If you have attended court proceedings or watched a televised legal drama, you are familiar with the process of swearing in a witness. Before testimony can be accepted, the individual must “solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
It wasn’t always quite that simple. Those who testified in Burmese courts were once required to take a 374-word oath that invited horrible consequences for lying.
Burma (Myanmar)’s judicial practices through the 19th century are described in Kenneth R.H. Mackenzie’s 1853 book Burmah and the Burmese (read the book online here). In it, Mackenzie explains that a special oath would be used in civil and criminal cases if the court especially wanted to emphasize the importance of telling the truth.
The oath to be taken was written in a small book of palm leaves. Known as the Book of Imprecations or Book of the Oath, it would be held over the head of a prospective witness as a court officer warned about the consequences of telling a fib:
False witnesses, who assert anything from passion, and not from love of truth, — witnesses who affirm that they have heard and seen what they have not heard or seen, may all such false witnesses be severely punished with death, by that God who, through the duration of 400,100,000 worlds, has performed every species of good work, and exercised every virtue. I say, may God, who, after having acquired all knowledge and justice, obtained divinity, leaning upon the tree of Godama, may this God, with the Nat who guards him day and night, that is, the Assurá Nat, and the giants, slay these false witnesses.
May all those who, in consequence of bribery from either party, do not speak the truth, incur the eight dangers and the ten punishments. May they be infected with all sorts of diseases.
Moreover, may they be destroyed by elephants, bitten and slain by serpents, killed and devoured by the devils and giants, the tigers, and other ferocious animals of the forest. May whoever asserts a falsehood be swallowed by the earth, may he perish by sudden death, may a thunderbolt from heaven slay him, — the thunderbolt which is one of the arms of the Nat Devà.
May false witnesses die of bad diseases, be bitten by crocodiles, be drowned. May they become poor, hated of the king. May they have calumniating enemies, may they be driven away, may they become utterly wretched, may every one ill-treat them, and raise lawsuits against them. May they be killed with swords, lances, and every sort of weapon. May they be precipitated into the eight great hells and the 120 smaller ones. May they be tormented. May they be changed into dogs. And, if finally they become men, may they be slaves a thousand and ten thousand times. May all their undertakings, thoughts, and desires, ever remain as worthless as a heap of cotton burnt by the fire.
All of this is just the warning to the witness. Now the witness has to cross his heart and hope to die if he doesn’t tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but with a few more words and a wee bit more florid language. With the book still being held over the deponent’s head, the witness says:
I will speak the truth. If I speak not the truth, may it be through the influence of the laws of demerit, viz., passion, anger, folly, pride, false opinion, immodesty, hard-heartedness, and skepticism, so that when I and my relations are on land, land animals, as tigers, elephants, buffaloes, poisonous serpents, scorpions, &c, shall seize, crush, and bite us, so that we shall certainly die. Let the calamities occasioned by fire, water, rulers, thieves, and enemies oppress and destroy us, till we perish and come to utter destruction. Let us be subject to all the calamities that are within the body, and all that are without the body.
May we be seized with madness, dumbness, blindness, deafness, leprosy and hydrophobia. May we be struck with thunderbolts and lightning, and come to sudden death. In the midst of not speaking truth, may I be taken with vomiting clotted black blood, and suddenly die before the assembled people. When I am going by water, may the water Nats assault me, the boat be upset, and the property lost; and may alligators, porpoises, sharks, or other sea monsters, seize and crush me to death; and when I change worlds, may I not arrive among men or Nats, but suffer unmixed punishment and regret, in the utmost wretchedness, among the four states of punishment, Hell, Prita, Beasts and Athurakai.
If I speak the truth, may I and my relations, through the influence of the ten laws of merit, and on account of the efficacy of truth, be freed from all calamities within and without the body; and may evils which have not yet come, be warded far away. May the ten calamities and five enemies also be kept far away. May the thunderbolts and lightning, the Nat of the waters, and all sea animals, love me, that I may be safe from them. May my prosperity increase like the rising sun and the waxing moon; and may the seven possessions, the seven laws, and the seven merits of the virtuous, be permanent in my person; and when I change worlds, may I not go to the four states of punishment, but attain the happiness of men and Nats, and realize merit, reward, and perfect calm.
The administration of this oath was reserved for special occasions. As you can imagine, it consumed a fair amount of time. Beyond that, it had to be administered in conjunction with a specified ceremony that didn’t come cheap. The associated expenses included:
- Administration of the oath: ten ticals.
- Messenger for holding the book: one tical.
- Two other messengers’ fees: two ticals.
- Recorders: two ticals.
- Pickled tea used in the ceremony: half a tical.
The pickled tea was especially important. It had to be chewed at the conclusion of the ceremony. If that part was overlooked, the oath would not be binding. In other words, if a witness agreed to be attacked by porpoises, contract hydrophobia, and be condemned to the four states of wretchedness but failed to chew on some pickled tea, it had the legally-binding effect of crossing your fingers behind your back.
According to the folks at Improbable Research (who are responsible for our perennial favorite, the Ig Nobel Prize, assert that the Burmese Judicial Oath is the longest oath on record for witnesses in a judicial proceeding.