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


, 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


, the subject of which is the Buddha's earlier lives. Hell is discussed as a topic already in the


, the first scholarly treatise of Buddhism with a named author, datable between 250 and 100 BC. The discussion in the


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.

The Buddhist Hell: An Early Instance of the Idea?

in Numen

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