The Mahavastu (great story)

by J. J. Jones | 1949 | 502,133 words | ISBN-10: 086013041X

This page describes maudgalyayana’s visits to hell which is Chapter II of the English translation of the Mahavastu (“great story”), dating to the 2nd-century BC. This work belongs to the Mahasanghika school of early Buddhism and contains narrative stories of the Buddha’s former lives, such as Apadanas, Jatakas and more..

Chapter II - Maudgalyāyana’s visits to hell

Now the venerable Mahā-Maudgalyāyana often went on a visit to hell. There (5) in the eight great hells, each with its sixteen secondary[1] hells, he saw beings enduring thousands of different hellish torments.

Many were the torments which the venerable elder Kolita[2] saw beings suffering in the hells as he went on his way. In the Saṃjīva hell people had their feet upwards and heads downwards, whilst they were destroyed with hatchets and knives. Others, again, instigated by malevolence, assailed one another with claws of iron, and in their hands appeared sharp sword-blades with which they rent one another. Yet they do not die as long as their evil karmas are not exhausted.

In the great hell Kālasūtra he saw beings with their limbs lashed with black wire,[3] beaten and maimed and cut piecemeal with hatchets and saws. But their bodies, although beaten and mauled, grow again to undergo the same hideous torments. And thus they do not die, because they are upheld by karma.

In the great hell Saṃghāta, too, he saw thousands of beings tormented by the mountains that are afire, ablaze, and aflame, while the rivers run blood. Yet, in spite of their continually roving over these mountains, they do not die, because they are upheld by karma.

In Raurava he saw many thousand beings suffering thousands of torments, being enclosed by solid masses of copper which was afire and ablaze, amid dense smoke.

In Mahā-Raurava which is afire, ablaze (6) and aflame, he heard the loud wailing of those who were hurled into the fire. And the cries of the wailers re-echoed in the great mountains of Cakravāḍa[4] and Mahā-Cakravāḍa, where they reached the ears of men in the four great continents of Jambudvīpa, Pūrvavideha, Aparagodānīya, and Uttarakuru.[5]

In Tapana he saw several thousands experiencing extremely terrible sufferings, being ground from heel to neck by iron grinders, and undergoing thousands of other torments as well. Yet even so they do not die, because they are upheld by karma. In this great hell, which is afire, ablaze and aflame, many thousands are reborn and suffer agonies. In this great hell which is a hundred yojanas[6] in perimeter, the thousands of flames which leap up from the eastern wall beat against the western; the thousands of flames which leap up from the western wall beat against the eastern. Leaping up from the southern wall they beat against the northern, and leaping up from the northern wall they beat against the southern. Leaping up from the ground they beat against the roof, and from the roof they beat against the ground. Those thousands of beings collapse on all sides, but they do not die yet, because they are upheld by karma.

In the great hell Pratāpa there are mountains which are afire, ablaze and aflame. [The denizens of this hell] are driven to run over these mountains by hellish creatures armed with pikes. Such are the torments they undergo, but they do not die yet, because they are upheld by karma.

Then, released from this great hell they plunge into Kukkula. There also in Kukkula these people run about in flames (7), but they do not die yet, because they are upheld by karma.

Released from Kukkula they plunge into Kuṇapa. There they are devoured by black creatures with jaws of iron. But still they do not die because they are upheld by karma.

Released from the secondary hell Kuṇapa they catch sight of delightful trees on the edge of a forest, and in search of relief they run thither. But there, hawks, vultures, ravens and owls with beaks of iron drive them from under the verdant tree[7] and consume their flesh. When their bones alone are left, their skin and flesh and blood grow again, and so they do not die, because they are upheld by karma.

Terrified by these birds, and deeming there was refuge where there was none, they enter the forest where the leaves are swords, and which is the hell Kumbha. When they have entered it, winds blow and cause the sharp sword-leaves to fall. These strike against their bodies, and on the body of none of them is there a spot which is not stabbed, not even a spot the size of the pore of a hair-root. But they do not die yet, because they are upheld by karma.

These beings, prostrate with wounds and with their bodies drenched with blood, then plunge into the river Vaitaraṇī,[8] a river of hard acid water, by which their flaccid bodies are pierced.

