Does the Hell (Niraya) Exist?

December 18, 2015

January 17, 2019: I need to update this post when I get some time. However, I just wanted to mention a book that I read recently: “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 the hell”.

  • Anyone interested on the topic can start a discussion at the discussion forum: “Forums“. If you are having difficulties registering at the forum, please send an email to me at [email protected], and I can get you registered.

Here we will discuss information on the nature of the hell according to the suttas and indirect evidence from our experiences for the existence of hell (niraya). This post provides a bit more information on the way to clarifying the role (and importance) of the human brain.

  • Beings in most realms do not have the capacity to change their destiny; they just pay off their past kamma, whether good kamma in deva or brahma realms or bad kamma in the human and lower realms (apayas).
  • Mostly humans have the capacity to mold their future; they are the ones who can cultivate citta with high javana power. They are ones who do (abhi)sankhara that lead to both good and bad rebirths (via cultivating character or “gathi“). They either enjoy the fruits of those in good realms or pay for them in bad realms, and eventually — after long times — come back to the human realm. This is what all of us have been doing from an untraceable beginning.

1. Here is well-circulated youtube video that claims to playback the “sounds of hell” recorded in a deep underground mine in Siberia (I must warn that these sounds are horrific, even though the recording is likely to be a fake; see below):

There is a post describing the background of this video: The Siberian Hell Sounds and refers to the following youtube video apparently proving that the above video is a hoax:

  • If it is really a fake (as it appears to be), it does not make sense to try to fool people by making videos such as above. One should realize that truth always comes out at the end.
  • Still, debunking the “hell sounds” video does not prove that the hell does not exist either.

2. We should ask the following question. It is necessary for us to directly observe something with our five physical senses in order to believe its existence?

  • When many people hear about the apayas — other than the animal realm that we can see — or heavenly worlds of devas, they refuse to even consider their existence, because “they cannot see those realms”. (By the way, there are four apayas (niraya, preta, asura, thirisan or animal).
  • But this contention has been disproved by science. Science was not aware of the existence of billions of galaxies and uncountable number of planetary systems like our solar system until the 20th century until better instruments became available; see, “Wrong Views (Micca Ditthi) – A Simpler Analysis“. There are many such examples given in the “Dhamma and Science” section.
  • However, the Buddha was able to see those realities 2500 years ago by purifying his mind. And the existence of some of these realms can be experienced or at least deduced even today, by purifying one’s mind.
  • The problems with refusing to consider anything that cannot be confirmed with our direct experiences is discussed in detail in several posts, including “Wrong Views (Micca Ditthi) – A Simpler Analysis“.

3. I am going to summarize what we can glean from the suttas in the Tipitaka of the four apayas and other realms including the niraya (sometimes called naraka). The general layout of the 31 realms was summarized in the post, “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma“.

  • The niraya is located in the deep interior of the Earth. The “hell beings” have solid bodies that can be subjected to various forms of torture. When a “hell being” is born, it is done via opapatika birth, where the manomaya kaya is instantaneously transformed to a full physical body capable of experiencing the suffering.
  • The beings who impart those sufferings to the hell beings (called yama pallas in Sinhala and may be called hell-wardens) are also living beings that are born in the nirayas because of their “gathi” due to the “sankhara” that they developed in previous lives; their bodies are formed by their kammic energy to be tolerant of the harsh conditions in the niraya, i.e., they do not suffer like the hell beings.
  • The Devadüta Sutta in the Majjima Nikaya explains in vivid detail how a hell being is tortured by the hell-wardens. A reasonably good translation can be found at: Devaduta Sutta: The Deva Messengers

4. Apparently, there is a king Yama (or probably many kings) in each niraya (there are several), interrogates a newly arrived hell-being and reminds him/her of the opportunities that he/she had to understand the bad consequences of their actions.

  • It is important to note that the king Yama interrogates only those new arrivals that are from the human realm. There are an uncountable number of beings born in the niraya from other apayas; they just move from one apaya to another until a rare opportunity comes to get out of the apayas (due to a good kamma vipaka from the past, before they got to the apayas).
  • Again, such a Yama king is born there also according to his/her “gathi” that were cultivated by their characteristic “sankhara“; see below. Like all other living beings, those hell wardens and king Yama have finite lifetimes.

5. 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.” This is what I mean when I say all that the Buddha has thought, he had experienced. He had the ability to “see” all of 31 realms.

  • Of course, we have to have faith in the Buddha to believe that, but as one learns Dhamma it is difficult not to appreciate the fact that all he had taught is self-consistent, and there are no contradictions; see, “Buddha Dhamma: Non-Perceivability and Self-Consistency“.

6. There are close comparisons in the world that we experience. A good example are policemen, who can be compared to the hell-wardens. They both like to punish those who have done immoral acts. Being a policeman is not easy; they themselves are under stress and it is not easy to deal with rough criminals. Not everyone can be a policeman (or policewoman).

  • They have cultivated “gathi” or habits that do not tolerate “bad behavior”. They always think about ways to find and bring to justice those who do immoral deeds.
  • King Yama can be compared to a criminal judge; they also have similar gathi as hell-wardens, but do not like to physically punish the culprits.

7. I am discussing these body types to illustrate the point that the physical body is prepared by the specific kamma vipaka to impart vipaka in according to the mental state (gathi) of the being (that are cultivated by the types of sankhara one entertains) and the specific kamma that led to that bhava.

