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Could you be boiled in oil or squeezed like sugarcane in the afterlife? According to ancient Puranic texts, these are some of the options available in special hells for specific sins!
Heaven and hell are afterlife destinations that are promised to people who are good or evil in this life. But can there be designer hells to match the evil deeds and intents? Yes, indeed. Let’s take you for a ride through some vivid descriptions of numerous “naraks” from Puranic sources.
Whether or not you believe in the afterlife, in hell or heaven, you are sure to hear about these options as an admonition or curse (“Go to hell! /rot in hell”) or as a description of a holiday spot (“heaven on earth”) or as a way to cajole you into being good (when you’re “assured of a place in heaven”). We will not venture into the choppy seas of various faiths and belief systems, but we can have a look at the rather graphic descriptions of hells or narak from Hindu scriptures that are designed to punish specific sins and wrongdoings. Though these names may look totally strange to you, they were pretty much in common parlance a couple of decades ago! I can personally vouch for an occasion when I overheard an errant rickshaw-wala being cursed to go to Kumbhipaak narak for overcharging the fare. That sounded like something sweet, like Mysore paak, so it didn’t seem so scary to me back then! Little did I know it meant being boiled in a cauldron of oil!
Much later I found this amazing array of naraks in the scripture sources I use for reference while writing for print and TV. I love to share these with college students in my writing or animation workshops to trigger their imagination and perhaps elicit amazing output. Early texts like the Rigveda do not have a detailed description of Hell or Narak. It is simply a place of evil and a dark bottomless pit. The Atharva Veda describes a realm of darkness, to where murderers are confined after death. The Shatapatha Brahmana is the first text to mention the pain and suffering of Narak in detail, while the Manu Smriti begins naming the multiple hells.
The epics Ramayana and Mahabharata also describe hell in general terms as a dense jungle without shade, where there is no water and no rest. The Yamadutas, who assist Yama, the Lord of Death, torment souls on the orders of their master. It is in the various Puranas, however, that we find the most detailed descriptions of the hells.
The names of many hells are common in many Puranas, however, the nature of sinners tormented in particular hells varies from text to text and so do the total number of hells. The Puranas, which literally mean ancient or old, are ancient Hindu encyclopaedic collections of myths, legends and genealogy and are the richest source of stories. The most exhaustive list of Naraka is perhaps found in Vishnu Purana which mentions Raurava, Śúkara, Rodha, Tála, Viśasana, Mahájwála, Taptakumbha, Lavańa, Vimohana, Rudhirándha, Vaitaraní, Krimíśa, Krimibhojana, Asipatravana, Krishńa, Lálábhaksha, Dáruńa, Púyaváha, Pápa, Vahnijwála, Adhośiras, Sandansa, Kálasútra, Tamas, Avíchi, Śwabhojana, and Apratisht́ha.
Bhagvata Purana mentions Tamisra, Andhatamisra, Raurava, Maharaurava, Kumbhipaka, Kalasutra, Asipatravana, Sukaramukha, Andhakupa, Krimibhojana, Samdamsa, Taptasurmi, Vajrakantaka-salmali, Vaitarani, Puyoda, Pranarodha, Visasana, Lalabhaksa, Sarameyadana, Avichi, Ayahpana, Ksharakardama, Raksogana-bhojana, Sulaprota, Dandasuka, Avata-nirodhana, Paryavartana and Suchimukha.
The idea behind portraying these various hells and their gory descriptions was probably to serve a deterrent for wrongful behaviour and to instil some values. Admittedly, this is a rather scary way but perhaps it was hoped that fear would work where soft suggestions for social harmony were not enough.
Let’s have a look at the kinds of sins or wrongdoings that could land you in one of these places.
We have heard of Atithi Devo Bhava, the belief that we are expected to treat a guest like a divine being. But what if you don’t do that? Here is a deterrent for you! Check out Paryavartana Narak
A person who shows unwarranted anger towards a guest in his house is put into the hell called Paryavartana. A host who receives guests or visitors with cruel glances, as if to burn them to ashes, is put into this hell, where he is gazed at by hard-eyed vultures, herons, crows and similar birds, which suddenly swoop down and pluck out his eyes with great force. According to traditional etiquette, even an enemy who comes to a householder’s home should be received in such a gentle way that he forgets that he has come to the home of an enemy.
So brush up your hospitality etiquette and watch your body language, as even your glances can get you into trouble!
Don’t drink and drive is reduced to just ‘don’t drink’ by this narak called Ayahpanam (which literally means the ‘drinking of burning substances’), as those who consume alcohol and other intoxicating drinks are sent here. The women are forced to drink melted iron in liquid form, while men are forced to drink hot liquid molten lava for every time they consume an alcoholic drink in their earthly lives.
“Have more than thou showest
Speak less than thou knowest.”
So spoke Shakespeare in King Lear, but if that adage is not a deterrent for unwarranted display of wealth, read on! Visasanam (meaning ‘Bashing from Clubs’)Naraka is for the torture of those rich people who look down on the poor and spend excessively just to display their wealth and splendour. They are to remain here for the whole term of their punishment and are to be bashed non-stop with heavy clubs wielded by Yama’s servants.
The person who is obsessed with possessing riches and is constantly absorbed in thinking about how to collect money is put into the hell known as Sūcīmukha. He is not in any way able to obtain actual happiness, and he does not know what it is to be free from anxiety. Because of the sinful things he does to earn money, to augment his wealth and protect it, he is put into the hell called Sucimukha, where the officials of Yamarāja punish him by stitching thread and needles through his entire body like weavers manufacturing cloth.
After his death, a sinful king or governmental representative who punishes an innocent person is taken to the hell named Sukaramukha, where the most powerful assistants of Yamaraja crush him exactly as one crushes sugarcane to squeeze out the juice. This is the punishment meted out for punishing a faultless person, so rulers and kings should be fair and just to all their subjects.
A person who is born into a royal family or is a government servant, but who neglects to execute his prescribed duties according to his dharma or duty, falls at the time of death into the river of hell known as Vaitaraṇi. This river, which is full of stool, urine, pus, blood, hair, nails, bones, marrow, flesh and fat, is also full of ferocious aquatic animals. When a sinful man is thrown into the River Vaitaraṇi, the animals there immediately begin to eat him, but because of his extremely sinful life, he does not leave his body. He constantly remembers his sinful activities and suffers terribly in that river.
If this list of naraks looks way too much, then here’s a passing remark– one of the texts says that the lists compiled are only partial, there are actually hundreds and thousands of naraks! Go ahead and imagine some more of your own, some modern hells for modern times!
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