The Mahavastu (great story)

by J. J. Jones | 1949 | 502,133 words | ISBN-10: 086013041X

This page describes ghosts (preta) which is Chapter III-b of the English translation of the Mahavastu (“great story”), dating to the 2nd-century BC. This work belongs to the Mahasanghika school of early Buddhism and contains narrative stories of the Buddha’s former lives, such as Apadanas, Jatakas and more..

Chapter III-b - Visit to other worlds (2): Ghosts (preta)

The venerable Mahā-Maudgalyāyana often went on a visit to the world of the ghosts (preta). There he saw beings reborn in the ghost-world (pretaloka) suffering thousands of divers miseries.

The venerable elder Kolita as he went his way among the ghosts (preta), saw the ghosts in the ghost-world in extreme misery. Though their bodies are big, their mouths are the size of a needle’s eye, and their throats are constricted, so that, although they are always eating, they are never satisfied. Moreover, through their failure to perform meritorious deeds,

whereby they are utterly without reward, they are ill-favoured of complexion, aspect, smell, and form, and are vile and repulsive, naked, without clothes. When they are hungry and thirsty, they drink indiscriminately excrement, urine, phlegm, mucus, pus and blood.

As a maturing of their karma a wind blows and whispers “Here is something to drink! Here is something to drink! Here is boiled rice! Here is rice-gruel!” When they hear this whisper the ghosts go leaping across rivers and mountains, shouting, “Now will we eat, now will we feed, now will we drink.” But those who have thus built up a hope, are immediately robbed of it, for the wind whispers to them, “There is none! There is none!” Hearing this the ghosts fall prostrate in despair.

A female ghost (pretī) recites a verse:

For five hundred years[1] have I heard this cry, “See, how hard it is to get aught to drink in the world of ghosts.”

(29) Another female ghost recites a verse:

For five hundred years have I heard this cry, “See, how hard it is to get boiled rice in the world of ghosts.”

Another female ghost recites a verse:

For five hundred years have I heard this cry, “See how hard it is to get rice-gruel in the world of ghosts.”

Another female ghost recites a verse:

Thirsty they run to a stream, but its channel is empty.[2] Scorched, they run to the shade, but when they come there they find blazing sunshine.

Another female ghost recites a verse:

An ill life have we spent, since, when we could, we did not give. When the means were at hand, we did not light a lamp for the self.[3]

When Maudgalyāyana had seen this great wretchedness in the world of the ghosts (pretaloka) , he came to the Jeta Grove, and in one discourse revealed it in detail to the great four assemblies. “Thus” said he, “do the beings reborn in the ghost-world suffer thousands of divers woes. Therefore we ought to strive after knowledge, win it, be enlightened, be fully enlightened, do the virtuous deed, live the holy life, and commit no sin in this world. Thus I declare.”

When they heard the elder, several thousands of devas and men attained immortality.

Footnotes and references:


Literally “This cry of five-hundred years has been heard (read śruto with one MS. for śrutaṃ of the text, to agree with ghoṣo) by me.” Senart, however, assumes “un emploi très libre du génitif ” and translates “au bout de cinq cent ans.”


Literally “it is empty,” reading riktakā or riktatā, “empty,” for sikatā of the text, which is a conjecture of Senart’s. The former is the reading of the MSS., and is also identical with the rittakā of the corresponding Pali gāthā in Pv. 3. 6, 5.


This gāthā is obviously identical with that in Pv. 4. 15, 3. Cf. J. 3. 47. (I owe this latter reference to Dr. W. Stede.) The text has, therefore, been emended in order to make the language and sense of it to conform with the Pali. Senart’s text is:

dhigjīvitaṃ ājīviṣu yam antasmiṃ na dāmatha
vidyamāneṣu bhogeṣu pradīpaṃ na karotha va.

The Peta-vatthu has:

Dujjīvitaṃ jīvamha ye sante na dadamhase santesu
deyyadhammesu dīpam nākamha attano.

The Mahāvastu text as emended for the translation given above is:

Dujjīvitaṃ ajīviṣma yaṃ santasmiṃ nadāmatha
vidyamāneṣu bhogeṣu dīpam nākarṣma ātmano.

Santasmiṃ, loc. sing, (here absolute = “when there was [something]”) has an inflection common in Buddhist Sanskrit. Nadāmatha, (with Senart) is for na + adāmatha, from dadāti, with a first plural ending for which Senaṭṭ believes there is a parallel elsewhere in the Mahāvastu. (See his note.) It would be simpler, of course, to read nadāma ca or , but the MSS. seem to be agreed on the ending -tha.

To show the necessity of some such emendation as that proposed, Senart’s translation of the text adopted by him is here given—“Fie de la vie de mendiants! (Cette nourriture) qui est tout près, nous n’en profitons pas. Du moins ne nous faites pas voir ces jouissances qui sont (sous notre main) (mais qui nous demeurent inaccessibles)”. So many interpolations in translating do not suggest a very successful attempt at emendation.

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