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Hells, Heavens, and Other Realms

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So far we have described the pre-Mahayana view of the secular world. In this chapter, we will discuss the sacred world according to pre-Mahayana philosophy.

Buddhism divides living beings into five types: gods (deva}, human beings (manusyd}, animals (tiiyahc}, spirits of the dead (preta}, and inhabitants of the hells (naraka). Sometimes a sixth type, demonic gods (asura), is added. These states of existence, among which living beings transmigrate (are reborn) depending on their karma, are called the five or six paths (see figure 14).

All living beings reside within the “realm of desire” (kamadhatu}. Human beings and animals live together on the surface of the Mount Sumeru realm. Spirits and demonic gods live 500 yojanas under the earth, and the inhabitants of the hells, even deeper. Gods of various types live in the upper places, in the realm of form (rupa-dhatu) and beyond that, in the realm of formlessness (drupya-dhatu}. The realms of desire, form, and formlessness are known collectively as the “three realms” (tridhatu}, in other words, the three kinds of worlds in which living beings exist. Tri-dhatu is a synonym for the universe as a whole, or for all existence.


Most religious cosmologies include the existence of hells somewhere in the universe, and Buddhism is no exception. “Hell” is a translation of the Indic word naraka (or niraya), “devoid of happiness.”1 The hells are mentioned in a large number of Buddhist sutras, either as a single entity, as in the Verses on the Law (Dhammapada, 4th-3d century B.C.E.), or as a system of individually named hells, as in the Abhidharma commentaries (very early Buddhist writings). They were certainly not systematized into an elaborate structure such as we see in the Abhidharmakosa for a very long time. There are also variations in the type and size of the hells in the various sutras and commentaries, for the system of hells did not emerge as a single, comprehensive concept. It ife the result rather of the ideas of scholar-priests over centuries, and because it belongs to the common intellectual heritage of all Indians, similar lists of hells exist in both Jainism and Hinduism.

The word niraya appears six times in the Verses on the Law, one of the earliest Buddhist texts we possess, where it is used simply to mean the destination of those who do evil. For example: “Some people are born on this earth; those who do evil are reborn in hell; the righteous go to heaven; but those who are pure reach nirvana” (126).2 An equally old text, the Group of Discourses (Sutta-nipata, written after the 3d century B.C.E.), also mentions hell in the same way. “Injuring someone with developed self, overwhelmed by ignorance, he does not know that defilement (is) the road which leads to hell” (277).3

The “Kokaliya” (or the Kokaliya-sutta) in the same work tells how the monk Kokaliya was reborn in the Paduma hell 'padu-maniraya, “red lotus hell”) for censuring the teachers Sariputta and Moggallana, and then describes the horrors of this hell, warning that those who malign teachers of the Way will “go to hell for one hundred thousand and thirty-six Nirabuddas and five Abbudas [very long periods of time]” (660).4 Verses 667-75 graphically describe the punishments of the hells (e.g., trees as sharp as blades, iron stakes, and a ball of heated iron), and their denizens (black and spotted dogs, ravens, and worms), which recall similar passages in the Abhidharmakosa.

A further point of interest is the list of ten hells in the “Kokaliya”: Abbuda, Nirabudda, Abaha, Ahaha, Atata, Kumuda, Sogandhika, Uppalaka, Pundarika, and Paduma. There is no reference in the Group of Discourses or in its commentary, The Illustrator of Ultimate Meaning (Paramatthajotika, usually called Pj II; 5th century C.E.), to the origins of these names. Later commentators attempted to rationalize the names as denoting skin abscesses caused by cold (e.g., abbudd), or as onomatopoeic words to describe the cold of those hells {abaha, ahaha, atatd). The Group of Discourses, though, makes no mention of cold. The nineteenth sutra in the Long Discourses and the Commentary on the Great Perfection of Wisdom Sutra (Mahaprajnaparamita-upadesa; 2d-3d century C.E.) say that the names denote the color of the hell and its walls (e.g., uppalaka, “blue lotus”; paduma, “red lotus”).

