Seven Hells: An Incomplete Survey of the Afterlife

Eastern Hell
Detail from the Ceiling Paintings of Kerta Gosa (©Corbis)

The Hells of Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto and other Asian myth cycles are rich and intoxicating. But in brief, let us remember that reincarnation involves far more than generic rebirth into humans or animals. The Wheel of Life includes a number of realms -- and they range from the Hellish Nakaras to the Heavenly domain of the Devas.

Some beliefs throw in additional subdivisions of torment in the afterlife, but the general idea is that every soul may pass through numerous Hellish, human, animal and divine lives before finally finding liberation from the endless cycle of rebirth. It's this escape, not Heaven, that serves as the ultimate goal.

In some variations, you'll encounter a sort of dead-end Hell, a place where the worst of the worst may end up with no hope of escape and rebirth to a better realm. In these cases, we're back to a self-inflicted vs. literal quandary. Are they locked away forever because they're so debased, or do the depths of their debasement prevent them from ascending?

I leave such questions to more enlightened souls.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.