By my count, of the 31 realms of the old Buddhist cosmology, 25 are deva or "god" realms, which arguably qualifies them as "heavens." Of the remaining realms, usually only one is referred to as "hell," also called Niraya in Pali or Naraka in Sanskrit. Naraka is one of the Six Realms of the World of Desire.
Very briefly, the Six Realms are a description of different kinds of conditioned existence into which beings are reborn. The nature of one's existence is determined by karma. Some realms seem more pleasant than others -- heaven sounds preferable to hell -- but all are dukkha, meaning they are temporary and imperfect.
Although some dharma teachers may tell you these realms are real,physical places, others regard the realms in many ways beside literal. They may represent one's own shifting psychological states, for example, or personality types. They can be understood as allegories of a kind of projected reality. Whatever they are -- heaven, hell or something else -- none are permanent.
Origin of Hell
A kind of "hell realm" or underworld called Narak or Naraka is also found in HInduism, Sikhism and Jainism. I understand the earliest use of the name is in the early HIndu Vedas (ca. 1500-1200 BCE). Yama, the Buddhist lord of the hell realm, made his first appearance in the Vedas as well.
The early texts, however, describe Naraka only vaguely as a dark and depressing place. During the 1st millennium BCE the concept of multiple hells took hold. These hells held different kinds of torments, and reincarnation into a hall depended on what sort of misdeeds one had committed. In time the karma of the misdeeds was spent, and one could leave.
Early Buddhism had similar teachings about multiple hells. The biggest distinction is that the early Buddhist sutras stressed that there was no god or other supernatural intelligence passing judgments or making assignments. Karma, understood as a kind of natural law, would result in an appropriate rebirth.
"Geography" of the Hell Realm
Several texts in the Pali Sutta-pitaka describe the Buddhist Naraka. The Devaduta Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 130), for example, goes into considerable detail. It describes a succession of torments in which a person experiences the results of his own karma. This is gruesome stuff; the "wrongdoer" is pierced with hot irons, sliced with axes and burned with fire. He passes through a forest of thorns and then a forest with swords for leaves. His mouth is pried open and hot metal is poured into him. But he cannot die until the karma he created is exhausted.
As time went on, descriptions of the several hells grew more elaborate. Mahayana sutras name several hells and hundreds of sub-hells. Most often, though, in Mahayana one hears of eight hot or fire hells and eight cold or ice hells.
The ice hells are above the hot hells. The ice hells are described as frozen, desolate plains or mountains where people must dwell naked. The ice hells are:
- Arbuda (hell of freezing while skin blisters)
- Nirarbuda (hell of freezing while the blisters break open)
- Atata (hell of shivering)
- Hahava (hell of shivering and moaning)
- Huhuva (hell of chattering teeth, plus moaning)
- Utpala (hell where one's skin turns as blue as a blue lotus)
- Padma (the lotus hell where one's skin cracks)
- Mahapadma (the great lotus hell where one becomes so frozen the body falls apart)
The hot hells include place where one is cooked in cauldrons or ovens and trapped in white-hot metal houses where demons pierce one with hot metal stakes. People are cut apart with burning saws and crushed by huge hot metal hammers. And as soon as someone is thoroughly cooked, burnt, dismembered or crushed, he or she comes back to life and goes through it all again. Common names for the eight hot hells are:
- Samjiva (hell of reviving or repeating attacks)
- Kalasutra (hell of black lines or wires; used as guides for the saws)
- Samghata (hell of being crushed by big hot things)
- Raurava (hell of screaming while running around on burning ground)
- Maharaurava (hell of great screaming while being eaten by animals)
- Tapana (hell of scorching heat, while being pierced by spears)
- Pratapana (hell of fiercely scorching heat while being pierced by tridents)
- Avici (hell without interruption while being roasted in ovens)
As Mahayana Buddhism spread through Asia, "traditional" hells got mixed into local folklore about hells. The Chinese hell Diyu, for example, is an elaborate place cobbled together from several sources and ruled by Ten Yama Kings.
Note that, strictly speaking, the Hungry Ghost realm is separate from the Hell Realm, but you don't want to be there, either.
In my opinion, literal belief in these hells makes no sense on several levels. The way the hells are described suggest individual rebirth, for example, which is not what most of Buddhism teaches. If the point of them originally was to scare the stuffing out of people to keep them from going astray, I bet that more often than not, it worked.
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