Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

by Gelongma Karma Migme Chödrön | 2001 | 941,039 words

This page describes “eight great hells” as written by Nagarjuna in his Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra (lit. “the treatise on the great virtue of wisdom”) in the 2nd century. This book, written in five volumes, represents an encyclopedia on Buddhism as well as a commentary on the Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita.

The eight great hells

The bodhisattva sees the eight great hells and the ten thousand types of torments [encountered there].

1) The great Saṃjiva hell:

In the great Saṃjiva hell, the damned fight one another; aggressive and pugnacious, they wield sharp knives and slash one another; they are pierced with lances and skewered with iron forks; they are struck with iron bars; they are struck with iron rods; they are thrashed by iron shovels and slashed with sharp knives; they are torn apart with iron claws; they are all covered in blood.[1] Broken by these torments, they lose consciousness but, as a result of their previous actions, cold wind blows on them and, when the guards call them, they come back to life: this is why this hell is called Saṃjiva. When they revive (prakṛtistha) they again undergo the [same] torments. Beings who, in their previous existences, liked to kill living beings, cows, sheep, birds, or other animals, or who killed one another for a field, a house, a slave, a woman or child, a kingdom or money, are found there; as punishment for all the killings they have done, they suffer thus.

2) The great Kālasūtra hell:

The bodhisattva sees the damned in the great Kālasūtra hell. Wicked rākṣasas, guardians of the hell (nirayapāla) and worker-demons ceaselessly [176a] measure the damned with a black cord (kālasūtra); with an iron axe (kuṭhāra) they put them to death and cut them to pieces; they shorten what is long (dīrgha), they lengthen what is short (hrasva); they round off what is square (varga), they square off what is round (vṛtta); they cut their arms and legs, tear out their ears and noses and cut off their hands and feet with a great iron saw (krakaca); they amputate them and cut them up. They cut their flesh into pieces and weigh the quarters of meat. In the course of their earlier lives, these unfortunate people used to slander honest people and cause innocent people to die by means of lies (mṛṣāvāda), harmful words (pāruṣyavāda), malicious gossip (paiśunyavāda) and idle comments (saṃbhinnapalāpa). Or else, as perverted officials, they were cruel, violent, dishonest and harmful. It is as a result of their wrong-doings and calumnies that they undergo these punishments.

3) The great Saṃghāta hell:

The bodhisattva sees the great Saṃghāta hell[2] where wicked rākṣasas, guardians of hell (nirayapāla), take on all kinds of shapes: they become oxen (go), horses (aśva), pigs (sūkara), sheep (edaka), deer (mṛga), dogs (kukkura), foxes (lomaśin?), tigers (vyāghra), wolves (vṛka), lions (siṃha), donkeys, big birds, eagles (garutmat), and vultures (gṛdhra). Having thus taken on the heads of birds and animals, they come to devour, gnaw at and tear up the damned.

– Two mountains come together and a great hot iron wheel rolls in a groove on top of the damned who are broken into pieces.

– Then, in a hot iron mortar they are beaten and crushed like grapes (drakṣā) or peaches that are squeezed or like pressed oil (taila). Their torn flesh is gathered into piles as on a threshing-floor; torrents of blood flow out; the eagles, vultures, tigers and wolves begin to fight over it. In their previous lives, these unfortunates had frequently killed oxen, horses, pigs, sheep, deer, does, rabbits, tigers, wolves, lions, donkeys and big birds, and so all these animals that harbor resentment against them take on their bird or animal forms and come to torment these damned.

– Those who have exploited their power to oppress the weak suffer the punishment of the coming together of the two mountains. Those who, out of greed (rāga), hatred (dveṣa), stupidity (moha) or fear (bhaya), have not followed rules of good conduct or even those who have destroyed the proper way and perverted the Holy Dharma suffer the punishment of being crushed in the groove of the hot iron wheel and ground up in the hot iron mortar.

