Does the Hell (Niraya) Exist?

December 18, 2015; revised August 29, 2019


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 life-stream moves from one realm to another based on kamma vipāka and prevailing conditions, i.e., Paticca Samuppāda.
  • Many suttas describe Buddha’s and his disciples’ visits to brahma and deva planes. Others describe visits of brahmas 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 suttas in the “Devatā Saṃyutta” and 111 suttas in the “Devaputta Saṃyutta” in the Saṃyutta Nikāya.

2. Even though devas and brahmas do not have to face much suffering during their lifetimes, those lives have finite lifetimes. When they die, they are mostly born in the lower realms, including the four lowest realms called the apāyās (niraya or hell, peta realm with hungry ghosts, and asura and animal realms).

  • The importance of those realms is that 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.”
  • Unbearable suffering in hell and other lower realms is discussed in several suttas, and discussed 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 suttas: “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”.

3. Here we will discuss more indirect evidence from our experiences for the existence of hell (niraya). This post also 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 (apāyās).
  • Among living beings, it is mostly humans who can mold their future; they are the ones who can cultivate citta with high javana power. They are ones who do (abhi)sankhāra 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 apayas, and eventually — after long times — come back to the human realm. That is what all of us have been doing from an untraceable beginning.
Genuine Hell Sounds or Not?

4. Here is a 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 proving that the above video is a hoax:

  • If it is 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.
Do We Need Firsthand Experience on the Existence of Hell?

5. We should ask the following question. Is it necessary for us 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 that we can see — or heavenly worlds of devas, they refuse even 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 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. Then 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 cleansing one’s mind.
  • The tendency to refuse to consider anything that cannot be confirmed with our direct experiences may not be a good idea. That is discussed in detail in several posts, including “Wrong Views (Micca Ditthi) – A Simpler Analysis“.
Description of Life in Hell in the Suttā

6. I am going to summarize what we can glean from the suttā (plural of sutta is suttā) in the Tipitaka 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 the suffering.
  • The beings who impart those sufferings to the hell beings (called hell-wardens) are also living beings. They are born in the niraya because of their “gati” (character qualities) due to the “sankhāra” that they developed in previous lives. Their bodies are formed by their kammic energy to be tolerant of the harsh conditions in the niraya. They do not suffer like hell-beings.
  • There are many posts in the website on “gati.” For an introduction, see, “The Law of Attraction, Habits, Character (Gati), and Cravings (Asavas).”
  • 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)“.

7. Devadüta Sutta explains in vivid detail how the hell-wardens torture a hell being. There is a king Yama (or probably many kings) in each niraya (there are several). He 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 is an uncountable number of beings 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 “gati” that were cultivated in previous lives; see below. Like all other living beings, those hell wardens and king Yama have finite lifetimes.
Based on Experience – Not Speculation

8. 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 all that the Buddha had experienced what he taught. He could “see” all of 31 realms.

  • Of course, we have to have faith in the Buddha to believe that. However, 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.”

9. There are close comparisons in the world that we experience. A good example is policemen, compared 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 to justice those who do immoral deeds.
  • King Yama is like a criminal judge; he also has similar gati comparable to hell-wardens but does not engage in personally punishing the culprits.
Body Types in Different Realms

10. A discussion on the body types can illustrate the point that the specific kamma vipāka prepares the physical body. Each body type can experience vipāka in according to 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 sankhāra” for long times.
  • A preta‘s body is in such a way to experience hunger; many have huge bodies with tiny mouths so that they can never satisfy hunger. One is born a preta because one has cultivated “preta sankhāra.” One will always be thinking about sense pleasures and also crave for what others have. That does not only apply to the poor; one can be wealthy, but still not satisfied what one has. On the other hand, there may be a poor person who is satisfied with what he/she has, and is not cultivating “preta sankhāra.”
  • The “asuras” are those who have cultivated “asura sankhāra,” 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, moha) have a mixture of those gati; see, “What is ‘San’?“.
  • One cultivates particular sankhāra because one has specific character or gati. And the more sankhāra one does (thinking, speaking, and doing certain things), the more established gati become, which in turn leads to corresponding jati (births); see, “Gati to Bhava to Jāti – Ours to Control.”
Comparison with Modern Science

11. 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 living beings in the higher realms. Each “inhabited” planetary system has all 31 realms, and most planetary systems are not “inhabited.”

  • Scientists 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 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. 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. That is in agreement with scientists’ admission that only 4% of the mass of the universe is explainable by science.

12. 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, the animals live among 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 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.
Births Correspond to Gati (Character Qualities)

13. 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, who have 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 Sotapanna 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.

14. Therefore, each living being can be said to “carry his/her dhamma”; here, dhamma means “to bear.” More precisely, each bhava carries its dhamma, and when the bhava changes, the types of dhamma one carries changes.

  • A hell being is carrying a heavy load and has the most significant 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 always be determined by the body density. As mentioned above, some pretas have light bodies and their kamma vipāka are imparted by the mind, not physically via the body.
Our Own Experiences

15. 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). 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 go up towards the higher realms. Again it is a reflection of 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 world view.

16. Thus each of us 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 even get heated, faces get reddish, and we sweat. It is not a pretty sight to see a furious 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 are “cooled down” inside. It is always a pleasure to look at Buddhist monks.

17. 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 the existence of such realms. That 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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