Naraka Loka: The Concept of Hell in Hinduism

Depiction of Hell for Hindus

Naraka (Yamaloka) is the equivalent of Hell in Hindu Dharma where those who have sinned are punished after they die. It is also considered the dwelling place of Yama, the god of Death.

When someone dies, the Yamadutas, messengers of Yama, take all souls to Yama’s court. Yama weighs the person’s virtues and vices and passes a judgment, based on which the virtuous ones are sent to Svarga (heaven) and the sinners to one of the hells. 

Depiction of Hell

The stay in either Svarga or Naraka is temporary, and after completing the quantum of punishment, the souls are reborn as higher or lower beings according to their actions.

Where is Naraka Located?

प्रकृतेः क्रियमाणानि गुणैः कर्माणि सर्वशः

अहङ्कार-विमूढात्मा कर्ताहमिति मन्यते।

prakṛteḥ kriyamāṇāni guṇaiḥ karmāṇi sarvaśaḥ

ahaṅkāra-vimūḍhātmā kartāham iti manyate

Meaning: The bewildered spirit soul, under the influence of the three modes of material nature, thinks himself to be the doer of activities, which are in actuality carried out by nature.

S.B. 5.26

Bhagwata Purana states that Naraka is situated beneath the earth, between the seven realms of the underworld known as Patala and the Garbhodaka Ocean, which is the lowest point of the universe. This realm is located in the southern part of the universe, and it is where Yama, the Lord of Naraka, resides with his assistants. Pitrloka, the place where the dead ancestors known as Pitrs, headed by Agniṣvāttā, reside, is also located in this region. 

Chapter 2.52 of Devi Bhagavata Purana further explains that Naraka is situated below the earth but above Patala, in the southern part of the universe. 

Chapter IV of Vishnu Purana describes it as located at the bottom of the universe, below the cosmic waters. 

Some Mahakavyas state that Naraka is located in the South, which is associated with Death and governed by Yama. Pitrloka is considered the capital of Yama, from where he administers justice.

How does Naraka operate?

Yamaraj and Chitragupt administrating Hell | Chore Vagan Art Studio

Upon death, all living beings, including humans and animals, are brought to Yama, the god of Death, for judgment by his messengers, the Yama-dutas or Yama-purushas. However, exceptionally virtuous beings are taken directly to Svarga (heaven). Those who are charitable, speak eternal truth, or are war heroes, especially those who sacrificed their lives, are also spared from Yama’s court. 

Yama assesses the virtues and vices of the dead and assigns them to appropriate hell as punishment that aligns with the severity and nature of their sins. Generous and ascetic individuals are given preferential treatment when entering Naraka for judgment. 

For example, those who donated lamps have their way lit, while those who underwent religious fasting are carried by peacocks and geese. Yama is referred to as Dharma-raja, the Lord of Justice, who sends the virtuous to Svarga to enjoy the luxuries of paradise. 

However, a person is not freed from samsara and must take birth again after completing their prescribed pleasure in Svarga or punishment in Naraka. Yama is assisted by his minister Chitragupta, who maintains records of all the good and evil actions of every living being. The Yama-dhutas are responsible for executing punishments on sinners in the various hells.

Number and names of hell based on Various Scriptures

  • Manu Smiriti (21 hells): Tamisra, Andhatamisra, Maharaurava, Raurava, Kalasutra, Mahanaraka, Samjivana, Mahavichi, Tapana, Sampratapana, Samhata, Sakakola, Kudmala, Putimrittika, Lohasanku, Rijisha, Pathana, Vaitarani, Salmali, Asipatravana, Lohadaraka
  • Yajnavalkya Smriti (21 hells): Tamisra, Lohasanku, Mahaniraya, Salamali, Raurava, Kudmala, Putimrittika, Kalasutraka, Sanghata, Lohitoda, Savisha, Sampratapana, Mahanaraka, Kakola, Sanjivana, Mahapatha, Avichi, Andhatamisra, Kumbhipaka, Asipatravana, Tapana
  • Bhagavata Purana (28 hells): 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, Suchimukha
  • Vishnu Purana (28 hells): Raurava, Shukara, Rodha, Tala, Visasana, Mahajwala, Taptakumbha, Lavana, Vimohana, Rudhirandha, Vaitaraní, Krimiśa, Krimibhojana, Asipatravana, Krishna, Lalabhaksa, Dáruńa, Púyaváha, Pápa, Vahnijwála, Adhośiras, Sandansa, Kalasutra, Tamas, Avichi, Śwabhojana, Apratisht́ha, Avichi

