Hidden World of the Gandhabba: Netherworld (Paralōka)

February 18, 2016; updated April 5, 2016; July 14, 2021

Gandhabba Is Human

1. I have discussed the fact that when a living being gets a “human bhava” it does not necessarily mean that it is born with a human body during all that time; see, “Bhava and Jāti – States of Existence and Births Therein“.

  •  For example, when a human dies and still has kammic energy left for the human bhava, then it is very unlikely that it will be conceived as a human baby right away. At death, a “human gandhabba” with a fine body leaves the dead body and has to wait in that state until a suitable womb becomes available. There are a large (uncountable?) number of such human gandhabbā waiting for a suitable womb.
  • This is one reason that a mother and father are so revered. No matter how bad they may be in some cases, just the fact that they made it possible for a gandhabba to have a human body, makes them invaluable.
Gandhabba Is a Human (or Animal) Without a Physical Body

2. Beings are born as humans because they crave the sensory pleasures associated with the human body. The most valued are the tastes and the bodily pleasures. A gandhabba has an “energy body” that we cannot see weighing much less than 0.01 g; see, “Manomaya Kaya (Gandhabba) and the Physical Body“. A gandhabba born at the cuti-patisandhi moment is much smaller than an atom in modern science. Some could inhale the aroma (gandha) and get a bit denser; thus the name “gandhabba” (“gandha” + “abba“).

  • A gandhabba is unable to taste solid food or experience physical touch. But they can see and hear very well. Thus their life is miserable since they can see normal humans engaging in “pleasurable activities”. That is what they crave too, but they are unable to experience them.
  • When a zygote is created in a womb as a result of intercourse (see, “Buddhist Explanations of Conception, Abortion, and Contraception“), there are a huge number of gandhabbā waiting to “get hold of that zygote”. But of course, they don’t have a choice; only the gandhabba matching the “gati” of the father — and especially the mother — is pulled into the womb.

3. Therefore, even though a human “bhava” may last thousands of years, the actual time that one is “born with a human body” (human jāti) could be a fraction of that time. This is another reason why a “human birth” is so precious that it should not be wasted.

  • Among the 31 realms, it is only in the human and animal realms that physical bodies can manifest from time to time within a bhava. Within animal bhava, some animals are born via eggs, while others are “womb-born.” There are an uncountable number of “animal gandhabbā” waiting for a suitable womb at any given time.
Gandhabbas Live in Paraloka

4. Both the human and animal gandhabbā can be said to live in “paraloka;” see “Micchā Diṭṭhi, Gandhabba, and Sōtapanna Stage.” It is a world that a normal human cannot see, even though they can see us. Of course, there is no English word for it, but “netherworld” or “the hidden world” seems to convey the idea.

  • Paraloka is not a distinct realm in the 31 realms. Just like human and animal realms co-exist, the paraloka co-exists with the human and animal realms, but we normally cannot see those beings in the paraloka (unless one develops abhiññā powers). One can imagine there is another world with human and animal gandhabbā
  • Pronunciation (“paralowa” or පරලොව is the Sinhala word for the Pāli word “paraloka“):
  • Those with “human (or animal) bhava” spend their time either in “this world that we can see” or in the “paraloka” or the “hidden world” (netherworld).
  •  Many people are not even aware of the existence of “paraloka“, because (like the concept of the gandhabba), it is not discussed in the Visuddhimagga. It is unfortunate that the current Theravada relies on Visuddhimagga (written by an Anariya) rather than the Tipiṭaka.
Tirokuṭṭa – “Able to Go Through Walls”

5. The “Tirokuṭṭa Sutta (kp 7)” in the Khuddakapāṭha describes atirokuṭṭa” who hangs around the home that he/she departed from. An English translation there: “Outside the Walls.”

  • The meaning of the word “tirokuṭṭa” becomes apparent in the “Dutiyasamaṇabrāhmaṇa Sutta (51.17).” The phrase, “tirokuṭṭaṁ tiropākāraṁ tiropabbataṁ asajjamānā agamaṁsu, seyyathāpi ākāse” appears at the beginning of that sutta. That means, “going unimpeded through a wall, a rampart, or a mountain as if through space.”
  • Therefore, “tirokuṭṭa” is a being who can travel unimpeded through the walls. Those with iddhi (supernormal) powers can do that as detailed in the Dutiyasamaṇabrāhmaṇa Sutta (51.17.)
  • However, the Tirokuṭṭa Sutta (kp 7) is specifically about persons who died and have come back to “hang around” their formal homes. These could be gandhabbās or pretās (petās.)
  • However, gandhabbās are not pretās (or petās.) Pretās do not make “dense bodies” as human and animal gandhabbas do. 
Pretās Are Different from Gandhabbās

6. The idea behind giving special offerings (“dāna“) to the bhikkhus after the death of a person is mainly for the benefit of the gandhabbā (and also pretās). This is a common practice in Buddhist countries. Normally it is done after seven days and after three months etc of death, and I will discuss the reasons for those specific dates in a future post.

  • Not all beings can receive merits. Especially those in the niraya (hell) are unable to do so because they don’t have the right mindset to receive merits (absence of samanantara paccayā). See “Anantara and Samanantara Paccayā.”
    Those who can benefit most are the gandhabbā and pretās.
  • Also, note that a gandhabba is totally distinct from pretās or hell-beings in the niraya. Only gandhabbās live in “paraloka” waiting for suitable wombs. Pretās and hell beings have instantaneous (opapatika) births, just like devas and Brahmā.

