Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Hells: Niraya ("unhappy")

The Simpsons dealing with what is too horrible to voice (

Various torments, Saen Suk Buddhist temple, Thailand (

Hell/Underworld: Religious concepts of underworlds and hells include a thorough Buddhist concept collectively called Naraka (Pali, Niraya).

Medieval illustration of Hell in the Hortus deliciarum manuscript of Herrad of Landsberg (circa 1180)

Chinese: Diyu, Christian: Hell, Interim state, Egyptian: Duat, Germanic/Norse: Niflheim, Hel, Greek: Hades, Tartarus, Hindu: Naraka, Islam: Jahannam, Judaic: Gehenna, Sheol, Shinto: Yomi, Japanese: Jigoku.

The Great Waste or the unfortunate planes of existence in general may be unhappy, miserable, or involve torment beyond belief. They exist here and now or in the afterlife. Like the Western concept of hades or Judaism's sheol, they may or may not involve much inflicted suffering. The animal world, for example, might seem to involve less unhappiness than the human. And the human world, although counted as the lowest of the "fortunate destinations," may involve so much suffering as to merit the title "hell" from time to time. What are here being called "hells" are the various realms ranging from the animal world down to a horrific place known as Avici, with a focus on the various Nirayas.

It is incorrect to conceive of hell as strictly underground. Some "hells" are located in space, for instance the Lokantarika-niraya (SA.ii.442f.; DhsA.297f) and the Asurabhavana (where beings cast out of one heaven landed and took up residence). The fact of the matter is that there is great variety and diversity. The purpose of hells, as with all worlds, is simply to provide suitable conditions and circumstances for the experiencing of karmic results, which are almost always mixed, athough Avici itself refers to "uninterrupted" torment.

Graphic depictions making hell real have been popular. While they may lend themselves to exaggeration and poetic license, they may also approximate visions of some existing reality.

Some Buddhist hells are fiery and painful, and torment is inflicted by wardens. Some are cold and gloomy. The Realm of Hungry Ghosts is pathetic and desperate, with hunger, exposure, and few prospects. The Naraka/Niraya world is the name given to one of the worlds of greatest suffering in Buddhist cosmology. Earth-prison, limbo, shadow realm, nether region, underworld, purgatory, perdition, demonic plane, inferno all might describe layers of these unfortunate destinations.
Niraya (nir+aya) means "devoid of happiness." According to Buddhism there are several woeful states where beings exhaust unskillful karma. They are not eternal worlds of endless suffering -- but they must seem that way to the beings there. The difference between interminable and indeterminate must seem academic when hope is lost and the results seem to far outweigh the deeds that gave rise to them.

Nevertheless, with the exhaustion of the unwholesome (akusala) karma there is a possibility for the denizens residing in such states to be reborn elsewhere based on their past good actions.

  • Reference: A Manual of Abhidhamma being Abhidhammattha Saṅgaha of Bhadanta Anuruddhācariya (ed. in the orig. Pāli text with English transl. and explanatory notes by Nārada Mahā Thera, 5th rev. ed. Kuala Lumpur: Buddhist Missionary Soc., 1987).
Various torments, Wat Saen Suk, Thailand (

Nirayas: the Hells
Various lists of Nirayas are found in various Buddhist texts. In the Commentary to the Jātaka* there occurs the following list: Sañjīva, Kālasutta, Sanghāta, Jālaroruva, Dhūmaroruva, Mahāvīci, Tapana, Patāpana.

The Samyutta and Anguttara Nikāyas and the Sutta Nipāta contain a different list: Abbuda, Nirabbuda, Ababa, Atata, Ahaha, Kumuda, Sogandhika, Uppala, Pundarīka, Paduma (S.i.149; A.v.173; SN.p.126; see also Dvy. 67).

The Commentaries explain (e.g., AA.ii.853) that these are not separate Nirayas but specified periods of suffering in Avīci (the great hell). The Devadūta Sutra (M.iii.185) of the Middle Length Sayings (Majjhima Nikāya) contains yet another list: Gūtha, Kukkula, Simbalivana, Asipattavana, and Khārodakanadī. Other names also occur sporadically (e.g., Khuradhāra (J.v.269), Kākola (, Sataporisa (J.v.269), and Sattisūla (J.v.143).

