From the Blacksmith’s Forge to the Fires of Hell

Eating the Red-Hot Iron Ball in Early Buddhist Literature

  • Joseph Marino University of Washington
Keywords: early Buddhist literature, discipline, similes, metallurgy, Gandhāra


Early Buddhist texts were first being composed and compiled during South Asia’s Iron Age, and thus contain many references to iron and other metal technologies. This article examines one metalworking image that came to play a special role in the imagination of early Buddhists: the red-hot iron ball. I argue that the iron ball, which comes to be a torture device in hell, force-fed by hell wardens, is a mimesis of the piṇḍapāta, or almsfood offered to monks and nuns by the laity. Around iron ball imagery clusters a set of related Buddhist concerns: anxieties about undisciplined and deceitful monks and nuns, especially in relation to taking alms; the public perception of the saṅgha; the conceptualization of Buddhist hells as an unfortunate karmic result of lacking discipline; and the relationship between these hells and Indian juridical forms of punishment.

Author Biography

Joseph Marino, University of Washington

Joseph Marino, Lecturer, Department of Asian Languages & Literature, University of Washington, Seattle, USA.


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How to Cite
Marino, J. (2019). From the Blacksmith’s Forge to the Fires of Hell. Buddhist Studies Review, 36(1), 31-51.