7. It has been described how the Buddha saw human beings wander from life to life when he first comprehended the cutūpapāda ñāna during the night of his Enlightenment; “cutūpapāda” comes from “cuti” for death and “upapāda” for birth.

    • Thus cutūpapāda ñāna is the knowledge about the rebirth process. But this particular description was restricted to births and deaths associated with a single human bhava.

8. That description by the Buddha was not about the general wandering among the 31 realms, but is on how a being in a human bhava wanders from human birth to human birth with gandhabba states in between (i.e., going back and forth between “this world that we can see” and the “other world that we cannot see” or the paraloka).

  • The description is as follows: If one is situated in the upper level of a building at a four-way junction, he can see the street below. He can see many people wandering in the street (gandhabbā wandering around). Sometimes, one goes into a house and stays there for a long time. This is compared to a gandhabba entering a womb and making himself a physical body; that house is the analogy of a physical body.
  • Then at the death of that physical body, the gandhabba comes out and starts wandering again (a person walking on the street); he may be wandering the streets for a long time before entering “another house”, i.e., to get a chance to go into a matching womb.
  • Sometimes, he may enter a house and may come right out. This can be compared to an unsuccessful pregnancy. A gandhabba is pulled to a zygote (by kammic power,) but for some reason cannot stay there and has to come out, mostly because it turns out to be a mismatch of “gati” of the potential mother.
  • Thus it describes a human being going back and forth between “this world” and the “other world” or the “netherworld” (“paraloka“). Once the kammic energy of the human bhava is exhausted, a new “bhava” is grasped.
  •  If the new bhava is not human or animal, then one would be born instantaneously in another realm (Brahma, deva, asura, preta, or niraya). There are no gandhabbā associated with those realms.
  • Thus we can see that bhava and jāti mean the same in all the other realms. In those realms, bhava automatically leads to jāti. For example, one with deva bhava is always a deva.
Rebirths With Human Bodies

9. When one studies the accounts of people (of mostly children) describing their rebirth stories, there are always “gaps” between births; see, the references (books) cited in “Evidence of Rebirth“. For example, see, “Children Who Remember Previous Lives: A Question of Reincarnation”, by Ian Stevenson (2000).

  • During those “gaps” in between successive human births, they had been in the gandhabba state, i.e., they were in paraloka.
  • When one dies in an accident, especially at a younger age, it is more likely that their kammic energy for the human bhava had not been exhausted. Thus they are more likely to be in the gandhabba state, waiting for a suitable womb.
  • This is why in most rebirth stories the previous life tends to have been terminated by an unexpected incident (killed by someone, a natural disaster, etc).
  • This “memory from the past life” fades away as children grow, and that is why it is mostly children who provide these accounts. As they grow old, these memories disappear gradually.

10. A gandhabba changes with time (just like everything else).  In fact, it is even possible that if a gandhabba properly receives merits from a giving (dāna) mentioned in #5 above, he/she can gain a deva or Brahma bhava and be born instantly in such a realm.

  • On the other hand, another human gandhabba, who had been engaged in behavior appropriate for an animal (say, a dog) in the previous human life, could cultivate those “dog sañkhāra” as a gandhabba and slowly transform into a “dog gandhabba” while in paraloka.
  • When we think about these possibilities we realize how complex life is, and why we need to be mindful of the consequences of our actions. Not only that, we need to avoid doing things mechanically and understand the reasons behind even meritorious actions like almsgiving (dāna). I have seen many alms givings that are conducted in a “party-like” atmosphere. One needs to do it with the proper mindset with the gandhabba(s) in mind.
Other Related Issues

11. Another interesting bit of deduction is how the concept of a soul or “āthma” came to be established by the ancient Hindu yogis.  Even to attain higher anariya jhānās (above the fourth jhāna) that enable one to acquire the ability to see previous lives, one has to have that “gati” of cultivating jhānās through recent human lives. Therefore, such a yogi with powerful abhiññā powers can be expected to have had many recent human lives.

  • Thus it is possible that such yōgis would have been born human hundreds of times (with gandhabba states in between). When they looked at their previous lives, they could see that every time they died a gandhabba came out, and sooner or later took hold of another human body. Thus it is this gandhabba that they thought was the indestructible “āthma” or “soul”. They could look back on hundreds of lives and always see that they were born humans again and again.
  • Thus, in the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita, getting hold of a new body is compared to discarding an old suit and wearing a new suit. As far as those yōgis could see, it was the same gandhabba that came back in a different physical appearance! Thus for them, it appeared that there was an unchanging entity coming back in a different form; this is why it is called “reincarnation”.

12. Our world is much more complex than we can ever imagine. The Buddha said that only a Buddha can truly comprehend the complexity of this world: There are 4 “unthinkable” or “acinteyya” subjects for us; see, “Acinteyya Sutta (AN 4.77)“. English translation there: “Unconjecturable“.

  • Even though we do not need to comprehend everything (and we cannot), it is beneficial to learn these concepts at least to some extent.
  • If one can comprehend anicca,  these in-depth analyses are not needed. But especially these days, humans do not have the ability to grasp anicca right away.  So, learning Dhamma and appreciating the unmatched knowledge of the Buddha gives one the confidence to persevere in one’s efforts.
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