The Pali Text Society edition of the Pali-English Dictionary notes that the words abbuda and nirabudda denote extremely large numbers. The Illustrator of Ultimate Meaning offers the same interpretation, explaining that the Abbuda hell does not refer to a special hell as such, but to the amount of time (abbudd] that inmates are burned in the Avici hell, the largest and lowest of the hot hells. The other designations are multiples of that unit. The word nirabudda appears in the Jatakas (tale no. 405, Bakabrahma-jataka; ca. 3d century B.C.E.?), tales of the Buddha’s former lives, in a context unrelated to a hell, and the Great Dictionary of the Meaning of Buddhist Terms (Mahavyutpatti, ca. 9th century), says that utpala and padma in Sanskrit {uppalaka and paduma in Pali) both denote large numbers.5 My own inclination, too, is to regard all of the names as signifying units of time. It is fair to say, then, that in the Group of Discourses (compiled after the 3d century B.C.E.) the system of multiple hells had not yet been devised.

Indian origins of the Buddhist concept of hell. The Indian epic, the Mahabharata (4th century B.C.E. ^th century C.E.), describes hell in its final section. Yudhisthira, the eldest of the five Pandava brothers, is enabled by the powers of Indra to see hell and there to discover his brothers and his wife.6 Hell is “shrouded in darkness,” and it contains a large bird with an iron beak (perhaps a vulture), a copper pot, a tree whose branches are like blades, and the difficult-to-cross Vaitarani River. The description is very close to that in the Group of Discourses (66 7-7 5).7 The Brah-manic (orthodox Hindu) Laws of Manu (Manu-smrti, 2d century B.C.E.—2d century C.E.) lists twenty-one hells, among which is the term naraka, which may denote hells in general or a particular hell.8 There is not much in the way of description, perhaps because the details were considered common knowledge. What there is shares elements of the Mahabharata’s description: “[The torture of] being tossed about in dreadful hells, Tamisra and the rest, [that of] the Forest with sword-leaved trees and the like, and [that of] being bound and mangled (75); And various torments, the [[[pain]] of] being devoured by ravens and owls, the heat of scorching sand, and the [torture of] being boiled in jars, which is hard to bear (76).”9

Descriptions of hell are also found in the Suyagada-sutta (Distinction between good teachings and bad teachings, ca. 3d century B.C.E.) and the Uttarajjhayana-sutta (Later responses, 1st or 2d century B.C.E.) of the Jainas, and these are also remarkably similar to those in Brahmanic sources. The following excerpts are from the Suyagada-sutta, “Description of the hells.”

Those cruel sinners who, from a desire of [[[worldly]]] life, commit bad deeds, will sink into the dreadful hell which is full of dense darkness and great suffering (3).

Going to a place like a burning heap of coals on fire, and being burnt they cry horribly; they remain there long, shrieking aloud (7).

Have you heard of the horrible [[[river]]] Vaitarani, whose cutting waves are like sharp razors? They cross the horrible Vaitarani, being urged on by arrows, and wounded with spears (8).

And they come to the great impassable hell, full of agony, called Asurya, where there is great darkness, where fires, placed above, below, and all around, are blazing (11).

The prisoners in hell come to the dreadful place called Santaksana, where the cruel punishers tie their hands and feet, and with axes in their hands cut them like wooden planks (14).

And they turn the writhing victims round, and stew them, like living fishes, in an iron cauldron filled with their own blood, their limbs covered with ordure, their heads smashed (15).'°

Similar themes continue in the second part of the section: sinners are mutilated, forced to walk over burning ground, crushed by rocks, scalded in cauldrons, skinned and devoured by iron-beaked birds, transfixed by pikes, burned in fires, beaten with clubs, devoured by jackals, and forced to descend into a river of molten iron.11 A further description is found in the Jaina Uttarajjhayana-sutta (Later readings), “The Son of Mrga.”

In the desert which is like a forest on fire, on the Vajravaluka and the Kadambavaluka rivers, I have been roasted an infinite number of times.

