Tales of Hungry Ghosts: Gaki Soshi

Kyoto National Museum

Tales of Hungry Ghosts (Gaki Sōshi) 
Gaki Sōshi areillustrated handscrolls depicting the world of gaki (Skt. preta, or “hungry ghosts”)—spirits condemned to eternal hunger and thirst. Gaki Sōshi were created in the late Heian (794-1185) to early Kamakura (1185-1333) periods, when the country was ravaged by wars, and like the hand scrolls depicting hell (Jigoku Sōshi) and diseases (Yamai no Sōshi) reflect an attitude oflooking unflinchingly at harsh reality. Gaki Sōshi generally contain episodes of the sufferings that the gaki endure, but the Gaki Sōshi in the collection of the Kyoto National Museum also contains episodes of their salvation, which may suggest that these works differ somewhat from comparative works in terms of their background. Let us look at the Kyoto National Museum’s Gaki Sōshi scene by scene. Illustrated hand scrolls are usually read or viewed from right to left.

Section 1

These Gaki are not allowed to drink the river water. Any gaki attempting to do so was frightened off by demons.

The only means of sustaining themselves allowed to gaki was to lick the water trickling off the wet feet of humans crossing the river. Humans never notice the presence of gaki at their heels, even though the gaki are huge.

Section 2

This scene takes place in what appears to be the grounds of a temple, with a crowd entering and exiting through a gate. Buddhist paintings and other goods are on sale near the gate.

People to the left of the scene are sprinkling water around a funerary marker erected for the dead. Alarmingly, the people are surrounded by three gaki.

The gaki are after the water these people are sprinkling for the souls of their diseased parents. Gaki, although forbidden from drinking regular water, apparently could avail themselves of water once it was sprinkled for the dead. The artist exhibits amazing skill at employing delicate shading to vividly represent the gaki, which no human has ever seen.

The people are absorbed in their prayers, blissfully unaware of the gaki. It is not known whether contemporary audiences found the thought of the ever-present invisible gaki frightening or amusing.

Section 3
Lamenting his mother’s fall to the state of gaki, Maudgalyāyana, who was among the ten principal disciples of Gautama Buddha, visited the realm of gaki in order to deliver food to his mother and relieve her hunger.
But the food went up in flames the moment his mother reached for it. (Lower right)

Deeply disappointed, Maudgalyāyana went to the Buddha for advice on how he might save his mother.
The Buddha advised Maudgalyāyana to give a feast for monks and followers, and give the mother what is left over from the feast.

Section 4 (continued from Section 3)

Maudgalyāyana followed Buddha’s advice, and fed his mother leftovers from the feast. This time the food did not burst into flames, and Maudgalyāyana’s mother was able to satisfy her appetite.

However, when other gaki started to crowd around them attracted to the food, Maudgalyāyana’s mother jealously guarded the food bowl with her body, refusing to share the food, demonstrating an inborn character resistant to change.

Section 5

These 500 gaki in India were tormented, unable to drink water from the Indus River, which would go up in flames whenever they approached it.
Then the Buddha appeared before them, a miracle not seen in thousands of years.
The Buddha preached to the gaki that their agony was the result of their actions in past lives.
The gaki complained, however, that their pain was such that it prevented them from concentrating on what the Buddha was saying.

The Buddha then used his supernatural power to give water to the gaki. Once they drank the water, the facial expressions of the gaki relaxed and became calm, and their bodies became well-rounded, just like human beings.
The expressions of gaki savoring the water convey their joy. Seeing that their thirst was quenched, the Buddha resumed his lecture. The gaki attained spiritual awakening as a result, and ascended to heaven.

Section 6

Ananda, who was among Gautama Buddha’s ten principal disciples, was training when a fire-belching gaki appeared before him. The gaki complained of his great agony, so Ananda went to the Buddha for advice on how he might save the gaki. When Ananda followed Buddha’s advice, the gaki was relieved of his sufferings. This is the origin of the Buddhist ritual Segaki-e (lit. feeding the hungry ghosts).

This section was executed by another accomplished artist, as demonstrated by the fearsome depiction of the gaki.

Also the contrast between the ugly gaki and the handsome profile of Ananda, who was famed for his good looks, is brilliantly realized.

Section 7

The salvation of the gaki by Ananda, described in the previous section, evolved into a Buddhist ritual called Segaki-e. This scene shows monks performing a Segaki-e ceremony.

When the ground is sprinkled with rice by monks, gaki start to gather around after emerging from the remote mountains. But the gaki remain invisible, even to the monks.

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