Sutra about benevolent king/hell

Many years ago, before I was a Buddhist, I remember reading parts of a sutra (probably Mahayana) about a benevolent king who lied about having a horrible torture chamber to punish criminals (he actually had no such thing), and made his kingdom peaceful without punishing anyone, because the fear of the mythical torture chamber deterred people from committing crimes. Do any of you know which sutra that is?

I wonder if this benevolent king might actually have been based on Ashoka and his rumored torture chamber (“Ashoka’s hell”), which nobody could actually report having seen, because they would allegedly never be let out again after having seen it, even if they discovered it by accident. The legend says that Ashoka modelled his hellish torture chamber after a Buddhist sutra when he was not a Buddhist, because he just happened to hear a Buddhist monk recite a sutra about hell and thought making his own was a good idea. To me this claim smells very fishy.

The reason why I am asking, is that I am trying to make sense out of the hell-texts in the Pali canon. In Christianity, universalism (the view that everyone will eventually be saved) was the majority view among Christians for centuries, up until the time when Christianity became the favored religion of the Roman empire, and the emperor himself wrote 16 canons condemning universalism, which he sent to the Second Council of Constantinople.

So, the emperor of Rome had a vested interest in Christianity teaching hellish punishment for sins & not universal salvation. Many of the sins that lead people to hell are harmful to societal stability (theft, murder, infidelity, drunkenness, etc.) It is a useful way of controlling the behavior of believers.

This causes me to wonder if the benevolent king Ashoka had a hand in sutta-composition, just like the roman emperor influenced Christian dogma, and made sure graphical descriptions of horrific, hellish tortures made their way into the sutta collections we now have. So instead of Ashoka modelling a (hopefully mythical) torture chamber on a Buddhist text he randomly heard as a non Buddhist, he would have made sure non-buddhist ideas of hellish punishment made their way into the canonical texts, prior to sending missionaries throghout the land and beyond.

I have great difficulty believing in the kind of hellish descriptions we find in certain suttas. It seems likely to me that rebirth on earth can be hellish enough, without an ethereal torture chamber actually existing. Suffering on earth makes sense in light of evolution, and pain being a mechanism needed for survival. The hellish realms described in the suttas are sadistic and cruel, just like human punishments were at the time.

If hell was a later addition, it might also explain the emergence of the Mahayana Bodhisattva vows as a response, because compassion dictates that we must do the utmost to prevent such terrible suffering.

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Interesting thought,
graphic description of hell is one of similarities between Buddhist and Zoroastrianism.

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Do any of you know which sutra that is?

I remember some Mahayana Sutras talking about the King Bimbisara who had a chamber to imprison people etc… Although I cannot remember exactly. Hope it can be of some help for your search.

So, the emperor of Rome had a vested interest in Christianity teaching hellish punishment for sins & not universal salvation. Many of the sins that lead people to hell are harmful to societal stability (theft, murder, infidelity, drunkenness, etc.) It is a useful way of controlling the behavior of believers.

many times one can find similar simplifications in social terms. About some guy invented the hells to control the masses, etc… For sure that fear has been used widely. Although truth is the Christian notion about a hell was not a new political invention, or not only that. It continues a previous heritage from Greeks and Jewish, in where there are episodes with people visiting hells even including same Jesus for some early Christians. There are some things about this in a book “Hidden Wisdom, Esoteric Traditions and the Roots of Christian Mysticism” G. Stroumsa, Brill Pub.

I have great difficulty believing in the kind of hellish descriptions we find in certain suttas… If hell was a later addition, it might also explain the emergence of the Mahayana Bodhisattva vows as a response, because compassion dictates that we must do the utmost to prevent such terrible suffering.

the fear is not (or not the only one) resort in the human being to explain religion and trascendence. When thinking in other forms of existence, blissful or hellish, there is also need to think in other related things like some notion of a continuity or the individuation problem, which is rooted in the problem of knowledge to explain the experience of self and reality. Also it can touch other fields like Anthropology in where we find universal experiences with other beings like ghosts, shamanic voyages, etc… All this is spreaded in all the cultures of this Earth from remote times.

One can think about this reality is an enough heaven or hell, although this claim sounds like an easy comfort because we don’t know if our common experience of the reality is the only one. Neither if this body and mind are the only way to exist and to experience. From a logical point of view, at least I think no. There is a very long tradition of experience with these issues which is so old as the human being. And many times it appears detached from sociopolitical devices of control. Think in tribal people, isolated individuals, etc

At the end we would need to believe in a global conspiration from prehistorical times.

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I didn’t mean to suggest that the emperor invented hell. But according to Eusebius of Caesarea, the church historian (260/265 – 339/340 CE), the majority of Christians believed in universalism, or the “restoration of all things” (apocatastasis). Hell was viewed as a temporal and not eternal punishment. Jesus never calls hell eternal in the greek texts of the gospels, rather he uses the word “aion” and talks about “aionian punishment”. It means something like “age-long”, and not necessarily eon in the Buddhist sense of the word. More like “I’ve been waiting for ages”.

However, the majority belief in universalism changed, in large part due to the belief that the second council of Constantinople had condemned it. In fact, it probably didn’t according to modern historians. The final 16 canons of the council that condemn universalism are not found in the oldest manuscripts, but they are confirmed to have been written by the emperor of Rome, who wanted the council to include them. I simply ask: why does the emperor of Rome care what the Christian church teaches about hell?

