Buddhism and the problem of crime

By Bandula Jayawardhana
Formerly Editor in-Chief
Encyclopaedia of Buddhism

"CRIME" is a word we use today to denote any offence against a community as a whole, or one (or more) of its members. At the same time implicit in our use of it, is the sense that it is punishable, or deserving of punishment by a socially-recognised authority. The traditional literature of Buddhism does not seem to possess a word which identically fits our meaning, idle and futile as it is to seek for an equivalent in a religious system with its own highly specialized terminology and its own historical and geographical background. Buddhism, in fact, does not seem to deal with this subject anywhere, doctrinally.

Nevertheless, the literature of Buddhism contains several passages from which we may elect the Buddhist idea of crime, and an attitude to crime, which finally shows up to be essentially Buddhist.

There are three such discourses of the Buddha in the Digba Nikaya, the first book of the Sutta Pitaka, which deserve our closest attention in this respect, at a time when we are engaged in a re-search into, and a rediscovery of, the lost values in our culture.

Of these discourses, the first is called the Cakkavatti Sihanada Suttanta, the other is the Agganna Suttanta the third is the Kutadanta Suttanta. There is also another relevant discourse in the Majjbima Nikaya, the second book of the Sutta Pitaka, which supplies some very significant information in the reconstruction of the Buddhist attitude to crime.

Let us now discuss how these four discourses are related to the subject of crime.

The Cakkavatti-Sihanada Suttanta presents a parable on the evolution of crime and deals with the forces that lead to the slow decay and ultimate ruin of a society, and with the part played by the ruler in the welfare or downfall of a community. The Agganna Suttanta, while the former discourse continues itself to the logical origins of crime, gives a historical picture of its origins, and speaks of the first establishment of a judicial and penal authority in the history of mankind. This authority is the great king Mahasammata, who is elected by the community. The Kutudanta Suttanta presents the ideal advice of an ideal counsellor to the king, on how to prevent crime. From the Angulimala Sutta may be deduced the Buddha’s own practical attitude to a criminal.

From these sources chiefly and from a few other passages in Buddhist literature emerges a clear and distinct idea of an attitude to crime which the Buddhists seem to have held, and an attitude to crime which is not only essentially Buddhist but seems to be compatible with the most modern of humanitarian views on the subject.

The first step in the solution of a problem is to know the problem, the nature of the case. How does Buddhism concceive of the nature of crime? What are the things Buddhism is talking of as crime?

THE NATURE OF CRIME: The Cakkavatti Sihanada Suttanta we have mentioned above is very clear and definite on this point. This discourse gives several factors which lead to the degeneration and decay of a society. Some of these factors are those deliberate acts of offence against an individual or a community such as theft, murder and violence, lying, evil-speaking and abusive speech. Others are individual failings which, though not directly harmful to others, indirectly eat into the fabric of a society and its well-being, finally bringing about its ruin. Such are idle talk, false opinions, wanton greed, sexual perversions like homosexuality, lack of filial or religious piety, absence of respect for authority.

It will be seen that of these factors, the first mentioned group would fall into the category of crime in our sense of the word, while the latter would not. But it is clear that Buddhism was interested in the first group in so far as they fall into the category of acts of commission or commission which spell the decline and ruin of a community and obstruct its well-being. In the Buddhist analysis, there are acts which lead to that unfortunate end, which are not crimes in our sense of the word as direct offences against the community, but crimes too, Buddhism says, are among those acts which lead to a society’s decay. In short, it maintains that all crimes are papa but not all papa are crimes. It admits or acts of individuals which are not direct offences, and are in practice impossible to punish, which nevertheless are offensive in a community, corruptive and destructive of it and, therefore, deserving of extirpation.

This fact perhaps is one explanation why Buddhism does not give special treatment to the subject of crime. Since crimes are included under the category of papa, it deals with them as such. Being ethical in its purpose, Buddhism comprehends that its function is to eradicate all factors which lead to the degeneration of a society or an individual and is not content to give a social ethic or a political philosophy merely. It has to aim at a society’s total well-being, but not by any means losing sight of its final spiritual ideal. It thus concerns itself not merely with the negative function of preventing evil, but also fosters the good. It has to devote its attentions not merely to the making of law-abiding citizens, but also to the making of good men. It seems to take the attitude of Plato that the good man will be a good citizen and insistently recommends good conduct as leading to success "in this world and the next."

Yet another reason which may be adduced from the above suttantas to explain why Buddhism does not deal with crime as a special doctrinal tenet. Crime, is a legal concept, and Buddhism seems to understand it as, therefore, relative and changeable in meaning or content. It is notable that the ideal king in the Cakkavatti Sihanada Suttanta lays down that under his rule the following acts are to be considered crimes-killing, theft, adultery, falsehood and drinking of liquor, i.e., what are commonly known as the pancasila. Even in this same suttanta, the last of these five is not given even as a factor corruptive of society, not to speak of other suttantas. Not even in the Sigalovada Suttanta the celebrated Layman’s Ethic, is this last law of the ideal king spoken of as a necessary rule of life, but is given only as a factor which leads to the decline of wealth (bhoganam apaya-mukhani).

