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I've just started learning Buddhism, and currently investigating 6 realms of rebirth. What confuses me is that it seems different sources give inconsistent ordering of the realms.

For example, in the book Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction the 6 realms of rebirth is ordered (from highest to lowest) as follows:

  1. Gods
  2. Humans
  3. Titans
  4. Ghosts
  5. Animals
  6. Hell

However, in wikipedia article of Saṃsāra it presents the following order:

  1. Gods
  2. Human
  3. Demi-god
  4. Animal
  5. Hungry ghost
  6. Hell

I also checked wikipedia for 六道 and some other Chinese online articles (since I can read Chinese). It seems they prefer to order demi-god realm above human realm.

So in summary, there seems to be inconsistency of relative ordering of two pairs of realms among various sources, namely the relative ordering between human realm and demi-god realm, and between animal realm and ghost realm.

I'm wondering which is right? Is there a definitive ordering? Maybe different branches of Buddhism define them differently?

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The Pali scriptures say:

Mendicants, there are five destinations. What five? Hell, the animal realm, the ghost realm, humanity and the gods. Nirayo, tiracchānayoni, pettivisayo, manussā, devā—

AN 9.68

And what is the diversity in kamma? There is kamma to be experienced in hell, kamma to be experienced in the realm of common animals, kamma to be experienced in the realm of the hungry shades, kamma to be experienced in the human world, kamma to be experienced in the world of the devas. This is called the diversity in kamma.

AN 6.63

Other examples of the above ordering are here.

Therefore, the ordering of the five realms in descending order is:

  1. Gods
  2. Humans
  3. Ghosts
  4. Animals
  5. Hell

However, it appears one sutta, from thousands, namely, Iti 93, includes a separate asura realm and places asura below hungry ghosts.

Being unaware of these three fires, humankind (pajā = people) delights in personal existence.

Unfree from the bonds of Māra They swell the ranks of hell, existence in the animal realm, asura-demons and the sphere of ghosts.

Iti 93

Therefore, based on Iti 93, the descending order is:

  1. Deva gods
  2. Humans
  3. Hungry ghosts
  4. Asura gods
  5. Animals
  6. Hell
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  • Asuras are mentioned in Iti 93. – ChrisW Mar 7 at 9:03
  • Thanks so much for your answer. Both yours and Chris's answers are very informative. I'm accepting yours as it gives scriptural source for ordering. But to be honest I find it weird to order animals below ghosts. – Naitree Mar 7 at 9:43
  • thank you however it appears ChrisW threw a spanner in the works with Iti 93, which appears to place asuras lower than hungry ghosts. regards – Dhammadhatu Mar 7 at 13:05
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I suspect that both the ones you quoted are correct -- the thing is that, you're assuming that "titan" and "demi-god" are the same, but I don't think they are -- according to this reference to The Thirty-one Planes of Existence, a "demi-god" is presumable a Deva (above human) whereas a "titan" is presumably an Asura (below human).

As for the ordering of Animal versus Ghost, this reference agrees with Dhammadhatu's answer (based on Pali scriptures). The Wikipedia article you cited explains its reasoning (i.e. that the contrary ordering has an origin in the Tibetan tradition):

According to McClelland, this realm is the mildest of the three evil realms. According to Yangsi Rinpoche, in contrast, the suffering of the beings born in the realm of the hungry ghosts is far more intense than those born in the animal realm.

Even then I'm not sure what criteria people use to order them -- for example "hungry ghost" might be closer to (more similar to and more akin to, more closely related to) human than the animal realm is, therefore higher in that sense -- even if the suffering of that state is greater, therefore lower in that sense.

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  • Thanks so much for your answer. Now I think maybe definitive ordering doesn't make much sense to begin with. They just represents results of different kinds of karma. If one is always craving and insatiable, he might turn out to be a hungry ghost. If one is always ignorant and acting by animal instinct, he might turn out to be an animal. It's just different kinds of suffering. Maybe it's best to understand it metaphorically. – Naitree Mar 7 at 10:11
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    Are they even "ordered"? I mean, apart from the fact that they are necessarily listed in some-or-other sequence, not all at once, in the text, and hell is maybe portrayed as the worse or most intense... but rebirth in the animal state might be unpleasant too, and long-lasting (SN 56.48). I suppose they correspond to the "three poisons" -- i.e. ghosts suffer because of desire, animals ignorance, and hell-beings aversion. I'm not sure where Asuras fit into that classification. – ChrisW Mar 7 at 10:20
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    So apparently Asuras suffer because of Envy rather than Want, which maybe puts them a step above Ghosts -- and they're more powerful. More powerful (so perhaps arguably "higher") than humans even, so arguably above, except perhaps more evil than a good or Buddhist human, so arguably below. That and maybe some of them are kings of hell (another argument for theirs being a lower realm). See also Iti 93; and this definition of Asura lists several suttas in which they're mentioned. – ChrisW Mar 7 at 10:30
  • I'm also inclined to think that they are actually not ordered. Thanks for the info and insight! Really appreciated. – Naitree Mar 7 at 16:08
  • On terms of the second order, I see it a lot in East Asian Mahāyāna as well, with asuras right beneath humans, so it might not be Tibetan. I will take a look at some sources when I can. – Caoimhghin Mar 12 at 5:37

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