In the Buddhist cycle of existence, the realm of hungry ghosts is one of the unfortunate realms of rebirth, and those reborn there are often described as having enormous stomachs and tiny mouths, forever thwarted in their search for food. But hungry ghosts know the error of their ways, and they sometimes appear among humans—like the ghosts that haunt Ebenezer Scrooge—as augurs of what may await. Humans, they know, have a tendency to cultivate eanness (mātsarya), which makes those people cruel, immoral, and oblivious to their own self-righteousness. That meanness can lead to madness and misery. Thankfully, hungry ghosts offer unique insight into the human condition, and can provide us with the solution to this problem.
Andy Rotman is a professor of Religion, Buddhism, and South Asian Studies at Smith College. He has been engaged in textual and ethnographic work on life in South Asia for more than 25 years. His publications include Hungry Ghosts (Wisdom Publications, 2021), Divine Stories: Translations from the Divyāvadāna, part 1 and part 2 (Wisdom Publications, 2008, 2017), Thus Have I Seen: Visualizing Faith in Early Indian Buddhism (Oxford University Press, 2009), and a coauthored volume, Amar Akbar Anthony: Bollywood, Brotherhood, and the Nation (Harvard University Press, 2015).
The opinions of all writers are their own.