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Regarding the Abrahamic hells, one could say that they are absolutely terrible for it is suffering without end, an eternal suffering; but there is a puzzling different type of hell or hells, those of the dharmic religions. They are impermanent and one forgets about the horror they face in it after its over even though it may take as much as a billion years for it to finish. What I find quite troubling about this is if it could be classified as "horrible" in the way we classify the Abrahamic hells.

How is it possible that the dharmic religions have a hell that seems much less worse than those of the Abrahamic tradition, but both are considered the paradigm of the ultimate bad?

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  • Do we really feel nothing while anesthetized during surgery? Probably better not to inquire.
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 20, 2023 at 17:11
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    My edits were applied to try to stave off closure. Feel free to roll back. This forum rejects "Tell me what you think" as a prompt. See the site's FAQ as a prompt.
    – J D
    Oct 20, 2023 at 21:14
  • "Consider pain. Give me a cubic centimeter of your flesh and I could give you pain that would swallow you as the ocean swallows a grain of salt" yeah it's nonsense.
    – user67675
    Oct 21, 2023 at 0:27
  • Under what same standard are both considered the paradigm of the ultimate bad? Maybe you just found something analogous to one person thinking the elephant is the biggest animal on earth, with another thinking it's the blue whale. Under their own standards (e.g. one's own sample of the animals he knows), yeah, both are considered the paradigm of ultimate size, but clearly they're not both right, even if both animals are big in their own right.
    – Mutoh
    Jan 25 at 14:01

4 Answers 4

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"I believe that in our unthinkable destiny, in which infamies rule like a carnal pain, every bizarre thing is possible, even the perpetuity of a Hell, but also that it is irreligious to believe in it."

-Borges, concluding his essay 'La duración del Infierno'

It is hard rationally to find justice in infinite penalty for finite sins, as discussed theologically under the the Problem of Hell.

My discussion of the exegesis and logical issues of the topic here: Which philosophical ethics frameworks are compatible/incompatible with a literal, eternal Hell?

In the Buddhist analysis, change is inevitable, and failure to recognise this is at the core of the causes of our anguish, as summarised in the Three Marks of Existence. To cease to be on the wheel of becoming, is to no longer be a thing of the world - only Awakened ones attain the realisation of this. What that means is a complex topic, but I like the framing for modern Western discussion that describes Awakening in terms of 'intersubjective transubstatiation', which relates to enacting recognition of the intersubjectivity expressed in the metaphor Indra's Net.

I see reconciliation of the ethics of being destined to go to Hell by an all-good all-knowing entity, in a quote from a Christian:

"We are punished by our sins, not for them."

-Elbert Hubbard

Or as you might put it,

"When you've made your peace, you'll see the devils are really angels, freeing you from the Earth."

-Meister Eckhart, though fairly outrageously paraphrased

Is the suffering that you have experienced in your own life, better or worse depending on whether you can now remember it? In Buddhist thought they say you have choices, and that what you choose to dwell on and cling to, is what is reborn.

"Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow

"He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me." Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.

"He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me." Those who do not harbor such thoughts still their hatred.

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.

There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die. But those who do realize this settle their quarrels."

-from The Dhammapada, a collection of sayings by the Buddha

They say the Bodhisattva of compassion is the 'thousand hands and eyes' of all those who see suffering and respond with kindness. In which picture, even a sinner, can participate in the cosmic manifestation of pure goodness. Or:

"The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven."

-John Milton, in Paradise Lost

Ideas about Hell in Christianity have changed and developed over time and vary by tradition, like the development of the idea of The Harrowing of Hell. I would say thermodynamic laws and our understanding that change is essential to becoming (because of Shannon information entropy), is a challenge to any notion of the possibility of any subjective eternity, either positive or negative. The only eternal possible is stasis (probably not even that), which precludes any experience of it.

In this answer I relate Christian metaphors to their older origins, and the understanding that Hell involves permanent and therefore eternal destruction, and Heaven means having an ongoing positive influence on those who remain: What are some philosophical works that explore constructing meaning in life from an agnostic or atheist view?

Edited to add:

I realise I didn't challenge an assumption that I should have. The idea 'Hell' is the 'ultimate bad place' in Buddhist cosmology, is really premised on the idea of it's cosmology passing judgement, but it's rather that the conditions you create you will experience. Hells are just the wheel of becoming turning downward, as inevitably as it will also go upward, in a never-ending cycle.

