Buddha and the Four-Limbed Army:
The Military in the Pali Canon
___Matthew Kosuta Ph.D.___
paper is a summary of my masters thesis. I undertook this study
in order to clarify what I saw as an apparent contradiction
in Theravada Buddhism and its pacifist ethic. Pacifism constitutes
a main and ever-present theme in the Theravada Pali Canon. It
best expresses itself in ethical conduct (sila), which is
founded, on the concept of universal love and compassion. The
practice of this ethical system is absolutely necessary in order
to attain nibbana. Yet, after the introduction of Buddhism into
the now Theravada countries, Sri Lanka and Buddhist Southeast
Asia (excepting Vietnam), a strong military tradition has continued
in these countries, remaining side by side with the Buddhist
coexistence of a pacifist ethic and a military tradition creates
an apparent contradiction. In an attempt to better understand
this paradox, I studied the treatment of the military in the
Pali Canon. The general focus of my studies is the interaction
between a pacifist religion, in this case Theravada Buddhism,
and the military apparatus that protects the country within
which this religion is found. Specifically, within the bounders
of my thesis I examined the canonical texts relative to this
question. My study had three objectives: first, examine how
the Pali Canon treats the subject of the military; second find
the attitude, whether implicit or explicit, expressed by this
treatment; and third, verify the accuracy of the Pali Canon's
description of the military by comparing it to contemporary
sources also treating the ancient Indian military. I feel that
an analysis of the military in the Pali Canon allows us to better
understand Buddhism, pacifism, and militarism in their various
working hypotheses were as follows: strong ties even inseparable
ones can exist between a pacifist religion and the military;
the canon must in some way, support military action; and a pacifist
religion has no real means of affecting the military.
theory framing this study states: Pacifism and militarism are
diametrically opposed. The military references found in the
Pali Canon were analyzed and contextualized both historically
and philosophically. The historical context being the world
of the kshatriya (Sanskrit, this term rather than the Pali khattiya
will be used throughout as it is already well known) and the
ancient Indian four-limbed army (caturangini sena), the four
limbs being chariots, elephants, horses, and foot soldiers.
The philosophical context being Theravada ethical and soteriological
found that the Pali Canon treats the military in a variety of
different ways, which I arranged in six main categories. The
first category I titled Scenery, Symbol and Security. This category
contains the Doctrinally neutral references, ones in which the
military appears as part of the background or scenery of the
passage. It may appear as a symbol of the power and prestige
of a king or as security for him or the state. The military
may well be used in teaching a point of Doctrine, but it does
not constitute the subject of the teaching. So, no opinion is
given or a judgment rendered on the military, and its absence
would cause more a loss of color than substance and in no way
affect the meaning of the passage.
comes the category of Mundane (lokiya) vs. Transcendental (lokuttara).
Here are the references in which the Pali Canon places the military
in the mundane; thus, military actions are the performance of
mundane actions as opposed to being the performance of otherworldly
or transcendental actions. Buddhist laity typically operate
within the mundane, while someone performing Path actions, usually
a monk, operates in the transcendental (Reynolds, 1979). The
Canon makes it clear in numerous passages that military action
is not conducive to following the Path; that it should be recognized
as such and renounced. The Buddha himself, in his last life
and in previous lives, renounced the apex of kshatriya life,
that of a king. The skills and actions of a warrior are said
to lead to a rebirth in a purgatory or hell. But, the military
does not find itself singled out and condemned more harshly
than any other mundane profession, action or skill. In fact,
even when being condemned as ultimately unproductive, the Pali
Canon often corroborates the high social status of the military
within the mundane.
surprisingly, due to the mundane position of the military, a
set of monastic regulations governing a monk's interactions
with the military has been laid out in the Viniyapitaka (the
Book of Discipline) and this makes up the third category: Monastic
Discipline and the Military. Some of the more important rules
include: a monk may visit an army that has marched out of its
garrison only if he has sufficient reason and if his stay does
not last longer that three days; monks are forbidden from viewing
a mock combat, army deployment, or an army review. These regulations
were necessary, for some monks still had the desire to witness
the above activities. Idle gossip, which includes talking of
military matters, has also been forbidden. One of the crucial
references in this study concerns the regulation banning soldiers
in the king's service from joining the sangha (the monastic
community). This passage leads one to believe that the Buddha
made a political decision in recognition of Buddhism's need
for protection from physical dangers.
military also figures in the category treating the utopic rule
of the cakkavattin (a Wheel Turning King). Here, the military
plays a strange role where the cakkavattin maintains a complete
four-limbed army and his sons are described as "foe crushers";
yet, neither performs a military function. They seem to appear
only as a necessary symbol of kingship.
next category I termed The Metaphor: Nibbanic Action is War.