Being suspended upside down over a boiler, shrieking, with no relation to help me, I was cut to pieces with various saws, an infinite number of times.

I have suffered agonies when I was fastened with fetters on the huge Salmali tree, brisding with very sharp thorns, and then pushed up and down.

An infinite number of times have I been crushed like sugarcane in presses, shrieking horribly, to atone for my sins, great sinner that I was.

By black and spotted wild dogs I have, ever so many times, been thrown down, torn to pieces, and lacerated, screaming and writhing.

When I was born in hell for my sins, I was cut, pierced, and hacked to pieces with swords and daggers, darts and javelins.

I have been forcibly yoked to a car of red-hot iron full of fuel, I have been driven on with a goad and thongs, and have been knocked down like an antelope.

On piles, in a blazing fire, I have forcibly been burnt and roasted like a buffalo, in atonement for my sins.

An infinite number of times have I violendy been lacerated by birds whose bills were of iron and shaped like tongs, by devilish vultures.

Suffering from thirst I ran towards the river Vaitarani to drink its water, but in it I was killed [as it were] by blades of razors.

When suffering from the heat, I went into the forest in which the trees have a foliage of daggers; I have, ever so many times, been cut to pieces by the dropping dagger leaves.

An infinite number of times have I suffered hopelessly from mallets and knives, forks and maces, which broke my limbs.

Ever so many times have I been slit, cut, mangled, and skinned with keen-edged razors, knives, and shears (50-62).12

It is clear from the number of identical elements in the Brahmanic andjaina texts that the two religions gained their knowledge from the same source. The Buddhist Group of Discourses also shows a relationship with them in verses 667-75. However, as we have already seen, the Verses on the Law does not contain the description of hell that became famous in later times. Each of these works was composed over such a long period of time that their dates are not very helpful in an accurate comparison of the texts. It is also virtually impossible to judge the relative age of the various concepts of hell according to content or treatment. Ancient Indian culture was anonymous; people freely adopted the ideas of others and used them as their own. Perhaps, too, the ideas were an ancient common heritage. In any case, it is impossible now to decide which religion influenced others in the concept of hell.

The eight hot hells. We will now examine the hells according to the Abhidharmakosa’f, description. It shows a continuity, though not a direct one, with the Group of Discourses description (for example, in the names of some of the hells), and the influence of the Brahmanic and Jaina texts can also be seen there.

The main group of hells is termed the “great hells” or, more commonly, the “eight hot hells.” The hells are located one below the other under Jambudvipa, and are, from the topmost: Samjiva (“reviving”), Kalasutra (“black string”), Samghata (“dashing together”), Raurava (“weeping”), Maharaurava (“great weeping”), Tapana (“heating”), Pratapana (“greatly heating”), and Avici (“no release”).

The bottom-most hell, Avici, is the largest, a cube with each side 20,000yojanas long. Its upper surface is 20,000yojanas under the earth’s surface, and its bottom surface is 40,000 yojanas under the earth’s surface. In the 20,000yojanas above the Avici hell are found the remaining seven hells, but the Abhidharmakosa does not go into detail about their placement.

The Great Commentary (ca. 100—ca. 150 C.E.) gives three explanations concerning the positions of the eight hot hells. The first supplements the deficiencies in the Abhidharmakosa. The 20,000-yojana layer above the Avici hell is occupied by the other seven hot hells, taking up the lower 19,000yojanas, and the remainder is taken up by layers of white clay (the lower 500yojanas) and mud (the upper 500 yojanas). In plane dimension, each of the seven hells is a square with sides of 10,000 yojanas. There is no mention of their depth. This is probably because it is not possible to divide 19,000 evenly by seven. The second explanation gives the Avici hell as being 20,000yojanas deeper than in the first explanation, making a space of 40,000 yojanas available. This space accommodates seven hot hells, cubes with sides of 5,000 yojanas, and four earth layers (from bottom to top: blue, yellow, red, white) each ljOOOjo/iwzat deep, a white clay layer of 500yojanas, and a mud layer, also 5Q0 yojanas. Here the figures add up to exacdy 40,000. The third explanation has the hells aligned horizontally, not vertically. The seven hot hells are grouped around the Avici hell in the center, like small villages encircling a large casde.