There are three lower categories of being, rebirth as an animal, as a hell-being, or as a hungry ghost. The important thing for Buddhism is not the suffering, but how likely you are to be able to Awaken as that kind of being - and in that regard the pleasures and distractions of the deva/brahma realm are less favourable for rebirth than the human realm too - this is a specifically Buddhist innovation, to point towards this mundane mode of life as the most valuable, because the balance of pain and pleasure will help us keep the Five Rememberances in mind, but in a situation where we have the opportunity for spiritual practice to react to them.

Rebirth in hells is bad but will pass, is the flipside of the point rebirth in heavens is good but will also pass - there is another way to be, which can let us see and travel between the realms without getting stuck by our attachments there.

It is ignorance and delusion that are the real menace for Buddhism, not suffering, which as per the Four Noble Truths, can only cease being created by us through Awakening.

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Whether one culture's hell is worse than another's or not -- is not a particularly important philosophic topic.

That almost all cultures HAVE hells -- that IS a important clue about human nature. We are hardwired to wish to see others punished. This can best be seen as a psychological "craving" we developed from evolutionarily developing our psychologies in a lawless world, where hurting those who hurt you is a useful disincentive to fellow tribe members engaging in theft or abuse or other violations of tribal norms.

That behavior was developed when humans lived anthropologically -- in small tribes, where breakdown of rule of law was likely, or often there WAS no rule of law. Current humanity lives sociologically, in large communities, with complex legal systems and societal norms. These systems attempt to achieve societal morality thru their laws, and sometimes this involves punishment. But our moral thinking basically NEVER justifies torture.

All of these religious hells are immoral evils. That religious hold by them, is an example of the fallibility of that religious perspective.

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How is it possible that the dharmic religions have a hell that seems much less worse than those of the Abrahamic tradition, but both are considered the paradigm of the ultimate bad?

The same definition doesn't always mean the same actual thing/experience.

Let's begin with a simple matter of definition: let's say "Hell" (or the equivalent notion in any language) is the word chosen to describe the notion of "ultimate bad"

Now we think we are in agreement over the meaning of the word, but what each of us think of when hearing a word is still different in each person mental representation. If I say "dinner table", everyone might agree on a definition "it is where you eat your meals on", but western people might think about a rectangular familly table, no wait, may be it's a round table, anyway, it surely has 4 legs long enough so I can eat on it while sitting in a chair. Yet, a Japanese person might visualise a very low table with short legs, so you eat on it while sitting (or kneeling) on the floor. And what about my Thai wife, for who the "table" she eats on is a rice straw mat unrolled just before the meal and rerolled away as soon as finished. All this to say that a common definition, even shared across different languages or cultures, only define a notion or a function, but it does not always carry enough detail to insure an exact similarity in the mental representations of different people, or even in its physicallity.

Consider that for a "dinner table", which is a physical object, which you probably observed, used, felt and touched several times in your life, and now extend that to immaterial things, like the notion of "Hell" ... Of course it can carry the same definition and yet mean different thing for different people.

That, I hope, answered the "How is it possible that ..." part of your question.

Origin of the difference:

The next part of your question I need to frame challenge it a bit: "... Dharmic religions have a hell that seems much less worse than those of the Abrahamic tradition." "Worse" is very subjective, let's drop it momentarily from the question and simply rephrase like "How can they be so different".

I've described how Hells can be different while still carrying the same definition, but where are the differences coming from?

Dharmic philosophies have less absolute (than Abrahamic). In these, although God(s) can exist, they are not central to the philosphy. They are higher beings than humans, but still have to be bound by rules dictated by even higher principles on how the world/universe function.

One very important rule, under which even (Dharmic) gods are bound, is Impermanence. Nothing can ever stays the same for ever. On a human day-to-day scale, this is often repeated to prevent or limit sadness at unexpected or sudden event (like "loosing" things or a dear person). On larger scale, they deemed the principle sound enough to extend it even to thing that appear permanent from our human viewpoint. For example: the dance of the stars above us, which seems to repeat year on year and generation after generation. Even without seeing a difference, someone believing in impermanence will know that it is constantly changing, it's just that the changes are under our detection capacity.

So naturally, with impermanence being such a strong tenet of these philosophies, when some scholars went on to describe "Hell, the worst place to be", they imagined a place with the worst conditions to live/be for a human (after all a bit of scaremongering is all what Hell is about), but they could not postulate it infinite in time as it would break an important pillar of their belief.

In contrast, Abrahamic scriptures are littered with absolute adjectives and epithets, and of course the most absolute, infinite in power and wisdom, highest being is the one and only God. Him being infinite in power and time, has no problem to create an infinite Hell for his naughty followers. Also, once infinity is accepted for other things, then Hell must be for ever too if it has to carry enough fear factor, otherwise it would just be a bout of bad time in an otherwise infinite "life".

