> Basic Information > King Yama > Hell-Wardens > The Damned > A Monk's Recollection of Hell > One Hell > Ten Hells > Ambiguous Depictions of Hell(s) > A Brief Recap


> The Eight Great Hells > Where are the hells? > The Eight Cold Hells


> A Brief Recap > Ineke Van Put's Analysis


In this essay, I explore the descriptions of hell found throughout the suttas. I will also cover some of the developments which took place as the Buddhist tradition grew and expanded in order to establish what was likely the original depiction of hell as opposed to qualities which were late innovations. I have written about hell in earlier essays, and I won't be reproducing the information in those essays here. For information on the reality of hell in Buddhism, see my essay "Heaven is For Real." For information on what leads to rebirth in hell, see my essay "Rebirth & Kamma."


Lazybones says:
『I ain't readin' this whole dang page! 』
_(:3 」∠)_

Here are the highlights:

1. The original conception of hell seems to have been a singular destination of rebirth with several smaller areas which the damned could experience within a single lifetime. This hell is watched over by King Yama, a pre-Buddhist figure, and populated with "Hell-Wardens" who inflict various types of torture on those reborn in hell.
2. In this version of hell, we see a burning iron room named "Mahāniraya," or "The Great Hell," with several regions lying beyond its eastern gate. Sometimes Mahāniraya seems to refer broadly to the realm of hell in its totality, and not just the iron room.
3. In time, the depiction of hell became more complicated, with a list of ten hells appearing, as well as several ambiguous passages which don't neatly fit in to any of the more detailed discussions of hell.
4. Later texts, particularly the commentaries and the Jatakas, firmly establish the idea that there are multiple hell-realms. Specifically, we see the idea of "Eight Great Hells," with earlier discussions of "Mahāniraya" in the suttas becoming reinterpreted as references to the deepest and most terrible of the Eight Great Hells: Avīci.
5. An even later development emerges, introducing the "Eight Cold Hells" as parallels to the "Eight Great Hells," now known as the "Eight Hot Hells." This is referenced in late Pali sources, but is more prevalent in Sanskrit and Chinese sources.
6. Ineke Van Put argues, quite convincingly, that this evolution of the Buddhist understanding of hell took place as a result of attempts to make the "nether regions" of the cosmos mirror the upper portions of the Buddhist cosmological body: the six heavenly realms, and the planes of form & formlessness.

Hell in the Suttas

Basic Information

The most common Pali term for hell is “niraya,” which literally means “the downward path” (Pali Kanon: Manual of Buddhist Terms) or “to go to destruction” (Pali-English Dictionary). “Niraya” almost always occurs in the singular - “hell,” as opposed to “hells.” Roger R. Jackson notes that this general usage suggests “a single subterranean destination.”1 It often appears in a stock phrase alongside three other terms describing how “when [one’s] body breaks up, after death” someone may be “reborn in a place of loss (apāya), a woeful destination (duggati), a state of ruin (vinipāta), hell (niraya)” (ex: AN 1.290). Those other terms seem to gesture broadly towards other realms of unfortunate rebirth collectively, without specifying a particular one. The Pañcagatipeyyālavagga (SN 56.102-131) tells us that most beings who die will be reborn in hell or one of the other unfortunate destinations. This is important, because as Buddhists, we shouldn't resign to dismissing hell to the periphery of our thoughts. It isn't some extreme fate which only awaits the most villainous people; unless we are actively working towards living a noble life, we are likely to end up there in the next lifetime or some lifetime thereafter.

King Yama

Hell is watched over by “King Yama” (Yamarāja). This is a figure with a long, storied history in Indo-Iranian religions.

Pre-Buddhist Influence

In the Avesta, a Zoroastrian text, we see a figure named Yima.2 Here, Yima was the first terrestrial king who ruled when the world was splendorous. Eventually, at the behest of the god Ahura Mazda, he constructed a subterranean shelter called a Vara (enclosure) to protect the greatest of humans, as well as two of every animal and plant from “the evil winters” and “deadly frost.” Yama’s association with the underworld is likely rooted in this mythology.

In the Vedas, we see Yama, with strong parallels to the character in the Avesta. The obvious place to start is the name - “Yama” means “twin,” likely in reference to his sister Yami. Yima also has a sister, named Yimeh. Yama is the son of Vivasvat, while Yima is the son of Vīvanhvant. He was the first man to die - preserving some idea of his being a forerunner. Since he was the first to die, he was the first to discern the way through the afterlife, and he became the king of the dead.

Early Buddhism

In Early Buddhism, the figure of Yama is much more vague, and the picture we see in the suttas has had much of the “fat” trimmed from the mythologies which came before. There is a passage which mentions "two Yamas" coming to visit the Buddha and his monks in the forest, with absolutely no elaboration (DN 20), possibly an echo of the idea of Yama having a twin. Otherwise, association with the underworld is more or less the only commonality. Although he is the ruler of hell, he shouldn’t be understood as a malevolent figure. In fact, he seems to have sympathy for those who find themselves reborn in hell, as we will see below. His role is that of an observer of the terrors that await those reborn in hell; he does not sentence anyone to their suffering. He merely receives those who arrive in hell and speaks with them about their fate. Witnessing the horrors which await those reborn in hell has inspired him to aspire to, one day, be reborn as a human so that he can meet a Buddha and become his disciple (MN 130).


