We discuss the nature of the niraya (Hell) according to the suttas and indirect evidence.
December 18, 2015; revised August 29, 2019; rewritten February 27, 2023
1. The Buddha described a “much wider” world of 31 realms, compared to the just two realms (human and animal) that we experience. See “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma.”
- The Buddhist worldview is not a theory or speculation. The Buddha could “see” each of the 31 realms of this world. He could “see” how a lifestream moves from one realm to another based on kamma vipāka and prevailing conditions, i.e., Paṭicca Samuppāda.
- Many suttā describe Buddha’s and his disciples’ visits to Brahma and deva planes. Others describe visits of Brahmā and devas to the human world (mainly to listen to the discourses of the Buddha and to ask questions from the Buddha). In the latter category, there are 81 suttā in the “Devatā Saṃyutta” and 111 suttā in the “Devaputta Saṃyutta” in the Saṃyutta Nikāya.
2. Even though Devas and Brahmā do not face much suffering, those lives have finite lifetimes. When they die, they are primarily born in the lower realms.
- It is critically important to be aware of those realms because living beings spend most of their time in the rebirth process in those apāyās. See “How the Buddha Described the Chance of Rebirth in the Human Realm.”
- Several suttā discuss the unbearable suffering in hell and other lower realms; see below. Also, see my post on August 28, 2019, at the discussion forum on “Questions on Posts in the “Origin of Life” Subsection. “ It discusses “life in hell.”
- The following book provides vivid details of life in hell, compatible with the description in the suttā: “A Guided Tour of Hell – A Graphic Memoir” by Samuel Bercholz (2016). He first describes an “out-of-body experience” that is similar to many given by others (seeing his body from above), but the second experience is a “trip to hell.”
3. Here, we will discuss more indirect evidence from our experiences of the existence of hell (niraya).
- Beings in most realms do not have the ABILITY to change their destiny. They pay off their past kamma, whether good kamma in the Deva or Brahma realms or bad kamma in the human and lower realms (apāyās).
- Among living beings, it is primarily humans who can mold their future; they are the ones who can cultivate citta with high javana power. They are the ones who do (abhi)saṅkhāra that lead to both good and bad rebirths (via improving the character or “gati“). They either enjoy the fruits of those in good realms or pay for them in the apāyās and eventually return to the human realm after a long time. That is what all of us have been doing from an untraceable beginning.
Niraya (Hell) Does Exist
4. Here is a youtube video that provides a pretty good description.
- This series has other videos about other realms, but I have not watched them. If you have any questions about them, I can take a look. Please ask at the discussion forum.
5. The following is a discourse by Waharaka Thero on the topic “Is there evidence for the existence of a niraya (Hell)?” (“අපට නොපෙනෙන නිරයක් පොලව යට තිබේද?”):
- In the first 29 minutes, Thero explains that there are many things in this world that average humans cannot perceive. Unseen beings are living among us (gandhabbas and some petas) that we cannot see, but those with iddhi powers can see.
- @29 minutes, Thero discusses the sound recording from Hell mentioned in the video above. He says he had heard similar “hellish sounds” while being in samadhi a couple of times (when he deliberately sought to hear sounds from Hell), but he did not want to hear them again.
- @35 minutes, reference is made to the video in #6 below.
Do We Need Firsthand Experience with the Existence of Hell?
6. The following is the type of video referred to by Waharaka Thero in #5 above. There are several videos on YouTube. It will start with the sounds, but you can play the video from the beginning if you like.”
- There is a book, “23 Minutes In Hell: One Man’s Story About What He Saw, Heard, and Felt in that Place of Torment” by Bill Wiese. This is a different account. Apparently, “he made a trip to Hell” with his manomaya kāya (gandhabba.)
7. We should ask the following question. Is it necessary to directly observe something with our five physical senses to believe its existence?
- When many people hear about the apāyās — other than the animal realm — they refuse to consider their existence. That is because “they cannot see those realms.” (By the way, there are four apāyās (niraya, preta, asura, or animal).
- But science disproves that contention. Science was unaware of billions of galaxies and an uncountable number of planetary systems like our solar system until the 20th century. Then better instruments became available; see “Wrong Views (Micca Diṭṭhi) – A Simpler Analysis.” Many such examples are given in the “Dhamma and Science” section.
- However, the Buddha could see those realities 2500 years ago by purifying his mind. We can also “see’ the existence of some of these realms if we can cultivate abhiññā powers.
