Friday, February 26, 2010


Torture (karana) is the deliberate infliction of physical or psychological pain by one or more persons on another. When pain is self inflicted as is sometimes done for religious reasons, it is properly called self-mortification (attakilamatha).Torture is used to extract confessions or information, as a punishment, out of revenge, or to create an atmosphere of fear amongst the wider population. Less commonly, psychopaths sometimes torture their victims for pleasure. Torture was probably done for all these reasons during the time of the Buddha, although only judicial torture is mentioned in the Tipitaka. A certain type of legal officer whose job it was to investigate crimes routinely brutalized suspects and judges often handed down punishments that included torture (S.II,258). The Koliyans had a type of policemen with a distinctive headdress and a reputation for cruelty. In his conversation with the Buddha, Pataliya said of these officers, ‘If there are any wicked rogues among the Koliyans, it is they’ (S.IV,341).
Some of the types of torture mentioned in the texts include flogging, scolding with boiling oil, burying alive up to the neck, amputation of limbs, nose and ears, impaling and being trampled by elephants. According to one account, an enraged king tortured a man by having a nest of stinging red ants broken over his head (J.IV,375). In the Majjhima Nikaya the Buddha lists some of the dreadful tortures that were inflicted on criminals as a punishment, all of which would have resulted in death (M.I,87). It was no doubt that executioners (coraghaataka) and prison guards (bandhanaagarika) were condemned by the Buddha as having a cruel livelihood because they often committed such cruelties (M.I,343). To countenance torture or to inflict it would go against the most basic Buddhist principles of kindness, compassion and justice.
In 1252 Pope Innocent IV issued a bull entitled Ad Exsitirpanda authorizing torture during the questioning of heretics and apostates. The Inquisition continued to use torture up until the 19th century in the Papal States, Goa, Mexico, the Philippines, etc. In other parts of Western Europe and the US torture as a judicial procedure began to become unacceptable in the 18th century and by the end of the 19th century it had become illegal in these places. It was informally reintroduced and widely used by the police and military during the Nazi period in Germany and became legal again in the USSR from1931 until the 1950’s. Torture under certain circumstances was legalized in the US in 2006 and banned again in 2009. Although illegal in all Buddhist countries torture is still common in prisons and police stations.


Ken and Visakha said...

You've mentioned only physical torture of the crude sort -- more sophisticated (and diabolical) stuff was (and is?) widely used --these "enhanced interrogation techniques" e.g. sensory deprivation, sexual humiliation, sleep deprivation, etc. etc. Some of these do not result in death but in mental breakdowns and sometimes suicide. The usual physical tortures seem almost quaint by contrast. What would the Buddha have said about them, I wonder?

Unknown said...

There is a most valuable book about the methods of Inquisition, The Malleus Maleficarum, it is available at the American Buddha Online Library,,
It is important for the understanding of the history of religion. When reading it I have often wondered "What was there actually at that time in Spain and in Europe to justify such detailed instructions for handling the accused persons???" Was there somekind of buddhist tradition in Spain ?? It must have been a serious threat to christianity by all accounts !!

Unknown said...

It is interesting that torture should not be considered Buddhist, to me, somewhat like saying that it is not cricket.

Innocent IV may have been a Pope but he was not a human being; human beings don't torture others in any way or form.

The problem is that we tend to group everyone with two legs, etc., who can talk as a human being. Human beings by definition are those with good minds, but unfortunately society tends not to recognize demons as a distinct reality (other than in a completely superstitious way).

I can think of many politicians and business people who are not quite human, and anyone who harms a child likewise. However, there is no practical solution due to the level of ignorance of those who end up here, other than not being born here in the first place, hence The Buddha's teachings.

Unknown said...

Dear Ranger--

It seems to me that dismissing evildoers as not being fully human only lays the ground for further acts of brutality. I don't believe that torturers aren't human, but I do believe that a torturer doesn't see his victim as a human.

Ken and Visakha said...

Sadly, human beings do torture each other regularly. Until we have reached stream entry, we ourselves are capable of anything and everything. Better to be aware of those impulses in ourselves than to blithly assume we could never do such things and those wo do are "animals." Torture isn't limited to the Inquisition or a king's dungeon; bullying is torture too, right there in the neighborhood near you. Do a Google search for "bullying" and nearly six thousand stories appear.

Unknown said...

I suspect that we get all types of beings that end up being classified as human beings due to their physical form alone. However, the beings that arrive here would either come from the animal realm, demonic realm, or hungry ghosts on one side and the Deva and Brahman realms on the other, so the difference in possible behavior would be like night and day. Therefore, there is nothing fixed about the people here, some act like human beings and some do not because their demonic habits are stronger than others. I might note that Gautama was a former Deva, and he didn’t find it particularly difficult to act like a human being should, even before his enlightenment. Devadatta, on the other hand, found it impossible.

It may not seem appropriate to regard another fellow being as not quite human in Western culture but in Asian Buddhist culture it is not uncommon. I remember reading about a famous Thai vipassana Ajarn who was invited to a meeting at the Wat of a famous fortune telling abbot. Before the meeting the other monks were commenting upon how famous the abbot was, and the vipassana Ajarn agreed, but said that it was a pity he wasn’t a human being. This shocked the other monks who wanted to know why he would say such a thing. The Ajarn replied that it was The Buddha himself who said that such knowledge belonged to the animal realm.

Therefore, to be regarded as a human being you have to act like one, having the physical form alone does not make you one (or being a famous monk). As for not regarding a victim as a fellow human being, I would say that a torturer does not know what a real human being is.

I also think that it is somewhat unfortunate that animals get much of the blame for bad behavior, although some people do act like animals, however, I would limit this to those lacking in social graces, not those who are truly demonic.

Alessandro S. said...

While I do not recall mental or psychological torture mentioned in what I read of the Sutta Pitaka, there do are instances of what could be called exterminations or mass manslaughter (e.g. king Vidudhabha when he attacked Kapilavatthu). Just today I received this awful piece of news about a new episode of violence against the Buddhist minority in Bangladesh:
More information is available from the site of the Asian Centre for Human Rights,, and about past events from

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Alessandro,
Thanks for this important and sad info. Just a small point. The story of Vidudhabha massacre is from the commentaries not the Tipitaka. It’s always wise to distinguish canonical material from the later legends. This is because some of this later stories contains some pretty far-fetched stuff and if we think it’s from the Tipitaka we may find ourselves having to justify or explain things that most intelligent people would find unbelievable. The story about Vidudhabha’s massacre of the Sakyans would not fall into that category, but there’s plenty of other stuff that does.