What exactly is a Hungry Ghost?

I’ve seen this question asked but not really answered. Is it canonical or commentarial?


It is found in suttas, in AN10.177 we see the Buddha answering a brahmin’s questions about how effective offerings to or in memoriam of departed relatives, petas, are.

Other sutta on the topic is AN3.51

Here’s the dictionary entry on the term peta:

And here’s the link to the Petavatthu, which is a collection of suttas on stories of petas found within the minor collections of Khudhakkanikāya, among the more famous Dhammapada:

May I suggest the tittle to be amended to “Hungry ghosts: from early Buddhist texts or commentaries?”


I’m less interested in whether they are from early Buddhist texts and more interested in what “hungry ghosts” are.

From the dictionary entry above:

dead, departed, the departed spirit. The Buddhistic peta represents the Vedic pitaraḥ (manes, cp. pitṛyajña), as well as the Brāhmaṇic preta .
The first are souls of the “fathers,” the second ghosts, leading usually a miserable existence as the result (kammaphala) or punishment of some former misdeed (usually avarice)
They may be raised in this existence by means of the dakkhiṇā (sacrificial gift) to a higher category of mahiddhikā petā (alias yakkhas), or after their period of expiation shift into another form of existence (manussa, deva, tiracchāna). The punishment in the Nirayas is included in the peta existence. Modes of suffering are given SN.ii.255



But your opening post asks exactly that!

Also, should this thread be in the Discussion category to allow the conversation to become an exchange on the topic instead of a close-ended question and answer string?


I suppose I should have been more specific. :flushed:

Thank you for that link; it helps!

I’ll move it over to Discussion.


In their depiction in the Vinaya Piṭaka’s account of the fourth pārājika training rule petas are rather a diverse bunch of creatures experiencing in a variety of different ways the vipāka of a variety of unwholesome kammas.

Fourth defeating offence

(scroll down to “Case details, part 2”)

In later texts, starting with the Petavatthu, there’s a tendency to narrow down this diversity and focus chiefly on those particular petas who experience constant hunger as the vipāka of having been stingy or avaricious in their previous human existence. Hence the common practice of rendering peta as “hungry ghost”, even where the vipāka is manifesting in some other form than constant hunger.


The Vietnamese have a particular devotion to hungry ghosts, inhabitants of one of the unfortunate destinations. Offerings to feed them are seen daily on the streets, in the form of coloured sweets and popcorn. There is a practice of placing unglazed pottery bowls containing these foodstuffs in the middle of intersections. If in the morning the bowl has been smashed by a motorbike, that is taken as an indication that the hungry ghost has visited the bowl. In Cambodia, apsaras are a subject of devotion, but pindapata is the main focus.


If you interpret the realms metaphorically, as states of minds experienced by human beings, then hungry ghosts could mean going out in the night seeking unwholesome activities.

These explanations clear most of it up for me. It is stimulating investigation to pay attention to stinginess and avarice that might be present in me.

1 Like

I wonder if this has anything to do with Mahāyāna. As Mahāyāna had to adapt to accommodate ancestor veneration, pretas became less and less bad a thing sometimes because it was seen as disrespectful of the religion to imply one’s ancestors are not in X or Y heaven or guarding the family eternally. Buddhism couldn’t tell certain populations the dead are reincarnated because what do you mean? The dead live in the shrine eternally and protect us and we give them offerings.

I think it’s very telling that the Releasing of the Flaming Mouths, a preta-pacification ritual, became the go-to Buddhist funeral for ages in many places, a ritual designed to release sentient beings from ghosthood and placate the worries of the family that the dead one is suffering in death.


About peta, SN 19.1-21 state various karmic causes of the suffering of tormented ghosts. See pp. 78-81 in Choong Mun-keat “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.


Ven Dhammavuddho says the average human is reborn as a hungry ghost, and I’m inclined to agree with him.

I would say the average first world human in 2019 is rather peaceful, and is more greedy than they are hateful.

The hungry ghost is never satisfied and is constantly searching for their fix of instant gratification, think of drug addicts. They’re usually peaceful until they can’t get their fix or addiction met, then they resort to unwholesome conduct.

Maybe during the dark and middle ages of Europe, people were more hateful than greedy as violence was very common. So they were probably reborn in hell or as animals.

It seems people are fond of hungry ghost i.e. greedy person .

A note on translation: It is perhaps useful in this context to point out that “hungry ghost” is a literal English translation of 餓鬼 èguǐ and somehow this translation caught on and now seems to be fairly standard also for preta/peta when Buddhist texts are translated from the Sanskrit, Pali, or Tibetan. Although both cultures, ancient Chinese and ancient Indian, had rituals for ancestor cults, it is not clear that the concepts expressed by these terms – preta, èguǐ – are identical. As was mentioned in another post in this thread, the term peta is much wider in some Pali texts. In my view, it would be very interesting to investigate the translation history of peta.


Descriptions of encounters with hungry ghosts can be found in this book:

Mae Chee Kaew
Her Journey to Spiritual Awakening & Enlightenment

Compiled from Thai sources & written by Bhikkhu Dick Sīlaratano

The book can be found at: Mae Chee Kaew | Forest Dhamma
Her teacher was Ajann Mun

This wonderful book started my journey to learn more about Ajann Mun and Maha Boowa


Welcome to the Discuss and Discover forum, @puthujjano and @tbsitting! Thank you for contributing!