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.
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?
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
|Hell name||English name||Punishment||Whom to punish|
|Tamisra||Darkness||Bound with ropes, starved, beaten, reproached by Yamadutas||Person who grabs another’s wealth, wife or children|
|Andhatamisra||Blind-darkness||Tormented, loses intelligence and sight||Person who deceives another man and enjoys his wife or children|
|Raurava||Fearful or hell of rurus||Tortured by savage serpent-like beasts called rurus||Person who cares about his own and his family’s good, but harms other living beings and is always envious of others|
|Maharaurava||Great-fearful||Afflicted with pain by fierce rurus called kravyadas, who eat his flesh||Person who indulges at the expense of other beings|
|Kumbhipaka||Cooked in a pot||Cooked alive in boiling oil by Yamadutas for as many years as there were hairs on the bodies of their animal victims||Person who cooks beasts and birds alive|
|Kalasutra||Thread of Time/Death||Burns from within by hunger and thirst and the smouldering heat outside, whether he sleeps, sits, stands or runs||Murderer of a brahmin, or person who disrespects his parents, elders, ancestors or brahmins|
|Asipatravana/Asipatrakanana||Forest of sword leaves||Beaten with whips as they try to run away in the forest where palm trees have swords as leaves||Person who digresses from the religious teachings of the Vedas and indulges in heresy, or wanton tree-felling|
|Shukaramukha||Hog’s mouth||Crushed by Yamadutas as sugar cane is crushed to extract juice||Kings or government officials who punish the innocent or grant corporal punishment to a Brahmin|
|Andhakupa||Well with its mouth hidden||Attacked by birds, mammals, reptiles, mosquitoes, lice, worms, flies and others, who deprive him of rest and compel him to run hither and thither||Person who harms others with the intention of malice and harms insects|
|Krimibhojana/Krimibhaksha||Worm-food||Reduced to a worm, who feeds on other worms, who in turn devour his body for 100,000 years||Person 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/Sandamsa||Hell of pincers||Torn by red-hot iron balls and tongs||Person who robs a Brahmin or steals jewels or gold from someone, when not in dire need, or violators of vows or rules|
|Taptasurmi/Taptamurti||Red-hot iron statue||Beaten by whips and forced to embrace red-hot iron figurines of the opposite sex||Person who indulges in illicit sexual relations with a woman or man|
|Vajrakantaka-salmali||The silk-cotton tree with thorns like thunderbolts/vajras||Tied to the Vajrakantaka-salmali tree and pulled by Yamadutas so that the thorns tear his body||Person who has sexual intercourse with non-humans or who has excessive coitus|
|Vaitarni/Vaitarna||To be crossed||Filled with excreta, urine, pus, blood, hair, nails, bones, marrow, flesh and fat, where fierce aquatic beings eat the person’s flesh||Person 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|
|Puyoda||Water of pus||Forced to eat pus, excreta, urine, mucus, saliva and other repugnant things in the ocean of pus||Shudras (workmen-caste) and husbands or sexual partners of lowly women and prostitutes|
|Pranarodha||Obstruction to life||Played archery sport with Yamadutas as the targets||Brahmins, 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|
|Visashana||Murderous||Whipped and finally killed||Person who has pride of his rank and wealth and sacrifices beasts as a status symbol, or maker of spears, swords, and other weapons|
|Lalabhaksa||Saliva as food||Thrown in a river of semen, which he is forced to drink||Brahmin, 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|
|Sarameyadana||Hell of the sons of Sarama||Preyed on by seven hundred and twenty ferocious dogs, the sons of Sarama, with razor-sharp teeth||Plunderers 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/Avicimat||Waterless/waveless||Repeatedly thrown head-first from a 100 yojana high mountain whose sides are stone waves, but without water||Person who lies on oath or in business|
|Ayahpana||Iron-drink||Forced to drink molten-iron||Anybody else under oath or a Brahmin who drinks alcohol|
|Ksarakardama||Acidic/saline mud/filth||Thrown head-first and tormented||Person who in false pride, does not honor a person higher than him by birth, austerity, knowledge, behavior, caste or spiritual order|
|Raksogana-bhojana||Food of Rakshasas||Condemned to be cut with sharp knives and swords, and have their blood feasted on by Rakshasas||Those who practice human-sacrifice and cannibalism|
|Shulaprota||Pierced by sharp pointed spear/dart||Pierced with sharp, needle-like spears. Ferocious carnivorous birds like vultures and herons tear and gorge their flesh||People 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|
|Dandasuka||Snakes||Devoured by five or seven hooded serpents||People who harm others like snakes|
|Avata-nirodhana||Confined in a hole||Suffocated in a dark well engulfed with poisonous fumes and smoke||People who imprison others in dark wells, crannies or mountain caves|
|Paryavartana||Returning||Restrained and have their eyes plucked out by hard-eyed vultures, herons, crows and similar birds||Householder who welcomes guests with cruel glances and abuses them|
|Suimukha||Needle-face||Stitch thread through person’s whole body||Person who is Proud of his money and sins to gain and retain it|
Naraka Influencing life of Sanatan Dharmi
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.