“To Hell with it!”


Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

What would be the worst fate you would wish for an adversary? When you consider someone’s offence to be extremely heinous, unspeakably atrocious and wicked beyond measure, what punishment would you wish upon the offender? Though human laws do prescribe appropriate penalties for transgressions, ranging from a mere censure from the court and release on assurances of good conduct, to capital punishment, traditionally some offences have been considered too monstrous to be dealt with under mere human laws. Again, when the criminal escapes the clutches of law (as happens many a time in the case of those with money and muscle-power), does it mean that he does indeed go scot-free, totally unpunished for his offences? Is there a mechanism to ensure that offenders are brought to book without fail and made to repent for their wrongdoings? Yet another question relates to wicked thoughts, as opposed to deeds—under our legal procedures, mere thoughts, as long as they are not translated into action, are not punishable, whether they relate to wishing somebody dead or coveting someone else’s lawfully wedded spouse. Yet, since it is the thought that forms the seed of action, one would feel that such thoughts too should attract some form of retribution. However, (fortunately for people like me) how to identify, recognise and appropriately punish such thought processes remains beyond human capabilities.


The concept of Hell, as a place where just retribution is meted out to offenders, is as old as the hills. There appears to be rare unanimity among religions on this—we Hindus call it “Narakam”, for the Christians it is “Hell” and for the Muslims, “Jahnham” (or some similar sounding word). Even if someone manages to evade human law, we are told that the long arm of the Lord would ensure for him or her a spell in Hell, to cure him or her of sinful inclinations.

However, do Hell and Heaven really exist as separate places, where the wicked and the good respectively go? As some people say, are they not to be experienced in one’s own mind, which torments one when one does something wrong and is extremely happy when one performs some meritorious deed? Or, as the atheists say, are they mere figments of imagination, created by elders to ensure adherence to accepted norms of social and personal behaviour?

As firm believers in that supreme body of knowledge, the Shruti (Vedas), we are curious to know whether this compendium has anything to say in the matter. As essentially all wisdom beyond the grasp of our frail faculties has necessarily to be accessed from the Vedas, we scour the vast body of the Shruti for any mention of Narakam, the place inhabited by pApAtmAs. And we do come up with several, especially in the aruNa Prasnam of the TaittirIya ARANYAKAM–

“DakshiNa poorvasyAm disi visarpI naraka:–tasmAt na: paripAhi
uttara poorvasyAm disi vishAdI naraka: tasmAt na: paripAhi”

These lines from the AraNyakam tell us that Narakam does exist, and incorporate a prayer to the Lord to save us from these hellish fires.

Additional proof, if needed, is furnished by the Sri Vishnu Puranam, which says that these worlds of sinners are located beneath the earth and the waters—

“tatascha narakA vipra! BhuvO adha: salilasya cha
pApinO yEshu nivasantE tAn shruNu mahAmunE!”

And it would appear that “Narakam” is not just a single world, but is the generic name for a group of worlds inhabited by offenders of various types and hues. We thus hear of a good number of “narakam”s, each intended for a specific type of wickedness, with punishments varying accordingly. The same Vishnu Purana catalogues a sample list of narakams—Rouravam, Sookaram, ROdham, TAlam, Vishasanam, MahAjvAlA, Taptakumbham, lavaNam, VilOhitam, RudhirAmbham, VaitaraNi, KrimIsam, KrimibhOjanam, asipatravanam, Krishnam, DAruNam, lAlAbhaksham, Pooyavaham, PApam, Sandamsam, VahnijvAlA, adha:shirA, aprathistta, aprachi, KAlasootram, Tamas, AvIchI, ShvabhOjanam, etc. Lest we derive comfort from the rather short list of hells indicated, the Purana hastens to assure us that the aforesaid is just the tip of the iceberg and there are hundreds and thousands of Narakams,e each intended for a certain type of offender—

“EtE cha anyE cha narakA: shatasOtha sahasrasa:
yEshu dushkrita karmANa: pachyantE yAtanAgatA:”

Defining the pre-requisite for a spell in hell, the Purana tells us that sin is nothing but behaviour incompatible with the codes of conduct prescribed for people belonging to various VarNAs and AshramAs (stages of life, viz., student, householder, ascetic, etc.). Those who violate these dicta fall into one or the other of the aforesaid narakAs. And, for our comfort, the Scripture adds that these offences need not be actual deeds—even sinful thoughts and words consign one to the horrible worlds below—“KarmaNA manasA vAchA nirayEshu patanti tE”. This then is the important difference between human law and the divine—You might be guilty of any amount of evil thoughts, but as long as you hide them well behind a law-abiding façade, no government can prosecute you. The arm of the divine law has, however, a greater reach and is able to discern wickedness in thought too and award appropriate punishment.

