Descriptions of Hells Envisioned in Buddhism

Duality in the Nature of Existence

Duality is built into the nature of life and existence. When you come to think of it, there has always been a point and a counterpoint - the obverse and the reverse to a coin. If there is light there is shade also. Alongside good there has been evil all the time and then after life there is death. In Christian faith there was nothing till God said Let there be light. The Hindu belief has it that the entire creation is an appearance of the grace of the Supreme Mother. Man, the crown of creation, is invested with power, skills, hear, mind, intellect, the passions and whims. He is capable of performing deeds both good and evil. He is given a conscience and judgement too.

Faith – A matter of Individual Conviction

Faith is a matter of one’s personality and in. a ‘free’ social, political environment, individual liberty has come to be a distinguishing mark of ‘modernity’. Things have come to such a pass where ‘deviant’ marriages are accorded sanction. But nobody can deny the need for discipline, more particularly in private lives. Our forefathers built glorious civilizations and as liberal minded freedom lovers we would do well to think of what our ancestors cherished, valued and stuck to to the best of their abilities. It is in this context that we have to look at their concepts of Good and Evil, Sin and Merit, Virtue and Vice and umpteen other dualities. Even those who reject concepts of Heaven and Hell wish their children and people around to be loyal, faithful and principled in various walks of life.

Predestination Vs Freewill

The knowing-ones tell us that man is the architect of his own fate. They also tell us that a man is a creature, a plaything in the hands of circumstances. The Hindu belief has it that Man is born with vasanas, acquired and inborn tendencies, and also gunas, qualities, Satwa, Rajas, and Tamo gunas. Is Man ruled by an unknown fate or by his own FREE WIILL? No one knows the right answer. Is there evil? What is evil? Are there paap and punya? Are there Sin and Merit? Yes and No. There is no definite laboratory tested and proven answer. The discussion whether it is all Predestination or Freewill goes on and on. Life continues. An answer will not be found. People grow more and more rationalistic, secular, fundamentalist or dogmatic. Life does not stop. Nor does the debate Is Religion essential? Is there is God? There are people, millions of them, who deny the existence of God. But not all deny the adjectives Good and Bad. Labels, Categories and details may vary but none can deny the existence of good and its opposite and that there are people wise and otherwise.

Envisioned God

God is envisioned as one above all duality and the Supreme Being is all pervading. This Supreme one transcends all, all dualities, and all qualities and all distinctions. A saint’s eye view is that

Sin is behovely.
All is well
All shall be well.

(St. Juliana of Norwich English Mystic of 14th c.)

This Being has infinite mercy and infinite understanding. If this were so, why Hell at all? Why that everlasting perdition for some? Is Hell a figment of imagination? Can Man do anything and get away with it? No, some believe that there are wages of Sin. Those in the past with no benefits of industrialization, mechanization and the myriad benefits of technology, perhaps, thought of keeping man within a fold of some disciplining and thought up the concept of Heaven/Hell, an intriguing duality. All civilizations worth the name had some kind of belief in this eternal, omnipresent duality. Arsha dharma, call it Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, the major religions believed that there are wages of Sin. In an earlier essay Hells as envisioned in Hinduism and Christianity are described. Here is a very brief appraisal of Hell as envisioned in Buddhism.

Depravity and Punishment

Varying depths of depravity lead to sins of varying degrees of heinousness and thus call for different intensities of retribution. Abstaining from sin would be possible by the sense of righteousness, which is another name for the moral sense given by faith in the Supreme Being. The righteous one practices restraint in word, deed and action. For those who have no faith either in god or righteousness, at least there should be fear of retribution to act as a deterrent. Organized religion is a mighty construct., mostly drawn from high intellect and intuitive inferences. These gave rise to scriptures, epics and several other genres of edifying literature.

Good, A Pristine Absolute

Good is older than the hills and evil came into being only much later. This is what both Hinduism and Christianity make us believe. Satyayug is the aeon of pristine virtue and Evil was the cause of Adam’s transgression, in the till then glorious Garden of Eden. In the Hindu perspective, sin is punishable by being thrown into hell for the soul to suffer torment. Mahabhagavat the scripture by Vyasabhagavan has been translated into many bhashas and of course into English too. Of the eleven hundred pages only four or five have been devoted to the description of the twenty-eight hells. In the Italian epic by Dante Divine Comedy, widely considered a Christian epic, Inferno, a whole Cantiche in thirty for cantos, is devoted to the description of various hells, its inhabitants and the tortures sinners are made to undergo there.

One wonders whether Man’s fear of hell was made a greater force attracting him to goodness and God. As civilization advanced the fear seems to be growing more and more.

