and one that showed up was Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi’s introduction to SN19, where he says the petas are the afflicted spirits Moggallana sees in that Nikāya. However, unless I’m blind, :person_with_white_cane: in the texts they are actually not called petas but yakkhas! Perhaps it shows some bias towards later ideas. Bodhi translates petas also as “afflicted spirits” while Sujato translates it more neutrally as “ghosts”, if I recall.

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Thank you, Venerable! I did not know it was used more generally as well! That’s helpful :smiley:

I think ‘ghost’ / ghosts of the departed is the best translation in the Early Texts. It still seems that the idea of a specific hungry ghost being is a little bit later maybe (but without certainty). You’re right that a lot of this was left unexplained which is a bit tricky. Thanks again:)

Mettā

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Regarding SN 19. Lakkhana Samyutta, it is closely relevant to SN 40. Moggalana Samyutta. The following article by Choong Mun-keat may be relevant to the issue on petas:

“A comparison of the Chinese and Pāli Saṃyukta /Saṃyuttas on the Venerable Mahā-Maudgalyāyana (Mahā-Moggallāna)”, Buddhist Studies Review, v. 34.1 (2017), pp. 67-84.

A comparison of the Chinese and Pāli Saṃyukta/Saṃyuttas on the Venerable Mahā-Maudgalyāyana (Mahā-Moggallāna) | Mun Keat Choong - Academia.edu

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At AN 4.61, the Buddha offers what appears to be a re-interpretation of the five mahāyajña, or household offerings. Here too he says that householders should make offerings to the petā (same root), in what is a reference to the general departed ancestors/fathers. This is identical to the pitṛyajña in the Brahmanical version. Considering it is the same context as the question at AN 10.177, I find this sutta to support the hypothesis that petā in Early Buddhism are simply the departed ancestors. However, offerings to them were believed by the Buddha to be effective only if they were in a kind of undecided ghost state before taking a more solid rebirth.

I also would like to elaborate on the connection between the four nutriments (cattāro āhārā) found in SN 12.12, SN 12.64, etc., and the petā / sambhavesī (beings seeking rebirth). The Buddha uses this teaching on ‘food’ to discuss how beings between lives use it for birth. Here too then there is a connection between eating and an intermediate ghost-like being (deceased being). In SN 44.9, the Buddha says craving is the fuel for beings between lives, and craving is the source of the four nutriments. I’d argue that these images may have contributed to the portrayal of the deceased beings as starving, insatiable ghosts.

Mettā

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I like it. The connection between upādāna and ahāra is actually even stronger than you may realize. In some suttas they are used as synonyms, like SN12.57, which discusses some of the same ideas about rebirth.

Interesting idea that this lead to the idea of hungry beings. Maybe in society as a whole. In Buddhism the idea is of course that if you stop “consuming” the nutriments it actually lead to nibbāna. And what also differs in Buddhism is that it’s not so much the nutriments themselves that lead to rebirth, but the desire for them (or for what they represent, e.g. physical food represents all sensual objects).

Also, it’s not just the peta’s, but “all beings are kept in existence by food” (Kp4), which is of course reflects Vedic ideas. But of course one idea here is that we all exist because we were reborn through this process.

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This post is submitted tongue-in-cheek – but not entirely so…

Many posts, articles, and books about the various realms and “how long” the time may be between death and rebirth all appear to assume a constancy to time. As if time in, and between, all these realms was the same and constant. Hence, the Theravadin view is of “instantaneous” rebirth, while others have a view of “a longer time duration.”
But these designations are relatively meaningless.

For over 100 years, it has been well known that time is not a constant or always the same and rather is literally expandable and compressible. For citations, see Einstein’s original paper on Special Relativity and the thousands of articles, books, and validated experimental results since then.

So “instantaneous” literally has no meaning for any being because what’s “a long time” for a human moving through space-time at usual (non-relativistic), velocities can literally be seconds or less for other beings, whatever realm they may be in, especially if they’re moving close to light speed. And vice versa.
On micro-micro scales this even applies between two people moving at different velocities on earth. In fact, our head is older than our feet because time slows the closer one is to the center point of gravity, in this case, the earth.
So what can we say about the time between birth and death or time for beings in different realms?