- Refusing to consider anything that cannot be confirmed with one’s direct experiences is not a good idea. Several posts discuss that in detail, including “Wrong Views (Micca Diṭṭhi) – A Simpler Analysis.”
Description of Life in Hell in the Suttā
8. I am going to summarize what we can glean from the suttā (plural of sutta is suttā) in the Tipiṭaka of the four apāyās and other realms, including the niraya (or the hell). The general layout of the 31 domains was summarized in the post “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma.”
- The niraya is in the deep interior of the Earth. The “hell beings” have solid bodies that can withstand various forms of torture. A “hell being” is born via ōpapatika birth, with a full physical body capable of experiencing suffering.
- The hell-wardens who impart those sufferings to the hell beings are also living beings. They are born in the niraya because of their “gati” (character qualities) due to the “saṅkhāra” that they developed in previous lives. Their bodies are tolerant of the harsh conditions in the niraya. They do not suffer like hell-beings.
- There are many posts on the website on “gati.” For an introduction, see “The Law of Attraction, Habits, Character (Gati), and Cravings (Āsavas).”
- “Devadūta Sutta (MN 130)” describes “hells” or “niraya.“ A translation at: “Devaduta Sutta: The Deva Messengers.“ A similar sutta about some realms located close to Earth is the “Āṭānāṭiya Sutta (DN 23)“. A translation at “The Āṭānāṭiya Discourse (DN 23)“.
9. Devadüta Sutta vividly explains how hell-wardens torture a hell being. There is a king Yama (or probably many kings) in each niraya (there are several). He interrogates some of the newly arrived hell-beings “who were at the borderline” and barely made it to hell. He reminds them of the opportunities they had (while living) to understand the bad consequences of their actions.
- It is important to note that king Yama interrogates only those new arrivals from the human realm. An uncountable number of beings are born in the niraya from other apāyās. They move from one apāya to another until a rare opportunity comes to get out of the apāyās.
- Such a Yama king is born there also according to the “gati” they had cultivated in previous lives; see below. Like all other living beings, those hell wardens and king Yama have finite lifetimes.
- Many suttas describe the propensity to be born in an apāya. A series of 30 suttas starts with the “Manussacutiniraya Sutta (SN 56.102).” According to those suttas, most of those at the end of their human or Deva bhava are reborn in an apāya.
Based on Experience – Not Speculation
10. It is significant to note the ending of the sutta, where the Buddha says, “I tell you this, monks, not from having heard it from another contemplative or brahman. On the contrary, I tell you this just as I have known for myself, seen for myself, understood for myself.” That is what I mean when I say the Buddha experienced what he taught. He could “see” all of the 31 realms.
- Of course, we have faith in the Buddha to believe. However, we can see that all he had taught was self-consistent. There are no contradictions; see “Buddha Dhamma: Non-Perceivability and Self-Consistency.”
11. There are close comparisons in the world that we experience. A good example is the comparison of policemen to the hell wardens. They both like to punish those who have done immoral acts. Being a policeman is not easy; they are under stress, and it is not easy to deal with rough criminals. Not everyone can be a policeman (or policewoman).
- They have cultivated “gati” or habits that do not tolerate “bad behavior.” They always think about ways to find and bring those who do immoral deeds to justice.
- King Yama is like a judge; he also has a similar gati comparable to hell-wardens but does not punish the culprits personally.
Body Types in Different Realms
12. A discussion on the body types can illustrate that the specific kamma vipāka prepares the physical body. Each body type can experience vipāka according to the gati of that being.
- The hell-being is born in a niraya to experience the kamma vipāka corresponding to kamma done with hate, like killing or torturing others. But that kamma was done after cultivating “hate saṅkhāra” for a long time.
- A preta‘s body is built in a way to experience hunger; many have massive bodies with tiny mouths, so they can never satisfy hunger. One is born a preta because one has cultivated “preta saṅkhāra.” One will always think about sensory pleasures and crave more. That applies not just to the poor. One can be wealthy but still not be satisfied with what one has. On the other hand, there may be a poor person who is satisfied with what he/she has and does not cultivate “preta saṅkhāra.“
- The “asuras” are those who have cultivated “asura saṅkhāra,” i.e., those who like to get “free rides.” They depend on others for their needs and are too lazy to work and make a living. Those who steal or embezzle money from others also have similar gati.
- Animals (called “thirisan” because they have all three “san” of lobha, dosa, and moha) have a mixture of those gatis; see, “What is ‘San’?“.