Besides King Yama, hell is also filled with “Nirayapālas,” or Hell-Wardens. Unlike Yama, these figures are actively involved in the torment of those suffering in hell. They are, essentially, otherworldly torturers. While Yama seems to harbor a genuine desire for no one to be subject to the woes of hell, the Hell-Wardens delight in their duties. This has presented something of a dilemma for the Buddhist tradition; how do we make sense of these figures who exist solely to inflict pain and misery? A debate emerged as to whether the Hell-Wardens are real living beings, or mere illusions that exist as extensions of the torment one faces in hell.3 The suttas are silent on this issue.

The Damned

Someone reborn in hell is called an “āpāyika” or a “nerayika” - often, both terms are used together. They can also apply to someone who will be reborn in hell, even if they’re not there yet (Vinaya Tv Kd 17; DN 24; AN 6.62; AN 3.113). In this sense, we may translate the terms as “one doomed to misery” and “one who is bound for hell.” When a text wants to emphasize that a being who has already been reborn in hell is being discussed, the term “satta nerayika” may be used (AN 4.233), which we may translate as “a being who has been doomed to hell.” The Buddha explained the severity of the misery one experiences in hell by asking his monks to imagine a bandit who had been captured by a king. If this king ordered the bandit to be impaled by spears 100 times in the morning, 100 more times at midday, and 100 times further in the evening, the suffering of that man would pale in comparison to the anguish of someone in hell. He demonstrated the disparity between these two fates by picking up a small stone, and comparing it to the entire Himalayan mountain range - if we imagine the pain of the bandit to be like the stone, the pain of someone born in hell would be the Himalayas. MN 129 and MN 130 contain some of the most detailed descriptions of hell and what takes place there.4


When someone is reborn in hell, they are taken by the arms by the Hell-Wardens and brought before King Yama. He conducts an interrogation, wherein he questions the damned about times they must have encountered "the five divine messengers" - people in various unfortunate circumstances which we have likely encountered throughout our lives. They aren't “messengers” in the sense that some higher power sends them to us with a deliberate purpose; instead, our encounters with these people should make us aware that we are also subject to the pains they suffer and inspire us to pursue the holy life to leave such suffering behind.5

The first of these messengers is an infant lying in its own filth - Yama asks, “Did it not occur to you that you are subject to be reborn?" The second is an elderly person bent over, struggling to move about, their body wracked with pain. Yama asks, “Did it not occur to you that you are subject to grow old and weak?” The third is a severely sick person, collapsed in their own waste, being attended to by others. Yama asks, “Did it not occur to you that you are subject to illness?” The fourth is a criminal being apprehended and tortured or executed. Yama asks, “Knowing that such punishments are administered to wrongdoers, did you not wonder what sorts of punishments may await someone after death?” The fifth is a dead, rotting corpse. Yama asks, “Did it not occur to you that your life will also come to an end?”

Again, Yama's role here is not as an antagonist to anyone reborn in hell; he seems sympathetic to the damned, lamenting the fate which awaits them for forsaking the holy life.


After the interrogation, Yama becomes silent. The hellish torment begins. After each form of punishment, the text declares that - no matter how severe the pain and damage is - death doesn’t come until the kamma which produced rebirth in hell is eliminated. The implication seems to be that these are different stages within one hellish lifetime, and if one’s bad kamma is “burned away” by the suffering they endure, they may die at any point along this process - if not, however, they continue to endure the next stage of torture.

First, the wardens perform “The Fivefold Crucifixion” - red-hot spikes are driven through the hands, feet, and chest of the hell-being. Next, the wardens throw the being down and chop them with axes. Then, the wardens hang the being upside down and hack at them with hatchets. After this, the wardens harness the being to a chariot and take off, dragging the tormented along the burning ground. Next, they are forced to repeatedly climb up and down a mountain of burning coals. This is followed by being turned upside down and dropped into a red-hot cauldron of boiling scum, where they are cooked, stirred up and down and around. After this, the wardens fish that being out of the froth and toss them into The Great Hell — Mahāniraya.

Mahāniraya - The Great Hell

Mahāniraya is described as a large square room, made entirely of iron, with four gates on each wall. It is filled with fire, and the flames are so fierce that the heat radiates outwards across a great distance. In this room, flames leap out from each wall, and from the ceiling and floor as well. After a long period, the eastern gate opens, and the being sprints for the exit. As they run, the flames continue to sear them; their skin, innards, and sinews burn, and even their bones smoke and smolder. Just before they reach the gate, it slams shut. Over a long period of time this repeats with the western gate, the northern gate, and the southern gate, until finally the eastern gate opens once more, and this time stays open. However, when the being finally escapes, they find no relief from their suffering, because just outside that gate lie a number of regions, each replete with their own forms of torment.

