The Petavatthu (lit. 'Ghost Stories') is a Theravada Buddhist scripture, included in the Minor Collection (Khuddaka Nikaya) of the Pali Canon's Sutta Pitaka. It ostensibly reports stories about and conversations among the Buddha and his disciples, but in fact dates to about 300 BC at the earliest. It is composed of 51 verse narratives describing specifically how the effects of bad acts can lead to rebirth into the unhappy world of petas (ghosts) in the doctrine of karma. More importantly, it details how meritorious actions by the living can benefit such suffering beings.
The scripture also includes stories of Maudgalyayana's travels to the Hungry Ghost realm and his discussions with Hungry ghosts and his understanding of the realm. It also includes a story of how Sariputta rescued his mother from hell by making offerings to the monks as a form of merit-making to increase the chance of a hungry ghost being reborn as a higher being.
The scripture gave prominence to the doctrine that giving alms to monks may benefit the ghosts of one's relatives seen in the Hungry Ghost Festival and ceremonies conducted in Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Laos. While regarded by scholars as a later text with relatively little doctrinal content or literary merit, the Petavatthu and a similar text, the Vimānavatthu, became popular sources for sermons due to the narratives on the effects of karma contained in their commentaries.
The Sariputta story of the Petavatthu was adapted in 6th-century China to form the Mahayana Yulanpen Sutra, which makes Mulian (i.e., Maudgalyayana) its hero. Similar to its effect in South and Southeast Asia, the dissemination of the story led to the spread of a Ghost Festival throughout the Sinosphere.
A version of the Petavatthu's Maudgalyayana story separately became a Chinese legend or folk tale known as "Mulian Rescues His Mother".
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- In Peta-Stories, tr U Ba Kyaw & Peter Masefield, 1980, Pali Text Society, Bristol; translation of the commentary, with the verses embedded; the PTS's preferred translation
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- Egge, James (2002), Religious Giving and the Invention of Karma in Theravada Buddhism, Abingdon: Routledge, ISBN 0-7007-1506-1.
- Langer, Rita (2007), Buddhist Rituals of Death and Rebirth: Contemporary Sri Lankan Practice and Its Origins, Abingdon: Routledge, ISBN 978-1-134-15872-0.
- Sayers, Matthew R. (2013), Feeding the Dead: Ancestor Worship in Ancient India, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-989643-1.
- Dedication of Merits to our Departed Next-of-Kin
- Petavatthu – List of Stories
- Religious Giving and the Invention of Karma in Theravada Buddhism By James R. Egge
- Complete English translation by Ven. Gnanananda Thero
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