QUERY> Passages on whether the guardians/wardens of hell are real or not

Peter Harvey's picture

The idea of 'wardens/guardians of hell' have presented Buddhist interpreters with a problem. According to Buddhist principles, if they were real beings who continually tortured others, it would seem that this would generate such bad karma as to lead to ever repeated rebirths in hell realms. As life in no rebirth realm is seen as eternal, were such 'beings' to be understood as real, or merely karmically generated phantoms of the prolonged nightmare of life in a hell? The Theravādins argued that the guardians are not unreal (Kathāvatthu XX.3). Vasubandhu in his Abhidharma-kośa-bhāya says that they are not real beings, though he also cites the opinion of others that they are (III.59a-b). Do people know of other passages that discuss this issue, other than those cited in the La Vallee Possin/Pruden translation?

Peter Harvey, University of Sunderland

Categories: Query

Dear Peter,

I don't have my copy of La Vallée Poussin handy, so I cannot consult the citations you allude to, but of course Vasubandhu seeks to demonstrate that hell's wardens are the projections of beings born in the hells and not real in his Viṃśikā vv. 4-7 and its commentary. Jonathan Silk's recent edition and translation (Harvard Oriental Series) details much of the previous work on this text, so there is no need to repeat that here.The Vinītadeva subcommentary on this passage might be worth consulting, but it is preserved only in Tibetan.

good luck,

Matthew Kapstein
EPHE, Paris, and the University of Chicago

Dear Peter,

I also don't have my copy of La Vallée Poussin handy, but Bodhicaryāvatāra 7.5-8ab comes to mind:

śastrāṇi kena narake ghaṭitāni prayatnataḥ |
taptāyaḥkuṭṭimaṃ kena kuto jātāś ca tāḥ striyaḥ ||7||
pāpacittasamudbhūtaṃ tattatsarvaṃ jagau muniḥ |

The discussion is continued in Tibet, probably with numerous statements.

Best wishes,


Jan-Ulrich Sobisch
CERES, Ruhr-Universität Bochum

Dear Peter,

John Taber and myself summarized the discussion in Vasubandhu's Viṃśikā in our 2014 article "Studies in Yogācāra-Vijñānavāda idealism I: The interpretation of Vasubandhu’s Viṃśikā" (Asiatische Studien 68, download available at https://www.zora.uzh.ch/id/eprint/110396/), pp. 738-740.

We note there the relevance of AKBh 164,11–19 ad AK 3.58 for different positions on the nature and existence of the hell guardians. LVP's summary of doctrinal positions in 1926: 152, n. 3 was based on the Vibhāṣā and on a commentary on the Viṃśikā, which I think was Kuiji's commentary that was also used in Hamilton's translation of the Xuanzang version of the Viṃśikā.

Frauwallner also summarizes relevant doctrinal positions ("Philosophy of Buddhism", English translation 2010, p. 383): Mahāsāṅghika/Sāṃmitīya: hell guardians are real living beings; Sarvāstivāda: they are formations of the inanimate elements, which appear in this guise through the karma of the hell denizens.

I hope this helps. If you find any further interesting discussions, I'd be happy to learn more, the subject always fascinated me.

With best wishes,

Birgit Kellner

Dear Peter Harvey, Your post prompts me to offer a note that I wish I could insert in an old publication. Since all worlds are produced by karma, I suggest that the question regarding the status of the hell realm wardens is not whether they are real. They and their realms are as "real" as anything else. The question is whether they are sentient. Regarding the ethical issues they raise, it might be fruitful to focus on Yama [or the Yamas], Buddhism's underworld judge of the dead. King Yama is real, sentient and dharmic. With the help of the angelic devatā and the Four Great Kings, who keep records of our good and bad karma [according to Thai tradition on tablets of gold or dog skin], Yama judges merit and demerit, and then assigns those who deserve it to their horrific doom. Most importantly for ethics, he models the dharmic king in his court. In the description of his deliberations, there is a strong repetitive emphasis on the fact that the damned alone have committed their acts and they are therefore the authors of their fate. This seems to remove King Yama from responsibility. Similar reasoning is found in the endorsement of hellish punishments in the Milindapañha and is quite close to the dharmaśāstras. It is the criminal's own karma that causes the amputation etc., not the Buddhadhamma that directs kings to punish the wicked. This may help explain the horrific penal codes found throughout the Buddhist world, but our sources conflict and discomfort over these characters is also telling.
Majjhima Nikāya, Sutta 130; Frank Reynolds, Three Worlds According to King Ruang, 70; Punnadhammo Mahathero, The Buddhist Cosmos, 2018 [A new book recommended to all interested in cosmology with valuable penetration of the commentaries]. For discussion of Milindapañha see my “Making Merit through Warfare According to the Ārya-Bodhisattva-gocara-upāyaviṣaya-vikurvaṇa-nirdeśa Sūtra,” in Buddhist Warfare, Edited Mark Juergensmeyer and Michael Jerryson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, 59–75 and "Once the Buddha Was a Warrior” in The Nature of Peace and the Morality of Armed Conflict, Edited by Florian Demont-Biaggi, Palgrave, 2017, 159-178.
All the best, Steve