Regions Beyond the Eastern Gate

The first area is "Gutha Niraya," or "the Hell of Filth." Here, hellish monsters like mosquitoes bore their needle noses into the bones of the tormented and feed on their marrow. Past Gutha Niraya is Kukkulu Niraya - the Hell of Hot Coals. No description is given, but it seems self-explanatory. Next comes Simbalivana - the Red Silk-Cotton Forest. Don’t let the name fool you; it is described as being filled with massive thorny trees, burning with hellfire, and the tormented is forced to climb up and down over and over. After this, there is another forest: Asipattavana - the Sword-Leaf Forest. Here, the trees grow razor-sharp leaves, and as they fall they are blown around by the wind like throwing-knives, and the hell-being is cut all over. Beyond the woods flows the Khārodakā Nadī - the River of Acid. The hell-being is swept away and tossed around within the caustic waters. Eventually, the wardens take a hook and pull the hell-being out and set them down on dry land. The torture seems to be finished, and the wardens ask if they can get something for the tormented, who will reply, “I need food.” The wardens pry open that being’s mouth with a red-hot spike, and they force them to swallow a red-hot ball. It burns their lips, mouth, tongue, and throat; it burns through their stomach and drops through their body, dragging out their entrails with it. The wardens offer to fetch something for the tormented again - this time, water is requested. Instead, they pour molten copper down that being’s throat. After all of this, they throw the tormented right back into Mahāniraya - presumably, to start the whole ordeal again from the top, so long as that hell-being stays alive.

A Monk's Recollection of Hell

The idea of hell is given additional details in MN 50, a sutta which records a description given by the monk Mahāmoggalāna. Interestingly, this account comes to us in the form of the monk recalling a past life in which he had been reborn in “Mahāniraya,” which seems to function here as a name for Niraya more generally and not simply its burning iron room. He said that he spent 10,000 years there as a man with the head of a fish. He also claimed that Mahāniraya has three other names. Two of these names appear elsewhere in the early texts: “The Six Fields of Sense-Contact” (chaphassāyataniko) and “Impaling With Spikes” (saṅkusamāhato). I’ll return to these later. The third is only found here in this sutta: “Individually-Painful” (paccattavedaniyo).

First, he described being approached by the nirayapālas, who told him, “When one spike touches another while piercing your heart, you can be sure you’ve been roasting here in hell for one thousand years!” He said he suffered for “many years, many centuries, many millennia in that Great Hell.” Then he specified that he spent 10,000 years roasting in an annex of that Great Hell. It’s worth noting that in this one passage alone we see “hell,” “Great Hell,” and “an annex of that Great Hell” used in succession to refer to the same location, demonstrating the ambiguity of such terms in the suttas.


This terminology regarding the “annex of that Great Hell” is interesting: in Pali, it is mahānirayassa ussade. Ussada can mean something like “protrusion,” as in something that “sticks out” from something else. In this case, the idea of an “annex of the Great Hell” certainly seems similar to the way that the regions outside of the eastern gate of Mahaniraya are described in MN 130. This would manifest in the commentarial material as a direct association, where we see such areas being called "ussadas" explicitly.

Mahāmoggalāna said the torture inflicted on him was named “Vutthānima,” an obscure term which doesn’t seem to appear elsewhere in the suttas. Sujato translates it as “This is Emergence,” Bodhi translates it as “Emergence from Ripening,” and I.B. Horner simply leaves it untranslated, following it with “pain” in a parenthetical explanation. He described “the kind of hell” where he suffered in that lifetime as containing 100 iron spikes, the pain of each one being felt individually - possibly explaining the unique name for hell given in this sutta, "Individually-Painful."

One Hell

The suttas discussed so far present "hell" as one broad realm with several smaller regions. Punnadhammo Mahathero suggests that this depiction "may well represent the original conception of niraya."6 Roger R. Jackson points out that the Early Buddhist texts refer to hell "as if it were a singular subterranean destination."7 This depiction of one singular hell-realm is corroborated by the earliest Āgama sutras, as pointed out by Ineke Van Put.8 To briefly summarize this depiction: hell is presented as a singular destination of rebirth wherein the damned are born spontaneously, seized by hell-wardens, and interrogated by King Yama. After this, the hell-wardens begin to torture the damned. The area in which this takes place is not described. Eventually, the hell-being is thrown into “The Great Hell,” a burning iron room with four gates. Beyond the eastern gate lie five different areas in which the damned may experience further torment. In addition, there is at least one “annex” where a being may be subject to a torture named “Vutthānima” - whatever that means. The texts call some of these individual areas “hells,” but the presentation is clear: these are not “realms” or destinations of rebirth in and of themselves. Rather, they are smaller areas contained within the broad realm of Hell proper, and beings may experience all of them within one lifetime.

Ten Hells

However, there is one discourse - the Kokālika Sutta, preserved in three parallel texts of the Pali Canon (SN 6.10, AN 10.89, Snp 3.10) - which seems to present the existence of at least ten different hell-realms. These suttas record the unfortunate fate of a monk named Kokālika, who was reborn in “Paduma Niraya” as a result of slandering the Venerable Sāriputta and Mahāmoggalāna. Upon his rebirth, a Brahmā god named Sahampati manifested before the Buddha and announced what had happened. The Buddha relayed this news to the monks the following morning, prompting a question about how long one’s lifespan is within Paduma Niraya. The Buddha explained with a simile; first, he told his monks to imagine a large cart carrying twenty bushels of sesame seeds; if someone came and took just one seed once every century, that cart would be emptied before one lifetime in the first of the ten hells - Abudda Niraya - had passed. The subsequent hells are described as having a lifespan twenty times greater than the hell which precedes it, leading up to the tenth hell - Paduma Niraya - which has the longest lifespan of all.