The warders of hell raise their bodies thence with hooks of iron, and set them out in array on the fiery, blazing (8) and flaming ground of the river bank. Then they ask them, “Ho! fellows, what is it that you want?” They reply, “Verily we are dying of hunger and parched with thirst.” Then the warders of hell force open their mouths with bars of fiery, blazing and flaming iron.[9] They forge pellets of iron and make those beings open their mouths into which they then throw these pellets of fiery, blazing and burning iron. “Eat this, fellows,” say they. Then they tender them a drink of molten copper, saying, “Drink fellows.” This molten metal burns their lips, their tongues, their palates, their throats, their entrails; it assails their bowels and passes on to their lower parts. But they do not die yet, because they are upheld by karma.

Thus when the elder Mahā-Maudgalyāyana had seen the beings in the eight hells undergoing their thousands of torments (Ah! what misery!) he came to the four assemblies in the Jeta Grove and recounted it all at length. “Thus,” said he, “do the beings in the eight great hells and the sixteen secondary hells endure thousands of different torments. Therefore, one must strive after knowledge, win it, be enlightened, be fully enlightened, do good, and live the holy life. And in this world no sinful act must be committed.”

The many thousands of devas and men were seized with wonder when they heard the elder Mahā-Maudgalyāyana speaking so. (9) Such is a summary description of hell. Now I shall go on to describe it in detail.

[Sermon on the Hells (naraka)]

Footnotes and references:


Utsada-niraya. Utsada = Pali ussada is a term of doubtful signification. If, as the Pali Dictionary suggests, it is from ud and syad, the sense may be “swarming with,” “full of,” and this suits the frequent use of the adjectival compound sattussada “crowded with beings” (sattva) to qualify niraya. But sattussada is also referred to sapta-ussada, as in sattussada “having seven protuberances,” one of the characteristics of a Mahāpuruṣa (see p. 180). In Divy. 620, 621, saptossada is even found in the former sense. In the present instance ussada is better taken in the sense of a “protuberance,” “eminence”  (cf. Skt. utsedha), “outgrowth,” whence an “annexe” or “secondary” (hell).


The personal name of Maudgalyāyana, which was a clan name.


Kālasūtra. According to Senart this is “uncertain instrument de supplice que je n’ai pas les moyens de déterminer plus précisément.” But Morris in J.P.T.S., 1884, p. 76-8, has an interesting note on this word, and the Pali instances of its use cited by him make it clear that it meant a “measuring-line” or “rule” of wire, hence “black,” put round a log of wood to guide the saw. It becomes clear, also, that the denominative verb sūtraya, here and below, has the quite normal sense of “tie round” or “lash,” and not as Senart conjectures that of “mettre en morceaux” or “en charpie.” Kirfel, Kosmographie der Inder, 202 refers to a discussion of this term by F. W. K. Müller in Ethnologisches Notizblatt, I. (The translator owes this reference to Prof. H. W. Bailey.)


The name of a whole world-system, in the centre of which is Mount Sineru, itself surrounded by seven mountain ranges.


Each Cakravāḍa, of which the number is countless, consists of four great continents with these names.


A yojana is about seven miles.


The context shows that the locative ārdravṛkṣe must be given a partially ablative force. The expression recurs several times below. (See pp. n to 19.)


A river of hell.


Ayoviṣkambhanehi mukham viṣkambhayitvā. Senart translates by “leur ayant fermé la bouche au moyen de bâillons en fer,” that is, he takes viṣkambh as an emphatic form of the simple skambh or skabh. But as the victims are immediately afterwards described as being forced to eat and drink it is not quite easy to see the point of “gagging” them. It would seem to be better to take viṣkambh in its other sense of “fix asunder” (Monier-Williams), “losmachen” (Böhtlingk & Roth), especially as we have here the causative form of the verb. Viṣkambhana would then be an “obstacle” against the victims’ closing their mouths, that is, a bar or something similar. Of course, we are told that before the eating and drinking the victims had their mouths opened (vivarayitvā), but this does not necessarily imply a second act on the part of the tormentors. It may merely mean that the pellets were thrown into their mouths “already opened” by the previous act. The following passage in J. 5. 268 supports this interpretation: vikkhambham ādāya vibhajja rajjuhivatte, mukhe saṃsavayanti rakkhasā, i.e. “with a prop (fixed with) ropes the Rakṣases divide (= force open) their jaws and pour liquid into their mouths”.

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