A preta is in Buddhist and Hindu lore, a type of Ghost. In the Buddhist scheme of Reincarnation, the realm of the Hungry Ghosts (pretas) is a lower segment of the Wheel of Life, the various levels in which one reincarnates according to one’s karma. Pretas occupy a sort of purgatory between lives of those who have accumulated the bad karma of envy, refusal of alms, greed, etc. They must work off this karma, forgotten by their relatives, in a state of constant hunger and thirst.

The torture continues until the karma has been balanced. Pretas look like burnt trees and have needle-sized throats and mountain-sized bellies. They live in Crossroads, which are a favourite congregating place of spirits, ghosts, witches and deities associated with the underworld. They also gather outside houses and at boundaries. In Hindu belief, the preta is the tiny ghost of the dead, about the size of a thumb, that either resides in the corpse or remains near the home of the deceased for one year after the funeral. When the year is up, rites are performed to send the soul to heaven, where it is rewarded for the good deeds performed on earth.

Without the rites, the soul could not escape its preta condition. Later, the soul enters its final place. Pretas also are ghosts of a cripple or a child.


  • Leach, Maria, and Jerome Fried, eds. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979.
  • The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion. Boston: Shambhala, 1989.


The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007

Preta means “departed” in Sanskrit. The word is used in Sri Lankan folk religion (both Buddhist and Hindu) to indicate dead souls unable to leave the realm of the living because of intense negative emotions or obsessive attachment to living people or material goods. Unhealthy attachment causes them to be grounded on Earth, unable to leave.

The Preta haunts relatives and old friends. It may prey upon new residents of places where the Preta once lived. Instead of behaving like a benevolent ancestral spirit or just going away, the lingering Preta causes illness, trouble, and bad luck. It may torment people via unpleasant involuntary possession or prey upon individuals by vampirically absorbing life-essence and energy, sometimes with fatal results.

Many Pretas are attached to material goods, not people. They may hover around their old home or the things that obsess them. Their very presence, however, may cause trouble for the living, even if this is unintentional.

The Preta can be exorcised. It may be propitiated via offerings in hopes that it will behave and maybe even leave. Depending on cosmology, the Preta is perceived as a malignant spirit or a tortured soul (or both). Buddhist cosmology suggests that merit earned on its behalf may enable the Preta to escape from its purgatory on Earth.

Afflictions caused by Pretas might be medically diagnosed as psychosis.




Some Pretas enjoy intoxicants like marijuana and alcohol; others desire feces and spit.



Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses– Written by Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.