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The Lord Buddha destigmatizes mental illness

Somasundaram, Ottilingam; Murthy, Tejus1

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doi: 10.4103/psychiatry.IndianJPsychiatry_293_17
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The compassion of Lord Buddha for all sections of humanity and living beings is well known. There is the incident in which the young prince Siddhartha Gautama nursing the dove shot by his aggressive cousin Devadatta and his refusal to the demands of Devadatta to part with the injured bird. Then, there is the instance of his visit to the yagasala of King Bimbisara, carrying the lame lamb on his back and dissuading the king to give up his “bloody gifts” to the Gods:

But Buddha softly said,

“Let him not strike, great King!” and therewith loosed

The victim's bonds, none staying him, so great

His presence was. Then, craving leave, he spake

Of life, which all can take but none can give,

Life, which all creatures love and strive to keep,

Wonderful, dear and pleasant unto each,

Even to the meanest; yea, a boon to all

Where pity is, for pity makes the world

Soft to the weak and noble for the strong.

[1] (Chapter 5 page 88)

Then, there is his consolation of the bereaved mother Kisa Gotami and other well-known incidents in his life.[2] And at the time of renunciation, Prince Siddhartha Gautama had these thoughts:

And in the silence of yon sky I read

My fated message flashing. Unto this

Came I, and unto this all nights and days

Have led me; for I will not have that crown

Which may be mine: I lay aside those realms

Which wait the gleaming of my naked sword

My chariot shall not roll with bloody wheels

From victory to victory, till Earth

Wears the red record of my name. I choose

To tread its paths with patient, stainless feet,

Making its dust my bed, its loneliest wastes

My dwelling, and its meanest things my mates:

Clad in no prouder garb than outcasts wear,

Fed with no meats save what the charitable

Give of their will, sheltered by no more pomp

Than the dim cave lends or the jungle-bush,

This will I do because the woeful cry

Of life and all flesh living cometh up

Into my ears, and all my soul is full

Of pity for the sickness of this world,

Which I will heal, if healing may be found

By uttermost renouncing and strong strife.

[1] (Chapter 4 page 66)


The Buddha's encounter with a greatly disturbed and deeply grieving mentally ill woman reveals his understanding of the nature of the illness and appropriate attitude. It is difficult to find such an occurrence in the early human history. The Sermon on the Mount, delivered five centuries later, talks about love, humility, and mercy rather than force and exaction and makes no mention specifically of mental illness.[3] (Chapters 5, 6, and 7) To the best of our knowledge, no outstanding religious world leader has expressed intimacy with psychiatric patients. It may be mentioned in passing that the Hindu Saivite Godhead Siva is lovingly and endearingly called “the Mad Lord.”[4]

The story of Patacara and her meeting the Buddha is not well known in the Indian circles in spite of the importance given to it in the Buddhist literature of Nepal, Sri Lanka, and other Buddhist countries. The difficulty in getting access to the original Pali literature is one of the reasons. The authors have persued two Tamil Buddha biographies. One of them, published in the first decades of the 20th century CE, is influenced by the prevailing political atmosphere of those times. It is more interested in Nationalism and anti-Colonialism rather than social inequalities. The story is abstracted from Buddhar Arul Aram (Book in Tamil, meaning literally “The Buddha Dhamma”) by Appaathuraiyaar (1917) republished in 2008 by the Tamil Nadu Buddha Sangam, Chennai.[5] Another reference is Hellmuth Hecker's book.[6]

Now let's turn to the story of Patacara. She was the daughter of a very wealthy merchant of Savatthi. When she came of age, her parents arranged her marriage with a groom of equal social standing, but Patacara refused to marry him and instead eloped with one of their servants whom she loved. They both went to a far-off village and led a life of hard work. She became pregnant. She asked her husband to take her to her parents’ home as she needed their care during this time. However, her husband feared that they will torture or imprison him and hence refused to take her. Hence, she left alone for her parents’ home. Her husband followed, trying to persuade her to return but she would not turn back. During the journey itself, birth pains started as she delivered a boy. Finding no reason to continue to her parents’ home now, they returned to their home. Later, when she became pregnant for her second child, the same sequence of events unfolded. She took along her elder son also. The husband followed, trying to convince her to turn back. A storm came up quite unexpectedly and it started raining heavily. Her husband started chopping some wood to make a shelter for her, as she was in labor now. However, while doing so, he was bitten by a poisonous snake and died instantly. Meanwhile, she had given birth to another boy, but once she came to know of her husband's death, she was inconsolable in her grief. Pulling herself up, she continued toward her parents’ town. Now, they had to cross a river which was in spate. As she felt very weak, she decided that she will escort her children across the river, one by one. Hence, leaving her elder son behind, she first carried the younger one to the other bank. However, while she was returning for her elder son, she saw an eagle swoop down on her newborn and take him away. She started yelling in sorrow, seeing which the elder son thought she was beckoning him to come to her and entered the water and was swept away by the current. Devastated, she continued on her way. As she was about to reach her town, a person from the town met her and told her that her parental home had collapsed due to the heavy rains, leading to the death of her parents and brother.

