Buddhas and bodhisattvas are often looked to as the protagonists of the Buddhist cosmos, whose miracles and heroism inspire faith in the dharma. But even the lowliest creatures can be valuable teachers, according to Andy Rotman, a scholar of South Asian religions at Smith College and one of the few academics researching the history of hungry ghosts (Skt., preta), the denizens of hell stricken with an insatiable appetite as a result of their greed in previous lives. These tormented beings, he says, also teach the dharma—not with their words but with their bodies, by making suffering visible.
In his latest book, Hungry Ghosts, Rotman presents ten new translations from the Avadanasataka (“One Hundred Stories”), a collection of Sanskrit tales and one of the earliest sources on hungry ghosts, with some stories dating between the 2nd and 4th centuries CE. Rotman spoke with Tricycle about how the horrors in these ancient ghost stories are as relevant today as they were two thousand years ago.
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.
You begin the book with a story about matsarya, the miserly state of mind that results in rebirth as a hungry ghost. How does that happen? When matsarya—I’ve translated this Sanskrit term as “meanness” or “stinginess”—arises in the mind and you grasp it or actively cultivate it, it can give way to self-righteousness, delusion, and attachment, especially with regard to wealth and private property. Miserliness of mind can then lead to a cruel acting out. With these attributes comes a kind of physicality, embodied by hungry ghosts, who are living expressions of the horrific karmic consequences that result from being unwilling to give or share, or from being unkind, unfair, or spiteful.
You describe the bodies and torments of hungry ghosts as “cruel by design.” How so? Their bodies are inescapable torture chambers. Their needle-thin throats and bloated stomachs ensure excruciating hunger and thirst. In an illustrated Thai manuscript, a hungry ghost suffers from an enormous scrotum draped over his shoulder like a purse, with the idea being that this fate awaits government officials who exploit the peasantry. Despite being aware of their misdeeds and their karmic consequences, pretas are powerless in improving their lot. Cruelty is the point.
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.
By this logic, one might think that the more you have, the more you have to cling to. Interestingly, the intended audience seemed to be the middling merchants, the blue-collar Buddhists, betraying concerns about the tendency to accumulate surplus wealth without giving back to support local monasteries and communities.
From the monk reborn clutching his possessions to a female ghost engulfed in flames and feeding on feces, I find the flawed characters in these stories relatable, even refreshing, in spite of their perversity. Are they for you? So much of the spotlight has been on bodhisattvas endowed with extraordinary, heroic agency. In reality, most of us are just struggling, striving, and muddling through. I don’t know that I’m necessarily up for feeding my body to a starving tigress to demonstrate the power of my faith. That’s a pretty high bar. This is why I love the story of a young, deformed boy named Jambala, who travels to the hungry ghost realm, exchanges pleasantries, and eventually strikes up friendships.
I read this as a form of social commentary, especially given India’s “manual scavengers,” members of the lowest caste, who, like hungry ghosts, historically lived on the margins. Because they cleaned the city’s cesspools, they were stigmatized as inherently impure in a Brahmanical world where purity mattered. What I think these texts are saying is watch out for your underlings—the people you may think are beneath you but are still a part of your world. In a time of so much insecurity, offering something as mundane as food or friendship is actually quite profound.
If readers come away from your book feeling shocked and disgusted, would you as a translator consider that a job well done? My goal and greatest challenge as a translator is in attempting to capture the right mood. If you allow yourself to be moved—in this case, disgusted—by the horrors these sights invoke, then I suppose I did something right. The real object of disgust is not hungry ghosts per se but those among us with a hungry ghost mentality. Instead of saying someone’s mind is in the gutter, a Buddhist might say your mind is in the hungry ghost realm.
Were you similarly moved by these narratives? What shocked me the most was that the stories and images themselves were clearly meant to be shocking. Many of us are jaded or desensitized and are unable to be moved when we see suffering, or we let it go unnoticed. These wretched creatures are meant to shock us out of that complacency and facilitate a kind of awakening, a compassionate awareness.
If we’re met with cruelty, do we choose to meet it in kind? Is there a way of generating something else that can break this pathology of the preta? I’m not sure, but I’m hopeful.
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