"Hungry Ghosts" by Andy Rotman

I just noticed that Wisdom Publications has published “Hungry Ghosts” a translation of the Avadānaśataka Stories 41–50 by Andy Rotman, including a lengthy introduction to the text and to Buddhist cosmology in general. For my part, it’s nice to see this layer of the Buddhist texts receiving some more popular attention.


If you like to read a translation of the Pali text the Petavatthu, you can do so online here:

There are also very short stories of ghosts to be found in the Lakkhana Samyutta:

Here is Prof. Rottman’s faculty page at Smith College to see his other works and bio.

There is an interview with Rotman about the book in Tricycle:

From the interview:

Tricycle: What are hungry ghosts, and why are they so understudied and overlooked? Hungry ghosts are something of an embarrassment to modern Buddhists, who like their Buddhism rational and empirical. And yet these tortured souls are pervasive in early Buddhist literature and in later Buddhist art. Their unique biographies, largely disregarded by scholars and students of Buddhism, function as a kind of ethical law and moral code. They’re an ancient scare tactic prompting monastics and laity to cultivate good karma, be charitable, and remain loyal to the community.

I’m not too keen on the term “scare tactic,” but I guess they kind of are. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I’d prefer something like “fair warning.”

Tricycle: Who were these stories intended for? On their begging rounds, monks and nuns would offer laypeople a story in exchange for food. These cautionary tales have obvious moral and ethical implications. Good karma can lead to wealth, but wealth corrupts and can result in matsarya, thereby damning you to a hellish future as a hungry ghost.

Ummm… Monks don’t do much story telling on alms round. And generally when people offer dana you tell stories about the results of generosity, like we find in the Vimanavatthu, as a way to help them have happiness with their gift. But of course some people do need the other side of things.

There is also a Tricycle Podcast episode (52 min) where he is interviewed:

Rotman only mentions the Petavatthu once in the body of his book:

The [Avadānaśataka] also tries to convince its audience of its message by employing scare tactics: cultivate mātsarya at your own peril! The hungry ghosts in these stores are meant to be negative role models, much like their compatriots in the Petavatthu (Ghost Stories), a Pali anthology of fifty-one stories told in verse. There, however, many hungry ghosts experience both miseries and joys, demonstrating not just that bad deeds lead to bad results—like being racked with sensations that are “searing, piercing, distressing, agonizing, and acute”—but that good deeds lead to good results. It is an oft-repeated karmic truism that “the result of absolutely evil actions is absolutely evil, the result of absolutely pure actions is absolutely pure, and the result of mixed actions is mixed,” but the hungry ghosts in the Avadānaśataka experience only misery. And their misery offers a warning: mātsarya can be all consuming, devouring even the possibility of future joy.

But it is mentioned several times in the notes. For example:
(emphasis added)

note 11. Perhaps there is a different explanation. All the characters in these stories die in the human realm and are then reborn as hungry ghosts, suggesting a continuity with the Brahmanical system discussed in note 9. Hence a hungry ghost in these stories might very well remember his or her last existence, for there wouldn’t be a sharp separation between one’s ghost incarnation and one’s preceding human one. And perhaps this Brahmanical precedent (and varying Buddhist needs for differentiation) helps explain why the Petavatthu (a collection of hungry ghost stories included in the Pali canon) and the Petavatthu-aṭṭhakathā (Dhammapāla’s later commentary on the collection) have such different existential understandings of being a peta. In the former, according to James Egge (2002, 94), “peta maintains its etymological sense of a being that has ‘departed’ from human existence.” In the latter, “petas constitute a distinct gati [realm of existence], the petayoni. Consequently, birth as a peta need not follow a human birth, but in several stories follows birth in a hell (Pv-a 14, 21, 178, 263, 284).” Note too that in the Pettavatthu, which is much less systematized than its commentary, there are also stories that “seem to confuse birth as a ghost, a yakṣa, or a deity” (Egge 2002, 79), so perhaps the text itself is confused or perhaps it simply demonstrates a more fluid and less hierarchical understanding of these various forms of identity. Regardless, Buddhists were engaged in reworking ideas and practices regarding deceased ancestors, whose fate had been (and continues to be) a pressing concern (Shastri 1963 and Parry 1994), and they arrived at diverse conclusions at different times and in different texts.

I would disagree that there is any confusion in the Petavatthu. Instead it is easy to read the texts as simply the actual presentation of what life is like in the ghost world, namely that it is a state with mixed pleasure and pain. In the suttas the ghost world is always presented as being higher than the animal world (as far as I know), which is also a realm of mixed suffering and happiness.

The following note is also interesting in that it clarifies why in the popular imagination of petas they have a large belly and are all experiencing hunger:

note12. Hungry ghosts are often described and represented as having giant stomachs and tiny mouths, symbolizing their craving and its insatiability, but this imagery is absent in the Petavatthu, and it came to the Pali tradition quite late. As Steven Collins observed in some summary remarks about hungry ghosts (H-Buddhism, September 15, 2008), “the big belly / small mouth petas in SE Asia are derived from Sanskritic, North Indian tradition(s), not the Pali tradition as mediated through Sri Lanka.” Cf. Stede 1914, 26.

As an aside, if you love the stories of the Dhammapada commentary as much as I do, you will also love Rotman’s Divine Stories: Divyāvadāna Part 1.


Cool, thanks for the heads-up, Ven. @Khemarato.bhikkhu. I had Andy Rotman as a professor once….it’s nice to see what he’s up to now.

I agree. In the early traditions, petas come across as the “least bad bad” afterlife, right above the animal realm. But later traditions (like the one Andy Rotman is translating) seem to make the peta realm more like a hell, and in turn place asuras where the petas used to be (the “least bad bad afterlife”).