4–5) The Raurava and Mahārauva hells:

The fourth and fifth [great hells] are Raurava and Mahārauva. The damned who are in these great hells have as guardians rākṣasas with heads yellow (pīta) like gold; their eyes shoot out fire and they are clothed in red cloaks (lohitavastra); their flesh is solid; their gait is as swift as the wind; their hands and feet are long; their mouth utters evil sounds; they hold tridents (triśūla) and forked arrows with which they stab and hurl at the damned like rain. Carried away by their fear, the damned strike their heads on the ground and beg for pity: “Leave us be for a while; have pity for a while!” Then the demons throw them into the burning iron hell, one hundred yojanas in extent, and make them gallop there with whip lashes: their feet are completely burned, their fat and marrow run in rivulets like pressed oil. The demons break open their heads with iron bars and the brains run out of their smashed skulls like cream from a broken pot. The demons slash them and cut them up; when their bodies are completely burned, they put them in an iron room where thick smoke suffocates them. These unfortunates push and rush against one another and wonder why [176b] they are being pushed around; but, just as they are about to find the exit, the door closes. Then they utter an unending great cry (raurava).

– In their previous lives, these unfortunate ones had traded with false weights and measures and given unjust sentences; they had not returned the supplies entrusted to them and had robbed their inferiors; they had tormented the poor (daridra), making them cry and weep; they had destroyed cities and neighborhoods, ravaged villages, killed and looted; in their perverse hatred against [certain clans], they had called to them from near the ramparts and then, by means of their tricks and deceitfulness, they had brought the people together and then massacred them. It is for all these crimes that they suffer all these punishments.

In the Mahāraurava hell, the damned are put into gas chambers: they are shut in prisons or in dark smokey holes and gassed. Or else they are thrown into wells. It is for having stolen others’ goods or for similar reasons that they suffer the torments of the Mahāraurava hell.

6–7) The the Tapana and Pratāpana hells:

The sixth and seventh [great hells] are the Tapana and Pratāpana. There are two great copper cauldrons there; the first is called Nan t’o (Nanda) and the second Po nan t’o (Upananda); in the language of Ts’in, “Joy” and “Great Joy”; they are filled with boiling brine. The rākṣasa demons, guardians of hell, throw the damned into them, like head chefs cooking meat. The people in these cauldrons have their feet up and their heads down; they are boiled like beans; their bones and joints become detached; their skin and flesh dissolve. When they are completely cooked, the demons fish them out with a fork. According to the law of karma, a cold wind blows that brings the damned back to life. Then they are thrown into the glowing coals (kukūla) or into the excrement (kuṇapa), like fish pulled out of the water and thrown onto the hot sand. There they are cooked in pus (read nong, 130 and 13) and blood. Then they are taken out of the glowing coals and thrown onto a bed of flames where they are forced to sit; their eyes, ears, nose and mouth, up to the pores of their skin, emit flames. In their previous lives, these unfortunates had tormented their parents, their teacher, śrāmaṇas and brāhmaṇas; they had tormented honest people and fields of merit (puṇyakṣetra) to the point of arousing their anger; for these reasons they suffer the torments of the Tapana hell. Or else, in their previous lives, they had roasted live cocoons, roasted live pigs and sheep, spit-roasted living human beings. Or else they had set fire to the jungle, burned villages, stūpas, monasteries (vihāra), temples (devacaitya), etc., or else they had thrown beings into pits of fire. It is for all these reasons that they are reborn in this hell.

8) The Avīci hell:

The bodhisattva sees the Avīci hell, four thousand li in size, surrounded by iron walls and situated even deeper than the seven hells.[3] The rākṣasa guardians hammer the damned with great iron hammers like blacksmiths hammering out iron. They crush them from head to foot. They pin out and stretch their bodies with five hundred nails, like an ox-hide is stretched. The damned drag themselves along and tear themselves apart with their hands. A fiery iron chariot rolls over their bodies.

Notes on the eight great hells:

Buddhist concepts of the hells vary over time:

A. The early and canonical sources of the Theravādins:

The early and canonical sources of the Theravādins, such as the Bālapaṇḍita and the Devadūtasutta, accept the following:

1) There are seven great hells, the names of which are not given except for the Avīci: Majjhima, III, p. 166–167; 182–183; Aṅguttara, I, p. 141.