The most fearful of the Nirayas is, however, the Avīci-mahā-niraya (see s.v. Avīci).

*J.v.266, 271; the same list is found in Dvy.67, except that Raurava is substituted for Jalaroruva and Mahāraurava for Dhūmaroruva.
  • Reference: Malalasekera, G. P. Dictionary of Pāli Proper Names. Pali Text Society, 1974.

Niraya is the name given to one of the multilayer worlds of greatest suffering in Buddhist cosmology. Niraya is usually translated into English as "hell" or "purgatory." It differs from the hells of Western religions in at least two important respects. First, beings are not sent to there as the result of any divine judgment or punishment; second, the length of a being's stay is not eternal, though it is usually very long.

Instead, a being is reborn there as a direct result of his or her previous karma (actions of body, speech, and mind) and resides there for a finite length of time until that karma has achieved its full result. After this karma is used up, one will be reborn in another world as a result of an earlier karma that had not yet ripened. Karma means action or doing; whatever one does, says, or thinks is a karma.

The mentality of a being in the hells corresponds to states of extreme fear and helpless anguish in humans. Physically, Niraya is thought of as a series of cavernous layers which extend below Jambudvīpa ("India" or the "human realm" in general) into the earth. There are several schemes for enumerating these hells and describing their torments. One of the more common is that of the Eight Cold Hells and Eight Hot Hells, which are described below.

Cold Hells

Arbuda – the "blister" hell. This is a dark, frozen plain surrounded by icy mountains and continually swept by blizzards. Inhabitant of this plain arise fully grown and abide life-long naked and alone, while the cold raises blisters on their bodies. The length of life in this world is said to be the time it would take to empty a barrel of sesame seed if one only took out a single seed every hundred years.

Nirarbuda – the "burst blister" hell. This world is even colder than the one above, and here the blisters burst open, leaving the beings' bodies covered with frozen blood and pus.

Aṭaṭa – the hell of shivering. Here the beings shiver in the cold, making an aṭ-aṭ-aṭ sound with their mouths.

Hahava – the hell of lamentation. Here the beings lament in the cold, going "ha, ha" in pain.

Huhuva – the hell of chattering teeth. Here the beings shiver as their teeth chatter, making the sound "hu, hu."

Utpala – the "blue lotus" hell. Here the intense cold makes the skin turn blue like the color of an utpala waterlily.

Padma – the "lotus" hell. In this hell the blizzard cracks open the frozen skin leaving one raw and bloody.

Mahāpadma – the "great lotus" hell. Here the whole body cracks into pieces and the internal organs are exposed to the cold and they also crack.

Each lifetime in these hells is twenty times the length of the one before it.

Hot Hells
Sañjīva – the "reviving" hell. In this hell the ground is made out of hot iron heated by an immense fire. Beings in this hell appear fully grown, already in a state of fear and misery. As soon as the being begins to fear being harmed by others, their fellows appear and attack each other with iron claws. Otherwise, the attendants of Yama appear and attack the being with many fiery weapons. As soon as the being experiences an unconsciousness like death, they are suddenly restored to full health and the attacks begin again. Other tortures experienced in this hell are having melted metal drop on them, being sliced into pieces, and suffering from the heat of the iron ground. Life in this hell is 162*1010 years long. It is said to be 1000 yojanas [7,000 miles] beneath Jambudvīpa and 10,000 yojanas [70,000 miles] in each direction.

Kālasūtra – the "black thread" hell. Here, in addition to the torments mentioned above, black lines are drawn upon the body, and Yama's servants cut the beings upon the lines with fiery saws and sharp axes. Life in this hell is 1296*1010 years long.

Saṃghāta – the "crushing" hell. This hell is also upon a ground of hot iron, but is surrounded by huge masses of rock that smash together and crush the beings to a bloody jelly. When the rocks move apart again, life is restored to the being and the process starts again. Life in this hell is 10,368*1010 years long.

