When I was a younger person than I am now, my parents would take me to Singapore’s Haw Par Villa to understand what happens to souls in the afterlife. For those of you who fear death, Haw Par Villa is indeed a scary place which is home to 1,000 statues and 150 giant dioramas depicting scenes from The Ten Courts of Hell.
During my time, visits to Haw Par Villa were a regular feature of weekend excursions with our parents. Located on a hill in Pasir Panjang, Haw Par Villa was once known as Tiger Balm Gardens. It was built by Myanmar-born businessman Aw Boon Haw for his brother, Aw Boon Par. The park was initially named after the Tiger Balm medical ointment that their father had created.
Today, Haw Par Corporation Limited is a Singapore-based company involved in healthcare, leisure products, property and investment. It is the company responsible for the famous Tiger Balm ointment that many people use for their sore necks, backs and heads.
This article, however, is not about the pain in your body, but the wounds we carry in our souls. Constructed back in 1937, Haw Par Villa showcases a treasure trove of knowledge on Chinese mythology, folklore, legends, history, and even illustrations on various aspects of Confucianism. Boon Haw personally supervised the artisans who created many of the park’s original installations.
Haw Par Villa is famous for its vivid depictions of the Ten Courts of Hell which is rooted in both Chinese folklore and Buddhist theology. Many Singaporeans such as myself used to go there with our parents to learn about the exacting nature of traditional Chinese morality and its view on what happens in the afterlife. Haw Par Villa both preserves the traditions of our forefathers as well as provides moral guidance to its visitors.
Diyu 地獄 — The Ten Courts of Hell
Diyu, which literally translates to ‘earth prison’, is the realm of the dead in Chinese mythology.
‘Hell’ is a sort of subterranean maze with various levels and chambers. Diyu is where souls are brought after death to atone for the transgressions they committed when they were alive. The exact number of ‘courts’ in Diyu varies between different schools of thought; but in Haw Par Villa, each of the ten courts is ruled by Lord Yama and deals with a different aspect of atonement.
The Chinese concept of ‘hell’ is derived from Taoist, Buddhist and traditional Chinese folk religions. Diyu is a kind of purgatory that serves to punish and renew spirits in preparation for reincarnation.
I personally don’t envy Lord Yama’s job in the afterlife. We humans are always making excuses and expecting other people to take responsibility for our mistakes and shortcomings. We are experts at making the same mistake over and over again. And it doesn’t end there. Even when we know we have done something wrong, we make all kinds of ridiculous excuses. But by the time we reach Lord Yama, we know–that we are being held account. We realise that we alone are responsible for the consequences of our actions and no one else.
Lord Yama has the toughest job of all. By the time you reach him, there is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. This is indeed the end and perhaps… even a new beginning.
In Hinduism, Lord Yama is the God of Death. Like Saturn, the Lord of Time, Yama is also a son of the Sun. While the Chinese Lord Yama does indeed have his roots in the Hindu Yama, the Buddhist Yama that spread and developed across East and Southeast Asia varies from the original Hindu deity.
Lord Yama, the King of Hell, is a dharmapala wrathful god who is said to judge the dead. He presides over purgatory and saṃsāra the cycle of life and death. In Buddhist theology, a person who has ill-treated others is sent to Yama for sentencing upon his or her death.
Yama begins by asking if the soul awaiting judgment has ever considered his own conduct in light of the transitionary nature of life whose episodes inevitably include: birth, deterioration, sickness, worldly retribution and death. If a person repeatedly answers that he has failed to consider the karmic consequences of his misconduct on earth; he or she is sent to a brutal hell for punishment till the evil action has exhausted its resulting consequence.
Yama is both a judge and the Ruler of the Underworld. It is he who hands out the verdict of your life on earth. He always appears in a male form and his entourage includes a judge who holds a brush in his hand along with a book that has the listing of every soul and the allotted date for its departure from earth.
Ox-Head and Horse-Face–the fearsome guardians of hell–bring the newly dead, one by one, before Lord Yama for judgement. Men or women with considerable merit will be rewarded good future lives or even a revival of their previous lives. Men or women who committed misdeeds will be sentenced to suffering or miserable future lives.
The spirits of the dead, after being judged by Lord Yama, either pass through a term in the realm of the ancestors or undergo their measure of punishment in the nether world. Much like life on earth, locales in the afterlife are not permanent. After a time, souls return to Earth in new bodies or even take on a different soul task in the afterlife.
In some traditions, Yama is considered a profession–an occupation–in the celestial hierarchy. There are traditions who view Yama’s role as ‘a position’ in the afterlife rather than a deity or a God. There have been cases in which an honest mortal was rewarded with the position of Yama and served in the court of the afterlife as a judge and the ruler of the underworld.
Life and the Afterlife
Without death, life can have very little meaning. When we are young, we think we are indestructible and that we can go about doing whatever we are doing without having to face the consequences.
As time meanders on, we begin to see the consequences of our actions–whether intentional or unintentional. We realise that each and every single one of our actions creates a ripple or an energetic force in the universe that will one day come back to us.
We may try to escape the consequences of our actions in life. But in death, it will all be revealed. Perhaps when judgment day comes, it is not Yama who judges us, but ourselves. All we have when we depart from this world, is our actions… And in Yama’s courtroom, we are doing nothing but finally facing up to the consequences.
This post is co-authored by Dipa Sanatani, Eugene Lee & Helios A.