The Buddhist Universe – Chapter 1: The Realms of Rebirth

The doctrines of karma and rebirth are fundamental to Buddhist theory and practice. Karma is the law of the cause and effect of actions, according to which virtuous actions create pleasure in the future and non-virtuous actions create pain. It is a natural law, accounting for all the happiness and suffering in the world. The beings of the universe have been reborn without beginning in the six realms of gods, demigods, humans, animals, ghosts, and hell beings. (These six realms are sometimes collapsed into five, as in the text below, with demigods included in the realm of ghosts.) The actions of these beings create not only their individual experiences of pleasure and pain, but also their bodies and minds, and even the domains in which they dwell. The physical universe is thus the product of the individual and collective actions of the inhabitants of the universe. Buddhist practice is directed largely at performing deeds that will bring happiness in the future, avoiding deeds that will bring pain, and counteracting the future effects of misdeeds done in the past. The ultimate goal is freedom from the bonds of karma and the universe it has forged.

Because of this causal link between past deeds and present circumstances, descriptions of the Buddhist cosmos are often also ethical treatises, identifying which human actions result in rebirth in a particular realm, and exhorting their readers to practise virtue and eschew sin. The text translated here is an excellent example of this genre. It begins at the bottom with the hells. Buddhist texts often describe a system of eight hot hells, eight cold hells, four neighbouring or secondary hells, and various trifling hells (the hot hells and the neighbouring hells are set forth here), providing elaborate details of the gruesome sufferings that the denizens undergo as a result of their sinful actions in the past.

Next is the section on animals, followed by the section on ‘ghosts’.. This section includes descriptions not only of petas (Sanskrit preta, a term that literally means ‘departed’ and is usually translated as ‘ghost’ or ‘hungry ghost) but a wide variety of generally malevolent beings. Modern English is relatively impoverished in its demonology, leaving only words like ‘demon’, and ‘ogre’ to render terms that are much more evocative in the original. For example, a rather ghoulish denizen of charnal grounds is the kumbhanda, which literally means ‘pot testicle’; so named because its testicles are the size of water pots, creating difficulty when walking but apparently providing a convenient place to sit. Also included here are the demigods (asuras), a class of jealous deities that sometimes warrants its own category among the six places of rebirth. They are jealous of the riches of the gods and wage war against them, only to be defeated.

The section on humans describes our various pleasures and sufferings, and identifies what deeds were done in the past to cause them. Those who find themselves in happy circumstances in this life are experiencing the result of their past virtues. It is also the Buddhist view, however, that illness, physical or mental disability, as well as the female gender, are the consequences of negative deeds done in the past. The text concludes with a description of the Buddhist heavens, the most pleasant realms within the cycle of rebirth.

The work translated below is entitled Pancagatidlpanl (Illumination of the Five Realms of Existence.), a work in Pali of unknown date and authorship, but perhaps written in Cambodia in the fourteenth century.


Let there be homage:

Homage to the Virtuous One, conqueror of what must be conquered, resplendent with right knowledge, always working for the good of others, the teacher of the three worlds! (1)

‘Whatever good or bad deed is done by themselves with body and so on, people reap the fruit of it; no other creator is found.’ (2)

With this thought, and displaying compassion, the Instructor, the one teacher of the three worlds, spoke for people’s benefit about the fruit of each deed. (3)

Having heard what was said by the Completely Awakened One, I shall now speak briefly about deeds good and bad to be done or to be eschewed by you. (4)

Naraka Section The Eight Great Narakas [Hells]

There are the Sanjiva, Kalasutta, Sanghata and also the Roruva, the Maharoruva, Tapa, Mahatapa and Avici [hells]. (5)

Those men who, because of greed, delusion, fear or anger, kill living creatures, or having reared them, slaughter [them] – they surely go to Sanjiva; (6)

Though killed and killed again for many thousands of years, because they revive there [again and again] it has the name of ‘Sanjiva’ – the Revival Hell. (7)

Men who show enmity to their friends, including mother, father and dear ones, who are slanderers and liars – they go to Kalasutta; (8)

Since they are split like wood with burning saws along [a mark made by] black thread, so it is thought of as ‘Kalasutta’ – the Black Thread Hell. (9)

Those men who kill goats, rams, jackals and so on, hares, rats, deer and boar and other living beings – they go to Sanghata; (10)

Since, crushed together, they are slain there in a total slaughter, therefore this niraya [hell] is considered to be named ‘Sanghata’ – the Crushing Hell. (11)

Those men who cause torment of body and mind to creatures and who are cheats go to Roruva; (12)

There they give forth terrible howls, constantly consumed by fierce fire, so that is thought of as ‘Roruva’ – the Hell of Those Screaming Aloud. (13)

Those who take the property of devas [gods], brahmans and [their] gurus, by causing suffering to them even, go to Maharoruva, as well as those who steal what was entrusted to them; (14)

