Madness and Possession in Pali Texts


  • Steven Collins Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago



madness, possession, Pāli, pathology


In the context of contemporary interest in the use of Buddhist meditation practices in modern psychology, psychiatry and psychotherapy, this article offers a preliminary survey of a subject hitherto almost completely unstudied: madness in Premodern Pali texts. (Possession, especially but not only by Mara, who is both a deity and a phenomenological reality, is regarded by the Pali tradition as a kind of madness.) Using story-literature as well as doctrinal and jurisprudential texts, the article aims to collect together material on three ways in which the ideas and behaviours of madness are used: (i) the literal-pathological, (ii) in comparisons (‘as if’ mad), and (iii) in the metaphorical-evaluative sense where it is alleged that everyone who is not enlightened (or at least on the Path to it) is ‘mad’. It is centered around an eightfold classification of madness given in the commentary to a Jataka story, the Birth Story about Darimukha (Ja III #378, III 238–246).


Apte, V. S. 2004 [1965]. The Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Berkwitz, Stephen. 2010. ‘Madness and Gender’. In Images of Madness, edited by Alessandra M. Pires and Luciana Namorato, 34–49. Bolivar, MO: From the Scholars Desk.

Bhikkhu Bodhi. 2012. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. Boston, MA: Wisdom.

Brakke, David. 2009. Demons and the Making of the Monk: Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Braun, Erik. 2013. The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Collins, Steven. 1982. Selfless Persons: imagery and thought in Theravada Buddhism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gethin, Rupert. 2001. Buddhist Path to Awakening. 2nd ed. London: OneWorld.

Heim, Maria. 2009. ‘The Conceit of Self-Loathing’. Journal of Indian Philosophy 37: 61–74.

Heim, Maria.2012. ‘Shame and Apprehension: Notes on the Moral Value of Hiri and Ottappa’. In Embedded Languages: Studies in the Religion, Culture, and History of Sri Lanka, edited by Carol S. Anderson, Susanne Mrozik, W. M. Wijeratna and R. M. W. Rajapaksha, 237–260. Colombo, Sri Lanka: Godage Books.

Ling, Trevor. 1962. Buddhism and the Mythology of Evil. London: George Allen and Unwin.

Ñanamoli Bhikkhu. 1991. The Dispeller of Delusion, vol. 2. Oxford: Pali Text Society.

Norman, K. R. 1997. The Word of the Doctrine. Oxford: Pali Text Society.

Norman, K. R. 2007. Elders’ Verses II. 2nd ed. Oxford: Pali Text Society.

Pio, Edwina. 1988. Buddhist Psychology: a Modern Perspective. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

Segal, Zindel, J. Mark G. Williams and John D. Teasdale. 2002. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression: A New Approach to Preventing Relapse. New York: Guilford Press.

Williams, J. Mark G. and Jon Kabat-Zinn. 2011. Special issue of Contemporary Buddhism, 12(1), on Mindfulness: Diverse Perspectives on its Meaning, Origins, and Multiple Applications at the Intersection of Science and Dharma. Reprinted in book form, 2013, as Mindfulness: Diverse Perspectives on its Meaning, Origins, and Multiple Applications. Abingdon: Routledge.




How to Cite

Collins, S. (2015). Madness and Possession in Pali Texts. Buddhist Studies Review, 31(2), 195–214.