Let’s get one thing out of the way: I know my current favorite anime/manga series Naruto has tons of issues. I know its storytelling has been feeble for years now, it’s a total trainwreck from a feminist perspective, and it throws around religious references frivolously, like they’re sprinkles on a sundae.
But I have to give the series credit for being thematically consistent… perhaps even to the point of being overbearing. For a long time I thought the themes were generic values like teamwork, brotherhood, perseverance, and sacrifice. But as the narrative wore on, it became clearer and clearer how cyclical everything was: the endless cycle of war between the Senju and Uchiha, the cycle of each generation taking on the roles of the previous generation, and the literal cycle of reincarnation of the two sons of the Sage of the Six Paths. To understand this, we’re going to have to dive a little deeper than generic, fairly Western values. If I had been paying as much attention to translations of Japanese terms as I should have been, I would have realized far earlier that all these cycles are evoking a particular cycle, the cycle of Samsara: the endless loop of death and rebirth in Hindu and Buddhist belief. You see, “Rinnegan” translates to “Samsara eye”. And the Rinnegan is the pinnacle of all ocular powers, and the center of conflict for much of the second half of the series.
Okay, so the characters in Naruto are caught in the cycle of Samsara, so what? Well, there’s a lot to Samsara. In some branches of Buddhism, there are six realms of existence within the world of “desire” (Sanskrit kāma-dhātu) into which one can be reborn while within the cycle of Samsara: the god or deva realm, the asura or demigod realm, the human realm, the animal realm, the preta or “hungry ghost” realm, and the naraka or hell realm. These words will sound familiar to any readers/viewers of Naruto; the Six Paths that Pain/Nagato used (with his Rinnegan) are named after them. But even more deeply than that, I think there is at least one character in the series who represents each of the realms. The good news is that all of the characters I will discuss below are “getting better”, moving closer toward enlightenment—i.e., toward breaking free from the cycle of Samsara. In this first of a two-part series, I’ll discuss characters representing the naraka, preta, and animal realms. Spoilers for all of Naruto below!
A disclaimer before I get started: I’m not a Buddhist, so although I did a lot of research before writing this post, I’m undoubtedly going to get things wrong. Please feel free to correct and enlighten me in the comments! Also, please remember that there are many different branches of Buddhism, so not all that I say is going to apply to every type of Buddhism.
Let’s get started! Quick primer on the six realms of existence: You are reborn into a higher realm if you’ve built up good karma through virtuous actions, and a lower realm if you have lots of bad karma from immoral actions. The deva or god realm and asura or demigod realm are “above” the human realm, and the animal, preta, and naraka/hell realms are “below” it, but the human realm provides one with the best opportunity to achieve enlightenment and release.
First: the naraka or hell realm. What distinguishes the realms below that of the human realm—i.e., animal, preta, and naraka—is that the beings there are so distracted by their suffering that it is very difficult for them to focus on gathering good karma or following the path to enlightenment. The various narakas in Buddhism sound a lot like some of Dante’s circles of hell. Beings in narakas are tormented by either excruciating heat or cold, while also enduring agonies such as being sliced into pieces or crushed by rocks. So a character representing this realm would have experienced traumatic atrocities that they simply couldn’t overcome. It’s as if they’re constantly tortured by these experiences, constantly punished by them. In other words, they’re like Obito.
Of all the characters I’m going to discuss, I think Obito as the embodiment of naraka has the greatest support from the text. Over and over again, almost ad nauseum, he says, “This world is a hell.” He endured so much tragedy in his life, and he chose to dwell on it rather than overcome it, dooming himself to suffer endlessly over it. In that sense, he sort of doomed himself to eternal hell, which is very much in keeping with the Buddhist concept of naraka being where you go if you’ve built up a huge amount of bad karma in a previous life. But however endless the torment may have seemed to Obito, in Buddhism, hell always ends eventually, even if takes trillions of years. That’s why it wasn’t surprising when he got a chance for redemption. It remains to be seen if, with his rapidly waning strength, he’ll be able to garner enough good karma to pull himself out of the naraka that his life has been for so long. But he’s well on his way, what with saving Naruto from the brink of death and everything. If he saves somebody (or everybody) with some final act of self-sacrifice, it will be underwhelming because it will seem like a repeat of Nagato’s plotline, but at least it will be thematically consistent.
Moving on, those in the preta or “hungry ghost” realm inhabit the same plane as humans, but are normally invisible to us. They are tormented by endless hunger and thirst, but can never quite reach a source of food or drink (like the Tantalus legend in Greek mythology). Even if they do finally put something in their mouths, it burns going down their throats, so it still causes them suffering. A character representing the preta realm would be someone who is ceaselessly tortured by being unable to achieve their desires, and even their achievements would be somewhat tempered. Again and again, this has been the case for Sasuke. For instance, he finally achieved his desire to bring about the death of his brother, only to find out the truth about Itachi and realize his brother was the last person he wanted dead. What Sasuke thought would be his greatest triumph turned out to cause him his greatest sorrow. And the fact that Sasuke keeps changing his goals makes it difficult for him to ever achieve his desires either. But he’s learning. Recently he’s decided to follow his brother’s legacy and protect Konoha after all. He’s fighting alongside the heroes to defeat the villains. It seems he is no longer consumed by hatred and the pursuit of power. Of course, his ultimate goals are still intentionally unclear to us readers. But like all the rest of the characters I’m profiling here, he has shown improvement.
Let’s move onto the animal realm. Animals, which of course inhabit the same plane as humans, suffer greatly from exposure to the elements, hunting by predators or humans, and human exploitation. Most also have shorter lifespans than humans do, so it makes sense that it takes many animal lifetimes to escape that realm. It might even take as long as a thousand years… which is exactly how long the tailed beasts have existed in the Naruto world. And bonus! They even look like animals.
The Sage of the Six Paths and his brother created the tailed beasts when they sealed away their mother and split the Ten-Tails’ chakra into nine parts. We don’t know for sure what the tailed beasts were like when they were first “born”, but we know that they have grown and changed throughout the centuries. Up until very recently, the beasts were feared as forces of darkness and chaos. They were said to feed off humanity’s hatred and fear. The only time they were viewed as allies of the ninjas was when they managed to find a good jinchuuriki—a human vessel in which a tailed beast’s prodigious chakra is sealed. If the beast and the jinchuuriki got along, then the beast would be helpful and friendly. If they didn’t, then the jinchuuriki would be corrupted by the beast’s negativity. Without a jinchuuriki, the tailed beasts do not have a sentient consciousness (the Ten-Tails never did). Lately, all nine of the tailed beasts found good jinchuuriki with whom they could get along—until Akatsuki came along and killed the hosts. And now the beasts have all decided to cooperate with Naruto. We learned, mostly from Naruto’s original tailed beast, the Nine-Tails, that the tailed beasts lashed out mainly because they resented being used merely as weapons. Their recent jinchuuriki and Naruto have all treated them like friends and equals rather than as weapons, so they’ve become cooperative rather than destructive. Thanks to people who actually cared about them, these “beasts” have become more “human”, though it took them a long time to get there. They didn’t have numerous different short “lives” like those in the animal realm do, but they aren’t always sentient, they’ve suffered greatly from human hunting and exploitation, and it’s taking them a long time to leave the realm of “beasthood” behind. I predict that by the end of the series, their transformation from “animal” to “human” will become literal, and they’ll all get their own human bodies with no more need to depend on a jinchuuriki for sentience.
That’s all for Part 1! Tune in next week to see which characters I believe represent the deva, asura, and human realms, but in the meantime, who do you think fits in all these realms? Looking forward to seeing your opinions in the comments!