The awfulness of the fire-torment, and also the greatness of the howling [there gives rise to the name] ‘Great Roruva’; its greatness [must be heard] with respect to Roruva [which it surpasses]. (15)

Whoever burns creatures in conflagrations such as forest fires, that person, wailing, is consumed by fire in Tapana in blazing flames; (16)

And since such severe torment by burning continues without interruption, therefore it is known in this world here as ‘Tapana’ – the Burning Hell. (17)

The nihilist who asserts perversely that the dhamma is non-dhamma [that is, that the truth is untruth] and whoever torments beings is consumed by fire in Patapana; (18)

Because it burns those beings there with fierce fire, greater than that of Tapana, this is said to be ‘Patapana’. (19)

Those beings showing enmity to those of greater virtue, slaying disciples and also mother, father, teacher – they are reborn in Avici; (20)

Even bones melt there because of the heat of terrible fire; since there is no intermission for comfort, it is considered to ‘Avici’ – the Hell without Intermission. (21)

Here end the Eight Great Narakas Secondary Nirayas [Hells]

There are four secondary nirayas for each and every niraya: the [cesspool of] Milhakupa, the [embers of] Kukkula, [the trees of] the Asipattavana and the Nadi [river]. (22)

Those beings issuing from the great niraya fall into the cesspit; they are pierced with horrible hordes of worms; (23)

And, issuing from the Milhakupa, they fall in the Kukkula; fallen there, those beings are cooked like mustard seeds; (24)

And, on issuing from the embers, they see trees shining, green and abounding in leaves – desiring comfort, they draw near; (25)

There crows and vultures, dogs, owls and boars, terrible herons, crows and so on, metal-beaked and very fearsome, (26)

Surrounding everybody, devour their flesh – flesh grown back again, the victims rise up, [are devoured] and fall back. (27)

And [those] who assail each other in battle to destroy [each other], because of this wrongdoing are reborn with swords for nails and have suffering for their lot. (28)

Their nails are swords indeed, made of iron, ablaze and sharp; since they cut each other to pieces with them so they are thought of as ‘Those Having Swords for Nails’. (29)

By force they make the adulterer climb that simbali tree of metal, flaming, sharp- pointed and with thorns sixteen finger-lengths long. (30)

Metal-toothed, huge bodies, blazing fearsome females, embracing him, feed on the one who steals another’s wife. (31)

Torn up in the Asipattavana [forest], men who are traitors wail – while dogs, vultures, owls and crows devour [them]. (32)

Those who steal others’ property again and again feed on red-hot iron balls; they drink molten copper. (33)

Dogs with fearsome iron teeth violently devour those men, though they cry out [like] bellowing cattle, [those men] who are always partial to hunting. (34)

Those who kill [creatures] born in water, such as fish, go to the terrible river Vetarani whose running water is like blazing copper; [there] one is consumed by fire for a long time. (35)

Whoever, full of moha [delusion], goes to law contrary to the dhamma because of his greed for bribes, weeping is struck with the discus in naraka [hell]. (36)

For a long time red-hot hammers like mechanical mountains crush those who in this world have caused crushing to creatures in various ways. (37)

Those breakers of the dhamma-bridges and those who preached the wrong path weep as they follow a [real] path fitted with sharp blades. (38)

Men who crush lice and so on between their nails weep for a long time and are crushed again and again between rams as big [-bodied] as mountains. (39)

And, whoever undertakes right conduct, but does not maintain it correctly is broiled for a long time in Kukkula with flesh and bones dissolving. (40)

Anyone who lives even a little by a wrong means of livelihood is plunged in dung and urine and is eaten by hordes of worms. (41)

Those who crush on sight the insects that appear in the midst of their rice are crushed again and again by iron pestles there indeed. (42)

Men who are cruel, exceedingly wrathful, always intent on killing and gladdened by the suffering of others are reborn as Yama’s rakkhasas [demons of the Lord of Death]. (43)

Once the seeds of absolutely all suffering have been distinguished, beginning with the first, [as to] any wrongdoing of body, speech and so on – one should not indulge in that [wrongdoing] even minutely. (44)

Naraka – the first section [is concluded]

Animal Section

Because of passion, they are reborn in the womb of geese, doves and the like, [in the womb] of rhinoceroses, [in the womb of those] exceedingly influenced by passion; [and] because of [their] moha [delusion], in the wombs of insects and so on. (45)

Because of anger and ill-will, they become snakes, because of pride and obduracy, lions; some are reborn, on account of their excessive conceit, in the wombs of donkeys and dogs. (46)

He who is avaricious [or] discontented gets birth as a monkey; the foul-mouthed, the fickle and the shameless are reborn in the wombs of crows. (47)