The Buddhist conceptualization of hell closely followed the Hindu perspective. There are said to be eight hells, though some did say there were ten and even more up to a thousand. Some Buddhists seem to have revealed at a later stage that the tortures and hells are figments of imagination, mainly of the sinners themselves. Khenpo Konthar, the abbot of Karma Triyana Dharma Chakra, had said, “From the Buddhist perspective, such a thing as hell does not exist.” Though this is reassuring, Kshitigarbha Bodhisattva described hells extensively. Earlier, in Buddhism, we come across the description of eight hells.

Levels and Areas of Hell in Buddhism according to Kshitigarbha Bodhisatva

The first is the Hell of Repetition where murderers are sent. Those who kill for fun and pleasure inhabit this place. The second is the Black Rope Hell for those who kill someone while committing some other crime. It is important to note that in the group of killers each has to suffer though it is a sin committed by a group. In this hell big black birds would be plucking out the eyes, pulling out the tongues and pulling out the innards of the sinners. The tormented here are forced to drink molten copper would be stabbed again and again. Crowded Hell is for those who kill and steal and for those who are concupiscent libertines. Satyrs and nymphomaniacs suffer here for their transgressions. Fire Jar Hell is for those with sexual perversions and sins associated with sexual abuse. The organs of such are singed here. Those who indulge in sexual fantasies with others’ women will have their eyes scorched here. Those who are attached to the voices and laughter of others’ women will have their ears burnt here. The fifth is the Screaming Hell where there is a section called Great Screaming Hell too. Those who abuse intoxicants are thrown into this. The sixth hell is for those who make use of voice and make sound to sow dissension. For those who cause divisions and cause disharmony there is a special torment. Snakes and vipers would be gnawing at them continuously. People who hold false views are tormented in hell of burning heat. False views include the negating of the karmic law and God. Diamond Beak Hornet Hell causes extreme pain to the sinner for he is made to drink the spurting blood after the beaks stab them. The seventh hell would be the lot of those who defile religion. This hell is called the Burning Hell of Stinging Worms. The worms thrust by force into the anus would travel up eating everything on the way to emerge out of the scalp. Hell of No Interval is the eighth where five types of premeditated killers of father, mother, holy man, the sangha and Bodhisattva.

Lotus Sutra 3, Sutta - Nipata and Kshitigarbha Sutra besides the teachings of Gelgupa monk Tenzin Sherab and Trijang Rinpoche contain references and description of hells.

Most important of these is the naming of the hells by Earth Store Bodhisattava, also known as Manjushri and Khsitigarbaha Bodhisattva. In a reply to Universal Worthy Bodhisattva, mahasattva, Manjushri replied that there is the Hell of Ultimately Relentless and another hell called Avichi, un-spaced, with no interval. Along with these he listed forty-four various other hells. He concluded saying: “Each of these hells contains lesser hells numbering from one, two, or three, or four, to hundreds of thousands. Each of these lesser hells has its own name.” The Bodhisattva tells the queen Mahamaya, “To quote the names of hells, the types of punishment and instruments used would take a period of one kalpa (aeon).”

Practicality and a Resolution to the Riddle

Modern mind does not believe in unproven things. Yet, one is reminded often times of Dr Faustus who murmurs to himself “Why this hell, nor am I out of it.” Hell may be real or unreal really but more often than not it is one’s own making, irrespective of faith or reason. There could be no finite or final answer to many harrowing questions. Practicality of a rational outlook demands not a debate, or dialectic on the existence of hell with a capital ‘H’. One can find a resolution in living a ’good’ life. Dr Johnson’s mother taught him when he was a toddler that Heaven is a place where all good people went. In Sanskrit we have a wise simplification: parOpakaaraaya puNyaaya paapaaya para peDanam. Helping others is merit-acquiring; inflicting pain is sin, paap If this truly secular, rationalistic guideline to our conduct is accepted and followed, one can harmlessly say: “Hell! Go to Hell” and get done with it.


More by :  Dr. Rama Rao Vadapalli V.B.

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Views: 3816      Comments: 1

Comment Dr. Vadapalli,
Having lived in India as a child of missionary parents many years ago, and being somewhat conversant and interested in religious topics and visiting Boloji frequently, I wanted to thank you for this refresher on Hindu/Buddhist hells as well as the one described by Dante.

Not sure what i believe about hell...I sort of like the idea one reaps what one sows...but that maybe Mercy from above is greater than justice as many never had the chance to understand compassion or kindness...it wasn't in their genes or home life.

Again, thanks for a lucid and informative article. Bill K

Bill Kinzie
07-Nov-2015 10:50 AM

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