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’)?
Keywords: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’.
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