The Wheel of Existence
Text by Barbara O'Brien, About.com
The Six Realms often are illustrated by the Bhava Chakra, or "Wheel of Life." Note that in some [Mahayana] schools the realms of angels (Devas) and titans (Asuras) are combined, leaving five realms instead of six.*
1. Deva-gati, the Realm of Devas (demigods, angels, luminous fine-material beings) and Heavenly Beings. In Buddhist tradition, the Deva realm is populated by godlike beings who enjoy great power, wealth, and long life. They live in splendor and happiness. Yet, even the Deva grow old and die. Further, their privilege and exalted status blind them to the suffering of others, so in spite of their long lives they have neither wisdom nor compassion. The privileged Deva will be reborn in another of the Six Realms.
2. Asura-gati, the Realm of Asuras (Titans). The Asura are strong and powerful beings who are sometimes depicted as enemies of the Deva. Asura are marked by their fierce envy. The karma of hate and jealousy causes rebirth in the Asura Realm. Chih-i (538-597), a patriarch of the T'ien-t'ai school, described the Asura this way: "Always desiring to be superior to others, having no patience for inferiors and belittling strangers; like a hawk, flying high above and looking down on others, and yet outwardly displaying justice, worship, wisdom, and faith -- this is raising up the lowest order of good and walking the way of the Asuras." You may have known an Asura or two.
3. Preta-gati, the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. Hungry ghosts (pretas) are pictured as beings with huge, empty stomachs, but they have pinhole mouths, and their necks are so thin they cannot swallow. A hungry ghost is one who is always looking outside himself for the new thing that will satisfy the craving within. Hungry ghosts are characterized by insatiable hunger and craving. They are also associated with addiction, obsession and compulsion.
4. Naraka-gati, the Hell Realm. As the name suggests, the Hell Realm is the most terrible of the Six Realms. Hell beings have a short fuse; everything makes them angry. And the only way hell beings deal with things that make them angry is through aggression -- attack, attack, attack! They drive away anyone who shows them love and kindness and seek out the company of other hell beings. Unchecked anger and aggression can cause rebirth in the Hell Realm.
5. Tiryagyoni-gati, the Animal Realm. Animal beings are marked by stupidity, prejudice, and complacency. They live sheltered lives, avoiding discomfort or anything unfamiliar. Rebirth in the Animal Realm is conditioned by ignorance. People who are ignorant and content to remain so are likely headed for the Animal Realm, assuming they aren't there already.
6. Manusya-gati, the Human Realm. The Human Realm is the only realm of the six from which beings may escape Samsara (i.e., continued rebirth). Enlightenment is at hand in the Human Realm; yet, only a few open their eyes and see it. Rebirth into the Human Realm is conditioned by passion, doubt, and desire.