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Preta and Bhuta are often considered one and the same but they are different as per the below description of various beings:

Such are the general mischief-makers, the Asuras, the Pretas, or ghosts, the Bhutas, or spook-spirits, the baby-killing Grahas, the Rakshasas, who are either giants or vampires, not to mention all the other demons of less power and importance.

There is reference to Preta and Bhuta in Bhagavad Gita as well.

yajante sāttvikā devān yakṣa-rakṣāṁsi rājasāḥ
pretān bhūta-gaṇāṁś cānye yajante tāmasā janāḥ [BG - 17.4]

Meaning - Men in the mode of goodness worship the demigods; those in the mode of passion worship the demons; and those in the mode of ignorance worship ghosts and spirits.

Hanuman Chalisa also has a reference to Preta and Bhuta.

भूत पिसाच निकट नहिं आवै।
महाबीर जब नाम सुनावै।।

So what is the difference between them?

  • Good question. Bhuta technically means "beings" (as per Gita), which includes normal ones as well. Sometimes it refers to the beings of past, who have happened/lived. But Preta specifically means the deceased beings. – iammilind Aug 30 '18 at 6:19
  • I think Preta means malevolent Bhutas. – Ikshvaku Jan 13 at 14:35
  • @Ikshvaku Yes but even Bhutas as per the above verses are considered evil. – Chinmay Sarupria Jan 13 at 14:47
  • @ChinmaySarupria Then isn't Preta a flesh-eating ghost or something? – Ikshvaku Jan 13 at 15:06
  • @Ikshvaku Flesh-eating ghost? Can Pretas access anything on physical plane? – Chinmay Sarupria Jan 13 at 15:19
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Bhuta:

The basis for all creation, including the physical body, is the group of five elements: earth, water, wind, fire, and space. The well-being of the body and mind can be established by purifying these five elements within the human system. This process also shapes the body into a stepping stone towards one’s ultimate well-being. There is a whole system of yoga called Bhuta Shuddhi, which means “purification of the elements.”

Citing from SB 4.2.32 where it says:

Lord Śiva is described here as bhūta-rāṭ. The ghosts and those who are situated in the material mode of ignorance are called bhūtas, so bhūta-rāṭ refers to the leader of the creatures who are in the lowest standard of the material modes of nature. Another meaning of bhūta is anyone who has taken birth or anything which is produced, so in that sense Lord Śiva may be accepted as the father of this material world.

As defined in The Mahabharata, Book 12: Santi Parva: Section CCCXII

The puissant Consciousness created the five Bhutas. These are Earth, Wind, Space, Water, and Light numbering the fifth.

Chapter Fifteen Maya-Shakti (The Psycho-Physical Aspect of the Universe)

In the four Atmas which are contemplated in the Citkunda in the Muladhara Cakra, Atma pranarupi represents the vital aspect, Jñanatma the Intelligence aspect, and Antaratma is that spark of the Paramatma which inheres in all bodies, and which when spread (Vyapta) appears as the Bhuta or five forms of sensible matter which go to the making of the gross body. These are all aspects of the one Paramatma (Jñanarnava Tantra, Ch. XXI, Vv. 1 -- 9).

Preta:

As defined in Hymn to Kali: Text: Verse 7

The corpse is Nirguṇa-Brahman. The couch is the support (Ādhāra). On Nirguṇa-Brahman as Thy Ādhāra. that is established in Thine own state (Pada) as Nirguṇa-Brahman. Gāyatrī-Tantra says, 'By the word corpse is indicated Brahman as the dead body (Preta).' Gandharva-Tantra says Sadāśiva is the couch on which lies the subtle Tripurasundarī.

The Devi Bhagavatam: The Ninth Book: Chapter 34

If anybody sets fire to a city or a village, he will have to live in Ksuradhâra Kunda for three yugas with his body severed. Then he becomes a Preta (disembodied spirit) and travels over the whole earth, being burnt up with fire.

The Devi Bhagavatam: The Fifth Book: Chapter 28

The Vârâhî Devî looking like a female boar, came also, seated on an elevated seat of departed souls (Preta)

Going by the above analysis we can conclude that "Bhuta" means "living beings", which includes normal human beings as well. But "Preta" particularly means the deceased human beings.

  • 1
    In BG, Preta and Bhuta are said to be worshipped by tamasic people, there is also a reference to them in Hanuman Chalisa (see my updated question), in both cases it is made clear that they are some sort of demonic or tamasic beings and people should stay away from them and not the Bhuta, i.e, all living beings you are referring to. – Chinmay Sarupria Aug 30 '18 at 14:43
  • Those in goodness worship a particular demigod for a particular purpose. Similarly, those who are in the mode of passion worship the demons. We recall that during the Second World War, a man in Calcutta worshiped Hitler because thanks to that war he had amassed a large amount of wealth by dealing in the black market. Similarly, those in the modes of passion and ignorance generally select a powerful man to be God. They think that anyone can be worshiped as God and that the same results will be obtained. iskconpress.com/books/bg/17/4 ... depends on how you interpret verses. – Just_Do_It Aug 30 '18 at 14:48
  • Read here as well "Similarly, those in the modes of passion and ignorance generally select a powerful man to be God. They think that anyone can be worshiped as God and that the same results will be obtained." vedabase.com/en/bg/17/4 – Just_Do_It Aug 30 '18 at 14:53

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