Jacobsen on Hindu Hell

Knut A. Jacobsen’s ‘Three Functions of Hell in the Hindu Traditions’, NVMEN, 56, 2009, pp. 385-400. This paper forms part of an entire volume dedicated to ideas of ‘hell’ across religious traditions. Jacobsen provides a brief overview of hell, as it is developed in the Mahābhārata, the Manusmṛti and the Bhagavata and Garuḍa Purāṇas. In this clear and enjoyable paper, Jacobsen outlines three functions of hell in Hindu traditions: the narrative, the social and the economic. The narrative function of hell, according to Jacobsen, is to stimulate the audience. He cites the example of the close of the Mahābhārata, when its hero, king Yudhiṣṭhira, discovers his immediate family in hell and his enemy in heaven. Due to his exemplary behaviour, he is informed by Indra that, upon death, good people must go to hell – albeit briefly – (to atone for their limited wrongdoings) while bad people go briefly to heaven (to enjoy the strictly limited consequences of their virtue) and then to hell. This somewhat odd doctrine (at least in Hindu terms) is not explored by Jacobsen, but he righty emphasises how compelling the close of the Mahābhārata is. As Jacobsen remarks, ‘hell makes a good story.’
The social and economic dimensions of hell are connected in Jacobsen’s paper. He sees the Manusmṛti, Bhagavata and Garuḍa Purāṇa as engaged in complimentary activities. The three texts establish the spectre of hell and a series of ritual measures to avoid it, which are the monopoly of the Brahmin (which insures both high status and high income for Brahmins). The Manusmṛti provides a list of 28 hells, which the Bhagavata Purāṇa describes in detail. Jacobsen is not convinced that hell is fully integrated in the Manusmṛti, however. He suggests that it is separate from the realm of rebirth (which he sees as dominated by Saṃkhyan philosophical ideas). The key idea in the Manusmṛti, which the Garuḍa Purāṇa (in its Pretakhaṇḍa) takes up and extends, is that a crime (pātaka) may be absolved by a vow (kṛcchra). In the Garuḍa Purāṇa an elaborate system of gift giving is further established, in which a person near to death, or their relatives, may engage in acts of conspicuous Brahmin-patronage.
After pages of perceptive analysis and observation, Jacobsen’s conclusion is somewhat low key; he emphasises the fact that hell is not really very significant to Hindus and calls for sociological research on the topic. One might add to this the need for more historical research; I am not at all sure that hell was lacking in importance for Hindus in all times and places in the past, especially where Jain and Buddhist traditions were well-represented. This is something that I will have to substantiate in my ongoing research. Jacobsen’s paper is, however, an excellent overview of four very significant sources for Hindu tradition, which I recommend to anyone interested in the topic of hell(s) in Hindu tradition.

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