The List

The names of these hells can be interpreted in different ways. The names of the first five hells can be interpreted as some sort of description of what happens there. However, the commentarial tradition would insist that these names are numerical terms suggesting the dramatic length of one’s lifespan therein. The latter five are named after different lotus flowers. The full list is as follows:9

1. Abudda Niraya - Tumor/Fetus Hell
2. Nirabudda Niraya - Free-From-Tumors/Fetuses Hell
3. Ababa Niraya - “Ababa” is a more obscure term, and may be an onomatopoeia.
4. Atata Niraya - This term possibly comes from a verb stem meaning “to roam about."
5. Ahaha Niraya - "Ahaha" may be meant as a painful exclamation, painting a picture of someone crying out in agony.
6. Kumuda Niraya - White Lotus / Yellow Lotus Hell
7. Sogandhika Niraya - White Lotus / Sweet-Fragrance Hell
8. Uppala Niraya - Blue Lotus Hell
9. Pundarīka Niraya - White Lotus Hell
10. Paduma Niraya - Red/Pink Lotus Hell

Now, we have already seen that locations can be called “hells" without necessarily being presented as separate realms. What makes this list different is that each “hell” is discussed specifically in terms of the length of a lifetime within that particular hell. Furthermore, Kokālika is described as being reborn directly into the tenth hell, Paduma Niraya. A straightforward reading of this discourse leads to the conclusion that these are meant to be understood as different realms of rebirth, since in the suttas discussed thus far, a being is said to be ushered between the various areas of Niraya proper within a single lifetime, and is never described as being reborn into a particular area directly.10 As noted by Punnadhammo Mahathero, a plain reading of this text gives the impression that these are meant to be understood as separate hell-realms.11

Extra Details in Later Verses

The version of this discourse preserved in Snp 3.10 has an additional 17 verses (661-678) not found in the parallel suttas. There are several signs that these unique portions were late additions to the text, the most obvious being the fact that they are only found in one of three parallels. Sujato notes that in verse 665 we see a sudden change to a second-person perspective, which could suggest interpolation. In addition, the poetic meter of these verses is at odds with those that precede it, also indicating they were composed separately and inserted later. Furthermore, the Paramatthajotikā II commentary declares that the final two verses are not acknowledged by the Great Commentary (Mahā-Atthakathā), an older Sinhalese commentary which has been lost to time. This would make the last two verses of this sutta even later than the rest of the additional verses. All of this indicates a notable degree of patchwork composition, and we would be wise to scrutinize what is said in the suspect parts of this sutta. All the same, let’s take what they say about hell into consideration.12

Verses 667-675 describe the woes of a general hellish fate, without making reference to any one particular hell explicitly. Some of them correspond to other texts concerning hell, while others are unique to this particular version of this particular discourse. Let’s look at each instance individually.

Verse 667 describes the hell-being’s arrival at “The Place of Impalement” (ayosaṅkusamāhataṭṭhānaṁ) which is described as having “iron hooks, sharp blades, and iron stakes.” The commentary associates this place with the location where the torture called “The Fivefold Crucifixion” takes place, as described in other suttas. In fact, this “Place of Impalement” corresponds to one of the names for the “Mahaniraya” given in MN 50: saṅkusamāhato, “Impaling With Spikes.” Verse 667 also makes reference to the consumption of food “like a ball of hot iron,” which the commentary identifies as a reference to the torture inflicted by the hell-wardens upon the damned after they have been pulled out of the River of Acid, as described in MN 130.

Verse 668 describes the damned lying on beds of burning coals and entering “a blazing mass of fire.” The commentary claims that this takes place after the hell-being has been forced to climb up and down the mountain of hot coals mentioned in MN 130. This verse also references the damned entering “a blazing mass of fire,” which the commentary identifies as the burning iron room called The Great Hell in MN 130.

Verse 669 introduces two new sufferings not found in other suttas: first, the hell-being is described as being captured in a net and beaten with hammers. Next, they are described as entering pitch black darkness, which spreads out like a mist. The commentary identifies this as a hell named “Wailing in Smoke” (dhUmaroruva), and elaborates that there are two possible explanations for the darkness: the obvious option being the simple fact of the matter that the area itself is filled with a thick darkness. An interesting additional possibility is that this misty darkness causes the being’s eyes to split, blinding them that way.

Verse 670 simply makes reference to the burning cauldron described in MN 130. Verse 671 adds to this idea, specifying that the hell-being is cooked in a copper cauldron filled with pus and blood. Verse 672 further develops this idea by describing the damned being cooked in “worm-infested water,” and similar pots spread out in every direction, so that no matter where the hell-being goes, they are unable to escape the pain. These latter two details are unique to this sutta.

Verse 673 describes the Sword-Leaf Forest. However, it introduces a new detail, where the hell-wardens are said to use a hook to seize the tongue of the damned, and they cut it repeatedly. Verse 674 simply describes the River of Acid. Verse 675 introduces a new event, where the hell-being is said to be ambushed by dogs, ravens, and jackals as they weep.