The Buddha thus seems to recognise the term crime as variable in content and meaning from time to time, and, therefore, devotes itself to its treatment in its universal and perennial meaning, not as the act of kings and governments but as papa, acts against the norm, the cosmic law (Dhamma), as acts which bring with them their own natural reactions or results. To Buddhism then crimes are unethical acts, acts against the cosmic law, not merely acts against the social law.

CAUSES OF CRIME: But this position does not mean that Buddhism does not grant that crime has a social impact and a social significance. It is indeed with this aspect that the Cakkavatti-Sihanada Suttanta mainly concerns itself. This aspect is in fact quite clearly brought out in its analysis of the causes and origins of crime. The parable in the suttanta depicts a king who has fallen from one of the ideals of kingly duty, that is, the duty of seeing to the economic welfare of the subjects. His people consequently are reduced to the position of beasts, or Savages. This is the result of the causal chain of crimes of increasing gravity which the king’s singular lapse initiated.

Thus, it is clear that a social cause is suggested. This cause, it further hints, is an economic cause. The parable states of this king who lapsed in his duty: "he did provide the due watch and ward and protection, but on the destitute he bestowed no wealth. And because this was not done, poverty became widespread. When poverty was thus become rife, a certain man took that which others had not given him — what people call theft". The passage traces the chain-reaction further, thus:

"Thus from goods not being bestowed on the destitute, poverty grew rife; from poverty growing rife, stealing increased: from stealing, violence grew apace: from the growth of violence, the destruction of life became common; from the frequency of murder, lying; from lying evil speaking: from adultery, covetousness, ill-will, false opinions, incest, wanton greed and perversions of sex."

The final logical consequence is predicted, thus: "The world will fall into disorder, to promiscuity like goats and sheep, fowls and swine, dogs and jackals" and war "there will arise a sword-period".

This suttanta however does not suggest that the economic cause is the ultimate one. It is only the immediate one. The lapse of the parabled king is not just a political failure. His failure is a failure in living up to the norm, the cosmic law (Dhamma).

His act of Commission, his fall from duty, is a contradiction on his part of the natural law, which contradiction brings its inexorable, inevitable retribution, equally naturally.

That much, the Buddha has to say for the social cause of crime. A cause for crime in the individual is also adduced, and this is brought out in the Agganna Suttanta. Here crime arises as a result of an individual’s greed. Owing to the dearth of natural resources, division of property takes place, and when private property emerges, "one man conceiving greed for another’s" resorts to theft. Crime, in short, originates in the mind of man, in human greed. It has a psychological cause.

The Agganna Suttanta analysis is not meant to be a final analysis either. It is sufficient, as far as it is concerned to stop at the suggestion that it is greed. But the Buddhist doctrinal analyses of greed are left to examine the more fundamental causes. And from these are quite clearly seen the fundamental causes of crime. From greed springs all hatred, craving and delusion. Greed springs from dissatisfaction. The base of it all is the self, the ego-consciousness of man. How the Buddhists conceived the process in the case of hatred, is suggested in the Anguttara Nikaya (A.IV, 97) in words of the poet:



"A man in anger will his father kill,

In wrath his very mother will he slay,

Brahman and common folk alike he’ll kill.

‘Tis but by mother’s care man sees the light

Of day, yet common, average folk, in wrath

Will still destroy the fount of life (and love).

Self-mirrored all these beings are: each one

Loves most the self....

The final cause then is Avijja (ignorance), this mistaken consciousness of self, this wrong notion of self-hood.


SOLUTIONS FOR THE PROBLEM: The solution which Buddhism advocates for the problem of crime is equally related to its concept of crime as papa, as it is to the diagnosis of its causes as Need and Greed. But in its attempt to offer its own solution it first examines the traditional solutions that have already been offered by the Buddha’s contemporaries.

One of these traditional solutions is punishment by a society or a socially constituted authority. The Agganna Suttata (D. III 92-93) notes that the community, as crime emerged resorted to punishment of its offenders by its own hand, (e.g. assault) but later established the institution of kingship to perform this function. In the Cakkvattisihanada Suttanta, too, with the rise of crime, the king becomes a penal authority. These authorities were instituted to prevent the recurrence of crime.

Thus, it is seen that Buddhist literature notes that, not only was punishment conceived as a solution on to the problem of crime, but also that it was meant quite often, to be deterrent. But the cakkavatti-sihanada also makes it its purpose to show up the inefficacy and ineffectiveness of deterrent punishment. The king’s punishment of the offender in this parable defeats its own purpose. The king, discovering a criminal, orders: "bind this man’s arms behind him with a strong rope and tight knot, shave his head bald, lead him round with a harsh sounding drum, from road to road, cross-ways to cross-ways, take him out by the southern gate, and to the south of the town, put a final stop to this, (i.e, theft), inflict on him the utmost penalty cut off his head!".


(To be continued next week)

It is shown by the context that the king resorts to this punishment after three times trying in vain to check the crime by charitable measures, only to find that they lead to imitation of the crime by others.