Those flogging, fettering and injuring elephants, horses, buffalo and the like become spiders of cruel character, stinging insects and scorpions. (48)

Men who are flesh-eating, angry and avaricious are reborn after death as tigers, cats, jackals, bears, vultures, wolves and so on. (49)

Men who are generous givers yet angry and cruel [become] nagas [serpent deities] of great iddhi-power [magical power]; though charitable they become garuda-lords [mythical birds of prey] because of anger and haughtiness. (50)

If any wrongdoing in thought and so on has been done by themselves, they are reborn in the realms of animals; therefore one should shun that [wrongdoing]. (51)

Animals – the second section [is concluded]

Peta Section Petas [Ghosts]

Those who steal what can be chewed and eaten and who lack energy [for good deeds] become corpse-eating petas, kataputanas [rotten bodied]. (52)

Those who oppress the young and cheat them because of greed are themselves reborn kataputanas to feed on birth-impurities. (53)

Whatsoever men are engaged in low practices, the mean, the avaricious and the constantly greedy are reborn after death as goitrous petas. (54)

Whoever prevents others from giving and does not himself give anything becomes a hungry, thirsty peta, needle-mouthed and big-bellied. (55)

Whoever preserves [his] wealth for his family [but] neither enjoys nor gives it is reborn a peta taking [only] what is given, eating funeral offerings. (56)

Whoever longs to steal another’s property, and gives and then regrets it, is reborn as a peta feeding on dung, phlegm and vomit. (57)

Whoever speaks unpleasantly in anger, words hitting vital spots, because of that deed becomes for a long time a peta with a mouth like a furnace. (58)

And whoever is cruel-minded, without sympathy and quarrelsome, would become a fiery peta eating worms, insects and beetles. (59)

Kumbhandas [Ghouls]

Any village-fraud who himself gives but stops [others] giving is reborn a kumbhanda, deformed, [but] doing honour. (60)

Whoever pitilessly kills animals, but gives [them] to be eaten [by others] inevitably, after death, finds his various kinds of food [as] a rakkhasa [flesh-eating demon]. (61)

Those who are always intent on scent and garlands, are slow to anger and are munificent are reborn after death as gandhabbas [fragrance-eating spirits], furthering the delight of the devas. (62)

Whoever is angry, malicious and offers goods out of greed is reborn as a pisaca [goblin], evil-minded with deformed visage. (63)

Those men who are constantly corrupt, fickle, causing pain to others, [but] constantly delighting in giving, become bhutas [ghosts] after death. (64)

Those who are horrible, angered, [but] generous, and those fond of intoxicating liquors are reborn after death as yakkhas [woodland spirits], feeding on horrible things, fond of liquor. (65)

Those who in this world convey folk such as mother, father and guru in carriages become yakkhas travelling in celestial palaces, provided with ease. (66)

Because of the fault which is craving and avarice, after death people are reborn as petas; [and they are reborn as] yakkhas and so on because of deeds good but spoiled – therefore one should shun wickedness. (67)

Asuras [Demigods]

That treacherous person who is always deceitful [but] commits no other sin, who is quarrelsome [but] generous, becomes lord of asuras. (68)

Vepacitti’s asuras went to the realm of the Thirty-three devas; those named the Kalakanja asuras were included among the petas. (69)

Petas – the third section [is concluded]

Human Being Section

Among devas, asuras and men, man is short-lived because of injuries [done by him] or long-lived because of injuries not [done] – therefore one should avoid causing injury. (70)

Leprosy, wasting, fever, madness and other ills of human beings exist here on earth among men because of killing, flogging and fettering. (71)

Whoever is a thief of others’ goods and offers nothing whatsoever does not acquire wealth, however great his effort. (72)

Whoever takes wealth ungiven and gives gifts is reborn after death [first] wealthy then penniless. (73)

Any man who is neither thief nor giver nor exceedingly miserly surely obtains, with great difficulty, lasting wealth. (74)

That man who is never a thief of others’ goods, generous and free from avarice, obtains many rich possessions which cannot be stolen. (75)

Whoever gives food here on earth is always reborn to comfort, given long life, beauty and strength, is wise and avoids disease. (76)

Whoever would offer garments is reborn modest, beautiful, splendid, dear to people and receives garments. (77)

Whoever gives houses here on earth with joyful heart, for that creature there will arise palaces rich in all pleasures of the senses. (78)

Whatsoever men offer bridges, sandals and so on are always comfortable [in the next life]; they obtain the best of carriages. (79)

Those who build watering-places – wells, tanks, ponds – are [reborn] comfortable, free from heat and free from thirst. (80)

Whoever offers a garden, the refuge of all creatures, would be reborn worshipped with flowers, be always rich and glorious. (81)

Erudition is obtained by giving knowledge, and wisdom by means of analysis; by giving medicine and safety, one is reborn free from illness. (82)

