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A vision of the Buddhist hell

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Naraka नरक (Sanskrit) or Niraya निरय (Pāli) (Ch: 那落迦 (variant 捺落迦) Nàlùojiā or 地獄 Dì Yù; Jp: 地獄 Jigoku or 奈落 Naraku; Burmese: ငရဲ nga-ye;Tib: དམྱལ་བ་ dmyal ba; Thai: นรก nárók; Malay neraka) is the name given to one of the worlds of greatest suffering in Buddhist cosmology.[1]

Naraka is usually translated into English as "hell" or "purgatory". The Narakas of Buddhism are closely related to 地獄 Dì Yù, the hell of Chinese mythology. A Naraka differs from the hells of Abrahamic religions in two respects. First, beings are not sent to Naraka as the result of a divine judgment and punishment; second, the length of a being's stay in a Naraka is not eternal, though it is usually very long.

Instead, a being is born into a Naraka 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 his or her karma has achieved its full result. After his or her karma is used up, he or she will be reborn in one of the higher worlds as the result of an earlier karma that had not yet ripened.

The mentality of a being in the hells corresponds to states of extreme fear and helpless anguish in humans.

Physically, Naraka is thought of as a series of cavernous layers which extend below Jambudvīpa (the ordinary human world) into the earth. There are several schemes for enumerating these Narakas and describing their torments. The Abhidharma-kosa (Treasure House of Higher Knowledge) is the root text that describes the most common scheme, the Eight Cold Narakas and Eight Hot Narakas, described below.


Cold Narakas

Naked and climbing thorn-covered trees, these figures are pecked by birds from above and attacked by demons with spears below. Icy mountains are in the background.
  • Arbuda – the "blister" Naraka. This is a dark, frozen plain surrounded by icy mountains and continually swept by blizzards. Inhabitants of this world arise fully grown and abide life-long naked and alone, while the cold raises blisters upon their bodies. The length of life in this Naraka 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" Naraka. This Naraka 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 Naraka of shivering. Here the beings shiver in the cold, making an aṭ-aṭ-aṭ sound with their mouths.
  • Hahava – the Naraka of lamentation. Here the beings lament in the cold, going ha, ho in pain.
  • Huhuva – the Naraka of chattering teeth. Here the beings shiver as their teeth chatter, making the sound hu, hu.
  • Utpala – the "blue lotus" Naraka. Here the intense cold makes the skin turn blue like the color of an utpala waterlily.
  • Padma – the "lotus" Naraka. In this Naraka the blizzard cracks open the frozen skin leaving one raw and bloody.
  • Mahāpadma – the "great lotus" Naraka. Here the whole body cracks into pieces and the internal organs are exposed to the cold and they also crack.

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

Hot Narakas

Human-animal figures are cut and disemboweled by demons and birds, while Buddha looks on from above.
  • Sañjīva – the "reviving" Naraka. In this Naraka the ground is made out of hot iron heated by an immense fire. Beings in this Naraka 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. Or else, 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 Naraka include having molten metal dropped upon them, being sliced into pieces, and suffering from the heat of the iron ground. Life in this Naraka is 1.62*1012[citation needed] years long. It is said to be 1000 yojanas beneath Jambudvīpa and 10,000 yojanas in each direction.
  • Kālasūtra – the "black thread" Naraka. 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 Naraka is 1.296*1013 years long.
  • Saṃghāta – the "crushing" Naraka. This Naraka 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 Naraka is 1.0368*1014 years long.
  • Raurava – the "screaming" Naraka. Here beings run wildly about, 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 Naraka is 8.2944*1014 years long.
  • Mahāraurava – the "piercing" Naraka. Punishment in here are for people who maintain their own body by hurting others. In this hell, ruru animals known as kravyāda torment them and eat their flesh. Life in this Naraka is 6.63552*1015 years long.
  • Tapana – the "heating" Naraka. Here Yama's servants impale the beings on a fiery spear until flames issue from their noses and mouths. Life in this Naraka is 5.308416*1016 years long.
  • Pratāpana – the "great heating" Naraka. The tortures here are similar to the Tapana Naraka, but the beings are pierced more bloodily with a trident. Life in this Naraka is 4.2467328*1017 years long. It is also said to last for the length of half an antarakalpa.
  • Avīci – the "uninterrupted" Naraka. Beings are roasted in an immense blazing oven with terrible suffering. Life in this Naraka is 3.39738624*1018 years long. It is also said to last for the length of an antarakalpa.

These Narakas by no means exhaust the tale of possible sufferings. Some sources describe five hundred or even hundreds of thousands of different Narakas. In Chinese Buddhist texts, the numbers and types of Narakas were elaborated in a variety of creative ways; see Di Yu for examples of this sort of treatment.

The sufferings of the dwellers in Naraka often resemble those of the Pretas, and the two types of being are easily confused. The simplest distinction is that beings in Naraka are confined to their subterranean world, while the Pretas are free to move about.

Isolated Narakas

There are also isolated and boundary hells called Pratyeka-narakas (Pali:Pacceka-niraya) and Lokantarikas.

Narakas in Buddhist literature

Descriptions of the Narakas are a common subject in some forms of Buddhist commentary and popular literature, as cautionary tales against the fate that befalls evildoers and an encouragement to virtue.[2]

The Mahāyāna Sūtra of Bodhisattva Kṣitigarbha (Dìzàng or Jizō) graphically describes the sufferings in Naraka and explains how ordinary people can transfer merit in order to relieve the sufferings of the beings there.

A traditional Chinese Buddhist story of Mulian (Maudgalyayana) explains how this disciple of the Buddha spiritually journeyed to Naraka to help his mother, who had been reborn there, obtain a better rebirth.

The Japanese monk Genshin began his Ōjōyōshū with a description of the suffering in Naraka. Tibetan Lamrim texts also included a similar description.

Chinese Buddhist texts considerably enlarged upon the description of Naraka (Dì Yù), detailing additional Narakas and their punishments, and expanding the role of Yama and his helpers, Ox-Head and Horse-Face. In these texts, Naraka became an integral part of the otherworldly bureaucracy which mirrored the Imperial Chinese administration.


  1. ^ Thakur, Upendra (1992). India and Japan, a Study in Interaction During 5th Cent.-14th Cent. A.D.. Abhinav Publications. ISBN 8170172896. 
  2. ^ 诸经佛说地狱集要

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