We are filled with horror at all this ghoulish spiel. Is there no way we can avoid these fires of hell? We know from practice that it is impossible for us to refrain from committing sin, one way or the other, for, Sin seems such an all-encompassing word. Even a smile of derision at some one wearing TirumaN, even a word in a lighter vein making fun of someone’s orthodoxy, even a single thought coveting someone else’s belonging—all these would reserve for us a place in hell. Given the impossibility of strict adherence to divine dicta in the present day and age, how then can we avoid falling into the fires of hell?

The same Purana, which furnishes a graphic description of hellish worlds, also prescribes for us ways of avoiding the same, by telling us to perform “PrAyaschittam” or atonement. For each and every type of transgression, ShAstrAs lay down the type of atonement to be adopted. If one takes recourse to these, then one is saved from the aforesaid worlds of chastisement. However, if one is hard nut, one must definitely undergo purification in one or the other of “narakam”s, to cleanse one of the cloying stigma of sin—

“pApa krit yAti narakam prAyaschitta parAngmukha:”.

We must remember that atonement demands an appropriate frame of mind, the mind made sorrowful by the act of sin committed and keen to make amends through atonement. Thus, “PaschAt tApam” or remorse at having committed the sin, is an essential pre-requisite for atonement.

However, when we go through the list of atonements prescribed by MaharshIs, we feel we might as well spend a spell in hell and be done with it, for, the PrAyaschittams laid down for each sin appear indeed impossible of performance, given our current physical and mental state. Many of these atonal acts involve prolonged periods of fasting and other forms of physical inconvenience, which appear much beyond frail mortals like us. What then is our fate—is there no way for us to avoid the rigours of hell? Are we destined to rot in hell forever, for, our predilection for the forbidden act is proverbial and, in the absence of atonement therefor, what else awaits us but hell?

“Despair not!”, the Purana tells us, showing us a way out and an easy one at that. Not only does it prescribe an act that is a comprehensive PrAyaschittam for sins of all types, but one that is sweet and pleasurable in performance. Can you ever find a panacea, a sure-cure for all ills, which is simultaneously and incredibly tasty? Sri Vishnu Purana tells us that of all types of PrAyaschittam, the best is to think about the Lord, with a mind full of remorse for the violation of His dicta—

“PrAyaschittAni asEshANi tapa: karmAtmakAni vai
yAni tEshAm asEshANAm KrishNa anusmaraNam param”

What could be easier, what could be sweeter to the mind and tongue, what could be more cleansing, than to think of and utter the Krishna nAmA?

Sri Kulasekshara Azhwar wonders at the propensity of people to live lives steeped in sin, when there is any number of the Lord’s names, which one could chant and think about, capable of instantly cleansing of them of all sins. Why could one not say “Ananta”, “Vaikunta”, “Mukunda”, “Krishna”, ”Govinda”, “Damodara”, “Madhava” etc., which are incredibly sweet on the tongue and also act as purifiers, wonders Azhwar—

“ananta Vaikuntta Mukunda Krishna GOvinda DAmOdara MAdhava iti
vaktum samartthOpi na vakti kaschit ahO! JanAnAm vyasana abhimukhyam!”


Realising that we would never consciously utter or contemplate the Lord’s holy names, Sri Periazhwar suggests an easier way to ensure that we derive the benefit of the exercise-just name your children after Emperuman, so that each time you call your child, you accumulate merit and ward-off sin. Azhwar extends the categorical assurance that this is the way to avoid the rigours of hell—

“MAnida sAdiyil tOndrittOr mAnida sAdiyayi
MAnida sAdiyin pEr ittAl marumaikku illai
VAnudai Madhava! Govinda! Endru azhaitthkkAl
NAnidai NAranan tam annai narakam pugAL”

“மானிட சாதியில் தோன்றிற்றுஓர் மானிட சாதியை
மானிட சாதியின் பேரிட் டால்மறு மைக்கில்லை
வானுடை மாதவா கோவிந் தாஎன்று அழைத்தக்கால்
நானுடை நாரணன் தம்அன் னைநர கம்புகாள்.”

Azhwar’s assurance appears to be based on the story of ajAmiLa, who, when on his deathbed, called to his infant son Narayana and was transported to Vishnu lOkam, despite his numerous transgressions.