- One cultivates a particular saṅkhāra because one has a specific character or gati. And the more saṅkhāra one does (thinking, speaking, and doing certain things), the more established gati become, which in turn leads to corresponding jāti (births); see, “Gati to Bhava to Jāti – Ours to Control.”
Comparison with Modern Science
13. In the post “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma,” the 31 realms were represented by spherical shells with a sphere in the middle. The bodies of the beings in lower realms were higher in general than those of the living beings in the higher realms. Each “inhabited” planetary system has all 31 realms. But most planetary systems are not “inhabited.”
- Scientists say the nearest planetary system to the solar system is Alpha Centauri, located 4.37 light-years away; see Alpha Centauri. A light-year is a distance traveled by light in a YEAR at the speed of 299 792 458 m/s (186,000 miles/second).
- That is a humongous distance that cannot be traveled with current technology or any technology in the foreseeable future. Traveling to that star system would take 100 years; see Project Longshot. Thus it is doubtful that we will verify the existence of life in other planetary systems during our lives.
- However, there are other living beings in the solar system that science has not found. That agrees with scientists’ admission that only 4% of the universe’s mass is explainable by science.
14. The niraya or hell is located deep inside the Earth, and those beings have very dense bodies.
- The other three apāyās are located at and close to the surface of the Earth. Of course, animals live among humans, and asuras are said to live mainly in the oceans. The petas also live on the surface of the Earth, just like us, but we usually cannot see them. They all have body densities comparable to humans, except for petas. Some petas have “fine bodies” and suffer not bodily but mentally: they can recall their past lives and bad deeds that led to the preta bhava.
- There are a few Deva realms close to the Earth that we cannot see. Most deva realms lie well above the surface of the Earth. The Brahma realms are even further out. Of course, devas have much less dense bodies than humans, and Brahmā’s bodies are finer at higher realms. At the highest Brahma realm, an arupa Brahma has only one suddhashtaka, the hadaya vatthu; see “The Origin of Matter – Suddhashtaka.”
- The body types in the 31 realms discussed in the previous post: Body Types in 31 Realms – Importance of Manomaya Kaya.
Births Correspond to Gati (Character Qualities)
15. Roughly speaking, we can say beings with more immoral “gati” are born with denser bodies inside or on the surface of the Earth. Their thick bodies are used to impart kamma vipāka either via torture or via bodily ailments and diseases.
- The beings in the deva and Brahma realms, with less and less dense bodies, do not suffer bodily ailments. At the end of their kammic energy, they disappear and are born at the next realm appropriate for the most potent kamma seed they have. It could be in a lower sphere, including the niraya (unless they had attained at least the Sotāpanna stage).
- Thus beings with better and better “gati,” i.e., “deva gati” and “Brahma gati,” are located further and further away from the surface of the Earth, and those hell-beings with the “worst gati” are located below the surface of the Earth.
Our Own Experiences
16. We all have seen some children who don’t get their way become mad, fall on the floor, and cry. It is as if they want to go towards the niraya (sometimes they bang their heads on the floor). That is a reflection of their “gati” AT THAT MOMENT.
- In the same way, they (and even adults) jump up with joy. It is as if they are trying to advance toward the higher realms. Again, it reflects their “joyous gati” at that moment.
- Another example is the behavior of criminals. We all have seen pictures of criminals when they come to the court of law: their heads are lower. They feel a heavy burden.
- On the other hand, when we have done something exemplary, we feel good and keep our heads high. Our bodies feel lighter too.
- These may not be Earth-shattering observations, but they are consistent with the Buddha’s worldview.
17. Thus, we can momentarily live in the apāyās or higher deva and Brahma realms.
- I am sure anyone can recall such moments. When we get outraged, we burn inside, our bodies get heated, our faces become reddish, and we sweat. Seeing a furious person, or even a child, is not a pretty sight.
- On the other hand, when we are calm and relaxed, especially after doing a moral deed, we feel good, and our body language reflects that. We are confident; we feel lighter and are “cooled down” inside. It is always a pleasure to look at Buddhist monks.
18. Thus, even though we may not see the beings in the other realms, many indicators are consistent with the “bigger world picture” of the Buddha. We have reasons from our experiences to believe in the existence of such realms. That may be a small part of the story, but indirect evidence like this is always consistent with Buddha Dhamma; we will discuss more later. One can contemplate these things during insight meditation and verify for oneself.