(BTW, the only way to properly use “instantaneous” is with respect to photons. Since a photon leaving the Andromeda galaxy takes around 2,000,000 years to reach us from our perspective-- but from the perspective of the photon, it “arrives” instantaneously and without having traveled through any distance).
Sounds like a Zen koan… :thinking:

The point is: it’s not worth getting too stuck on time, time intervals, eons, and other such viewpoints regarding time in these realm contexts, because time is dependent on velocity relative to other entities that are in motion.

At the same time, of course, it’s all still conditional and consistent with the three characteristics.

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Those Theravadin ideas of instantaneous rebirth I think are primarily theories, not beliefs many people ever really held. Most if not all societies that have a belief in rebirth, as Kaccayana noted, hold a view of some sort of interim. And that is also the case in current Theravada countries, generally.

In fact, some chanting monastics do daily mentions the petas receiving the food. (It’s in Kp7 that I mentioned.) Another common food blessing is AN5.36. It mirrors some ideas from SN2.23, which is relevant to some of the thoughts in this discussion, as it mentions food in this world and the next for example.

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Thank you, Bhante.

I agree and from the standpoint of human beings in this realm it all makes sense. And the benefits of making offerings and well-wishes are not being disputed.

My point was how “concrete” some of the views regarding time in this and other realms have been presented: as if there is a “constant” time referent in this realm and even between realms and the “in-between” state after physical death. It’s impossible for humans to speculate how time passes for a viññāna-sota, for example. But some folks appear to do so – I’ve read some posts on D&D in which this has been debated.

Not a very important point from a practice aspect – as I wrote, the post was a bit tongue-in-cheek. :grinning:

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That’s a good example of this. Here the petās are indeed more generally just departed, not certain spirits, because the Buddha explains they can be reborn in various realms. Just one of these realms is the pettivisayaṁ, the ghost/peta realm.

Although I don’t think it describes it in any detail, I agree that is most likely some sort of ghost state akin to the in-between. In rebirth societies there is also a belief, backed up by some past-life memory research you mentioned earlier, that certain beings are kind of “stuck” between lives for much longer than others. Perhaps this is what is meant by the petā realm. For others there is also an in-between, but if they pass through it quite quickly it doesn’t count as the ghost realm. That’s all just hypothesis, not based on the texts, but it would make some sense. Also, we talk about an “in-between state” sometimes, but supposedly this in-between journey would be very different depending on where you are inclined towards.

For yet another illustration of peta being used more generally, MN97 has pubbapetānaṁ ‘former departed’, which seams to mean former relatives, and Bodhi translates it accordingly as “departed ancestors”. It certainly does not mean “former hungry ghosts”.

How can we be diligent, Master Sariputta, when we have to support our parents, our wife and children, and our slaves, servants, and workers; when we have to do our duty towards our friends and companions, towards our kinsmen and relatives, towards our guests, towards our departed ancestors, towards the deities, and towards the king; and when this body must also be refreshed and nourished?

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I’ve just come across another even more direct example perhaps, especially considering the above cases we’ve listed: Pr 2.

On one occasion a monk went to a charnel ground and took the rags from a fresh corpse. The ghost was still dwelling in that body, and it said to the monk, “Sir, don’t take my wrap.” The monk took no notice and left. Then the corpse got up and followed behind that monk. The monk entered his dwelling and closed the door, and the corpse collapsed right there. He became anxious … “There’s no offense entailing expulsion.

The ‘peta’ here is just the ghost of the recently deceased corpse. The Vinaya makes clear that there is a relationship between the peta and a recently deceased person IMO when it says that it is still wrong conduct to take rags from a fresh corpse despite the rule exemption.

At AN 5.39:

Or else when we have passed away they’ll give an offering on our behalf.
atha vā pana petānaṁ kālaṅkatānaṁ dakkhiṇaṁ anuppadassatīti.

This sutta is on the reasons parents wish for children. Peta again is clearly referring simply to their ghost/“spirit” (in a non-essentialist sense) after they have passed away. The same phrase is used at Snp 4.6 for not seeing your deceased loved ones/relatives (petas). At Snp 3.8 too the word appears twice, each time simply referring to the deceased.