We have seen how terrifying hell and its keepers are. Azhwars speak of an occasion when the entire cruel hell was transformed into a heavenly abode. How could this be possible, we wonder. Azhwar elaborates in the following TirumAlai pAsuram—

“namanum Murkalanum pEsa, narakil nindrArgaL kEtpa
narakamE Svargam Agum nAmangaL udaya nambi
avanadu oor arangam ennAdu ayartthu veezhndu aLiya mAndar
kavalayuL padugindrAr endru adanukkE kavalgindrEnE”

“நமனும் முற்கலனும் பேச நரகில் நின்றார்கள் கேட்க
நரகமே சுவர்க்கம் ஆகும் நாமங்கள் உடையன் நம்பி
அவனது ஊர் அரங்கம் என்னாது அயர்த்து வீழ்ந்து அளிய மாந்தர்
கவலையுள் படுகின்றார் என்று அதனுக்கே கவல்கின்றேனே”

In a glowing tribute to the glory of the Lord’s holy names, Sri Tondarappodi Azhwar recounts the episode of a conversation between Mudgala and Yamadharma rAjA. Mudgala was an extremely wicked person, guilty of innumerable acts of sin. Quite unusually for him, he gifted a cow to a Brahmin one day, accompanying it with the words, “Let this be for Krishna” (“KrishNAya nama:”). When he died and reached YamalOka, Yamadharmaraja himself received him with all honour and acclaim. When the surprised Mudgala sought the reason for the unusual reception, Yama told him that the single word “Krishna” uttered by Mudgala during the “GOdAnam” earlier, had rid him of all evil.

The beneficial effects of the single utterance of the Krishna nAma did not stop with Mudgala. Those in Naraka who listened to the conversation between Yama and Mudgala, and, in the process, to the Krishna nAmA, were instantly absolved of their sins. What is more, the entire hell was immediately transformed into heaven, lock, stock and barrel.

Such indeed is the efficacy of the holy name of the Lord, which is capable of benefiting even those who utter or listen to it, by sheer accident, without any instinct of devotion or adulation. Azhwar’s pasuram is in turn based on the Sri Vishnu Dharmam, where the episode is narrated in detail.

For those who are unable even to utter the short and sweet names of the Lord, Azhwar has another prescription for saving them from the fires of hell. A mere mention of the hallowed abodes of Emperuman would, by itself, ensure that none goes to Narakam: indeed, if everyone were to just say the name of a divyadesam once, it would render the hellish worlds uninhabited and desolate, says Azhwar in the following pasuram—

“arivilA manisar ellAm arangam endru azhaippar Agil
poriyil vAzh narakam ellAm pullezhundu ozhiyum andrE”

“அறிவிலா மனிசரெல்லாம் அரங்கமென்றழைப்பராகில்
பொறியில் வாழ்நரகமெல்லாம் புல்லெழுந் தொழியுமன்றே!”

There is something worse than even Narakam, we are told by Sri Nammazhwar. Once we undergo punishment for the particular series of sins, we are freed from hell and are reborn on earth. Thus sojourn in hell is a time-bound thing. There is, on the other hand, an infinite prison sentence imposed on all Jeevatmas, which makes them hop from one body to another interminably and to remain imprisoned eternally in one mortal coil or the other. This is SamsAram, which makes people remain bound forever, unable to rid themselves of the powerful shackles of Karma. If Narakam can be compared to a long and dark night, Samsara is unending gloom, a permanent blackout, an interminable tunnel without a hint of light, says Sri Nammazhwar—

“VidiyA vennarakam”.

We have seen that there are ways of keeping out of hell—but are there ways of escaping the unending pall of gloom that is Samsara?

Instead of a PrAyaschittam for each individual sin, is there a one-time, cover-all atonement, which would serve as a massive cleansing agent, ridding us all of all types of sin? And is there such a panacea, which would ensure that even in future, unintended offences would not stain us with sin?

Though this appears too much to ask for, there is indeed a procedure for getting rid of our baggage of accumulated misdeeds, while simultaneously ensuring that we remain untainted by offences during the rest of our lives on earth. Prapatti or Sharanagati is the universal atonement for all our sins past and present, and, when performed through a benign Acharya, ensures that we never even peep into hell, however major our sins be. Unlike other atonements, it is not hard of performance nor anywhere as demanding. All it requires is the right attitude of mind, the resolution to toe the right path henceforth, to avoid the path of sin and of absolute conviction in and total surrender to our Lord and Master, giving ourselves up to Him, heart and soul. If Tapas or Penance is prescribed as atonement for major sins, this Sharanagati is rated even higher than Penance, says the Upanishad—

“TasmAt NyAsam EshAm tapasAm atiriktam Ahu:”

Once we perform Prapatti, we can challenge the minions of hell with impunity and tell them, “To hell with you!”,as does Sri Nammazhwar—

“Poliga poliga poliga, pOyittru valluyir shApam
naliyum narakamum nainda namanukku ingu yAdondrum illai”.

“பொலிக பொலிக பொலிக போயிற்று வல்லுயிர்ச் சாபம்
நலியும் நரகமும் நைந்த நமனுக்கு இங்கு யாதொன்று மில்லை
கலியுங் கெடும் கண்டு கொண்மின் கடல்வண்ணன் பூதங்கள் மண்மேல்
மலியப் புகுந்து இசை பாடி ஆடி உழி தரக் கண்டோம்.”

Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here