"Worse" is subjective

See how the end of the last paragraph above almost describes why you stated one would be worse than the other.

It only seems "much less worse" for your perspective, in the context of your beliefs. If you believe in infinity, then sure the worst things that happens to you is going to be more annoying/painful(choose your adjective) if it last for an eternity rather than a finite amount of time.

But now consider the worldview where "impermanence" is the only infinite thing (things always change and never stop doing so). Whith this belief, the Dharmic Hell is still "the worst place you could be", and even if it is for a finite time, it is not pleasant to think that you'll have to do some time there. On the other end, landing in a place which is said to be "permanent", even if it is an Abrahamic Hell, for a Dharmic follower it would actually means escaping the never ending suffering of life, birth, rebirth and change of existencial plane, which Dharmic traditions identify at reaching the Nirvana, or (very loosely) tranlated: Paradise.

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In the spirit of analytic philosophy (as opposed to Abrahamic theology, or Contintental or Indian philosophy), we are best off answering this question with an analysis of language rather than seeing this a problem about reality itself. The notion that hells are even real would be controversial to a naturalized epistemology. Carnap and the logical positivists would of course see this as a meaningless question entirely on the level with angels dancing on pinheads given that it has no empirical basis whatsoever.

But, let's start with the presumption 'hells' are real married to the idea that there are two domains of discourse in our language use. On the one hand we have an Abrahamic religion, and on the other, 'Dharmic religion' as you put it. In both domains, hell is the worse place you can be in the afterlife. In each domain, the concept 'hell' is defined as 'the worst place in the afterlife'. (Note the meaning implied by the use of the use-mention distinction.) But the moment a philosopher of religion starts comparing the two domains of discourse, she finds that she now has two formulations of 'absolute worst place' or 'hell'. This sort of problem in fact arises any time you have two domains of discourse which have definitions that people use to express absolutes.

The modern analytical philosopher, however, does not see this as a philosophical problem, but a pseudo-problem brought about by not paying attention to language. It simply is dissolved by noting that by inherent in the presumption of two distinct religions, that the notion of absolute only applies within the doctrine of the religion, and that neither apply to the universe of discourse which is often considered to be the physical universe. Let's look at another example.

Bill is the tallest in his math class, and Mary is the tallest in her science class. And standing side by side, Mary may seem taller than Bill, but there is no real conflict here. Bill is both tallest and shorter at the same time, because tallest only applies to the domain of math class, where taller applies to the domain of comparing the domain of math and science classes. This means that any attempt to say it's mysterious that Bill is tallest and not tallest (which is a dialetheism, or true contradiction) is somewhat of a deepity. Resolving this linguistic confusion simply hinges on recognizing that tallest and not tallest are equivocating on the meaning of tall.

Thus, dharmic hell is the worst and not the worst because it is worst in the context of the Indian religion, but it is not the worst of all religions (by your assessment anyway). Like Wittgenstein noted, philosophy is therefore a tool to cure us from the disease of muddled language use. (Particularly because on a scientific account 'hell' is not so much a real place, but a metaphor for suffering used in religion and therefore these supernatural constructions are to pass values about what constitutes vice and virutes as a thought problem.)

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  • What? I think what you are saying is, the two religions have different yardsticks, so it shouldn't surprise us if they don't match. But you go all around the houses to say it..!
    – CriglCragl
    Oct 20, 2023 at 22:10
  • @CriglCragl I do so because oddly enough, ego-centrism predisposes many an aspiring intellectual to presume there is one reality with one truth ruled by one higher power who demands obedience to one ethics (which conveniently always rotates around the preferences and feelings of the thinker who denies the existence of said preferences and feelings) hiding behind the term Objective. It is only through the analysis of language that exposes the farce that Objectivity and it's hydra-like heads take.
    – J D
    Oct 21, 2023 at 16:01
  • Failure to do so leads to the cacophony of disquietist philosophers and theologians who envision themselves as engaging in profound philosophical discussion when they are simply engaged in little-endian-big-endian debate. Going around the houses is the best way to show that angels don't exist, and they certainly couldn't dance on pinheads even if they could.
    – J D
    Oct 21, 2023 at 16:03
  • @CriglCragl (Which is my way of going around the house to say that the best way to show those living in shadow-filled caves is take them around it outside in the light. ; )
    – J D
    Oct 21, 2023 at 16:20

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