Here the military plays an important role in serving as the
referent in this metaphor. Striving for nibbana, i.e. performing
Path actions, is so difficult that the Buddha expresses this
endeavor in a series of analogies, which express the powerful
metaphor Nibbanic Action is War. In order to explain the difficulties
of Path actions, and the superior qualities and skills necessary
to overcome them, a monk is frequently told that he must be
like a warrior or elephant skilled in battle. The Canon frequently
speaks of "conquering" various mundane elements, and
just as a raja would have his senapati, his army leader, the
Buddha had his second in command the dhammasenapati, Doctrine
army leader. And finally, there is the Buddha's "battle"
with Mara just before his enlightenment. The use of military
elements in such a fashion expresses implicitly a favorable
attitude towards the military.
final category is titled The Bodhisatta in Battle. Here we
find militarily involved Jataka or past life stories of the
Buddha. In them the Bodhisatta and future arahants participate
in military conflicts. Several of these Jataka present the battlefield
as an excellent place to perfect energy (viriya, often appearing
as perseverance in translations). Several stories raise questions
as to the kammic fruits reaped by the Bodhisatta because of
his military actions. As we have seen these kammic fruits should
be negative, but the Canon remains silent on the matter. From
the Jataka we learn that being a soldier in no way negates one's
ultimate ability to attain nibbana; and, in fact, being a soldier
might be an aid, since, as seen in the category Nibbanic action
is War, a superior soldier has the necessary qualities for a
monk to succeed. The fact that the Bodhisatta and the future
arahants were able to perform military actions and still reach
the ultimate Buddhist goal could and can reassure any Buddhist
soldier that with the right effort their ultimate well-being
could and can be assured. Within the Jataka, the military and
military actions come across as perfectly normal in ancient
military appears frequently in the Pali Canon. In fact, if all
the military sutta and passages were collected together in one
text, they could form a separate volume of the Canon, as together
they number over five hundred pages in length. However, if we
place these references in the context of the entire Pali Canon,
we see a minimal numerical representation. It is possible that
these references have a greater impact than their numbers suggest.
Also, given the wide variety of subjects covered in the Pali
Canon, these seemingly small numbers may not be so in comparison
to other subjects, should they also be numerically organized.
The Jataka stands out as the division of the Canon, which contributed
the most references. Of the one hundred ten references to the
military collected nearly half of them came from the Jataka.
This is important because the Jataka are the main source from
which the laity obtain Buddhist instruction. Thus, there is
an exaggerated importance of the Jataka in teaching the Theravada
point of view on the military.
Pali Canon's descriptions of the ancient Indian army fall in
line with those of other contemporary sources. Some specific
details remain uncorroborated, but these are the exceptions
and not the norm. Given that the Buddha is said to have been
a kshatriya and considering the number of kshatriya said to
have entered the sangha, one would expect this kind of accuracy
from the Canon when treating military subjects. As a whole,
the military references lack in both technical details of the
army and detailed descriptions of battles. The Canon never describes
explicit scenes of blood, severed limbs, or the deaths of men,
animals and supernatural beings, as does epic Indian literature.
Whether this stems from the Canon's pacifist ethos or another
source remains unclear. The Pali Canon does, however, echo the
kshatriya ethos of duty and honor in battle.
nearly all the military references women play a secondary role.
Generally speaking, they represent one of two things: for kshatriya
they are objects to be fought for; for monks they are objects
to be avoided. In several Jataka, a king or prince, and even
the Bodhisatta, fights to win one or more maidens. In the Anguttarnikaya,
it is a monk's ability to resist the temptations of a woman
(and thereafter gain release) that equates him with a warrior
victorious in battle. The mother in the birth story of the Asatarupajataka
(#100) stands out as a notable exception. It is she who suggests
to her son the successful strategy of laying siege to a city,
instead of fighting a pitched battle to take it.
this study, while trying to draw out the Pali Canon's opinion
of the military, an apparent contradiction arose: the Canon
alternates between explicit condemnation and implicit praise
of the military. For the Pali Canon, the military seems to represent
several things, both positive and negative. On the positive
side, the Canon frequently praises the military and accords
it great prestige - in fact the military maintains its contemporary
social status unchanged. The military provides one of the best
examples for the type of man, qualities, and skills necessary
for attaining nibbana. The battlefield proves excellent ground
for perfecting and using certain of the Ten Perfection's (dasaparamita)
, especially energy/effort (viriya). The battlefield also
provides excellent ground for fulfilling of one's duty despite
great personal danger.
the negative side, war causes death and destruction and it engenders
a cycle of revenge. The Canon considers dealing with the military
as "ill-gotten". And finally, the most powerful condemnation:
military life and skills lead warriors to rebirth in ahell or
a purgatory. To understand this contradiction we must look to
when and from where the praise and condemnation is coming from.
