The Good, the Bad and the Ghostly in Cambodia

I’ve previously discussed cultural aspects of Cambodia, but my main areas of knowledge and interest are in religious and social issues. The ritual and economic elements are ingeniously brought together in an excellent essay I read in an American student?s blog recently.

Within Buddhist religion throughout South-East Asia is deeply integrated the pre-Buddhist emphasis on ancestor worship, but only during the fifteen-day ubiquitously Cambodian festival of Pchum Ben is it so explicit. It is the festival of feeding the pretas, or ‘hungry ghosts’. It is a universal belief in Buddhism that after the death of this transient person a new life comes into being, which may be reborn in any one of a series of existences, depending on one’s karma. The most fortunate may be reborn in a temporary heaven or as a human again, but most will earn themselves rebirth in a hell, as an animal or, most likely it seems, as a hungry ghost – such an existence is the destiny of anyone whose primary motivation in the previous life was greed or self-satisfaction; locally – and highly significantly, those whose minds were full of fear and confusion due to the violent means of their death also appear to be reborn as pretas.

Thus it is that Cambodians assume that their grandparents and other deceased relatives are pretas who suffer hunger and pain for 350 days of the year, but whose immediate suffering and ultimate length of time spent in such a body can be alleviated by being fed during the fortnight of the festival, the only time when food is palatable for them; to ensure their taste buds and stomachs do not experience too much of a system shock however, the rice is thrown into the mud around the pagoda (where pretas understandably tend to congregate) at 4 a.m. every morning – that way the food is tastier but not too different to their usual fare.

Hence for a few days in September the city of Phnom Penh almost closes down as the populace heads out to the provinces to visit the families they left behind, bringing gifts of food and money for the living as well as for the dead. Whilst I know many poor Khmers who are devoted children, scrimping and saving in the city in order to give everything they can get to their families, equally I know many who rock up in Land Cruisers to distribute their largesse.

The author of the paper explains how he used to be so shocked to hear villagers lining the roads heaping abuse on their well-intentioned urban-based relatives bringing them gifts – until he cracked the irony they see so clearly. Globally, the rich world gives a paltry amount of ‘aid’ to the poor world whilst grabbing it back one-hundredfold in rigged trade and exploitation of resources; locally the rich do the same to their own families. Standing by the roadside hurling insults is the only means the impotent poor have to express their outrage at the injustice and phoney religiosity.

Thus, acquiring existence as a hungry ghost is supposed to be a post-mortem self-inflicted punishment for one’s selfish greed in this life, yet the impoverished poor being patronised are reduced to living hungry ghosts by the supposedly religiously virtuous rich urbanites whose greed causes both the conditions which exacerbate such poverty and suffering of their relatives, and the conditions which will lead to them being reborn as hungry ghosts themselves. Accepting and understanding the roles of the myriad ghosts and spirits inhabiting the minds of Khmers unlocks a lot of otherwise hidden dimensions and realities in this society.

Sralang Apsara

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