REVIEW: “The Buddhist Conceptions of Spirits” by Bimala Churn Law

The Buddhist Conceptions of Spirits

Bimala Churn Law
Bhartiya Publishing House, Pilkhana 1974

CHALLENGE(S): World Religions Challenge

Finished 22 Feb 2010

Finally! Another book finished to review here. I really don’t know what’s been wrong with me this month; I just haven’t been able to get around to finishing anything, although I have three other (fiction) books that I’m part-way through. Here’s hoping I get through them by the end of the month.

Anyway, this is the first book I’ve read cover to cover for my research project this year. Naturally, I’ve read a lot of other material on the subject, but most of that has been chapters or sections relating to my topic, or journal articles, which don’t count. Buddhist Conceptions of Spirits is therefore the first that focuses entirely on the subject that I’m researching for my paper.

As you might have guessed from the title, this book goes into great detail about the various Buddhist beliefs relating to life after death. Specifically, for my purposes, it talks about preyta, or “hungry ghosts,” the ghosts of people who have died and been ‘reborn’ into a lower realm where they are tormented by perpetual, unquenchable hunger (and frequently thirst as well) as punishment for their misdeeds in their previous lives. The main highlight was a collection of stories about the preyta, how they came to be fallen spirits, their torments, and their eventual redemption. The entire concept is closely linked with the idea of karma, since good deeds lead to a happy fate after death and negative deeds (including things like adultery, lying, greed, stinginess and so on) lead to a miserable fate.

What fascinates me about these stories is the repeated use of hunger as a punishment. While it seems fairly logical, to a point – we all hate being hungry, and famine is a terrible threat, particularly in the time and area in which the stories originated – there is a more metaphorical twist to the idea as well. In some Hindu traditions, preyta are described as having throats the width of a needle’s eye and humungous bellies, which they are unable to fill because of the narrowness of their throats. This is described as a metaphor for the paradox of desire for physical things in general, and how it can never be quenched, unless one takes up the Buddhist path of meditation. Desire, then, is viewed as an obstacle to the attainment of enlightenment and nirvana, which in turn suggests that part of  the punishment for wrongful action is equivalent to perpetual distance from that attainment, an interpretation which is underlined by the fact that preyta are unable to obtain merit or accept offerings directly; food turns to filth or ashes, water turns to blood, clothing turns to rags or metal unless it is given to one of the living, who then transfers the ‘merit’ of the action to the deceased through prayer and releases them from their torment. (As an aside, this is interestingly similar to the Christian idea that hell is being cut off from God).

In any event, Law’s book went into some detail on this subject, which I greatly appreciated. He did suffer a bit from a tendency to skip around amongst different ideas without any logical reason – there was very little flow; sometimes he’d be talking about the etymological roots of the word preyta, next thing you know he’d be discussing the history of so-and-so or something, which was annoying. He also had a tendency towards what we might call Western/colonial arrogance, particularly in his closing statement, which described the aforementioned beliefs as “puerile” (about which I will refrain from making any comment; he is likely long dead and in any case can’t help the culture in which he was writing). Nevertheless, the book was very helpful, not least because the stories he related were translated from the original Sanskrit, which I don’t speak, and will prove very helpful for my research project.

Overall, three out of five stars. A useful book but lacking in coherence and objectivity.


  1. Very interesting! I was just reading about that description of Hungry ghosts having skinny necks and distended bellies recently. When was the book written? I have a lot of problems with 19th and early 20th century writers on religion, particularly because so many were ardent atheists. If you can’t see merit in what people believe, it’s hard to write about them objectively.

      • black sheep
      • April 8th, 2010

      The book was written in the 1930s, I believe, which probably explains the tone. It’s interesting, really; personally I’ve found atheism helps me to be objective when it comes to my research, since I don’t have any emotional or intellectual investment in any one belief system. I do agree that many of the 19th-early 20th century authors I’ve encountered tend to have issues with passing judgment on other cultures and beliefs, though. Perhaps it is a manifestation of the general ethnocentrism of the time period.

  1. March 1st, 2010

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