  • The hell-being is born in a niraya to experience the kamma vipaka of a bad kamma done with hate, like killing or torturing others. But that kamma was done after cultivating “hate sankhara” for long times.
  • A preta‘s body is in such a way to experience hunger; many have huge bodies with very small mouths, so that they can never satisfy hunger. One is born a preta because one has cultivated “preta sankhara”, i.e., one is always thiking about sense pleasures and also crave for what others have. This does not only apply to poor; one can be wealthy, but still not satisfied what one has. On the other hand, there may be a poor person, who is totally satisfied with what he/she has, and is not cultivating “preta sankhara“.
  • The “asuras” are those who have cultivated “asura sankhara“, 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 gathi.
  • Animals (called “thirisan” because they have all three “san” of lobha, dosa, moha) have a mixture of those gathi; see, “What is ‘San’?“.
  • One cultivates particular sankhara because one has certain character or gathi. And the more sankhara one does (thinking, speaking, and doing certain things), the more established gathi become, which in turn lead to corresponding jathi (births); see, “Gati to Bhava to Jāti – Ours to Control“.

8. In the post “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma“, the 31 realms were represented by spherical shells with a sphere in the middle and the bodies of the beings in lower realms were higher in general than the bodies of the beings in the higher realms. Each “inhabited” planetary system has all 31 realms, and most planetary systems are not “inhabited”.

  • Modern science say that the nearest planetary system to the solar system is Alpha Centauri which is located 4.37 light years away; see, Alpha Centauri. A light year is the distance travelled by light in a YEAR at the speed of 299 792 458 m/s (186,000 miles/second).
  • That is a humongous distance which cannot be travelled with current technology or any technology in the foreseeable future. It is estimated that it would take 100 years to reach that star system; 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 itself that science has not found. This is in agreement with the scientists admission that only 4% of the mass of the universe is explainable by science.

9. Going back to the locations of the 31 realms in our solar system, they are centered around the Earth. The nirayas are located deep inside the Earth and those beings have very dense bodies.

  • The other three apayas are located at and close to the surface of the Earth: of course, the animals live among the humans, and asuras are said to live mostly in the oceans. The pretas also live on the surface of the Earth just like us, but normally we cannot see them. They all have body densities comparable to humans, except for pretas. Some pretas have “fine bodies” suffer not via bodily punishments, but mentally: they can recall the past lives and bad deeds that led to the preta bhava.
  • There are three other human realms close to the Earth that we cannot see. Then there are many deva realms are extended from the surface of the Earth outwards. The brahma realms are located even further out. Of course, devas have much less dense bodies than humans, and brahmas’ bodies get even less at higher realms, and at the highest brahma realm, a living being (an arupa brahma) has only one suddhashtaka, the hadaya vatthu; see, “The Origin of Matter – Suddhashtaka“.
  • The body types in the 31 realms have been discussed in the previous post: Body Types in 31 Realms – Importance of Manomaya Kaya.

10. Thus roughly speaking, we can say beings with more immoral “gathi” are born with denser bodies inside or on the surface of the Earth; their dense bodies are used to impart kamma vipaka either via torture or via bodily ailments and diseases.

  • The beings in the deva and brahma realms, who have less and less dense bodies do not suffer bodily ailments. At the end of their kammic energy, they just disappear, and are born at the next realm appropriate for the most potent kamma seed they have; it could be in a lower realm, including the niraya (unless they had attained at least the Sotapanna stage).
  • Thus beings with better and better “gathi“, i.e., “deva gathi” and “brhama gathi” are located further and further away from the surface of the Earth, and those hell beings with the “worst gathi” are located below the surface of the Earth.

11. Therefore, each living being can be said to “carry his/her own dhamma”; here dhamma means “to bear”. Actually, it is more correct to say, each bhava carries its own dhamma, and when the bhava changes, the types of dhamma one carries changes.

  • A hell being is carrying a heavy load, and has the biggest burden. Devas carry very light loads, they have negligible suffering during that lifetime, and brahmas even lower.
  • But the load carried by a being cannot be always determined by the body density. As mentioned above, some pretas have light bodies and their kamma vipaka are imparted by the mind, not physically via the body.

12. We all have seen some children, when they don’t get their way and 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). This is a reflection of their “gathi” AT THAT MOMENT.

  • In the same way, they (and even adults) jump up with joy. It is as if they are trying to go up towards the higher realms. Again it is a reflection of their “joyous gathi” at that moment.
  • Another example is the behavior of criminals. We all have seen pictures of criminals when they are brought to the court of law: their heads are lower. They feel a heavy burden.
  • On the other hand, when we have done something meritorious 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 world view.

13. Thus each of us can momentarily live in the apayas or in higher deva and brahma realms.

  • I am sure anyone can recall such moments. When we get really angry, we burn inside, our bodies even get heated, faces get reddish, and we perspire. It is not a pretty sight to see a really angry person or even a child.
  • 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 also feel “cooled down” inside. It is always a pleasure to look at Buddhist monks.

14. Thus even though we may not see the beings in the other realms, there are many indicators that are consistent with the “bigger world picture” of the Buddha. We have reasons from our experiences to believe the existence of such realms. This may be a small part of the whole story, but indirect pieces of evidence like this are always consistent with Buddha Dhamma; we will discuss more in the future. These are things that one can contemplate during insight meditation and verify for oneself.

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