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  • Hungry Ghosts: their History and Origin

    Japanese hungry ghost, detail of a scroll painting c1800.
    Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons


    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.

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

    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 or 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.

    They may look like angels, but they are hungry ghosts all the same:
    the Grigori described in the Book of Enoch. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

    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.

    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. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons


    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:

    Banish hungry ghosts from your home. The Philippine Star, 9 July 2011. Retrieved 25 October 2011
    Fundamentals of Buddhism: Rebirth. Buddhanet. Retrieved 26 October 2011
    Garuda Purana.Translated by J.L. Shastri. Ancient Indian Tradition and Mythology 12-14, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1982. VEDA -Vedas and Vedic Knowledge Online
    Hungry Ghost. Wikipedia. Retrieved 25 October 2011
    Hungry Ghost Festival. Cultural China. Retrieved 26 October 2011
    Preta. Wikipendia. Retrieved 25 October 2011
    Tirokudda Kanda: Hungry Shades Outside the Walls (Pv 1.5), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 8 August 2010.Retrieved on 24 October 2011.
    Ullambana (Ancestor Day) in Indian tradition. Ancient Worlds. 5 August 2008. Accessed 24 October 2011


      Hungry ghosts, details of a Japanese scroll painting, c1780.
      Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons


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      11 Responses

      James McKenna
      James McKenna

      May 30, 2023

      ♥️♥️♥️♥️♥️ Thank you for this piece! A great read!


      August 09, 2023

      I can feel a sense of things never being enough, the more and more money I earn never fills the spot once I obtain what I want it feels like it didn’t happen and I’m constantly searching for more.

      What advice can you give me to help drop these cravings?

      I want to be not money-driven and find my purpose in life which will allow me to calm my hunger feeling.

      I cant help but relate to the Hungry Ghost.


      June 28, 2022

      Love this page and Steven’s comment

      Gordeen Donovan
      Gordeen Donovan

      June 28, 2022

      In my experience as a healer we all have hungry ghosts and as Rollo May wrote years ago, in his book called Love and Will, the Demonic energies that we project onto others, as well as our angelic energies, become demonic because we disconnect from these energies.
      We would not have Hollywood if we stopped projecting our Star energy onto packaged images. It is hard work to do this, sounds simple and is not. We must find the ghosts, the addicts (very much the hungry ghosts) the positive and the negative within ourselves, reclaim our soul pieces, etc., to heal ourselves and ultimately to live cleanly without projecting all our undesirable aspects onto those others who are like magnets because they may, in their weakened form have more of that particular energy than we do.


      May 15, 2020

      “Greed like theirs can never be filled” is now being said of the governments insisting on “getting people back to work” and “opening the country” during a pandemic, despite the fact that of the three criteria for opening, 1. Two weeks of steady decline in cases 2. Availability of Personal Protective Equipment 3. Availability of Testing — NONE of those criteria have been fulfilled. Our democracies are dysfunctional because plutocrats control them. And their greed is insatiable. They are infected with Hungry Ghost syndrome. They hate giving people unemployment (which we paid into, it’s our own money) they call “getting something for nothing” in order to shame us and bully us into risking our lives to return to work before it is safe. They are terrified we might enjoy being off their hamster wheel of working three jobs to barely survive, and might see universal basic income as a good idea. As true freedom, in fact. Greed begets more greed. Our system is set up to reward those who operate on greed. The indigenous peoples of the Earth have been warning us for centuries, that our way of life will consume itself. Now we face extinction from climate change — the pandemic is just one of the shocks to come — and the hungry ghosts still insist on “getting theirs” — arranging our governmental and economic systems so their fossil fuel wealth can continue pouring in.

      Bob Elsey
      Bob Elsey

      December 20, 2019

      Spot on as is your piece focuses on the practical aspect of this narcissism and its consequences for all of us. Namaste

      sulema Rodriguez
      sulema Rodriguez

      December 20, 2019

      I have been seeing a demon-like a figure with a long tongue around the house. linky arms and legs. what would it be?

      Stephen Shenfield
      Stephen Shenfield

      July 22, 2019

      Tibetan Buddhism recognizes five types of sentient beings — human beings, animals, gods, demons, and hungry ghosts.

      Richard Raymond
      Richard Raymond

      November 03, 2018



      November 03, 2018

      Check out Dr. Gabor Mate
      In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, A.A. Knopf Canada, 2008.

      Lindsey Rainwater
      Lindsey Rainwater

      September 05, 2018

      Thank you for this article. It was a good read and SUPER educational. I knew something of “hungry ghosts” and am researching further due to something disturbing my young son said he saw. But I didn’t know about the reference in the book of Enoch, which is one of my next areas of study. So thank you! :)

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