2) The great hell (mahāniraya) has four gates each opening onto four secondary hells: Gūthaniraya, Kukkukaniraya, Sīmbalivana, Asipattavana: thay are all surrounded by the river Khārodakā: Majjhima, III, p. 184–186.

[For the corresponding Chinese sources, some of which show an evolution in the ideas, see Tchong a han, T 26, no. 199, k. 53, p. 760a–761a; ibid., no. 64, k. 12, p. 504c–505a; T’ie tch’eng ni li king, T 42, p. 827c–828b; Ni li king, T 86, p. 907–908b; Tseng yi a han, T 125,, k. 24, p. 675b–676b].

3) Finally there are ten cold hells, the names of which are known and cited in the following order:

  1. Abbuda,
  2. Nirabbuda,
  3. Ababa,
  4. Aṭaṭa,
  5. Ahaha,
  6. Kumuda,
  7. Sogandhika,
  8. Uppala,
  9. Puṇḍarīka,
  10. Paduma:

cf. Saṃyutta, I, p. 152; Aṅguttara, V, p. 173; Suttanipāta, III, 10, p. 126.

– This list of ten cold hells is repeated by the Cosmography annexed to the Chinese Dīrghāgama (T 1, k. 30, p. 125c) and related texts (T 23, k. 2, p. 286c; T 24, k. 4, p. 329a). This is not surprising; actually, the Chinese Dīrghāgama is a text of the Dharmagupta school (cf. Watanabe, in Hoernle, Remains, I, p. 18; Bagchi, Canon bouddhique, I, p. 202–203; Przyluski, Concile, p. 354; F. Weller, Der Überlieferung des älteren buddhistischen Schrifttums, Asia Major, V, 1928, p. 180). On the other hand, the Dharmagupta school descends in a direct line, by the intermediary of the Mahīśāsakas, from the old sthavira Buddhism, the Pāli scriptures of which are regarded as representing he authentic traditions (cf. Dīpavaṃsa, V, v. 45, 47; Mahāvaṃsa, V, v. 6, 8; Paramārtha, in P. Demiéville, L’origine des Sectes, MCB, I, 1931, p. 23, 59–62; Bhavya in Walleser, Sekten, p. 81; Yi tsing, tr. Takakusu, p. 20). It is, therefore, quite natural that a text of the Dharmagupta school would have adopted the list proposed by the Theravādins.

B. An evolution in the ideas on hell:

An evolution in the ideas on hell is marked by the more recent sources, notably the Sanskrit sources derived from the Sarvāstivādin-Vaibhāṣika school:

1) There are eight great hells (instead of seven), each having a name and a given type of punishment; these are, in descending order, Saṃjiva, Kālasūtra, Saṃghāta, Raurava, Mahāraurava, Tapana, Pratāpana and Avichī: cf. Divyāvadana, p. 67; Avadānaśataka, I, p. 4; Dharmasamuccaya, chap. 121; Mahāvyutpatti, no. 4920–4927; Kośa, III, p. 149.- This list of the eight great hells was adopted by the Cosmography of the Dīrghāgama and related texts (T 1, k. 19, p. 121c5–8; T 23, k. 2, p. 283b16–19; T 24, k. 2, p. 320c3–5).

– It has also passed into the Ceylonese sources, but with several variants in the order and nomenclature; cf. Pāli Jātaka, V, p. 266, 271: Sañjīva, Kālasutta, Saṅghāta, Jālaroruva, Dhūmaroruva, Mahāvīci, Tapana, Patāpana.

