To (Buddhist) Hell & Back (NSFW)

About a month ago, I was in a market in a small town in central Thailand and I stumbled across some crazy statues. Bizarre, grotesque, and morbid, they were exactly my jam. I can’t really explain how or why they got my synapses firing but I was utterly absorbed by them. It turned out they were depictions of Thai Hell, that which is called Naraka.

I’d seen a little bit of the hell atmosphere at the White Temple (which I think is on par with the Taj Mahal) but I had no idea of either the breadth or the scope of a proper Hell garden. (This article has a good assortment from around the country.)


You can’t start talking about Buddhist hell parks in Thailand for long without mentioning The Wang Saen Suk Hell Garden. Of all the Hell parks, it’s the biggest and the bestest, and the only one with English translations. (For an detailed account of it specifically, this article is pretty well-written.)

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I’ve now been to three Hell Parks and there are some commonalities. You are usually greeted by giant ghosts, which are monstrous spirits of hunger called Preta. These are creatures I wasn’t previously aware of but they’re basically the spirits of those people who were too greedy. They have swollen bellies and long tongues and are doomed to always be hungry.

My first thought was that perhaps it was a relic of the christian missionaries who have been doing their best to sandpaper down all other cultures and mores. That may be true, but some scholars believe that Jews and then Christians got torture-hell from Buddhists.

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Then you walk around and see the various punishments doled out to those who transgress morally. Though it seems morbid, people bring their kids to these places. From what I’ve seen, none of the children at the parks seem particularly horrified.

Though it’s fair to say they can be pretty disturbing. See below.

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20180908_142547This is how Naraka works. When you die, the first stop is to go visit Phya Yom (the Death king). Though he has a morbid name and sometimes appearance, he’s an impartial judge and he has four buddies who check the record of your deeds. The good deeds are on a gold plate, and the bad deeds are on a piece of dog skin. If you were cool, rejoice, but if you’re bad, a nigh-eternity of hell awakes.

It’s not actually forever though. Unlike other hells, you aren’t in Naraka for eternity, just until the end of the Buddhist era (until a new Buddha is born on earth). Which as Alan Watts says, maybe isn’t literally 10 million years, but it’s quite long.

What kind of bad things get you into Naraka? Specific bad behaviors will turn you into certain kind of animals. For instance, if you harm plants or herbs you will change into a goat head. If you steal from others, you get a monkey head. If your mischief is just general hooliganism, you get a crocodile head. The worst sin you can do is to hurt your parents or monks and then you go to the bottom of hell.

It is very patriarchal and petty, which isn’t a shock for a religion that still considers it an offense for women to touch monks. Women are doomed for cheating on their husbands or getting abortions.

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The punishment for liars

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She cheated on her husband

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Suitable punishment for a rapist

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(Nearly) Eternal fate for those who get abortions

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Classic cutting off a thief’s hands

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A warning against those who drink too much alcohol

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You don’t want to know what she did

So despite being didactic and patriarchal there’s an amazing sense of otherness and wonder in these warning statues. They’re definitely worth a visit for those who appreciate the morbid, the ghoulish and the macabre.

 

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