INTRODUCTION. Ancient Hindu literature is divided into several major categories, and hell texts are found in three of these, in the Vedas, the Epic literature (or Itihasa) and in the Puranas.
THE VEDAS. The four Vedas are the oldest Hindu scriptural texts and had a long oral history before they were recorded in the second century BCE. They were written in Sanskrit and form the authoritative and cosmographic texts of the Hindu religion. Both the Rig-Veda and the Atharava-Veda, the first and fourth of the Vedas, devote some attention, if minimal, to hell. Their descriptions of hell are the forerunners of the more elaborate ones found in the Puranas. The other two Vedas (Yajur and Sama: the Vedas of sacrificial prayers and of chants, respectively) make no mention of hell. These four works are also designated the “Samhitas,” or collections, and are collections of hymns, mantras, and chants. Vedic literature, which surrounds the Vedas themselves, comprises the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads and gives no attention to hell.
1. The Rig-Veda (or the Veda of Adoration) is the earliest of the Vedas. Hymn 32 of Book One provides the first glimpse of the place of Hindu damnation beneath all the rivers of the world, when it describes the struggle between Indra and the cosmic dragon Vritra or Ahi. Indra slays the dragon with his thunderbolt, releasing the rivers that the dragon had constrained, and in his defeat the dragon descends ever downward to the depths.
In Hymn 39 of Book Two a prayer asks protection from being sent to hell, and specifically it mentions: “Save us from the pit and falling.” The hymn expands on the destruction of Vritra, and as it does, it introduces the earliest elements of Hindu hell. What emerges is a land of no return sunk deep down in gloom and darkness beneath the three earths. It is a joyless place of endless caverns filled with the loud ring of pressing-stones; and a place of destruction where the wicked are ground, pierced, boiled, burned, slain, and destroyed. Those found in hell include particularly the fiend and his minions; fools, the voracious, treacherous, and evil, as well as those who make false accusations, who destroy the simple, harm the righteous, worship false gods, and speak untruly. The fiend is singled out often among the denizens, and particularly as an adversary of man, a thief and robber who tries to destroy oblations, as well as the food, animals, and even the bodies of humankind.
2. The Atharava-Veda (or Veda of the Old and Wise) is the fourth Veda. Hell is evoked as the place for those who have sinned against a brahman or a brahman’s cow, and particularly for failing to bestow a cow on a brahman who has asked for it. While this Veda does not reveal many details about Hindu hell, it describes sinners in hell sitting in a stream of blood, eating hair and drinking the water that has washed corpses and wet beards.
THE EPIC LITERATURE. Sanskrit epic poetry comprises two works, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Both works circulated orally and also developed considerably before they were finally established in written texts. This makes it impossible to accurately date individual elements. Tradition associates the composition of the Mahabharata with the sage Vyasa, and the Ramayana with the poet Valmiki. Both of these works mention hell in the context of the epic battles that surrounded the Hindu cosmology.
3. The Mahabharata, from c. 600 BCE, contains the first Hindu description of hell based on the visit of a good man to the infernal regions where his very presence relieves the denizens of their torment. In these accounts the good man’s reluctance to leave hell and cast them back into torment claiming to derive more blessing from remaining than from moving on to dwell with the gods ends with the permanent relief of the sinners.
In the Mahabharata the king is Yudhishthira, and he travels to hell specifically to see his friends and kinsmen, and he argues that they have done nothing to deserve the torments they endure there. Yudhishthira first journeys down an ominous and difficult path toward hell. It is a path enveloped in thick darkness and covered with moss and hair, muddy with flesh and blood. Bones, body parts and entrails cover the earth, which is thick with worms and insects. The putrid stench of rotting flesh pollutes the air, already filled with bees, gnats, and flies. Grisly bears, evil spirits with pointed mouths, and birds of prey with iron beaks are everywhere.