It’s difficult to say whether or not these additional verses are meant to apply to Niraya as a whole, or to Paduma Niraya specifically; the overlap with the descriptions from MN 130 suggests that they describe hell broadly, while the context of the sutta’s concern with Kokālika’s rebirth in Paduma Niraya, reinforced by verse 677’s reference to that hell by name, suggests that these could also be understood as descriptions of Paduma Niraya specifically - especially given that some of these sufferings are unique to this sutta. However, considering the exceptionally late origin of these two concluding verses, perhaps we should not let the sudden reference to Paduma Niraya color the preceding verses.

Ambiguous Depictions of Hell(s)

There are a handful of other texts which mention hell that I’d like to discuss briefly. Let’s recall MN 50, where “The Six Fields of Sense-Contact” (chaphassāyataniko) was given as another name for Mahaniraya. We see this term appear in two other places: the Mahāparilā Sutta (SN 35.135) and the Sāsanapatthāna (Ne 37) of the Netti, which is something like a canonical “reader’s guide” to the Pali suttas presented in the Khuddaka Nikāya.

SN 35.135 is a short text in which the Buddha mentioned that he had seen “the hells named ‘The Six Fields of Sense-Contact’” (chaphassāyatanikā nāma nirayā), as well as “the heavens” bearing the same name. This name refers to the fact that, in the respective places, all six forms of sensory experience are either unpleasant (in the case of the hells) or pleasant (in the case of the heavens). Ne 37 simply reproduces the passage from the sutta.

There is some disagreement on whether or not this should be translated as “hells” in the plural or “hell” in the singular. Both Sujato and Bodhi translate the term in the singular. However, the Pāli seems to use the plural form of the noun (nirayā); it is possible I am misunderstanding the grammar at work here, but it should be noted that in Bhikkhu Ñānamoli’s translation of Ne 37, he translates the term in the plural.

In either case, due to the previously-established ambiguity of the term “niraya” (which can refer to the entire realm of hell broadly, or to smaller areas within hell), these passages don’t provide much evidence for determining whether or not there are multiple realms of hell in Buddhism.

In the Mahāparilā Sutta (SN 56.43), we see the Buddha declaring that there is a hell named “The Great Fever” (mahāpariḷāho nāma nirayo). It is described in the same way as “The Six Fields of Sense-Contact,” where all sensory experiences are unpleasant. Interestingly, this text clearly refers to one hell, using “niraya” in the singular.

Two successive suttas in the Samyutta Nikāya feature discussions of two hellish rebirths not mentioned elsewhere: “The Hell Named Laughter” (pahāso nāma nirayo) (SN 42:2) and “The Hell named Fallen” (parajito nāma nirayo) (SN 42:3). The suttas offer no description of what happens to those reborn in these “hells,” but they do explain how one gets there.

The first case was explained to the master of a dancing troupe, who had been taught that dancers who made their living by entertaining others would be reborn in the company of “the laughing gods” (pahāsā devā). After repeatedly pressing the Buddha for his thoughts on this, the Buddha finally told him he was wrong, and that dancers who make their living by arousing the desire, hatred, and delusion of untrained people, encouraging them to be heedless and negligent through enticing performances, will be reborn in “the hell named Laughter.”

The second case was explained to a warrior chief, who had similarly been taught that warriors who fall in battle are reborn in the company of the “gods of the Fallen.” After pressing the Buddha for his input, he was corrected and told instead that such warriors would be reborn in “the hell named Fallen” due to their minds being polluted with the desire to see their foes slaughtered.

Once again, the ambiguity of the term “niraya” makes drawing conclusions about how these “hells” fit into wider Buddhist cosmology a bit tricky.

A Brief Recap

So far, we have seen that, in the early texts, there are many references to hell as a destination of rebirth in which one may appear after death. The most detailed of these seem to present hell as a singular destination - one realm - with numerous smaller areas through which the damned may be ushered by the hell-wardens that torment them. This is corroborated by most off-hand references throughout the suttas, which mention rebirth in “hell” in the singular. Even in texts that present multiple areas called “hells,” context makes clear that these are not separate realms, but smaller regions within the one realm - such as the “annex” of Mahaniraya or the areas which lie beyond the burning iron room’s east gate. Other instances are more ambiguous, presenting singular, uniquely-named “nirayas” not mentioned elsewhere. However, one discourse found several times in the Pali Canon complicates this issue. Plain readings of its passages suggest the existence of multiple differentiated “hells” identified with unique names not otherwise present in more common descriptions of “hell,” characterized by varying lifespans.

In the suttas, then, we find what seems to be a tension between two different schemes: one of a singular hell, and one of multiple hells.

