Buddhist Hells

As is evident from this blog’s title, hell within Buddhism is pluralized as opposed to its singular Christian counterpart, for there are many hells—in some texts, vast panoramic cities of them. The English word hell is derived from a Northern European Goddess named Hel, meaning the one who “covers things up.” In point of fact, it was not until Milton’s majestic poem, Paradise Lost, which depicts Satan (Myself Am Hell) and hell’s “vast pandemonium”, along with Dante’s poem Inferno (from the larger Divine Comedy), that notions of hells fiery sulfuric-nature became imprinted within the Western psyche. Buddhist notions of hell antecede its Western equivalent:

If our understanding of the dates is correct, the Buddhist idea of hell is historically prior to the same idea in the Mediterranean cultures. Thus the following question may be posed: did the idea of hell originate in India with Buddhism and then spread to the West, or did the idea originate independently in the Mediterranean world? Clearly, there was ample communication between India and the West over sea and land during the centuries before and after Christ. Thus the diffusion of the idea of hell from the East to the West is historically and geographically possible.
One cannot but notice that the “fully developed hell” originates in the West much at the same time as monastic institutions and practices, and one can argue, even with simple Freudian arguments, that monks and nuns are psychologically inclined to condemn to eternal punishments the sinners practicing what they are themselves denied. The monastic institutions and lifestyle “need” hell, one might say. And Buddhism was indeed the earliest and most important tradition to institutionalize monastic life. Thus it is quite possible that both hell and monastic discipline were, if not necessarily “imported,” at least influenced from India when they suddenly became popular in fourth century Egypt and elsewhere around the Mediterranean. (The Buddhist Hell: An Early Instance of the Idea?, Jens Braarvig 2009)

In Buddhism, hell is rendered as Naraka, or Niraya; in Chinese, Diyu, which is a combination of the Buddhist concept as well as sundry folklore. Within major Monotheistic-religions many times the war-cry is “if you do not follow my beliefs then you are in danger of hell-fire!” Buddhism never adhered to this belief structure. Rather, it states that one is reborn into one of the six realms of impermanence according to the nature of one’s karma and not from the influence of a belief system and/or the judgement from its corresponding supernatural godhead. Also, within Buddhist constructs hell is not a permanent-state, like in the Monotheistic-religions, but it can still endure for quite some substantial time spans until all the negative karma is burned-off, thereby hopefully leading to a more serene rebirth. This also incorporates, I might add, accumulated negative karma incurred over many lifetimes, or one, “concurrent life-cycle” that accumulates karma until such time it ripens and one is reborn into the hellish realms.

Within traditional Buddhist Cosmologies, all these hells are comprised of a subterranean type atmosphere, situated underneath the continent of Jambudvīpa, which is located just south of Mt. Sumeru. Yet in more Chinese and Taoist renderings, all these hells contain innumerous different levels in vast subterranean cities, each distinct from the other. We will explore some of these in later blogs within the series, but for now suffice to say that the traditional renderings constitute eight major hells, all situated vertically from one another:

The Eight Major Hells.
The following list is based on a text entitled, the Saddharma-smṛti-upasthāna Sūtra (Discourse on Mindfulness of the True Law). It also lists, in greater detail than we have time or space to repeat, the important sub-hells in each of the eight major hells, and it also characterizes each hell and sub-hell in terms of the kind of sin which leads to rebirth therein.
1. Sājīva (denghuo) — the hell of repeated resuscitation; chief cause of rebirth therein: killing.
2. Kālasütra (heisheng) — the hell of black ropes; chief cause of rebirth therein: stealing.
3. Sāghāta (zhonghe) — the crammed or crowded hell; chief cause of rebirth therein: sexual depravity.
4. Raurava (haojiao) — the hell of wailing; chief cause of rebirth therein: intoxication.
5. Mahāraurava (dajiao) — the hell of great wailing; chief cause of rebirth therein: lying.
6. Tāpana (yanre) — the hell of fiery heat; chief cause of rebirth therein: heresy.
7. Pratāpana (dare) — the hell of great heat; chief cause of rebirth therein: sexual defilement of religious persons.
8. Avīci (wujian) — the hell of no interval); causes of rebirth therein: the five most heinous sins, i.e., premeditated matricide, premeditated patricide, premeditated intention to harm a Buddha, premeditated intention to destroy or cause schism in the Buddhist community, premeditated murder of enlightened beings. (Note: the term “no-interval” seems to mean that in this hell — the worst of them all and the one of longest duration — suffering is incessant, without even an instant’s surcease.) [From Hell-Theodicy]

There are some modernist beliefs that the “concept of hell” is merely an exhortatory-technique, one designed to get people to do solely good-deeds, in order to prevent them from degenerating into negative states of mind, i.e., creating their own self-made psychological hells. Yet, within this mentality they totally negate the karma-factor, which in the end, as we shall see in this series, totally obliterates this modernistic rationale. Of course, within Buddhism, merely doing altruistic acts is never the aim of practice, but rather to transcend all samsaric activities through Noble Wisdom—thereby generating the Nirvanic-Mind which is totally free from all future rebirths.

I have researched many marvelous sources for this series, most notably some exceptional systematic studies done by Eileen Gardiner, Buddhist Hell Visions, Tours and Descriptions of the Infernal Otherworld, and Maya Shari MacLaughlin’s project, Life in Saṃsāra: Torment, Torture and Tolerance in Buddhist Hell.

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2 Responses to Buddhist Hells

  1. n. yeti says:

    Vajragoni, it seems worthy to mention here, as long as you are discoursing on the states/planes of woe (apaya), their counterparts in the sense realm (kama-loka) which are joyous (suggati).
    References abound but here are some from the Pali scriptures which might be investigated:
    AN 5.34
    AN 7.49
    MN 41 of course
    Also DN 21 (Sakha’s questions to the Buddha)

    Also should be mentioned the higher/subtler planes beyond the sense realm of the rupa-loka (fine material realm) and immaterial realms:
    AN 4.123

    Sorry none of this is meant to trouble you or cloud the discourse, I just thought it would be worthwhile to mention the other side of the coin, so to speak, from the topic of the hells.

  2. Vajragoni says:

    Many thanks for the references–great idea for a future series.

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