The place itself is a plain of fine white sand, rocks, and stones of iron, surrounded by a river of boiling water and bordered by blazing fires and inaccessible strongholds. There is also a forest of trees with sharp leaves, like swords and razors, as well as iron jars of boiling oil.
This hell is a place where people, in obvious pain and woe, are tormented for their sinful deeds.
4. In the Ramayana, of c. 200 BCE, Ravana, the demon king, visits hell. He sees there Yama and his attendants and soldiers all ferocious, formidable, and hideous. Hell is described as a place of torment, where pale, filthy, demented sinners, tortured and emaciated by hunger and thirst, wail and cry as they are devoured by worms and fierce dogs. As they cross the River Vaitarani, which flows with blood, they are scorched on burning sands and finally slashed apart into pieces.
THE PURANAS. The Puranas are generally short stories for lay readers that teach about religion and morality and contain mythical accounts of ancient days. Although they date roughly from c. 300c.1500 CE, in fact they generally contain much earlier material and have undergone continual revision during this entire period. There are two main groups of Puranas, the major (Mahapuranas) and minor (Upapuranas), each with eighteen members. The four Puranas that describe hell are Mahapuranas, which comprise three subdivisions: those of Brahman (Rajasa Puranas), including the Markandaya Purana and Vamana Purana; of Vishnu (Sattvika Puranas), including the Padma Purana; and of Shiva (Tamasa Puranas), including the Agni Purana the texts describing hell.
5. The Markandaya Purana (c. 300 CE) probably the oldest of the Puranas and dating from approximately six hundred years after the Mahabharata describes the descent of Vipashchit, another good king, into hell, where he must expiate one careless act. He finds there a dark, dolorous, and dreary place that blazes with ever-burning fire and brimstone, creating a malodorous and parching atmosphere. Here the wicked in terrible agony are punished with torments for their sins. Iron-beaked birds tear off their flesh; they are beaten with clubs and inundate the place with their own blood; they are bottled in jars of burning sand, scorched by fire, and tormented by hunger and thirst. Vipashchit’s presence provides relief from their suffering.
6. The Vamana Purana dates from c. 3001000 CE and provides the first list of named Hindu hells. The list is said to include twenty-one hells, although the list, in translation, actually includes twenty-five. Variations on this list are found in later works, but here they are enumerated as:
- Raurava: 2000 leagues wide and full of blazing coals
- Maharaurava: 4000 leagues wide and full of melted copper
- Tamisra: 8000 leagues wide
- Andhatamisraka: 16,000 leagues wide
- Asipatravana: 72,000 leagues wide
- Vaitarani: said to be the eighteenth
7. The Padma Purana (c. 10001400 CE) includes four sections (chapters 16, 70, 1012, 114) that describe Hindu notions of hell.
In Chapter 16, Sumana describes the death and post-mortem state of sinners. This section includes a description of Yama, who resembles a heap of black clay, full of all diseases, fierce, ruthless, and fearsome. Hell is described briefly as a hot and filthy place of mountains with inaccessible, shadowless places full of insects, where sinners are burnt by charcoal and by the intense heat of the sun; tormented by hunger, thirst, cold, and wind; and hit with maces, whips, swords, wooden mallets, and hatchets.
In Chapter 70, Matali tells describes how those in hell who have killed brahmans suffer terrible pain and torture, being roasted in fires of cow dung, gouged by buffaloes, and eaten by all manner of creatures: lions, wolves, tigers, gadflies, worms, leeches, cobras, serpents, elephants, bulls, goblins, and demons. They are also tormented by disease and showered by stones, meteors, burning charcoal, and dust.