Hell in the Later Materials

The Eight Great Hells

The Buddhist tradition, as it developed, fell firmly on a position: “there are multiple hell realms.” Mahāniraya evolved into a term for a number of separate hell realms. The Samyutta Nikāya commentary (Sāratthappakāsini) mentions the existence of 31 such Great Hells, but the more common scheme features 8 Great Hells, as seen in the commentary to the Itivuttaka.13 The Samkicca Jātaka (Jāt 530) names these Great Hells and describes them:

1. Sañjīva Niraya: The Living Hell
Hell-wardens repeatedly chop up the damned into small pieces with a variety of weapons.
2. Kālasutta Niraya: The Measuring-String Hell
Hell-wardens shout, jump around, and beat the damned to the ground, stretching them out on the burning ground. They are measured and marked in increments, then chopped up into pieces.
3. Sanghāta Niraya: The Knocking-Together Hell
The damned are crushed between two massive burning mountains.
4. Jālaroruva Niraya: The Roaring Net Hell
The damned are caught in a brass net and burnt alive by fire that enters every orifice of their body.
5. Dhūmaroruva Niraya: The Roaring Smoke Hell
This hell is filled with caustic smoke that enters every orifice of the body of the damned.
6. Mahāvīci Niraya: The Great Unremitting Hell
Mahāvīci, or simply Avīci, became the most significant of the numerous hells in the later Buddhist traditions; it will be discussed in detail below.
7. Tāpana Niraya: The Roasting Hell
The damned are impaled on large stakes, which become ignited by the burning ground. They are unable to flee as they burn.
8. Patāpana Niraya: The Onward Roasting Hell
Something of a foil to the previous one; Here, the damned are not allowed to stop moving. They are beaten and forced to climb up a burning mountain, and when they reach the top, wind blows them back down, where they land on sharp spikes.

Mahāvīci / Avīci

Evolution of the Term

References to “Mahāniraya” in the suttas were reinterpreted as referring to a particular Great Hell named Avīci, said to be the most terrible hell of all. The term rarely appears in the canon, and what appearances can be found allow us to construct a possible evolution of the idea. In its appearance in two suttas—the Cakkavatti Sutta (DN 26) and the Paloka Sutta (AN 3.56)—the word simply seems to mean “crowded” or “densely populated.” In DN 26, the Pāli is “avīci maññe phuto bhavissati manussehi.” Bhikkhu Bodhi translates this as “one would think there was no space between people.” 14 Piya Tan similarly suggests the possibility that the term should be read literally as “a-” (without) “vīci” (a gap), again serving to simply refer to a dense population.15 The Pali is similar (but not identical) in AN 3.56. In both cases, the passage concerns a “golden age” in which this dense population is a sign of human prosperity. It is ironic to see this term used as a positive adjective, when it would later become the name of the deepest, most horrible of the Great Hells.

The term also appears in the Itivuttaka. This text concerns the Buddha’s wicked cousin Devadatta, who was said to have fallen “to Avīci Niraya, four-doored, terrifying” (Iti 89). Here, it has obviously gained its later gravity as the name of an especially heinous hell-realm, and carries some of the familiar qualities of the “Mahāniraya” discussed in the suttas: namely, the presence of four gates.

Evolution of Yama and the Ussadas

King Yama himself experienced a makeover in the commentaries—now, Avīci is said to host four King Yamas, one at each of the four gates (AN-a 3:36).16 The areas which the suttas described existing beyond the Eastern gate of Mahāniraya were also reinterpreted in the later tradition, now being smaller “sub-hells” which lie outside all four gates in all eight Great Hells.17 Here, they are called ussada-nirayas, with “ussada” being the same term used for the “annex” of the singular Great Hell in which Mahāmoggalāna, in a past life, was said to have been tortured (as described in MN 50).

Ambiguous Hells Reinterpreted

With the idea of Avīci being established, ambiguous discussions of hell in the suttas that did not neatly fit into the fleshed-out description found in MN 129/130 were explained by being associated with Avīci. In the Khana Sutta, where the Buddha said he had seen “the hells named the Six Spheres of Sense-Contact,” the commentary states that this should be understood as Avīci, although it grants that all realms of hell may carry this title. The “Hell Named Laughter” mentioned in the Tālaputa Sutta (SN 42.2) is reinterpreted as a section of Avīci, where hell wardens are dressed in costumes, dancing and singing as they torture the damned.18 Likewise, the “Hell Named Fallen” mentioned in the Yodhājīva Sutta (SN 42.3) is reinterpreted as a section of Avīci in which the damned are armed with swords and shields, mounted on chariots, and forced to battle one another continuously.19

The Paramatthajotikā II20 declares that each of the ten nirayas listed in the Kokālika Sutta should be understood as regions in Avīci, and the “lifespans” mentioned in the sutta are simply measurements of the duration of suffering experienced there. The names of the hells—Abbuda, Nirabbuda, etc.—are said to be numerical terms indicating the lengths of those durations.21 Interestingly, this commentary also acknowledges two other interpretations, showing just how fluid this process of reinterpretation was even as the commentaries were being codified: the first alternative is that the names derive from types of torture experienced in each region, and the second is that these nirayas are simply the “Cold Hells”—an even further complicated development in Buddhist cosmology, to be discussed below.

Where are the hells?

In the previous essay of this cosmology series, I mentioned that hell is not mentioned among the contents of a world-system in the list of cosmological bodies found in the suttas. In later texts, the realms of hell gain a fixed position in the Buddhist cosmos. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this position is beneath the earth. There is some precedent for this in the suttas: one of the three terms which often appear in tandem when hell is discussed, "vinipāta," means "falling to a bad place."22 Other discussions of hell in the suttas feature language which likewise suggests a downward direction, lowness, and similar concepts.

