Hungry Ghosts: their History and Origin

Added over 6 years ago

By Linda Heaphy


 japanese hungry ghost

Japanese hungry ghost, detail of a scroll painting c1800

The Lord said: It is the men of sinful actions actuated by their previous misdeeds who become ghosts after death. Please listen to me, I shall tell you in detail (Garuda Purana, Vedas, verse 2.22.)


Hungry ghosts are the demon-like creatures described in Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu, Sikh, and Jain texts as the remnants of the dead who are afflicted with insatiable desire, hunger or thirst as a result of bad deeds or evil intent carried out in their life times. Found in every part of the Far East, from the Philippines to Japan and China, Thailand, Laos, Burma, India and Pakistan, they are universally described as human-like wraiths with mummified skin, narrow withered limbs, grossly bulging stomachs, long thin necks and tiny mouths.

Burmese hungry ghost called pyetta

Hungry ghosts, or Pyetta, in Burmese representation, 1906. From The Thirty Seven Nats, from Southeast Asia Digital Library by Sir Richard Carnac

Defined by a fusion of rage and desire, tormented by unfulfilled cravings and insatiably demanding impossible satisfactions, hungry ghosts are condemned to inhabit shadowy and dismal places in the realm of the living. Their specific hunger varies according to their past karma and the sins they are atoning for. Some can eat but find it impossible to find food or drink. Others may find food and drink, but have pinhole mouths and cannot swallow. For others, food bursts into flames or rots even as they devour it. Japanese hungry ghosts called gaki must eat excrement while those called jikininki are cursed to devour human corpses. According to Hindu tradition, hungry ghosts may endlessly seek particular objects, emotions or people, those things that obsessed them or caused them to commit bad deeds when they were living: riches, gems, children, even fear and the vitality of the living. A form of hungry ghost, called the Grigori, is found in Christian mythology. Mentioned in the Book of Enoch, the Grigori, and their offspring created by the union of Grigori and humans, wander the earth endlessly yearning for food though they have no mouths to eat or drink with.  In China, hungry ghosts include the spirits of dead ancestors who are compelled to return to the earthly realm during the seventh month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar in August.  These ghosts can eat human food, and offerings of cake, fruit and rice are commonly left out for them, while amulets are worn and incense is burnt to protect against those with evil intent or insatiable need.

grigori hungry ghost

They may look like angels, but they are hungry ghosts all the same: the grigori described in the Book of Enoch

For it is true that the desires of hungry ghosts are never satisfied and they must endlessly seek gratuity from the living. They can also cause misfortune to those whose chi energy is depleted or whose luck is bad. Some are driven seek to possess weak-willed men and women so as to dispossess their souls and take over their bodies, all the better to eat and drink with. In addition to hunger, hungry ghosts may suffer from immoderate heat and cold; the moon scorches them in summer, while the sun freezes them in winter, adding to their torment. The suffering of these creatures resembles that of the souls condemned to hell, but they are distinguishable by the fact that the damned are confined to the subterranean realm while hungry ghosts can occupy the world of the living.

In Buddhism, hungry ghosts are often seen as a metaphor for those individuals who are following a path of incorrect desire, who suffer from spiritual emptiness, who cannot see the impossibility of correcting what has already happened or who form an unnatural attachment to the past.  Hungry ghosts are also sometimes used as a metaphor for drug addiction.

In the west, the time of hungry ghosts is tied subconsciously to the time of Halloween, when the spirits of loved ones may return to the realm of the living and be welcomed – or bring with them undesirable spirits replete with malicious intent. The candle placed in the jack o’ lantern or at the windowsill guides the souls of the beloved home, while the jack o lantern itself warns off the hungry ghosts.

hungry ghosts depicted in japanese scroll art

Second section of the Hungry Ghosts Scroll, depicting the world of the hungry ghosts, one of the six realms of Buddhism, and tales of their salvation. This particular section explains how those born as hungry ghosts are saved by the offerings of the living and relates the story of one of the thirty-six types of hungry ghosts who constantly seek water to drink. The central scene of this section shows people pouring water on a funerary marker for the ullambana festival for the dead. Kyoto National Museum.


Tirokudda Kanda: Hungry Shades Outside the Walls

(Petavatthu Verse 1.5, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 2010)


Outside the walls they stand,

& at crossroads.

At door posts they stand,

returning to their old homes.

But when a meal with plentiful food

& drink is served,

no one remembers them:

Such is the kamma of living beings.

Thus those who feel sympathy for their dead relatives

give timely donations of proper food

& drink — exquisite, clean — [thinking:]

"May this be for our relatives. May our relatives be happy!"

And those who have gathered there,

the assembled shades of the relatives,

with appreciation give their blessing

for the plentiful food & drink:

"May our relatives live long

because of whom we have gained [this gift].

We have been honored,

and the donors are not without reward!"

For there [in their realm]

there's no farming, no herding of cattle,

no commerce, no trading with money.

They live on what is given here,

hungry shades whose time here is done.

As water raining on a hill flows down to the valley,

even so does what is given here benefit the dead.

As rivers full of water fill the ocean full,

even so does what is given here benefit the dead.

"He gave to me, she acted on my behalf,

they were my relatives, companions, friends":

Offerings should be given for the dead

when one reflects thus on things done in the past.

For no weeping, no sorrowing no other lamentation

benefits the dead whose relatives persist in that way.

But when this offering is given,

well-placed in the Sangha,

it works for their long-term benefit and they profit immediately.

In this way the proper duty

to relatives has been shown,

great honor has been done to the dead,

and monks have been given strength:

The merit you've acquired isn't small.


Excerpt from the Garuda Purana (Vedas), explaining the origin of one hungry ghost:

translation J.L. Shastri, Verse 2.7.53 - 2.7.61, from VEDA -Vedas and Vedic Knowledge Online

Once an aged woman of the brahmana caste went to the holy place Bhadravrata. The old woman lived with her son aged five years.

I being a ksatriya pretender stopped her in the wilderness, became a wayside robber and took her viaticum with clothes along with the dress of her son. I wrapped them around my head and wanted to leave. I saw the little boy drinking water from a jar. In that wilderness, only that much water was there.

I frightened the boy from drinking water and being thirsty myself began to drink from the jar. The boy died of thirst and the mother who was struck with grief died too, by throwing herself into a dry well.

O brahmana, by that sin I became a ghost with mouth as small as the hole of a needle and body as huge as a mountain.

Although I get food I cannot eat.

Although I burn with hunger my mouth is contracted.

Since in my mouth I have a hole equal to that of a needle I am known as Sucimukha.'


References and Further Reading:


hungry ghost

Hungry ghosts, details of a Japanese scrol painting, c1780


Copyright Linda Heaphy October 2011


Tags: Gods And Godesses, Halloween, Hungry Ghosts, Mythology, Spirituality


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