Buddhist Studies Review, Vol 31, No 1 (2014)

In Search of the Origin of the Enumeration of Hell-kings in an Early Medieval Chinese Buddhist Scripture: Why did King Bimbisāra become Yama after his Disastrous Defeat in Battle in the Wen diyu jing 問地獄經 (‘Sūtra on Questions on Hells’)?

Frederick Shih-Chung Chen
Issued Date: 24 Jul 2014


The idea of a purgatorial journey to the Ten Kings of the Ten Hells is a distinctive feature of funerals and ancestral worship in Chinese Buddhism and Chinese popular religions. In Indian Buddhism ideas emerged of chief deities presiding over others in a few of many heavens and of various hells with different tortures governed by Yama and his messengers, yet the idea that each hell was governed by a ‘king’ is not found in early Indian Buddhist sources. This article examines what is probably the earliest enumeration of hell-kings, in the Sūtra on Questions on Hells. This very early example derives from an extraordinary story about how King Bimbisāra and his eighteen ministers became Yama and kings of eighteen hells after a disastrous defeat in battle. My analysis will illustrate how this account was probably consciously formulated by an author familiar with two sources: (i) the story of the Buddha’s concern about the fate of his followers in the Shenisha jing (闍尼沙經; Janavasabha Sutta), and (ii) the popular Chinese belief in sacrificial cults of ‘defeated armies and dead generals’.

Download Media


DOI: 10.1558/bsrv.v31i1.53


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Equinox Publishing Ltd - 415 The Workstation 15 Paternoster Row, Sheffield, S1 2BX United Kingdom
Telephone: +44 (0)114 221-0285 - Email: info@equinoxpub.com

Privacy Policy