The earliest evidence for notions of hell related to Hinduism are found in the Vedic texts, which date from c. 15001000 BCE. In the long tradition of Hindu literature there was a significant development in the concept of hell from the period of the Vedas through the period of the Puranas (c. 3001500 CE). The earliest descriptions are vague, particularly in terms of topography, alluding only to an underground, dark, putrid place for punishing sinners. Later descriptions calculate the huge dimensions and designate almost innumerable subdivisions of hell.
Infernal otherworlds are either integrated, where all sinners and punishments are amalgamated in one space, or segmented into different spaces, each one a place for a particular punishment usually associated with a particular sin.
Hindu hell, originally one space in Vedic literature, became segmented in the epic literature and Puranas, until approximately 80 names for different hells could be identified. The few names found in the earlier literature were later reused, often as the names for major divisions. For instance, “Raurava,” mentioned in the Ramayana (c. 200 BCE), became a major division of hell later when the names and numbers of major hells and their subdivisions proliferated. The Vamana Purana (c. 3001000 CE) mentions 21 hells, while the Padma Purana (c. 10001400 CE) delimits seven, each with six divisions, or 42, each divided into two sections for deliberate and non-deliberate sins bringing the total to 84 hells. Roughly contemporaneous with the Padma Purana, the Agni Purana (c. 12001500 CE) mentions 5 major divisions of hell, 28 subdivisions, and 140 other hells.
Rivers are generally prominent features of hell, and one usually forms the infernal border. Hindu hell descriptions enumerate six, seven or as many as 99 rivers. Most often these are unnamed, but the Vaitarani, mentioned first in the Mahabharata (c. 600 BCE), forms a border around hell and is sometimes considered a hell itself, while the Agni Purana mentions specifically the Salmali as one of the major rivers.
Deeds or Karma and Punishment
Although early texts discuss hell as a place of punishment for gods defeated in cosmic battles, from the Vedic period, in the second and first centuries BCE, there also was a clear relationship between earthly conduct or karma and afterlife destinies. It would be difficult to call many of these deeds sins in a Western sense, since they often include actions that would simply be considered impolite, rude or unhygienic. For urinating in front of a cow, a brahman, the sun or fire, for example, crows would rip the intestines out through the anus of the offender. Here there is some anatomical relationship between the deed and the punishment, but often there is no clear analogy, and although souls would find their punishments specifically assigned for their deeds, there would be no clear symmetry between the two.
Punishments can be graphically described, but often the Sanskrit names for different hells substitute for descriptions, ranging from Ambarisa: a hell associated by its name with a frying pan; to Lohapinda, a hell associated with red-hot iron balls; and Vinmutra: feces and urine hell. Each hell is simply one of many places where a soul might find itself, with or without connection to a particular deed.
Agency of Punishment
Yama has many soldiers, servants and attendants who carry our his work; and hell is full of animal-like creatures, like the ever-present sharp-beaked birds, who act as guards there. But one of the unusual features of Hindu hell is that as often as not there are no punishing agents specifically mentioned. Those who suffer often act out their own punishments, forced to endure a destiny or undertake some course of action, rather than being the object of torture. As the Ramayana explains, they eat the fruit of their own acts.
The various names of the hells indicate circumstances and conditions: for instance, Ghatiyantra is a hell associated by its name with a water wheel and also with an intestinal disease, characterized by diarrhea and ulceration of the mucous membrane of the digestive tract. Gudapaka is a hell associated by its name with infections of the anal passage. Other hell names indicate what souls will find. In Kutasalmali, they find the kutasalmali tree with its thick conical spines which the denizens climb up and down, ripping their bodies apart, as if driven by some cosmic obligation.
Harrowing of Hell
The harrowing of hell is a motif that is found in Christian literature of the otherworld, most notably Christ’s harrowing of hell from the New Testament, particularly 1 Peter, and Mary’s harrowing of hell from the Apocalypse of Mary.
Three of the major Hindu Hell texts narrate a similar story: the descent into hell of a king, who has either been sent there mistakenly or to quickly purge a minor offense. His very presence ameliorates the torture suffered by the inhabitants. When he is encouraged to leave and assume his place with Indra or Vishnu, he refuses, insisting that he would rather dedicate himself to the relief of these souls than escape to his own reward, and claiming that the opportunity to offer relief is, in fact, a far greater reward. Eventually his commitment to these souls effects their release.
This motif predates the Christian tradition and occurs first in the Mahabharata of 600 BCE, with King Yudhishthira; then in Markandaya Purana of 300 CE, with King Vipashchit; and finally in the Padma Purana of 10001400 CE, with King Mahiratha.
Hell and Reincarnation or Samsara
None of the hell texts from the Vedic, epic or Puranic periods specifically discusses hell in the context of the doctrine of samsara, or transmigration of the soul. However, it is a significant feature of Hindu hell that, unlike Christian hell for instance, the sentence is not eternal or infinite. The time may add up to hundreds of thousands or millions of years, and for all practical purposes may approximate eternity, but in the end the soul will be released from hell and re-enter the world, assigned to a position based on the deeds or karma of the previous life, but also without memory of that life.