On the Pali term bhūnaha, abortion, and the paradox of life

In a number of EBT passages we find the term bhunaha. The suffix is -han, to kill. The first element of the compound has sometimes been taken as bhū “being” (eg. Nyanamoli “wrecker of being”). It is glossed in the Pali commentaries as “growth”, a term whose sense overlaps with that of bhū, and rendered by Ven Bodhi as “destroying growth”, a rendering he has maintained from the Middle Length Discourses to the Numerical Discourses.

However, the relevant Sanskrit term is bhrūṇa, from the root bhṛ, with the basic sense of “bear, carry” (= Pali bhāra). This root—paralleling dhṛ (= dhāraṇā) in the identical meaning—takes the sense of “bearing (a child)”, i.e. pregnant.

Hence the primary meaning of bhrūṇahati and related terms in Sanskrit is “abortionist”. A secondary meaning is “killer of a learned Brahmin”, but so far as I can tell this is only attested later; it seems to be a dogmatic term that is unlikely to be found in Buddhist texts.

The PTS dictionary is inconsistent on this point. Under bhūnaha it has “a destroyer of beings”, while under hacca it has “bhūnahacca killing an embryo”.

Obviously this is a matter of some significance. The question of abortion is discussed explicitly elsewhere in the EBTs, but still, if this term meant literally “abortionist” it would significantly increase the extent of emphasis on abortion in the EBTs. Let’s have a look at some of the contexts in Pali and see if we can clarify the situation.

In Snp 3.10, at verse 670, bhunaha occurs along with a list of epithets for an evil, depraved person. While Norman renders it as “abortionist”, there is nothing in the context that confirms this meaning.

In the verses of AN 7.60 there is a powerful description of the various ways someone overcome with anger can harm themselves, even to the point of suicide.

Some kill themselves with swords,
some, distraught, take poison.
Some hang themselves with rope,
or fling themselves down a mountain gorge.

The text goes on to say:

Bhūnahaccāni kammāni
When committing deeds of bhunaha
attamāraṇiyāni ca
and killing oneself
they don’t realize what they do,
for anger leads them to ruin.

Most likely here bhūnaha refers to suicide itself. The use of the plural is curious, since, well, you can’t kill yourself more than once, in this life at least. Perhaps it means “self-harming”. It seems hard to see how “abortion” would be meant, as it is out of context, and anyway, abortion is rarely motivated by anger.

In MN 75 we have a wanderer Māgaṇḍiya who attacks the Buddha as a bhunaha. He dosn’t seem to have much justification for this, merely repeating that it is said in their scripture (Evañhi no sutte ocarati). I guess there was a prophecy or something that spoke of a future teacher who would lead people astray, an anti-Brahmā if you will, and he identified this with the Buddha.

Once more, it seems implausible that this would be connected with abortion, as the Buddha was clearly no proponent of killing in any form. Later in the sutta, Māgaṇḍiya equates the highest good with a healthy and vital body and happy life. It seems that his criticism is the common one of theists, that Buddhism is negative and life-denying.

This accusation is quoted in Mil 6.3.9, where Milinda denies that Nibbana is pure happiness, pointing out that the followers of the path deny themselves the good things of life, and endure much suffering in pursuit of their spiritual goal. Thus Milinda’s reading of the passage is similar to mine.

In addition to these references, we have a number of occurrences in the Jātakas, which I will briefly summarize.

At Ja 530#21 bhūnaha is used of those burning in hell, similar to Snp 3.1. At Ja 543, too, it has a generic sense of a “bad person”.

Bhūnaha occurs a few times in the frankly horrifying Ja 358 Culadhammapāla. Seriously, trigger warning, if violence to children distresses you, do not read this paragraph!

Ja 358 summary

The verses must be read with the background story to make sense, which is always a dubious proposition (as the story may have developed later). But as it stands, the King, slighted by the love shown by the Queen to her baby, decides to dismember the baby while he is still on his mother’s lap. He orders the executioner to chop off the child’s hands and feet, as the mother begs him to stop. In White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes I treated this as one of the examples of child sacrifice, indeed regicide, in the Buddhist texts. But the King persists, and the Queen dies of a broken heart, covered in the blood and dismembered limbs of her child. In trying to stop the King, the Queen takes the blame on herself, and begs him to cut off her limbs instead.

The verses begin with the repeated cry Ahameva dūsiyā bhūnahatā, “I alone am the corrupter and the bhunaha-ed”. Since the past participle is used, it evidently means, “the one whose life, future, offspring has been destroyed”.

The same sense is found in the scarcely less horrifying Ja 544 Candakumāra. There, however, while the emotional journey is intense, at least there’s a happy ending. The motif of child sacrifice, implicit in Ja 358, is quite explicit here. A corrupt brahmin demands that the princes be sacrificed, ostensibly to ensure a heavenly rebirth for king, but in fact out of revenge. Anyway, (spoilers!) they are saved in the end, but not before the Queen, in distress, says that if her children are killed:

Ummattikā bhavissāmi,
I will go insane!
Bhūnahatā paṃsunā ca parikiṇṇā
bhunaha-ed, covered in dust

Here, too, the sense seems to be the cutting off of her “life”, the children she bore in her womb.

To sum up, there seems no justification to render bhūnaha as “abortionist” in a literal sense.

Still, the sense is not entirely different. It seems to refer to someone who destroys or cuts off life and vitality. In the Brahmanical religion, such vitality is the ultimate goal. As Brahmā is the source of being, life is inherently good, and the goal of spiritual practices is to enhance this. While it seems paradoxical that this should involve the killing of life, but the paradox is the point of it. Life only thrives because of death. Just as a tree grows in the soil fertilized by dead plants, new life only comes from death. and the most potent form of new life is the most precious: children. This is why the Buddhists criticize the Brahmins as bhūnaha for the sacrifices, while Brahmins criticize the Buddha with the same term, as he puts an end to rebirth and hence to new life.

In the end, probably the best approach for translation is to render it as “life-destroying” or something similar.


This sounds correct. Research shows the risk of suicide is higher if there is a concomitant history of violence towards others. Anger seems to distort the perception of self and other. I wondered about the term infanticide, for murder of a child under one year.

Some people just have violent fantasies. Jatakas and Hollywood seem to be safe, exciting forms of escapism. The good guy wins in the end!

Irritability (or anger) is often a feature of depression. Post-natal depression is seen in men as well, when their wives have given birth.


With metta

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it surely not a feature of happiness, feeling happy a person is much more lenient and forgiving

That’s right. It is mentioned that depression is ‘anger turned inwards’ and there is an understanding that getting over depression involves going through a period of anger (according to some forms of psychotherapy).