Early buddhist attitude to war and peace
Professor G. SUNDARA RAMAIAH
Indian tradition as a whole, whether Hindu or Buddhist, condemns violence, and commends non-violence and peace as normal controlling concepts of human conduct. But in some special situations when one has to deal with notorious aggressors and heinous
criminals, one is hard pressed to decide if a deviation from the normal code of conduct is morally justified. The early Buddhist position, as embodied in early Buddhist texts, is almost antithetical to what is considered morally right in Hinduism, as depicted in its
classical text, the Bhagavadgita. This paper seeks to demonstrate on the basis of textual evidences how the early Buddhist attitude to the problem of war and peace is diametrically opposed to that of the Gita and how it stands unequivocally committed to non-violence
or peace as a universal principle of moral conduct whether in personal or public affairs.
In order to understand and appreciate fully the subtlety and cogency of the early Buddhist position, it is useful to refer briefly to the arguments of the Gita which provides traditional justification for war or violence in exceptional situations.
The Gita’s advocacy for war is principally based upon the dual concepts of one’s prescribed duty (Svadharma) and the disinterested performance of actions (Karmayoga) enjoined by such a duty. Every individual is required to perform his own duty
relentlessly and dispassionately irrespective of the consequences, for man is to attain perfection by discharging his own duty (sve-sve kar-many abhiratah samsiddhim labhate narah, B. G. XVIII. 45) with a detached view (asaktabuddhih, B. G. XVIII. 49). Now to fight
gallantly in the battle and not to run away form it is one of the prescribed duties of a Kshatriya. The Gita enumerates the duties of a Kshatriya as follows: “Heroism, valour, fortitude, skillfulness, not running away even from the Battle (yuddha ca, py apalayanam),
charity and lordship - are the natural duties of a Kshatriya.” Thus Arjuna, as a Kshatriya, is exhorted to remain firm and detached in performing his duty of fighting.
This dispassionate discharge of the duty of fighting is reinforced by the Gita from its metaphysical and theological standpoints. From the metaphysical point of view, Arjuna is reminded of the eternal and indestructible nature of his soul and asked not
to be perturbed by the physical destruction of the destructible body.2 The true self is not slain when the body is slain (nahanyate hanyamane sarire; B. G. II. 20). Thus by pointing out the inevitability of the destruction of the physical body, on the one hand, and
the impossibility of the destruction of the eternal metaphysical self, on the other, Arjuna is asked to remain firm and unflinching in his duty of fighting. Krishna says: “These bodies of eternal, imperishable and incomprehensible soul are said to be perishable.
Therefore, fight, O Arjuna (tasmad Yudhyasva bharata)”.3 From the theological point of view, it is said: “Man attains perfection by worshipping Him (God) through his own duty.” 4 Disinterested work is considered as the best worship, for in so doing a man dedicates
his whole being to God. In that case, he is said to remain absolutely free form the bonds of actions bearing good and bad results. 5 It is said: “He who works having given up attachment, resigning his actions to God is not contaminated by sin even as a lotus leaf (is
untouched) by water.” 6 Arjuna is therefore, advised: “Dedicating all actions to me through your spiritualized mind, being disinterested and free from egoism, fight dispassionately (yuddhyasva vigatajvarah).”7 It is said: “He who is not self-conceited, whose
intellect is not attached, though he slays these worlds he (really) neither slays nor is he bound.” (hatva pi sa imami lokan na hanti na nibadhyate., B. G. XVIII. 17). In light of this attitude, Arjuna is given the following explicit advice: “Treating alike
pleasure and pain, gain and loss, victory and defeat - get ready, for battle (yuddhaya yujyasva). Thus you shall not incur sin.” 8
Lest Arjuna may still desist form fighting on the ground that the ideal state of mind, viz., the utter detachment, required for remaining unsullied in the battle, is not possible for him to attain. Krishna further adds that “even a little of this
discipline saves one from great fear.”9
Krishna further points out to Arjuna that to follow his prescribed duty (svadharma) of fighting is in keeping with the noble tradition of the royal sages, virtuous enough to lead to heaven and glorious enough to establish fame on the earth. Thus it is
emphasized that this line of action has come down through tradition (param-parapraptam, B.G. IV. 2). of the royal sages (rajarsayah, loco. cit.). It is said that “for a Ksatriya there is no good higher than a righteous fight.” 10 and for him it is like “an open door
to heaven” (svargadvaram apavrtam., B. G. II. 32). On the other hand, to fall from this duty is to incur ill-fame or dishonor and for a man of repute, ill-fame is worse than death” (sambhavitasya cakirtir maranad atiricyate, B. G. II. 34). In short, desisting from
fighting “is neither trodden by noble ones, nor is it conducive to heaven nor can it give rise to fame.” 11 Arjuna is therefore clearly told: “If you do not fight this righteous battle you shall fall from duty and fame and incur sin.”12 But his participation in war
would do good in any case: “If slain, you shall go to heaven and if victorious, you shall enjoy the earth” (hato va prapsyasi svargam jitva va bhoksyase mahim, B. G. II. 37).