Avīci specifically is said to be part of the cakkavāla located beneath the southern continent of Jambudīpa, where you and I are said to live.23 It is considered to be the lowest vertical point of the cosmos, exemplified by the stock phrase "from Avīci below to Bhavagga above," with Bhavagga meaning "the highest becoming" or "the pinnacle of existence."24

With this position beneath the earth firmly established, we begin to see stories of people falling through the earth directly into hell. The most famous example is that of the Buddha's wicked cousin, Devadatta, who fell into Mahāniraya (described in the story in accordance with the burning iron room) after being swallowed by the very ground beneath his feet.25 The commentary to the Udana insists that even in cases where the damned fall through the earth into hell, they still die on the descent and are reborn spontaenously (opapātikā yoni) as with all hellish rebirths.26

An interesting innovation that came with this development is the idea that hell can be visited by highly-trained disciples. Throughout the suttas we find many examples of the Buddha or advanced monks visiting the various heavenly realms. As time went on, similar examples appeared in late texts featuirng disciples visiting the hell-realms for one reason or another. One such story depicts Mahākassapa manifesting in Avīci in order to deliver a sermon to the damned after creating a circle coolness around a lotus seat to protect himself from the flames.27 In a text preserved in the Chinese Canon, Mahāmoggallāna (there called by his Sanskrit name, Maudgalyāyana) asks to visit Kokālika in hell (Kokālika being the monk who was said to be reborn in Paduma Niraya). He witnesses his former monastic brother, now in the form of a man with a burnt body, being tortured by a bull with 100 heads dragging a plow across his tongue (likely relating to the bad kamma which led to his rebirth: slandering two noble monks).28

Eight Cold Hells

In time, the eight Great Hells were further reinterpreted as “the eight Hot Hells,” and eight new hells were added: the Cold Hells. This idea is not found at all in the Pāli Canon, and it isn’t prevalent in the early commentarial material either. However, it is alluded to in Buddhaghosa’s commentary to the Sutta Nipāta (as seen above). It is also mentioned in Acariya Dhammapāla’s commentary to the Udana.29 Sanskrit traditions, however, adopted this idea and incorporated it into their cosmological systems, as can be seen in the Abhidharmakośa, where all eight cold hells are listed and named.

These cold hells were clearly inspired by the ten nirayas listed in the Kokālika Sutta. Even without Buddhaghosa’s allusion to the theory that those nirayas are “the cold hells,” the names given to these realms obviously derive from eight of those given in the Kokālika Sutta. Comparing the Pāli names to the Sanskrit names, we have:

The Ten Hells in Pali:
1. Abudda
2. Nirabbuda
3. Ababa
4. Atata
5. Ahaha
6. Kumuda
7. Sogandhika
8. Uppalako
9. Pundarīka
10. Paduma

The Eight Cold Hells in Sanskrit:
1. Arbuda
2. Nirabuda
3. Atata
4. Hahauva
5. Huhuva
6. Utpala
7. Padma
8. Mahāpadma

The obscure names in this list are explained as representing the noises made by the damned as they suffer the otherworldly cold in those realms - sounds which evoke the trembling of someone freezing, the chattering of teeth, etc. The names which correspond to lotus flowers are said to represent maladies of the body experienced there, such as sores bursting open like blooming flowers. This is similar to the way the Pāli list of ten nirayas was interpreted, where the obscure names were taken as numerical words, while the other nirayas bore the names of different types of lotus flowers.30

Explaining These Developments

A Brief Recap

We have seen that an evolution of the idea of "hell" in Buddhism can be roughly traced: it seems to have began as one singular realm, as depicted in the most detailed suttas concerning hell, and corroborated by numerous references to "hell" in the singular throughout the suttas. Eventually, a list of ten separate hells appears, and despite the fact that the commentaries insist these ten locations are not realms in-and-of themselves, a plain reading of the text clearly indicates that they are separate destinations of rebirth. Other passages, more ambiguous, are scattered throughout the suttas and discuss hell in ways that don't neatly fit in to one scheme or the other. Late texts, especially the Jatakas and the commentaries, firmly cement the idea of eight distinct hell-realms. In this later development, ideas established in the suttas - such as King Yama, the locations outside the eastern gate of the Great Hell, etc. - are also recontextualized. Finally, we see the appearance of eight "Cold Hells," parallels to the Eight Great Hells - now reinterpreted as the "Eight Hot Hells" - although these are not as common in the Pali sources as they are in Sanskrit sources.

Ineke Van Put's Analysis

In his essay “The Names of Buddhist Hells in East Asian Buddhism," Ineke Van Put argues that this development in the idea of hell was the result of an intentional mirroring of the Buddhist conception of the heavenly realms. Buddhist cosmology presents a world-system in a vertical arrangement; unlike hell, which began as a singular destination, the heavens were "from a very early stage" depicted as a sixfold series of realms. This made the Buddhist conception of the world rather "top-heavy," and the one hell was likely divided into six Great Hells in order to balance the cosmological body. This explains why Avīci, considered the deepest and most terrible of the hells, is only in the sixth place of the list of Great Hells seen in sources such as the Samkicca Jātaka. This mirroring is seen explicitly in the Abhidharmakośa, which states outright that "from six hells up," the lifespans of the damned born in the various hells matches those of gods born in the corresponding heavens. In this text, however, Avīci has been moved to the bottom of the list, likely to reflect the belief that it is the worst hell of all. The latter two Great Hells seen in the list where Avīci is number six were likely meant to mirror the two highest planes of the cosmos: the form plane and the formless plane. This significance was lost when they were moved to the two spots preceding Avīci.

