Hungry Ghosts and Celestial Seductresses: Preta Narratives in Early South Asian Buddhism


Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowships


Religious Studies


How do stories about the dead reveal the concerns of the living? This dissertation examines stories about the departed (preta in Sanskrit) in ancient South Asian Buddhist literature. Contrary to assumptions that the preta always looked like the Chinese hungry ghost, the South Asian preta developed slowly over time. While early texts include descriptions of semidivine pretas, the repulsive preta became representative for the entire category of pretas. Whether semidivine or repulsive, preta bodies are governed by a logic of physiomorality, which connects virtue and embodiment in a co-constitutional relationship. For this reason, Buddhist authors used the didactic nature of preta narratives to illustrate karma and impermanence, to project idealized visions of society, and to promote the monastic community as the body of experts in controlling the dead. Buddhist stories about the afterlife thus reveal concerns about the religious and social order of the world.