On hearing this, her reason left her, she tore her clothes and wandered aimlessly and naked in the town. People used to pelt stones at her.

Then, the Buddha came to the Jetavana and used to give sermons there in the monastery. Patacara went there, Buddha's disciples tried to stop her and send her away, but Buddha instructed them to allow her to come to him. As she approached him, she regained her right mind. She became aware of being naked and crouched on the ground in shame. A cloak was provided. Then, she prostrated at the feet of the Buddha and recounted her tragic life experience to him [Figure 1]

Figure 1:
Buddha and Patacara. Courtesy:

Buddha listened to her with compassion and made it clear to her the impermanence of the painful experiences she had undergone. At that moment, she could grasp this impermanence of things and attained liberation. She proclaimed:

Having washed my feet,

Then I watched that water,

Noticing the foot-water

Flowing from high to low

With that the mind was calmed.

Just as a noble, thoroughbred horse.

By observing the various rates at which the water trickled, it dawned upon her that some people lived for a short period, like her children, some for a medium length of time, like her husband, and others for longer time, like her parents. This realization came like an epiphany to her, and she attained total detachment. Buddha made her one of his foremost disciples, Bhikkuni Patacara (Patacara in Pali means “naked” or “shameless”) and called her “The Keeper of Vinaya.” She became the embodiment of self-discipline and compassion and helped many troubled souls who came to the monastery seeking solace.

Here, it is worth epitomizing the attitude of the Buddha to a person deeply disturbed in thought and behavior, she is continued to be called in Pali language a “shameless” and a “naked” person, reminding the society that a past psychiatric patient can resume normal duties of a person and even assume the leadership of other converted bhikkunis (leading the Buddha to designate her as “The Disciplined One,” “The Keeper of Vinaya). She is treated with great reference in the Buddhist canon, indicating that mental illness is not an anathema to be worried about, feared, or misinterpreted as possession; the condition could be understood and normality restored.

Another instance in the life of Buddha is that in which he destigmatizes the highly stigmatized and discriminated illness, i.e., leprosy. Once, one of the wealthy businessmen of Savatthi, who had become a disciple of Buddha, and known by the name of Tissathera, becomes inflicted with leprosy. During this time, Buddha goes to his bedside, nurses him, and cleans his wounds, as his other disciples help him. They continue to take care of Tissathera compassionately till the time of his death.[2] (Sakkiya Buddhar Varalaaru, Chapter 35, page 247).


The authors feel that Buddha's philosophy has not been sufficiently utilized by the Indian mental health professionals. A notable exception is Late Prof. SK Ramachandra Rao of Bengaluru.[78] Recently, the Buddhist philosophy's usefulness in the behavioral sciences is noted by some members of the psychiatric profession.[910] Dr. Ambedkar's posthumous publication is one of the readable accounts of the Buddha and his Dhamma.[11]

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.


The authors are grateful to the guidance given by Venerable K. Mahayana Their, Nikki in charge, Mahabodhi Society of Sri Lanka-Chennai Centre, 12, Kennet Lane, Egmore, Chennai-600008 and Thiru ON Krishnan of Tamil Nadu Buddhar Sangam, Chennai. I am also thankful to my grandson S Bharat Kumar for procuring the relevant material for writing this article.


1. Arnold E Jayadeva: The Light of Asia. 2007 Charleston, SC BiblioBazaar
2. Vinayagam Pillai KD. Aasiya Jyothi – Book in Tamil 1941 Chennai Paari Nilayam
3. Trinitarian Bible Society. The Gospel According to Matthew. 2008 London Trinitarian Bible Society
4. Somasundaram O, Murthy T. Siva – The mad lord: A Puranic perspective Indian J Psychiatry. 2017;59:119–22
5. Appaathuraiyaar G Buddhar Arul Aram – Book in Tamil. 2008 Chennai Tamil Nadu Buddha Sangam
6. Hecker H Buddhist Women at the Time of the Buddha. 1994 Kandy Buddhist Publication Society
7. Ramachandra Rao SK Development of Psychological Thought in India. 1962 Bangalore Kavyalaya, Surama Prakashana
8. Ramachandra Rao SK Elements of Early Buddhist Psychology. 1957 Bangalore Surama Prakashana
9. Aich TK. Buddha philosophy and Western psychology Indian J Psychiatry. 2013;55:S165–70
10. Osborne TR, Bhugra D. Practical and theoretical interactions of Buddhism and psychiatry: A view from the West Indian J Psychiatry. 2003;45:142–6
11. Ambedkar BR, Rathore AS, Verma A The Buddha and his Dhamma: A Critical Edition. 2011 Oxford, New Delhi Oxford University Press:325

Buddhism; destigmatization; mental illness

© 2018 Indian Journal of Psychiatry | Published by Wolters Kluwer – Medknow