Raurava – the "screaming" hell. Here beings run here and there looking for refuge from the burning ground. When they find an apparent shelter, they are locked inside it as it blazes around them, while they scream inside. Life in this hell is 82,944*1010 years long.

Mahāraurava – the "great screaming" hell. It is similar to Raurava but with greater pains. Life in this hell is 663,552*1010 years long.

"The Scream" -- a series of expressionist paintings by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, depicting an agonized figure against a blood red sky. The original German title given to the work by Munch was Der Schrei der Natur ("The Scream of Nature"). The Norwegian word skrik is usually translated as scream, but is cognate with the English "shriek." Occasionally, the painting has been called The Cry. In his diary dated 22.01.1892, Munch described his inspiration for the image thus: "I was walking along a path with two friends—the sun was setting—suddenly the sky turned blood red—I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence—there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city—my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety—and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.

Tapana – the "heating" hell. Here Yama's servants impale the beings on a fiery spear until flames issue from their noses and mouths. Life in this hell is 5,308,416*1010 years long.

Pratāpana – the "great heating" hell. The tortures here are similar to Tapana, but the beings are pierced more bloodily with a trident. Life in this hell is 42,467,328*1010 years long. It is also said to last for the length of half an antarakalpa.

Avīci – the "uninterrupted" hell. Beings are roasted in an immense blazing oven with terrible suffering. Life in this hell is 339,738,624*1010 years long. It is also said to last for the length of an antarakalpa.

These hells by no means exhaust the tale of possibilities. Some sources reckon five hundred or even hundreds of thousands of different hells. In Chinese Buddhist texts, the numbers and types of hells were elaborated in a variety of creative ways; see Di Yu for examples of this sort of treatment. Tibetan Dharmapala at the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois Yama is the name of the Buddhist god and judge of the dead, who presides over the Buddhist hells or purgatories. Although ultimately based on the god Yama of the Hindu Vedas, the Buddhist Yama has developed.

According to Puranic cosmography, the earth is divided into seven concentric island continents (sapta-dvipa vasumati) separated by the seven encircling seas, each double the size of the preceding one. Similar to the division of the human world, the hells are conceived of as subdivided underground layers even as this conception is not always applicable.

The sufferings of the dwellers in the hells often resemble those of hungry ghosts (Pretas), and the two types of being are easily confused. The simplest distinction is that beings in hell are confined to their subterranean world, while the hungry ghosts are free to move about. A hungry ghost is a kind of ghost associated with hunger common to many religions.

The Hells in Buddhist literature
Descriptions of the hells are a common subject in some forms of Buddhist commentarial and popular literature as a caution against the fate that befalls evildoers and an encouragement to virtue.

The Mahāyāna Sūtra of Bodhisattva Kṣitigarbha (Dìzàng or Jizō) graphically describes the sufferings in hell and explains how ordinary people can transfer merit in order to relieve the sufferings of the beings there. Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva is often known in Japanese as JizÅ or in Chinese as Dizang, is a popular Mahayana Buddhist Bodhisattva, usually depicted as a monk.

The traditional Chinese Buddhist story of Mulian explains how this disciple of of the Buddha spiritually journeyed to one hell to help his mother, who had been reborn there, obtain a better rebirth. Maudgalyayana (Pali: Mahamoggallana; Jp: Mokuren; Ch: Mohemujianlian), also known as Mahamaudgalyayana, was one of the Buddha Shakyamuni's disciple foremost in supernatural powers.

The Japanese monk Genshin began his Ōjōyōshu ("Essentials of Salvation") with a description of the suffering in hell. Tibetan Lamrim texts also included a similar description. Genshin (942-1017) was the most influential of a number evangelists active during the eleventh and twelfth centuries in Japan.

Chinese Buddhist texts considerably enlarged upon the description of hell (Dì Yù), detailing additional hells and their punishments, and expanding the role of Yama and his helpers, Ox-Head and Horse-Face. In these texts, hell became an integral part of the otherworldly bureaucracy which mirrored the Imperial Chinese administration. Feng Du (Traditional Chinese: pinyin) is the realm of the dead in Chinese mythology.

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