Across the Tipitaka one finds a number of discourses in which the Buddha provides us a colorful picture of how life is like in the lower realms of niraya, or hells. The links below present some background and interesting links and images:
In many suttas the Buddha very clearly says that hell is a destination for those individuals who engage in things like: taking life, theft, living carnally/lust, falsehood, evil desires, wrong views, intoxicants, etc, especially while wearing the robes ( http://suttacentral.net/en/it48 ).
I risk saying that Buddhism seems to be the first religion to present a detailed description of Hell/Hells, and that influenced very strongly other religious traditions in both East and West. For example, Dante Alighieri’s colorful description of purgatories and hells in his Divine Comedy ( http://www.worldofdante.org/inferno_detail.html ) goes well beyond the traditional Abrahamic less diversified purgatory / hell concepts.
The idea of this topic is then to present the question:
How much of these accounts of hell can be said to predate the Buddha and how much was actually introduced by Him through his lokavidu faculty?
I am not aware of any description of hell in any pre-Buddhist literature, which basically means the early Upanishads. (But then I am no expert on these texts.) However, this does not mean that there was no idea of hell in pre-Buddhist Indian culture. All of pre-Buddhist Indian culture was oral, and much of it has not survived in any form, written or oral. As far as the existence of the hell realms is concerned, I think it is safe to say that this was directly known to the Buddha. As for the details, it is very hard to distinguish myth from direct insight, but perhaps a major study of the the literature could achieve this, at least in part.
Thank you very much for that Bhante!
I am not sure if you agree but I reckon in traditionally Buddhist societies the link between kamma and hell is a very important pedagogical tool in the teaching the value of sila by senior monks to both lay people and monastics alike.
I remember that while living in a hermitage in Thailand I would frequently hear the monks talking among themselves about the high rate of monks who, by braking minor rules here and there through a lifetime, when dead end up boarding in an express train to the deepest of the hells!