Realms of Existence

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The Sanskrit term gati (literally "manner of going") refers to the different "destinies" or realms of existence that await beings at death and into which they will be reborn as a result of the particular karma (action) that has dominated their lives. The older Buddhist texts (followed by the exegetical texts and manuals of such schools as the TheravĀda and Sarvāstivāda) preserve a list of five basic realms: hells, hungry ghosts, animals, human beings, and gods. But it was always recognized that these five—and especially the last—represented broad categories. Thus we find different hells listed and different types of hungry ghosts distinguished, as well as a whole hierarchy of gods (deva).

Some Buddhist schools and some MahĀyĀna sūtras speak of six basic realms of existence, adding the asuras (jealous gods) to the list. Other schools, although in effect also recognizing rebirth as an asura as a significant and distinctive form of existence, refused to allow an actual list of six gatis on the grounds that such a list was not given in the earliest sūtras.

There is an old tradition (continued now especially in Tibetan Buddhism) of representing the six realms graphically as forming six segments of a wheel of existence: at the top, the heavenly realms of the gods, and moving clockwise, the jealous gods (separated by the wishing tree), animals, hells, hungry ghosts, and humans. The outer rim of the wheel is formed of the twelve links of pratĪtyasamutpĀda (dependent origination). At the hub, driving the whole process, are a cock (greed), a snake (hatred), and a pig (ignorance).

See also:Cosmology; Divinities; Ghosts and Spirits; Heavens


Reynolds, Frank E., and Reynolds, Mani B., trans. Three Worlds According to King Ruang: A Thai Buddhist Cosmology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

Sadakata, Akira. Buddhist Cosmology: Philosophy and Origin. Tokyo: Kosei, 1997.

Rupert Gethin