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From the Blacksmith’s Forge to the Fires of Hell: Eating the Red-Hot Iron Ball in Early Buddhist Literature

Issue: Vol 36 No. 1 (2019)

Journal: Buddhist Studies Review

Subject Areas: Religious Studies Buddhist Studies

DOI: 10.1558/bsrv.37052


Early Buddhist texts were first being composed and compiled during South Asia’s Iron Age, and thus contain many references to iron and other metal technologies. This article examines one metalworking image that came to play a special role in the imagination of early Buddhists: the red-hot iron ball. I argue that the iron ball, which comes to be a torture device in hell, force-fed by hell wardens, is a mimesis of the piṇḍapāta, or almsfood offered to monks and nuns by the laity. Around iron ball imagery clusters a set of related Buddhist concerns: anxieties about undisciplined and deceitful monks and nuns, especially in relation to taking alms; the public perception of the saṅgha; the conceptualization of Buddhist hells as an unfortunate karmic result of lacking discipline; and the relationship between these hells and Indian juridical forms of punishment.

Author: Joseph Marino

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