It becomes clear that praise of the military appears in a mundane
context and condemnation in a transcendental context. Explicit
praise of the performance of military actions come from mundane
figures, such as kings, warriors, backsliding monks, and even
the Bodhisatta. Condemnation and avoidance of military actions
come from transcendental figures, such as the Buddha, arahants,
monks, and from the Bodhisatta, kings, warriors, etc., who have
realized the truth of the world from a Buddhist point of view.
Since the transcendental ultimately has precedence, the final
opinion of the Pali Canon toward the military must be said to
be a negative one.
the implicit praise surrounding the military as expressed in
the metaphor Nibbanic Action is War can be reconciled under
this distinction. Since the transcendental was the unknown,
the Buddha had no choice but to refer to the mundane in an attempt
to make the transcendental understood. The metaphor must be
thought of in the same way as all the other training: it is
a raft to take you to the other side, but once you arrive you
do not carry it along, you must leave it behind. Yet, the question
remains as to why a militaristic reference point was chosen
for a pacific mode of behavior. I propose two main reasons in
partial explanation for this choice. First, the aforementioned
difficulties of performing Path actions. Only success under
the most difficult mundane circumstances could be equated with
striving for nibbana -- success in battle filled this perfectly.
Second, since the Buddha and many monks were kshatriya, they
were trained from infancy to consider war to be their natural
calling, their dharma (sanskrit). Thinking of a difficult challenge
in a military sense would have been second nature for these
a final note, what did all this mean for a kshatriya of the
era, and what has it meant for Buddhist soldiers through the
ages? Any Buddhist soldier conversant in the Pali Canon's references
to the military cannot have been or now be reassured about his
profession. However, again there is a positive side. These soldiers
can look at the various Jataka stories telling of the Buddha
and future arahants victorious in battle and the rewards obtained
therefrom. Other sutta and passages also express a favorable
attitude toward the military, and the Buddha himself recognized
the necessity of an army when he banned fighting-men in the
service of a king from joining the sangha. Perhaps most reassuring
is the fact that should a Buddhist be a model soldier he will
also possess many of the important qualities necessary for a
person to obtain nibbana. But, all this is outweighed by the
condemnation the military receives when viewed with proper Buddhist
insight. A soldier by virtue of his raison d'être violates
many of the basic ethical principles of Buddhism. Professional
soldiers are told that should they die in combat they will be
reborn in a purgatory and the Bodhisatta at one point stated
that his expert military skill would, in the end, lead to hell.
It would seem that a professional soldier begins his carrier
with a negative kammic balance sheet.
study has shown that the Pali Canon indeed forms an explicit
opinion on the military. The Canon recognizes that, in a mundane
perspective, the military is ever present, of high prestige,
and even necessary in some circumstances for the protection
of Buddhism. But, ultimately it must be judged from the higher
insight of the transcendental, the lokuttara, where it becomes
evident that the military is not conducive to Buddhist ethics
and thus not conducive to performing Path actions. From this
point of view, the military even loses its value in the mundane,
where military pursuits are seen as prideful, destructive, and
in vain, engendering a cycle of revenge which only leads to
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Matthew Kosuta is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Religious
Studies, Université du Québec à Montréal.
All foreign terms are in Pali unless otherwise noted. [Due to
technical reasons (notably in connection with the online edition
of this journal), it has not been possible tu use the standard
diacritic marks (viz., nibbåna, sa[integral]gha) for the
transliteration of pali and/or sanskrit words and phrases. The
The Pali Canon represents Theravada Buddhism's canonical literature.
Some 85 volumes in length, it was maintained in oral form, with
the first written copy not appearing till about the first century
B.C.E., approximately 400 years after the Buddha's death.
In Theravada Buddhism the term Bodhisatta designates someone
destined to become a Buddha, this conception differs significantly
from the Mahayana Bodhisattva and the Bodhisattva path.
The ten qualities that a Bodhisatta must perfect in order to
become a Buddha.