What is HELL?

The sawmill in hell

The French existentialist philosopher Jean Paul SARTRE (1905-1980) once famously said ‘Hell is other people’. Most Asian people certainly would disagree. When I visited Tiger Balm Garden a.k.a. ‘Haw Par Villa’ in Singapore back in 1977 I was fascinated and repulsed at the same time by the very detailed scenes of torture in the ‘Ten Courts of Hell’. Of course, I had heard about hell when I grew up in the Christian faith, but I had only vague ideas about it.

Did you know that the cure-all Tiger Balm was invented by two Chinese brothers from Rangoon, Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par? They later moved to Singapore and made a fortune with their ointment. Fortunately, there’s not a single milligram of tiger parts in it. The Aw brothers spent a lot of money for charity – and not only in Tiger Balm Gardens. In Monywa (Burma) you can find the ‘Eternal Peace Hall’ which they had built for their spiritual mentor, the Mohnyin Sayadaw, who supervised the construction of the fascinating Thanboddhay pagoda – nothing like it exists outside Disneyland or the ‘Vatican’ of the Cao Dai in Tay Ninh, not far from Saigon.

Spilling out his guts ...
Having a bath in hell
Enjoying Tiger Balm Gardens
Rats to the resuce!
The Aw Bros. in Monywa

In Buddhism hell (naraka) is one of the 31 bhumis (planes of existence). It must be the worst of all! Even though in Myanmar I’m not quite sure about what is considered to be worse: naraka or preta loka, the realm of the hungry ghosts? The inhabitants of hell at least seem to get something to eat in order to enable them to endure their pain. But the denizens of preta loka hardly get anything to eat. They have huge bodies, but their mouths have the size of the eye of a needle. As a result of this constant undernourishment their bodies are bloated. To make things worse, when they want to drink water – it turns into fire!  

If you want to experience the full extent of the all-persistent Burmese fear of dying a miserable death by starvation, ride a long distance train. All travellers carry huge bags with enough food to cover the route three times. Without even the slightest feeling of hunger.

As soon as the train leaves the station, they start unpacking and eating. Of course, I’m not denying that four to five hour delays are more the rule than the exception in Burmese trains. That goes for express trains, too. But even here no train journey can last long enough to allow the passengers to eat all the goodies they’ve brought with them! Especially since the train stops frequently and there are snack bars at every station. Apart from that, there are always hawkers aboard the trains, trying to sell all kinds of snacks. Until recently, they used to take the shortcut over the train’s roof … But even at home hardly anyone dares to leave the house without their ‘tiffin box’ (Burmese: htamin: gjain.). It is usually made of stainless steel and contains three bowls with homemade food that are held together by a bayonet joint. In one bowl is rice, in the next one vegetables and in the last one eggs, meat, fish or something else.

Burmese hell (from R.C. Temple's 'The 37 Nats')
Yamada - hell's chief torturer (dto.)
The realm of hungry ghosts

According to a diagram I saw in the Pindaya caves (Southern Shan State, Burma) there are eight main hells. And not less than 84.000 minor hells in Buddhism, so I’ve been told. Depending on your akusala (wrongful deeds) you will end up in one of the following hot hells (names in Pali)

–   Samjiva, because of anger, cruelty and wickedness. The punishment comprises permanent attacks by wild creatures

–   Kalasutra, because of tormenting and murdering of spiritual men, hermits and monks. The sinners are cut up by wires.

–   Samghata, owing to wrong beliefs that merits and moralities are fruitless. Here you’ll be squeezed to death by big hot things.

–   Rauruva, because of killing living beings by putting them into flames, boiling oil or water. Punishment is hellish screaming while you have to walk over embers.

–   Maharaurawa, because of destroying and stealing the properties of the Three Gems. Here you’ll suffer by even greater screaming while being devoured by wild animals.

–   Tapana, for royal bodies who break up the country and make the people disappointed. It’s an extremely hot place where the sinners are being speared.

–   Pratapana, owing to wrong beliefs that merits and demerits have no effect

    –   owing to wrong belief that there is no cause and effect

   –   owing to wrong beliefs that merits and demerits should not be practised since there is no cause and effect.  Punishment: Even hotter than Tapana and      instead of spears they use tridents

–          Awizi, committing patricide, matricide, murdering of arahats, wounding of a Buddha, creation of a schism among Sanghas and causing destruction to Bo-Tree and  Buddha images. Sinners will be constantly fried in furnaces.   

According to other sources there are also cold hells and they’re not comfortable either … And how long would you have to spend in those uncomfy places? Well, until your demerits are completely expiated! And that may take a long, long time. Quite contrary to popular belief in Burma there is no such thing as a general ledger account. Which means that you cannot make up for your bad deeds with good ones.

Sartre, 1939

So which hell would you prefer? The one in the ‘Ten Courts of Hell’ or those mentioned in Pindaya? Western people do disagree with Sartre, too, and have their own definition of hell. As Gary Larson’s ‘The Far Side’ cartoon proves. Finally, here’s a joke I’ve heard some time ago. A man enters hell and the keeper tells him that he can choose between three different hells. “Well, let’s see what you’ve got!” the man says. So he is given a tour. The first hell is the hot type and the poor wretch watches people screaming in agony, being fried in giant pans etc.  “Oh my god, not this one!” the sinner exclaims. Next is the cold hell. Already from a distance they can hear the chattering of teeth. When they get closer he sees people whose limbs just break off when they touch something. “How terrible!” says the man, “Let me see the last one”. The closer they get, the more intense the smell of liquid manure gets. Finally they end up in a big cave where people are standing up to their chin in a giant cesspool, smoking cigarettes. “Well! the man says, “That’s not too bad, at least I can smoke here” and joins the others. After having taken three puffs, comes the announcement: “Cigarette break is over, you may sit down again!”.   

Copyright: Gary Larson, The far side