Hells play an important part in virtually all Buddhist traditions, past and present:
As the lowest of the 6 (or sometimes 5) paths of Rebirth, Hell is one of the most colourful parts of Buddhist Cosmology, mythological reflection, and practice.
The Hells are the worst (and therefore the best) example of the fate that greets the unenlightened after Death, just as a pleasurable rebirth in heaven serves as a positive incentive.
Although one might be tortured for a lifetime in Hell, rebirth there is, like all phenomena in Buddhism, temporary, leading either to further misery or escape from rebirth altogether.
Various etymologies have been offered for the Sanskrit Naraka and Pāli Niraya:
The normal Tibetan translation is dmyal ba (myalwa), while Chinese usage is usually diyu (Japanese, Jigoku), literally “subterranean prisons.”
2. Number and arrangement of Hells
Buddhist ideas of Hell grew out of Vedic conceptions and share much with Brahmin (and later Hindu) views of the underworld. Early Buddhist sources voice different opinions about the names, number, and location of the Hells:
- Some texts discuss 1 great Hell with 4 doors, each leading to 4 smaller Hells;
- some claim there are 5 Hells;
- some refer to 7 unnamed Hells;
- some mention 10 specific cold Hells;
- some refer to 18, 30, or 64 Hells.
In the most common system, 8 Hells are located, one on top of another, underneath the continent of Jambudvīpa. Closest to the surface is:
(1) Saṁjīva, the Hell of “reviving,” where winds resuscitate victims after torture.
(2) Kālasūtra, named after the “black string” that cuts inhabitants into pieces;
(3) Saṁghāta, where inmates are “dashed together” between large objects;
(4) Raurava, “weeping,” and
(5) Mahā-Raurava, “great weeping,” which describe how denizens behave;
(6) Tāpana, “heating,” and
(7) Pratāpana, “greatly heating,” which describe the tortures applied to residents; and
(8) Avīci, “no release” or “no interval,” where there is no rest between periods of torture.
Each Hell has 16 smaller compartments, named after the method of punishment:
(1) black sand, (2) boiling excrement, (3) five hundred nails,
(4) hunger, (5) thirst, (6) copper pot,
(7) many copper pots, (8) stone mill, (9) pus and blood,
(10) trial by fire, (11) river of ashes, (12) ball of fire,
(13) axe, (14) foxes, (15) forest of swords, and (16) cold.
3. Representations of Hells in art and literature
Most accounts of the Hells include elements of morality, deliverance, and entertainment.
When understood properly, the underworld demonstrates the ineluctability of Karma (Action):
Every deed has a result, and if on balance one’s life is particularly evil, then one is likely to be reborn in Hell. The entire cosmos is ranked; the various scales of measurement reflect an underlying moral hierarchy.
The Hells are situated below the other 5 paths, and Hell beings lead a longer life than humans or animals. The natural order thus seems to maximize punishment.
Some texts name the specific bad deeds that merit rebirth in specific Hells:
The more evil the deed has been, the more painful the form of punishment.
Pointing beyond the realm of Karma, most accounts of Hell contain a soteriology, or theory of salvation:
Literary descriptions of the tortures in Hell encourage the reader to cultivate roots of goodness (kuśala-mūla), leading to a better rebirth and eventually release from the pain of sentient existence.
Paintings of the wheel of rebirth usually portray a Bodhisattva or other saint bringing aid to Hell beings, emphasizing that suffering can be conquered.
And most images of the Hell regions are juxtaposed to pictures of life in Paradise or to portraits of Buddhas who have transcended birth and death.
In whatever genre they occur - folktales, drama, paintings, fictional accounts, or scholastic compendia - representations of the Buddhist Hells are usually entertaining.
Repetition is a common device in Hell narratives:
The inmates of the various compartments are tortured not once or twice, but 3 times. Their pains are described in grisly detail:
People are not simply ground to bits, but every component of the body (skin, bone, marrow, muscle, sinew, pus, blood, etc.) is discussed.
Although Buddhist ethics are founded on non-killing, Buddhist accounts of the underworld dwell on the violence meted out to average sentient beings.
Alongside this graphic interest in the use of force, there is an equally strong comic strain:
Many stories of Buddhist near-death experience involve mistaken identity, in which the protagonist is erroneously sentenced to someone else’s punishment.
Even austere philosophical sources list the Cold Hells, 3 of which are named onomatopoetically after the sounds of chattering teeth: Atata, Hahava, Huhuva.
4. Attitudes toward Hells
Buddhists take a wide range of attitudes toward the Hells:
Like most teachings, the Hells can be regarded as an expedient device, an effective way of motivating people to follow the Buddhist Path.
The Hells have also been interpreted as psychological metaphors, as summations of the state of mind one engenders by doing Evil.
While certainly authentic, these 2 interpretations do not exhaust Buddhist views of Hell.
Tours of Hell are found throughout Buddhist cultures:
Mahā Maudgalyāyana, one of the disciples of the Buddha who was most skilled in supernatural powers, was especially famous for his travels up and down the cosmic ladder.
His tours of the underworld are recounted in sources ranging from Mūla-Sarvāstivāda mythology of the first few centuries C.E., to the Mahāvastu (Great Story) in the 5th century, to popular literature in China, Tibet, Japan, Korea, and Thailand.
Judging from the narratives of delok storytellers in Tibet, the Hells are one of the most frequent destinations of modern spirit-mediums as well.
The Hells supply a rich fund of mythology for Buddhist preachers:
Dharma talks use the tortures of Hell to spark reflection on the law of Karma and to encourage ethical action. Stories of what happens after death replay the process of warning, reflection, and conversion.
Some tales portray the lord of the underworld, King Yama, questioning the dead about the “3 messengers” (old age, sickness, and death) they have seen while alive:
Most people ignore these signs of impermanence, perpetuating egocentrism and evil deeds. Under Yama’s questioning after death, people who awaken to the perils of attachment can be released from suffering.
Many saviours are paired with King Yama’s unbending administration of impersonal law:
Bodhisattvas like Kṣitigarbha (Chinese, Dizang; Japanese, Jizo) and Avalokiteśvara (Chinese, Guan Yin; Japanese, Kannon) specialize in rescuing sentient beings from the torments of Hell.
Visions of the Hell regions are also supposed to motivate believers.
Nāgārjuna’s Commentary on the Great Perfection of Wisdom discusses the Hells under the category of “vigour” (Vīrya), one of the virtues of the Bodhisattva:
Reflecting on the pain people experience in the Hells, the Bodhisattva is supposed to develop greater energy. Surveying the underworld makes the Bodhisattva think,
“The causes of this painful Karma
are created through ignorance and the passions.
I must be vigorous in cultivating the 6 perfections and amassing virtue.
I will eliminate the sufferings of sentient beings in the 5 paths,
give rise to great compassion, and augment my vigour”