Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

by Gelongma Karma Migme Chödrön | 2001 | 940,961 words

This page describes “eight hot 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 hot hells

i) The hell of blazing coals (kukūla):

People have violated the pure precepts (viśuddhaśīla) and the monastic code (pravrajitadharma); they have induced laypeople (avadātavasana) to distrust the Buddhist path; they have thrown people into a ditch filled with fire; they have roasted beings while they were still alive. For all these reasons, they fall into the hell of blazing coals (kukūla): hot blazing coals burn these damned up to their knees.

ii) The hell of excrement (kuṇapa):

Some people have touched food meant for the śrāvakas, breāhmṇas, or ‘fields of merit’ (puṇyakṣetra) with their impure hands; they have eaten before them or introduced filth into their food; they have emptied hot excrement over their bodies; they have abandoned the means of pure existence (pariśuddhājīva) and derived their subsistence from evil ways of living (mithyājīva). For all these reasons, they fall into the hell of excrement (kuṇapa): this sewer is as deep and vast as the ocean; there are iron-beaked insects that crush the heads of the damned and eat their brains, that crush their bones and eat their marrow.

iii) The hell of the burning forest (ādīptavana):

Some people, setting fire to grass and wood, have destroyed insects; by chasing them away, they have burned the forest to complete the carnage. For all these reasons, they fall into the hell of the burning forest (ādīptavana?) where the damned are burned in the fire of grass and wood.

iv) The hell of the forest of swords (asipattravana):

Some people, sword in hand, have gone into battle, wounded and killed; they have cut down a tree under which they have crushed their enemy in order to avenge some old grievance; they have betrayed the secret confided to them in good faith by a friend. For all these reasons, they fall into the hell of the forest of swords (asipattravana). When the damned enter into this hell, the wind blows over the sword-shaped leaves that then cut off the hands, feet, ears and noses of the damned. In this forest there are ravens (kāka), vultures (gṛdha) and evil dogs (śvan-) that come to eat the flesh of the damned.

v) The hell of the path of knives (kṣuramārga):

Some men have stabbed their enemy with sharp knives; they have wounded their enemy with a stake or a lance; they have ruined a path, taken away a bridge; they have destroyed the path of the Holy Dharma (saddharmamārga) by substituting the path of adharma for it; they fall into the hell of the path of knives (kṣuramārga); in this hell, on a path closed off between two barriers, sharp knives have been fixed in such a way that the damned must pass under them.

vi) The forest of iron spines (ayaḥśalmalīvana):

Some men have given themselves up to lust and have taken over other men’s wives; they have lusted after and engaged in sex (sukhaparśana). For all these reasons, they fall into the forest of iron spines (ayaḥśalmalīvana). At the top of spiny trees, one yojana in height, are huge poisonous snakes (āsīviṣa) transformed into beautiful women; they invite the damned to climb up and take their pleasure with them; besides, the guardians of hell (nirayapāla) force the damned to climb the trees. Immediately the spines turn downwards and transfix the damned who endure the spines piercing through their bones into their marrow. When they come to the top of the trees, the magical women change back into snakes which break the heads of the damned, penetrate into their bellies and pierce holes in many places until they are completely torn apart. [177b] Finally, when they are brought back to life and in their normal state, the magical women, now standing at the bottom of the trees, call them again; the guardians of hell shoot arrows at them and make them descend; the spines reverse their direction and when they reach the ground, the magical women change back into poisonous snakes which tear up the bodies of the damned.[1]

vii) The river of boiling salt water:

After a long time, when the damned come out of the forest of burning iron spines, they see in the distance a river (Khārodakā nadī or Vaitaraṇī) of fresh delicious water; they go towards it but, when they get into it, it becomes boiling salt water. The damned are in it hardly a moment when their skin and flesh decompose and their bones fall into the water. The rākṣasas, guardians of hell, pull them out with a forked hook and set them down on the river-bank. In their previous lives, these unfortunates had wounded and killed water animals, fish or turtles; they had pushed people to fall into the water; they had thrown them into boiling water or into ice-water. They suffer this punishment for all these evil acts.

viii) The hell of the copper cauldron (tāmrastambha):

In the hell of the copper cauldron (tāmrastambha), the rākṣasas, guardians of hell, ask the damned where they are going, and the latter answer: “We are unfortunate and we do not know where we are going; we are hungry (kṣudh) and thirsty (pipāsā).” When they say they are thirsty, the guardians chase the damned with whip-lashes and make them sit on a red-hot copper stake (tāmrastambha); they open their mouths with pliers (viṣkambhena mukhadvārṃ viṣkambhya) and pour in molten copper (kvathitaṃ tāmram āsye prakṣipanti). If they say they are hungry, the guardians make them sit on a copper stake and make them swallow iron balls (ayoguḍa) which enter and burn the mouth, penetrate and burn the throat (kaṇṭha), penetrate and burn the stomach (antra); having burned the five internal organs (read Tsang, 130 and 18), they fall down onto the ground (adhaḥ pragharanti).[2] In their previous lives, these unfortunates had stolen other peoples’ goods to have enough to eat; as monks, they sometimes pretended to be sick to get melted butter (ghṛta) or honey (madhu); without discipline (śīla), concentration (samādhi) and wisdom (prajñā), they had accepted many gifts and hurt people with slander (pāruṣyavāda). For all of these previous wrongdoings, they fall into the hell of the copper stake.

Footnotes and references:


The Saddharmasmṛtyupasthāna, cited in Śikṣāsamuccaya, p. 71–72, also mentions the presence in the hells of these magical women, but they do not change into snakes, they have a body of red-hot iron.


Cf. Majjhima, III, p. 186.; Dīvyāvadāna, p. 375; Śikṣasamuccaya, p. 74.