Concerning the advent of the "Cold Hells," Ineke Van Put acknowledges the uncertainty of the origin of the Kokālika story and its list of ten hells. However, as we have seen, the "Cold Hells" were almost certainly derived from this list. He proposes the possibility that the idea of the cold, desolate "Hell Between Worlds" (which I discussed in a previous essay on Space & Time) was transplanted from the periphery of the world-system into "this world," leading to the Eight Cold Hells which themselves paralleled the Eight Great Hells, now reinterpreted as the Eight Hot Hells.


[1] Jackson

[2] Piya Tan, SD 48.2

[3] Mahathero: An Anguttara Nikāya commentary (AN-a 3:36) claims that they are real beings who had previously been torturers in a previous life. [Mahathero] Similarly, a Majjhima Nikāya commentary (MN-a 11) claims that they were previously teachers who had misled their students (with their students being reborn as the victims being tortured).
Piya Tan, SD 57.10: The Kathāvatthu - a Theravādin text recording sectarian controversies and codifying the orthodox positions of that school - testifies the existence of sects which believed that the Hell-Wardens aren’t real beings, and instead should be understood as non-sentient forms, almost like automatons (Kvu 20.3/598.7) produced by one’s own bad kamma. Although this is not the canonical Theravādin position, Buddhaghosa himself entertains the possibility in some of his own commentaries.
Piya Tan, SD 2.23: Vasubandhu felt so strongly about this issue that, in his work “Vimśatikākārikā,” he declared that the Hell-Wardens actually disprove the existence of the hells as real destinations. He believed that, if the hells were real, the Hell-Wardens could not possibly endure the environments as described in the suttas and later post-canonical texts. This led him to conclude that hellish existence is a mental phenomenon, like a dream.

[4] The portion about being seized by hell-wardens and brought before Yama to be interrogated is from MN 129; the description of the tortures inflicted upon the damned leading up to being thrown in the burning iron room of Mahaniraya is shared by both suttas; MN 130 goes on to elaborate on what happens in Mahaniraya and everything that occurs beyond its eastern gate.

[5] In a parallel text preserved in AN 3.36, there are only three messengers, but the point is the same.

[6] Punnadhammo

[7] Jackson

[8] Ineke Van Put

[9] The translations for these names come from Punnadhammo, as well as dictionary entries on SuttaCentral.net & WisdomLib.org

[10] MN 50 is a possible exception, where someone is described as having been reborn directly in Mahaniraya, although I argued above that Mahaniraya there is meant to refer to the realm of hell broadly, and not just the burning iron room.

[11] Punnadhammo

[12] The information in this section comes from Bodhi, Sutta Nipata

[13] It-a 3:5,4 - cited by Punnadhammo

[14] Bodhi, Numbered Discourses - cited by Punnadhammo

[15] Piya Tan, SD 2.22

[16] This has been noted by Punnadhammo, as well as Bodhi & Ñānamoli

[17] It-a 3:5,4 & Jāt 530 - cited by Punnadhammo

[18] SN-a 42:2 - cited by Punnadhammo

[19] SN-a 42:3 - cited by Punnadhammo

[20] Also known as the Suttanipāta-atthakathā; a commentary to the Sutta Nipata which is traditionally attributed to Buddhaghosa, though there is some debate regarding its authorship.

[21] Bodhi, Sutta Nipata

[22] Punnadhammo

[23] the information concerning the cakkavala comes from Sn-a 3:7 ; the statement regarding hell's placement beneath Jambudipa comes from the commentary to the Visuddhimagga - both sources cited by Punnadhammo

[24] DN-a 1, MN-a 92, SN-a 6:2m, and others, cited by Punnadhammo

[25] Dhp-a 1:12 - similar examples can be found in Jāt 72, 222, 313, 457, cited by Punnadhammo

[26] Ud-a 4:4, Punnadhammo

[27] AN-a 1:191, Punnadhammo

[28] T 125.21.5, cited by Ineke Van Put

[29] Punnadhammo

[30] from the Abhidharmakośa, cited by Punnadhammo


1. Bodhi (Bhikkhu) : "The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Anguttara Nikaya"
2. Bodhi (Bhikkhu) : “The Suttanipata: An Ancient Collection of the Buddha's Discourses Together with Its Commentaries”
3. Bodhi (Bhikkhu) & Ñānamoli (Bhikkhu) : “The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya”

4. Jackson, Roger R. : “Rebirth: A Guide to Mind, Karma, and Cosmos in the Buddhist World (Book)”

5. Punnadhammo (Mahāthero) : “The Buddhist Cosmos: A Comprehensive Survey of the Early Buddhist Worldview according to the Theravada and Sarvastivada sources”

6. Put, Ineke Van : “The Names of Buddhist Hells in East Asian Buddhism”

7. Tan, Piya : “Sutta Discovery 2.22 - M 129 - Bala Pandita Sutta”
8. Tan, Piya : “Sutta Discovery 2.23 - M 130 - (Majjhima) Devaduta Sutta”
9. Tan, Piya : “Sutta Discovery 48.2 - Death: An early Buddhist perspective”
10. Tan, Piya : "Sutta Discovery 57.10 - Early Buddhist cosmology"