By giving lamps one becomes clear-sighted, by giving the sound of music one becomes sweet-voiced, by giving bed and seat a man obtains ease. (83)

Whoever here on earth gives a cow and so on, and edibles along with milk and the like becomes strong, beautiful, wealthy and long-lived. (84)

By giving a maiden one obtains sensual pleasures and a retinue; and by giving land one is reborn prosperous in money and grain. (85)

Whichever return is desired [of one] – leaf, flower, fruit, water and also a pleasing conveyance – should be given to whoever wants it. (86)

Here on earth he who gives, spoiling [his gift] for the sake of heaven or on account of fear, for fame or for comfort, reaps spoiled fruit. (87)

Whoever gives something for the good of others, with heart full of sympathy, not heeding his own good, reaps unspoiled fruit. (88)

Anything whatever that is given to another at the proper time in the proper way – [in the next life] all that is present in just that [same] way. (89)

Not oppressing others, at the proper time [and] according to what is desired, without spoiling [the gift], one should oneself give that [giving] indeed not contrary to the dhamma. (90)

There is indeed yielding of fruit from gift[s] being given in this way – giving is thought to be the most important cause of all the comforts [that can accrue from deeds]. (91)

Whoever keeps away from another’s wife indeed obtains a comely wife; whoever even with his own wife avoids the wrong place and time becomes a man. (92)

[But] that man who does not stop his lecherous intentions towards the wives of others and takes pleasure in amours becomes a woman. (93)

That woman who loathes her womanhood, is moral, is little affected by passion and always longs for manhood would obtain manhood. (94)

And whoever properly enters upon a religious life which is free of disquiet becomes splendid, very virtuous, wealthy and venerated even by devas. (95)

An abstainer from the drinking of intoxicating liquors [is reborn] with sure memory, not bewildered; a truthful person is reborn glorious, and provided with comfort. (96)

Whoever causes no division, even between people [already] of divided views, is reborn strong-minded and with faithful retinue. (97)

Whoever always carries out gurus’ commands with joyful mind and teaches what is beneficial and non-beneficial becomes one whose words are welcome. (98)

Humbled by their disrespect of others, elevated by the opposite, people have comfort having given comfort, and suffering having given suffering. (99)

Those who indulge in contempt for others, are treacherous and untruthful, and take pride in their beauty become hunchbacks and dwarves. (100)

Avaricious for skills, one would become stupid; and unpleasant to the pleasant, become dumb. Whoever is indignant at friendly words is reborn deaf and bewildered. (101)

Suffering is the fruit of evil, comfort of meritorious action, a mixture of a mixture – one should know that every fruit corresponds to the deeds. (102)

Human beings – the fourth section [is concluded]

Deva Section

And whoever is not looking for his own comfort and takes no joy in his household, this one as chief of planets would attain the realm of the Maharajika gods [the kings of the four directions]. (103)

Whoever honours mother, father and clan elders, is charitable, patient, and takes no pleasure in quarrelling would be reborn among the Thirty-Three Gods. (104)

Those men who are neither devoted to dispute nor indeed joyful-minded in quarrels but devoted exclusively to righteousness go to the Yama gods. (105)

Those men who have much learning, know the dhamma [by heart], are very wise, longing for mokkha [liberation], completely content with the virtues go to the Tusita [Joyous Heaven] gods. (106)

Those men who by themselves are based on right conduct, giving and monastic discipline, and are full of effort inevitably go to the Nimmanarati [Delighting in Creation] gods. (107)

And those who are of superior virtue, are open-minded and attached to giving, self­control [and] restraint [will be among] the Paranimmittavatti [Controlling Others’ Creations] gods. (108)

One attains to the Tavatimsa [Thirty-Three] heaven by right conduct, to the blessing of Brahma’s world by jhana meditation and to nibbana by knowledge. (109)

The fruit of one’s deeds is pleasant or unpleasant. This fruit has been expounded by me – one goes to a comfortable state because of pleasant deeds; suffering has unpleasant deeds as its origin, (110)

This trio should be pondered: death, disease and indeed old age, separation from things loved, [and whatever] was the fruit of each deed, (111)

In this way one reaches destruction of passions; whoever is free from passions attains meritorious action; thus one renounces evil. You must all listen to this briefly. (112)

This has been spoken by the great isi [that is, the Buddha]: ‘Doing what is beneficial for others and avoiding what is harmful to others is meritorious action; evil is the reverse.’ (113)

The realms of the devas and men and the three evil regions are the five courses [of rebirth], explained by the Buddha himself to be the three states of existence. (114)

Devas – fifth section [is complete]
Pancagatidipani is complete

Translated by Ann Appleby Hazlewood. See ‘A Translation of the Pancagatidipani’, Journal of the Pali Text Society 11 (1987), pp. 133-59.

Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.

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