Many doubts will inevitably be raised about the position of the hells. For example, since Jambudvipa is given as being just 6,003.5 yojanas in circumference, how then can a number of larger hells exist beneath it? The Buddhist scholar-priests were not at a loss for an answer. They asserted that Jambudvipa was pyramidal in shape, its surface pointed and its base wide, like a heap of grain spilled on the ground (see figures 7 and 15).

The kind of punishment given in each of these hells is apparent in their names. Some documents, though, do not clearly distinguish their characteristics, and the punishments seem similar in all of them. The Abhidharmakosa's descriptions of the eight hells are less detailed than the other portrayals we have been discussing, so what follows is only a rough sketch.

The uppermost hell is Samjiva (“reviving”). Here evildoers are killed with blades, revived when a wind blows on their scattered remains, and forced to suffer the same torture again. People do not die just once here, but time and time.again. This contrasts somewhat with the lowermost Avici hell, where there is no respite at all from torture.13 Beneath Samjiva is Kalasutra (“black string”). Here evildoers are placed on boards, and lines are drawn on their bodies with black-inked thread, like the string that carpenters use to draw straight lines. The bodies are then cut along the lines. Next is Samghata (“dashing together”). The element sam means “together,” and ghata means “slaughter.” Here all sorts of sufferings are inflicted. Below it is Raurava (“weeping”), where evildoers weep and cry because of the extent of their agony. The next hell, Maharaurava (“great weeping”), inflicts even greater pain, so there is greater weeping. Tapana (“heating”) is a hell where evildoers suffer the torment of flames. The flames of Pratapana (“gready heating”) cause even greater agony.

Various sutras also depicted the hells, adding elements that stretch the imagination. One such sutra is the Sutra of Stability in Contemplation of the True Dharma (Saddharma-smrty-upasthana-sutra, 538 43 C.E.). Its picture of the hells was used by the Japanese priest Genshin (942-1017) in his Essentials of Salvation (Ojo yoshu). Let us look at the description of Samghata in his work, in particular the section detailing the retribution for adultery.

Further, the demons of hell seize those who have fallen into hell and put them into a forest, whose trees have leaves that are sword blades. As [the evildoers] look up to the treetops, they see beautiful, well-dressed women, whose faces have regular features. Seeing them, [the evildoers] immediately start climbing the trees, but when they do, the leaves pierce their flesh like swords and cut their sinews. When at last they reach the tops of the trees, their bodies all lacerated, they find that the women [suddenly] are below the trees, looking up at them with eyes full of passion and coquetry and saying, “For love of you I have come to this place. Why do you not come to where I am and embrace me?” Seeing [them] the evildoers, burning with passion, begin to climb down again. The blade-like leaves turn upward and lacerate their bodies as before. When they finally reach the bottom, the women again are at the tops of the trees. Seeing [this], the evildoers begin to climb the tree again. This continues for 10 trillion years. The cause of being thus deceived by their own minds and their continuous round of suffering and burning in this hell is their evil desire. . . .

Connected with this hell are sixteen separate hells. Among these is a hell called the Evil-Seeing Place. Those who have taken hold of the children of others and done evil things to them, causing them to weep and cry, fall into this hell and receive its agonies. They see their own children fallen into hell, tortured by the demons of hell, who thrust iron rods or iron gimlets into their genitals or drive iron hooks into their genitals. Seeing their children suffering so, the evildoers are filled with such love and pity that they cannot endure the sight. This suffering of seeing their children, however, is not one-sixteenth as great as the pain of being burned by fire. When the evildoers have been tortured thus in their minds, they are tortured physically. They are stood on their heads, and their vital organs and intestines are burned with molten copper that is poured [into the body] through the anus and, after burning the organs, comes out again from the mouth. These mental and physical sufferings continue unabated for immeasurable hundreds of thousands of years.

