In Search of the Origin of the Enumeration of Hell-kings in an Early Medieval Chinese Buddhist Scripture

Why did King Bimbisara become Yama after his Disastrous Defeat in Battle in the Wen diyu jing (‘Sutra on Questions on Hells’)?


  • Frederick Shih-Chung Chen International Consortium for Research in the Humanities Friedrich-Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg



King Bimbisāra, Yama, Hells, enmumeration of Hell-Kings


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 Sutra on Questions on Hells. This very early example derives from an extraordinary story about how King Bimbisara 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 (Janavasabha Sutta), and (ii) the popular Chinese belief in sacrificial cults of ‘defeated armies and dead generals’.

Author Biography

Frederick Shih-Chung Chen, International Consortium for Research in the Humanities Friedrich-Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg

Frederick Shih-Chung Chen is currently a researcher for the project of “Buddhist Stone Inscriptions in China” at the Heidelberg Academy of Science and Humanities and a visiting academic at the Faculty of Archaeology, University of Oxford. He holds a DPhil degree in Oriental Studies from the University of Oxford and two MA degrees, in Oriental and African Religions and in History and Culture of Medicine, from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. In 2004-2005, he was a research fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies, University of Tokyo, sponsored by the fellowship of BDK (Bukkyō Dendō Kyōkai). After completing his DPhil degree, he was awarded the Post-doctoral fellowships from the National Science Council of Taiwan R.O.C. and the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation of European Region during 2010 - 2012 for his Post-doctoral research project, “The Early Formation of the Buddhist Otherworld Bureaucracy in Early Medieval China,” at the Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford. He has published articles on the related topic. He will start his Post-doctoral fellowship of IKGF, the International Consortium for Research in the Humanities "Fate, Freedom and Prognostication" at the University Erlangen-Nuremberg from autumn 2013.


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How to Cite

Chen, F. S.-C. (2014). In Search of the Origin of the Enumeration of Hell-kings in an Early Medieval Chinese Buddhist Scripture: Why did King Bimbisara become Yama after his Disastrous Defeat in Battle in the Wen diyu jing (‘Sutra on Questions on Hells’)?. Buddhist Studies Review, 31(1), 53–64.