The sutra about the benevolent king might have nothing to do with Ashoka, and it might be an image of what the doctrine of hell actually is to the writer of the sutra. It’s been too long since I read it, and I don’t remember it’s name. But if Ashoka actually lied about having a horrible torture chamber (which I hope is what he did) to deter people from commiting crimes, it certainly doesn’t seem far fetched to me that he might have made sure otherwise doubted sutras were included in the canon. I can never prove such a thing, of course.

When it comes to Buddhism and hell, there are people who have hellish near death experiences, to be sure, and it is certainly possible that it is a sort of kammically induced afterlife nightmare with no existence apart from the mind of the ones experiencing it, as Ajahn Brahm suggests. However, the graphic & sadistic descriptions of tortures I find in the suttas are quite unbelievable, and even more unbelievable to me are the time spans people are supposed to spend there. The equivalent of trillions of years of constant and unspeakably cruel and painful torture as the vipaka of something like swatting a fly or even killing a human? To me it defies reason and logic because it is absurdly disproportionate.

Nor can I fathom why something like that should exist unless the universe is created by a sadistic demon who enjoys inflicting suffering. While our universe does seem to be quite indifferent to the suffering of sentient beings, I do not see evidence of such sadism in nature. Life is oriented towards survival, thanks to natural selection, but it isn’t intentionally designed as sadistic or cruel. I can imagine how humans came up with such ideas, though, and the decriptions of hell in different religions are quite similar, suggesting a high level of syncretism.

Finally, I fail to understand how anyone with the ability to experience empathy can truly believe this is happening right now and sleep at night. It is difficult enough to come to terms with the horrible cruelty humans are capable of inflicting on others.

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I didn’t mean to suggest that the emperor invented hell. But according to Eusebius of Caesarea, the church historian (260/265 – 339/340 CE), the majority of Christians believed in universalism, or the “restoration of all things” (apocatastasis). Hell was viewed as a temporal and not eternal punishment. Jesus never calls hell eternal in the greek texts of the gospels, rather he uses the word “aion” and talks about “aionian punishment”. It means something like “age-long”, and not necessarily eon in the Buddhist sense of the word. More like “I’ve been waiting for ages”.

I suppose the Christian religion is another world complicated like all.
The temporary nature you mention have sense because the first Christians believed in rebirth. And an eternal hell doesn’t fit in that. The later irrational idea of non-rebirth caused many problems in that Religion, and it seesm today still are present with this issue of the hells. Same Origen, around times you mention, father of the Christian Church, he believed the hell was a temporary situation. Logically he believed in rebirth like most Christians of those times. Rebirth has been present in that Religion even after the forced imposition of non-rebirth. One thousand years later still was fully alive with Cathars and others powerful movements inside that Religion.

I mean that both issues the hell and rebirth are very related. Under the logics of rebirth, a hell is just a logical consequence of previous actions, although it is limited in time or it would be contradictory with the existence of a salvific premise for the human being.

This is another aspect in this issue, although sure not the only one. As I wrote you in the other message there can be many things involved. The universalism you says or more… I don’t know.

When it comes to Buddhism and hell, there are people who have hellish near death experiences, to be sure, and it is certainly possible that it is a sort of kammically induced afterlife nightmare with no existence apart from the mind of the ones experiencing it, as Ajahn Brahm suggests

that’s a possibility while we don’t know. If somebody lacks of any faith, I suppose the issue is restricted to know if those ambits were an intellectual invention developed in some place by somebody, or if maybe these are a shared experience in human beings with a nature closer to a pure mind-made creation as you says.

I don’t know what ven. A.Brahm said in all the extent… Although no thing can become existent or conceivable without a mind to know it. This is an obviety. Then it says very little regarding the nature of an experience. Including the reality that we experience now, Are you dreaming your own life now?. How can you know it?. That’s a classic in literature.

In these unknown issues at least I put more Dhamma in the balance, and it is another thing which is coherent in this Path, part of the whole packet. Although I understand the position of no faith. and I think it can be healthy or better than a blind faith. I have that same position regarding some images offered in this so-real world. In these ocassions just I can say “I don’t believe it”. Although I don’t know at all.

The equivalent of trillions of years of constant and unspeakably cruel and painful torture as the vipaka of something like swatting a fly or even killing a human? To me it defies reason and logic because it is absurdly disproportionate.

there is no justice in the universe but only kamma, And it can be disproportionate, kamma can be a terrible thing. Although sometimes it can sounds disproportionate in the inverse order. Take the case of Angulimala, a serial killer. He become an arhant and no more kamma, no further consequences. Also it can seem an injustice.

I mean, we can say we don’t believe in some creator but at same time we can look for some “character” in the Universe able to spread a needed justice in proportional rates. However, kamma is just a mechanics. Only trends wich should fructify in the future with the arising of the individuation of some being. And nobody knows how these trends can fuctify in that being. Proportional or not, with memory o not… Who knows.

Ragarding Mahayana, I think good keeping in mind the historicity is very secondary. Mostly it was developed like an strategy of teaching and the historical episodes works like a support to give a message. The changes in the histories are frequent because are a secondary thing, like an envelope.

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