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The Buddhist Hell: An Early Instance of the Idea?

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In spite of the modern idea that Buddhism is too rational a religion to have a conception of hell, the case is just the opposite. The Buddhists promoted this idea very early. This is not really surprising, since the idea of hell is closely connected with the concept of kamma, action, and its fruit or result. Every living being is what it is by the force of its actions in this or earlier lives: good actions entail rebirth in heaven or as a human, while bad actions have as their result rebirth as an animal, a ghost, or worst of all, in hell. In the Buddhist hell one is thus punished by the evil actions themselves, not by some sort of divine justice. Although life in hell is not eternal in Buddhism, it can still last for an enormous time span until the bad actions have been atoned for and one is reborn to a happier state of existence. Thus hell plays a great part in the Buddhist system of teachings, and it is a favourite topic in the monastic rules as well as in the narrative literature of the Jātakas, the subject of which is the Buddha's earlier lives. Hell is discussed as a topic already in the Kathāvatthu, the first scholarly treatise of Buddhism with a named author, datable between 250 and 100 BC. The discussion in the Kathāvatthu represents what may be seen as a fully developed conception of hell, and thus the Buddhist hell as described by its earliest canonical literature predates the appearance of the idea in most, if not all other religious traditions.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Cultural Studies and Oriental Languages, University of Oslo, P.O. Box 1010 Blindern, 0315 Oslo, Norway;, Email:


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