28 hells of Vagawata Purana

The range of punishment given in Hell | Ravi Varma Press
Hell nameEnglish namePunishmentWhom to punish
TamisraDarknessBound with ropes, starved, beaten, reproached by YamadutasPerson who grabs another’s wealth, wife or children
AndhatamisraBlind-darknessTormented, loses intelligence and sightPerson who deceives another man and enjoys his wife or children
RauravaFearful or hell of rurusTortured by savage serpent-like beasts called rurusPerson who cares about his own and his family’s good, but harms other living beings and is always envious of others
MaharauravaGreat-fearfulAfflicted with pain by fierce rurus called kravyadas, who eat his fleshPerson who indulges at the expense of other beings
KumbhipakaCooked in a potCooked alive in boiling oil by Yamadutas for as many years as there were hairs on the bodies of their animal victimsPerson who cooks beasts and birds alive
KalasutraThread of Time/DeathBurns from within by hunger and thirst and the smouldering heat outside, whether he sleeps, sits, stands or runsMurderer of a brahmin, or person who disrespects his parents, elders, ancestors or brahmins
Asipatravana/AsipatrakananaForest of sword leavesBeaten with whips as they try to run away in the forest where palm trees have swords as leavesPerson who digresses from the religious teachings of the Vedas and indulges in heresy, or wanton tree-felling
ShukaramukhaHog’s mouthCrushed by Yamadutas as sugar cane is crushed to extract juiceKings or government officials who punish the innocent or grant corporal punishment to a Brahmin
AndhakupaWell with its mouth hiddenAttacked by birds, mammals, reptiles, mosquitoes, lice, worms, flies and others, who deprive him of rest and compel him to run hither and thitherPerson who harms others with the intention of malice and harms insects
Krimibhojana/KrimibhakshaWorm-foodReduced to a worm, who feeds on other worms, who in turn devour his body for 100,000 yearsPerson who does not share his food with guests, elders, children or the gods, and selfishly eats it alone, or who loathes his father, Brahmins or the gods and who destroys jewels
Sandansa/SandamsaHell of pincersTorn by red-hot iron balls and tongsPerson who robs a Brahmin or steals jewels or gold from someone, when not in dire need, or violators of vows or rules
Taptasurmi/TaptamurtiRed-hot iron statueBeaten by whips and forced to embrace red-hot iron figurines of the opposite sexPerson who indulges in illicit sexual relations with a woman or man
Vajrakantaka-salmaliThe silk-cotton tree with thorns like thunderbolts/vajrasTied to the Vajrakantaka-salmali tree and pulled by Yamadutas so that the thorns tear his bodyPerson who has sexual intercourse with non-humans or who has excessive coitus
Vaitarni/VaitarnaTo be crossedFilled with excreta, urine, pus, blood, hair, nails, bones, marrow, flesh and fat, where fierce aquatic beings eat the person’s fleshPerson born in a respectable family – kshatriya (warrior-caste), royal family or government official – who neglects his duty, or destroyer of a bee-hive or a town
PuyodaWater of pusForced to eat pus, excreta, urine, mucus, saliva and other repugnant things in the ocean of pusShudras (workmen-caste) and husbands or sexual partners of lowly women and prostitutes
PranarodhaObstruction to lifePlayed archery sport with Yamadutas as the targetsBrahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas (merchant caste) who indulge in the sport of hunting with their dogs and donkeys in the forest, resulting in wanton killing of beasts
VisashanaMurderousWhipped and finally killedPerson who has pride of his rank and wealth and sacrifices beasts as a status symbol, or maker of spears, swords, and other weapons
LalabhaksaSaliva as foodThrown in a river of semen, which he is forced to drinkBrahmin, Kshatriya or Vaishya husband, who forces his wife to drink his semen out of lust and to enforce his control, or one who eats before offering food to the gods, the ancestors or guests
SarameyadanaHell of the sons of SaramaPreyed on by seven hundred and twenty ferocious dogs, the sons of Sarama, with razor-sharp teethPlunderers who burn houses and poison people for wealth, and kings and other government officials who grab money of merchants, mass murder or ruin the nation
Avici/AvicimatWaterless/wavelessRepeatedly thrown head-first from a 100 yojana high mountain whose sides are stone waves, but without waterPerson who lies on oath or in business
AyahpanaIron-drinkForced to drink molten-ironAnybody else under oath or a Brahmin who drinks alcohol
KsarakardamaAcidic/saline mud/filthThrown head-first and tormentedPerson who in false pride, does not honor a person higher than him by birth, austerity, knowledge, behavior, caste or spiritual order
Raksogana-bhojanaFood of RakshasasCondemned to be cut with sharp knives and swords, and have their blood feasted on by RakshasasThose who practice human-sacrifice and cannibalism
ShulaprotaPierced by sharp pointed spear/dartPierced with sharp, needle-like spears. Ferocious carnivorous birds like vultures and herons tear and gorge their fleshPeople who give shelter to birds or animals pretending to be their saviors, but then harass them, or behave the same way to humans, winning their confidence and then killing them with sharp tridents or lances
DandasukaSnakesDevoured by five or seven hooded serpentsPeople who harm others like snakes
Avata-nirodhanaConfined in a holeSuffocated in a dark well engulfed with poisonous fumes and smokePeople who imprison others in dark wells, crannies or mountain caves
ParyavartanaReturningRestrained and have their eyes plucked out by hard-eyed vultures, herons, crows and similar birdsHouseholder who welcomes guests with cruel glances and abuses them
SuimukhaNeedle-faceStitch thread through person’s whole bodyPerson who is Proud of his money and sins to gain and retain it

Naraka Influencing life of Sanatan Dharmi

The fear of Naraka teaches us to be good

Sanatan Dharma or the Hindu religion’s concept of Hell is not a place of permanent punishment but rather a way to compensate for crimes committed in previous lives before returning to the present world.

Per Mahabharata, where the protagonist visits Hell, teaching a lesson on tolerance and acceptance. Manusmriti insights various hells and their corresponding punishments, providing structure to society by defining acceptable behavior and its consequences. 

Garuda Purana’s Preta khanda, where Hindu priests perform rituals to give the soul of the deceased safe passage into the next life, is economically beneficial to the priests. The gifts given during the ritual help forgive crimes committed in the deceased’s life, improving their next life progressively.

All these the concept of hell teaches us the importance of understanding both good and evil in order to truly appreciate the value of living a virtuous life. It also emphasizes the concept of karma and rebirth, where a person’s actions in this life will determine their fate in the next life. The idea of hell provides a moral compass for adherents of the Hindu faith to guide their behavior and to avoid committing evil deeds that could lead to negative consequences in future incarnations. 

The important thing is it serves as a reminder that one can always redeem themselves through appropriate actions and rituals. There is always a chance of redemption so it is an urge for all to start walking on the path of Dharma and peace.