Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

by Gelongma Karma Migme Chödrön | 2001 | 941,039 words

This page describes “preta destiny” as written by Nagarjuna in his Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra (lit. “the treatise on the great virtue of wisdom”) in the 2nd century. This book, written in five volumes, represents an encyclopedia on Buddhism as well as a commentary on the Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita.

The Preta destiny

Then the bodhisattva considers the pretas. As a result of the hunger (kṣudh-) and thirst (pipāsā) that torment them, their two eyes are sunken, their hair is long. They run about from east to west [to find drink], but when they approach some water, the demon guardians of the water chase them away with blows from iron rods or, if there are no guardians,[1] the water dries up by itself; when it rains, the rain changes into coals.

– There are pretas who always suffer from fire like at the end of the kalpa, when fire comes out of the mountains.

– There are emaciated pretas who run around like madmen; their bodies are covered with long disheveled hair.

– There are pretas who feed endlessly on excrement (gūtha), spit (niṣṭhīvana), vomit (vānta) or the left-over water from laundry; sometimes they go to latrines and stand on guard there waiting for impure (aśuci) liquid.

– There are pretas who are always looking for the blood of a woman in child-birth and who drink it; their aspect is like a flaming tree; their throat is like a needle (sūcicchidra); if they are given water, a thousand years would not be enough for them [to swallow it].

– There are pretas who break their own head, take the brains and lick it.

– For some pretas, it is as if they had the iron chains of the black mountain (kālagiri) around their neck; hitting their head on the ground, they ask for pity and take refuge near their guardians (bandhanapālaka).

– There are pretas who, in their previous existences, spoke harmful words (pāruṣyavāda) and made coarse comments to people; beings hate them and look upon them as enemies. For all these faults they fall into the preta destiny and suffer all kinds of punishments there.


For the torments of the pretas, see Saṃyutta, II, p. 255 (tr. Woodward, Kindred Sayings, II, p. 270). The Milinda, p. 294, distinguishes four kinds of pretas:

  1. those who eat vomit (vantāsikā);
  2. those who are hungry and thirsty (khuppipāsino);
  3. those who are consumed by thirst (nijjhāmataṇhikā);
  4. those who live on alms (paradatt’ āpajīvino).

Footnotes and references:


The existence of the demon guardians is the subject of debate; see Kośa, III, p.152–153.

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