There is another special hell called “Much Suffering,” into which fall those who have committed the evil of sodomy. Their torture is seeing those men [with whom they have had relations] in the past, so that their bodies burn with desire. When they approach and embrace the man, all the parts of their bodies fall away and are scattered.14

In the Abhidharmakosa, each of the eight hot hells has an entrance in each of its four sides, each entrance leading into four kinds of sub-hell (utsada), making a total of 128 sub-hells (see figure 16). The four kinds are Kukula (“heated by burning chaff”), Kunapa (“corpses and dung”), Ksuramarga (“razor road”), and Nadi Vaitarani (“burning river”).

In the first sub-hell, evildoers are forced to walk over hot ash. In the second they wallow in a quagmire of corpses and excrement, and maggots infest their skin, chewing the bone to the marrow. The third is of three kinds: (a) the razor road, where evildoers have to walk along a road of upward-facing sword blades; (b) the razor forest, where leaves like blades fall when the wind blows, nearly severing the evildoers’ arms and legs, which are then pulled off and eaten by dogs with black spots; and (c) the forest of blades, where evildoers are forced at swordpoint to climb trees whose trunks are embedded with blades, so that if they try to climb up or down they are impaled, but if they stop hordes of ravens peck out and eat their eyes. The fourth is a hell in the form of a long, narrow moat or river of boiling water; evildoers are thrown in, tossed up to the surface, and drawn under again by the currents, like grains of rice. If they try to pull themselves out by putting their hands on the bank, guards sweep off their hands with swords and spears.

The eight cold hells. There are, in addition, eight cold hells, located below Jambudvipa adjacent to the hot hells. Their names are Arbuda, Nirarbuda, Atata, Hahava, Huhuva, Utpala, Padma, and Mahapadma. Note the similarity of some of them to the names of the ten hells in the “Kokaliya” of the Group of Discourses.

As their designation suggests, these are the hells that torture evildoers through extreme cold. Arbuda means “abscess” or “swelling.” The skin of those who fall into this hell breaks out in eruptions like frostbite, because of the intense cold. (Even today the Japanese call pockmarks abata, a word that derives from this Indic expression.) In Nirarbuda, the cold is even more intense, and the eruptions on the skin crack open. The names of the next three hells are onomatopoeic, describing the cries of the sufferers. The remaining three are names of lotuses. The Abhidharmakosa does not explain the connection between the lotus and the characteristics of the hells; earlier sources, however, such as the Chinese translation of the nineteenth sutra in the Long Discourses and a footnote to the Commentary on the Great Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, say that the name of each lotus indicates the color of the hell and its walls. Utpala (“blue lotus”) refers to a blue-colored hell; Padma (“red lotus”) to a red-colored hell; and Mahapadma (“deep red lotus”) to a crimson hell.

It is hard to understand how this description could cause terror, though perhaps the ancient Indians had some kind of psychological fear of these colors. The seventh-century commentary on the Abhidharmakosa by the Chinese priest P’u-kuang, Chii-she-lun kuang-chi (Memoir Illuminating the Abhidharmakosa], includes a more satisfying explanation. “The hell called Utpala is so named because the skin of an evildoer splits open because of the dreadful cold, and the body resembles a blue lotus. The hell called Padma is so named because here the skin splits and resembles a red lotus. The hell called Mahapadma is so named because here the skin splits and resembles the great crimson lotus.”15 It is hard to say whether the image of bodies that are like blue, red, and crimson lotus flowers vying to bloom on the surface of a dark pond is horrifying or beautiful.

We have come to the end of the description of the hells, which total 144. The Abhidharmakosa also records the existence of “minor” hells, which are scattered from place to place. Unlike the hells we have seen so far, they are created from the karma of a small number of people. Though I will not take this opic any further, it strikes me that isolated hells like these where just one person is tortured are a terrifying concept.