In Chapter 1012, Yama tells the story of King Mahiratha, who is sent to hell and beaten, but because of ritual bathing, which he faithfully undertook for a brief period, he is to be released from hell and sent to Vishnu’s abode. However, like kings Yudhishthira and Vipashchit, he gives his merit to the sufferers in hell and ultimately gains their release. These chapters describe how the denizens of hell, who have abandoned the bounds of morality and were bereft of good behavior, are dragged off, with nooses around their necks, and fall into an awful darkness where they are suffer grief as they are burnt and boiled; eaten by foxes, dogs, carnivorous animals, crows, herons, wolves, tigers, serpents, scorpions, and insects; pricked by thorns, cut by saws, squeezed by machines, dragged around on their knees, and beaten by pestles; oppressed by hunger, thirst, the odor of pus, blood and foul-smelling places. They are also forced to eat various unsavory things: pus, blood, vomit, feces and fetid flesh; and finally roasted in places where heaps of hair, blood, flesh, marrow, bones, and dead bodies are scattered.
Later in the same chapters, Yama describes trees with sharp thorns, as well as burning pillars of iron full of razors, thorns and nails. Here sinners, both men and women, have their breasts cut off by swords and those who succumbed to adultery or sensual enjoyment endure great torment and pain as they are strangled, whirled, and have their backs, heads and necks broken; while those who failed in gifts, sacrifices, or oblations are roasted along with those of bad character who harm others, commit sins, sport with other men’s wives, or cut people with their words.
And in Chapter 114, Sri Krishna describes for Dhanesvara the seven hells each with six divisions:
- Taptavaluka, where those who do not honor guests or who kick fire, brahmans, deities, preceptors, or the crowned are burned.
- Andhatamisra, where sinners are pierced by insects, horses, crows, beasts, and birds.
- Krakaca, where the sinful are cut with swords and those who take the wives of others are roasted first, then cut with swords.
- Argala, where sinners, especially those who oppose good men and the brahmans, are bound with nooses, seized by their necks, killed with clubs, and roasted.
- Kutasalmali where the adulterous, covetous, and treacherous are roasted.
- Raktapuya, the hell of six bad smells, where those who ate prohibited things or engaged in backbiting or wickedness are roasted face-down, then pierced and killed.
- Kumbhipaka has six rivers of oil where sinners are burned.
There seven hells, each with six divisions, are the forty-two Raurava hells, which each have a separate section for deliberate and non-deliberate sins, bringing the total of Hindu hells presented here to eighty-four.
8. Finally, the Agni Purana (c. 12001500 CE) includes two chapters (203 and 371), in which Agni, the god of fire, describes the Hindu hells and the punishments of sinners in them after death, when they are led through the southern gate by the messengers of the god of death. Sins are linked to specific hells, with names that signify the torments found there, or to particular punishments; the durations for specific punishments are often included.
The sinners consigned to hell include murderers, incendiaries, thieves (of land, cows, gold, wealth, and wine), liars, bribers, plus those who kill animals, cut trees, cut tongues, pluck eyes, eat flesh, censure scripture, or withhold sacrifices. Also included are those who eat forbidden food or only sweets, those who sell wine, brahmans who drink wine; as well as people who afflict others, strike at their weaknesses, cause breaches of friendship, or commit incest with their mothers or daughters; and finally those who cohabit with or lust after other men’s wives or women with cohabit with many men.
The punishments are varied, but most are familiar: being burned or cooked in copper pots, iron cauldrons, frying pans, or simply in oil or burning charcoal; being whipped, pierced in the body or head by swords or razors; or being put under a current as sharp as a razor or on top of a pike; being tortured by mechanical devices or by serpents, eaten by crows, ground up like sesamum, or thrown into an alkaline lake. Sinners are also forced to drink hot wine, embrace glowing hot iron or stones, or eat dust, phlegm, urine, blood, excreta (particularly of insects), molten iron, or their own flesh.
Agni describes the path to judgment of the soul, who along the way eats the food left by kin.
The Agni Purana lists twenty-eight hells:
It also indicates that there are five main divisions, equivalent to Raurava, 140 other hells and the River Salmali.
The main subdivisions listed are:
Angi Purana’s hell is supervised by serpents with the faces of cats, owls, frogs, vultures, etc., presumably the servants of the god of death.
About Hindu Hell