AN 3.51 and AN 3.52 are strong evidence as well:

The restraint practiced here—
Yodha kāyena saṁyamo,
of body, speech, and mind—
Vācāya uda cetasā;
leads the departed to happiness,
Taṁ tassa petassa sukhāya hoti,
as the good deeds done while living.”
Yaṁ jīvamāno pakaroti puññan”ti.

Here, the ‘departed’ (the petas) go to happiness based on ones actions in the current life. This maps quite neatly onto the idea of peta=antarabhava (with some notions of more length/time, but not always).

At Thig 6.1, the wore ‘peta’ is used basically identically with the antarabhava or the state of a person who dies and goes on to another life:

Departing with the form of a human,
Peto manussarūpena,
he will go on transmigrating.
saṁsaranto gamissati;
As he came, so he went:
Yathāgato tathā gato,
why cry over that?”
kā tattha paridevanā”.
(Alt: ‘As a peta with the shape of a human…’ Correct my grammar if this is wrong, but this makes the ‘peta’ more clear.)

At SN 2.25 and SN 9.13:

They’re rejects, with no protector,
Apaviddhā anāthā te,
just like those who have passed away.
yathā petā tatheva te.

The petā are on their own, having to travel / transmigrate to their next life without guidance. More connection to the antarābhava-esque state.

At MN 6 and AN 10.71, the passage refers to deceased ancestors recalling a monastic as petā.

From reviewing more cases in the suttas and Vinaya, surveying nearly all of them that I can find, I’d say that there is no explicit discussion of petas as being insatiable hungry ghosts. They are sometimes listed as a bad rebirth akin to animal wombs or hell, however, they mostly refer to the departed and are even associated with the departed between lives as predicted. The word is probably polysemous to a degree as @sunyo pointed out; sometimes it may just refer to someone who is dead broadly, not even their ‘ghost’ or continued existence in a semi-born semi-dead state.

I also think it may be good to look at how the word is used in the Jātakas. These are often pre-Buddhist folklore and they may be less doctrinally “neat” and reflect more of the general image of what a ‘peta’ meant to the people around the time period. These are harder to compare translation wise, but these are some examples I found:

Ja 541: It seems that there is a distinction between the petas and Brahmā here? I’m actually rather confused about what this Jātaka is saying in the peta section based off of the archaic translation. (I’m wondering if this may be related to the pitryāna / devayāna idea?)
Ja 449: Peta is the deceased son, especially his ghost/spirit.
Ja 423: Peta is a ghost / spirit of a dead person generally.
Other skimming all seems to have the same patterns and usages: departed/deceased people and their ghosts who are to continue on in some other life.

Based off of these surveys then I think we can be more confident in the very least that peta as a specific type of hungry ghost being is not yet found in the early discourses. General ghosts associated with the (recently, most often) deceased and who are going to continue on in other lives is the recurring meaning apart from the more general ‘deceased’ with no necessary reference to ghosts. I’m still reluctant to equate this with what many call the ‘antarābhava’ because I think that word in itself is complicated and varies from person to person or tradition. Nonetheless, there is an association beyond mere speculation, and this is the primary context for the meaning of peta and their relationship to offerings/merit as adapted from practices of the time.

Mettā !

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If I recall correctly, that is also Obeyesekere’s hypothesis—that the Buddhists appropriated and caricatured the Brahmanical ancestors (pitṛ) as pretas. Ghosts can live anywhere in the planet, or could in premodern times, but the petaloka seems to be a Buddhist ‘innovation’, as you suggest. While many Hindus believe in ghostly pretas/bhūtas, they do not class them as a distinctive realm or loka, not even within Pātāla (the netherworlds). Nor do the Jains list pretas among the hellish or vyantara (lower supernormal) beings, as far as I know. In the Śvetāmbara scriptures, one finds Vimānavatthu-like stories (the Anuttaropapātikadaśā), but no Petavatthu.

So Buddhism stands as the great supporter of pretas—with caricatural intent? I very much doubt so.

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