by Melinda Stum  

The religious faith traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism have significant, long-lasting roots in our human history. These traditions are remarkably similar. Yet, they differ significantly in their perspectives of the human soul (or essence), the process of reincarnation, and the experience of the disembodied spirit (e.g. ghosts). 


The theological anthropology of Hinduism states that the human person is composed of three components: the physical body, the ksooshma shareera, and the soul. The ksooshma shareera is an impression, similar to a carbon copy, of the human experience through our five physical senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting. This impression is held by the soul, particularly when the soul departs from the physical body.

When the soul and impressions depart the physical body at death, the impressions must be destroyed to release the soul for reincarnation. These impressions are destroyed with the various death and burial rituals of the Hindu faith tradition. Yet, the soul and impressions may remain on this earthly realm as disembodied spirits. 

In Hinduism, these disembodied spirits are referred to as ‘preta’, ‘pey’, ‘pret’, or ‘pretam’. The disembodied spirits are often associated with unnatural, untimely deaths or the lack of proper Hindu death and burial rituals. The disembodied spirit is not in a permanent state of being. The impressions will fade and be destroyed in due natural course. The amount of time will depend upon the aspirations and desires of the disembodied impressions (panda shareera). 

The Hindu rituals performed for deceased ancestors destroy the remaining impressions of all deceased persons. Further, an annual ceremony known as sharaadha is held to destroy all the remaining impressions of the deceased. Therefore, the Hindu tradition releases the soul from these impressions for reincarnation through religious rituals. 

The mythology (e.g. narratives) of Hinduism further embraces the disembodied spirit. There are references in the Puranas (Hindu sacred text) to an army of disembodied spirits, which is commanded by Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva is a person of the Hindu Trinity that represents the cyclic process of continually dissolving and recreating the universe through birth/creation, preservation, death/dissolution, and reincarnation/recreation. Lord Shiva’s disembodied army is not able to enter into (or posses) another physical body, because Hindu theological anthropology states the physical body can house only one spirit (and impressions). 


The theological anthropology in Buddhism differs significantly from that of Hinduism. In Buddhism, the Buddha denied the existence of a permanent self (or soul) that reincarnates from this life into the next. The Buddha’s objection was rooted in the philosophy that nothing is permanent; therefore, the continually transforming consciousness cannot be identified with the traditional, permanent soul. 

Buddha discussed the illusion of a self, which is materialized by five skandha. These skandha are intertwined, impermanent (anitya), continually transforming, without an abiding principle, but are the entirety of human nature. These skandha are: 

  • The physical body or the material form (rupa)
  •  The sensations (vedana) of the physical body: seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting 
  • Cognition (sanna) or the process of mentally classifying experiences
  • The mental constructions (sankhara) that initiate action
  • The consciousness (vijnana) or awareness about a sensory or material object 

If the soul is simply an illusion, what is reincarnated? Karma. Karma is a law of moral causation, which states that an individual’s current state of being is the result of actions in the current or the past incarnations. It is not an illusion. It is transferred from the previous life into the next without a substance (self or soul). It resembles a flame (light), which may be transferred from one candle to another without a ‘substance’ of its own. Therefore, rebirth can occur with the transfer of karma, but not a soul or self from one physical body into another.

According to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, an intermediary state exists between one incarnation and the next. The implication is that the deceased individual, whose existence is in the intermediary state, does continue to posses personal attributes rooted in the skandha. Another implication is that the personal attribute is a mental, disembodied essence that cannot be injured. However, the personal attributes (including memory) is destroyed prior to the next incarnation. Thus the individual, after reincarnation, will not possess memories of their pervious incarnations or experiences in the intermediary state of being. 
Monk Bhante Seelawimala, a professor at The Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley California, discussed a state of being comparable to the disembodied spirit. The existence of the disembodied essence is frequently related to the state of mind at the moment of death. If the deceased individual was in an extreme state of anger, depression, or oppression their disembodied essence may remain. Additionally, if the deceased individual was significantly attached to or addicted to the material world (or a particular component of it) their disembodied essence may remain. Similar to Hinduism, however, their karma will fade and eventually reincarnate into the next life. 


Hinduism and Buddhism are religious faith traditions with significant roots in our human history. Due to the history, the personal perspectives of adherents may differ including their perspective of the paranormal (especially disembodied spirits). Yet, these traditions provide an arena for their adherents to embrace their paranormal experiences from a position of faith and not in spite of it.