2) Each of these eight great hells opens into sixteen secondary hells, called utsada (thus there are 8 x 16 = 128 utsadas). But the distribution of these sixteen utsadas differs according to the source:

a. At the four cardinal points of each hell there are four utsadas: i) the kukūla, blazing coals; ii) the kuṇapa, mire of excrement; iii) three places of suffering forming a single utsada: kṣuramāra, path of knives; asipattravana, forest the leaves of which are swords; ayaḥśalmalīvana, forest of spines; iv) the river Vaitaraṇī of boiling water. Cf. Mahāvyutpatti, no. 4937–4942; P’i p’o cha,T 1545, k. 172, p. 855a; Kośa, III, p. 150–151; Li che a p’i t’an louen, T 1644, k. 8, p. 211c.

b. Each great hell is completed by sixteen small utsada hells, each having a different name: Black sand; Boiling excrement; Five hundred nails; Hunger; Thirst; Copper pot; Many copper pots; Iron millstone; Pus and blood; Proofing fire; River of ashes; Ball of iron (ayoguḍa); Beheading axe; Wolf; Forest of swords; Cold water. Cf. Cosmography of the Chinese Dīrghāgama and related texts: T 1, k. 19, p. 121c8; T 23, k. 2, p. 283c; T 24, k. 2, p. 320c6.

3) Finally, the Sanskrit texts list eight cold hells (instead of ten) and the sūtra texts have consequently been modified. These śītaniraya are called: Arbuda, Nirarbuda, Aṭaṭa, Hahava, Huhuva, Utpala, Padma and Mahāpadma. Cf. Tsa a han, T 99, no. 1278. k. 48, p. 351c; Pie tsa a han, T 100, no. 276, k. 14, p. 470b (which corresponds to Suttanipāta, III,10; p. 126); Divyāvadana, p. 67; Avadānaśataka,I, p. 4; Mahāvyutpatti, no. 4920–4936; Dharmasamuccaya, chap. 122; Kośa, III, p. 154; Mppś, T 1509, k. 13, p. 158b; k. 16, p. 176c–177a; P’i p’o cha, T 1545, k. 172, p. 866a. In the present passage, the Mppś seems to be derivative from Sarvāstivādin-Vaibhāśika sources listed above under B, but does not follow them slavishly. Like the Mahāvastu, I, p. 244, l. 19, it accepts eight great hells and sixteen utsada or small hells.

The eight great hells are the Saṃvida, etc.; the sixteen small hells are made up of the traditional eight cold hells, Arbuḍa, etc., and the eight hot hells, the names of which may be restored as:

  1. Kukūla, blazing coals;
  2. Kuṇapa, excrement;
  3. Ādīptavana, burning forest;
  4. Asipattravana, forest of swords;
  5. Kṣuramārga, path of knives;
  6. Ayaḥśalmalīvana, forest of iron spines;
  7. Khārodakanadī, salty river;
  8. Tāmrastambha, copper stake.

Other sources not listed here also show a certain interest in the study of the Buddhist hells; not to forget the Ṣaḍgatikmarikā, st. 1–37, ed. Mus, p. 216–243, we also mention Divyāvadāna, p. 375–376; Mahāvastu, I, p. 4–27 (Maudgalyāyana’s visit to the hells); Kāraṇḍavyuha, ed. S. B. Samasrami, 1873 (Maitreya’s visit to the hells); a passage from the Saddharmasmṛtyupasthāna cited in Śikṣasamuccaya, p. 69–76; Nāgārjuna’s Suhṛlekha, T 1674, p. 753a (tr. H. Wenzel, Friendly Epistle, JPTS, 1886, p. 21–24; S. Beal, The Suhṛlekha or Friendly Letter, 1892, p. 29–31).

Among the works: L. Feer, L’Enfer indien. JA, 1892–93; B. C. Law, Heaven and Hell in Buddhist Perspective, 1925; Kirfel, Kosmographie, p. 198–206; Przyluski, Aśoka, p. 120–160.

Footnotes and references:


Here the Mppś does not mention the torture of the five bonds (pañcavidhabandhana) that characterizes the first hell according to Majjhima, III, p. 166; Divyāvadāna, p. 376; Tchong a han, T 26, k. 53, p. 760b.


Saṃghāta means “accumulation, assemblage, squeezing”. That is why three punishments are imagined in this hell: the damned are assembled in a mass (saṃghāta) and massacred (cf. Ṣaḍgatikārikā, no. 10); they are crushed between two mountains which come together (saṃhan); they are pounded in an iron mortar (these last two torments in Suhṛlekha, tr. Wenzel, p. 22).


For this hell, see Kośa, III, p. 148–149; Hôbôgirin, Abi, p. 6.

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