It must however, be borne in mind that the war which Arjuna is exhorted to plunge in is not a reckless aggression but a righteous war (dharmya yuddha. B.G. II. 31; dharmya samgrama B. G. II. 33) aimed at fighting against evil-doers (statayinah. B. G. I.
36). Krishna (the incarnate God) Himself is said to “assume birth for the protection of righteous ones, the destruction of evil-doers and the establishment of righteousness.” 13 Thus the Gita considers it morally right to kill or destroy evil-doers for the
establishment of righteousness, if no other way is left open to restore righteousness. This is how the Gita vindicates its concept of righteous war.
In the light of this justification of what the Gita calls the ‘righteous war’, we can now clearly see how the early Buddhist attitude to war and peace is diametrically opposed to what the Gita prescribes.
Neither does early Buddhism accept the validity of the concept of prescribed duty (svadharma) nor does it believe in the possibility of disinterested warfare. Referring to the concept of prescribed duty taught by the Brahminical priesthood (and upheld by
the Gita) Buddha points out that he, in contradiction to Brahmins who teach the fourfold duty (cattari dhanani pannapenti. M. II. 180), teaches the supramundane Noble Doctrine as the only duty of man (ariya kho aham, lokuttaram dhammam purisassa sandhanam pannapemi,
M. II. 181). This practice of holy life is alike meant for all without distinction. The idea of adopting unrighteous profession or ignoble means of livelihood, such as fighting, under the guise of a prescribed duty is utterly unacceptable to early Buddhism. It
clearly rejects the divine-origin theory of social orders and the divinely ordained duties of men, thus cutting the very root of the Gita’s doctrine that perfection can be attained through disinterested, discharge of prescribed duties.14 Unlike the Gita which
approves of even defective professions (Gita XVIII. 47 & 48), selling arms (sattha vanijja) is the first and foremost among the five trades considered mean and forbidden in early Buddhism. 15
Repudiating the concept of prescribed duties based on caste. Buddha points out that Brahmins have acted unwarrantedly in laying down specified duties for different castes. Addressing Esukari Brahmin, he says: “Just as, O Brahmin, they might separate a
morsel (of meat) for a poor needy destitute man without his desire, saying: ‘you must eat this meat, my good man and must also pay a price for it’ even so do the Brahmins lay down the fourfold virtue or conduct without the assent of recluses and true Brahmins.”16
In fact the incompatibility of the Gita’s ideal with that of the Buddhist is evident from the very fact that Buddha, in spite of being born as a Kshatriya, renounces his royal duties and becomes a recluse. Not only does he himself lead the life of a
recluse but he also ordains many other Ksatriyas and royal princes to the Order. He does not entertain the theory of prescribed duty as a cloak for covering the immorality of certain professions. Wrong means of livelihood must be abandoned and immoral acts must not be
performed even though it is deemed as part of one’s duty to the king (ranno ceva rajakaraniyam katum, M. II. 191).
Moreover, Buddha considers it impossible for a disinterested and enlightened man to commit moral sins. According to him in no circumstance can a truly detached and disinterested man resort to violence. Of the nine moral vices which a truly, detached
person is considered incapable of doing (abhabbo so nava thanani ajjhacaritum, D. III. 133), the deliberate destruction of life of a living creature (sancicca panam jivita voropetum, loco cit.) is reckoned as the first. The enlightened one is said to be incapable of
doing such a dobily, verbal or mental action, which is morally wrong or deprecated by recluses, brahmins and the wise.17 Buddha altogether precludes the possibility of war without attachment, passion or desire.
The Gita’s advocacy for the doctrine of action without concern for the fruit is dearly found fault by early Buddhism. According to Buddha, it is immaterial, whether an action is performed with an expectation, without an expectation, with and without an
expectation or neither with nor without an expectation (asam ce pikaritva.., ansam ce pi karitva .. asam ca anasam ce pi karitva, .. nevasam nanasam ce pi karitva, M. III. 138, 139). What really matters is whether the action is performed properly (ayoniso) or
improperly (ayoniso). If one makes due efforts, the fire is bound to be kindled out of the dry wood whether one does or does not desire it. 18
Since Buddha’s attitude is anti-metaphysical and there is no place for God in his system, the entire metaphysical and theological arguments of the Gita lose their seriousness for the Buddha. From the metaphysical standpoint, Arjuna is exhorted to fight
in view of the indestructibility and eternity of the soul. But the very existence of it is questioned by Buddha. Even if the existence of the supra-mundane or transcendental soul is admitted for argument’s sake, it cannot be said to have bearing on mundane acts
prompted by passion and emotion. How then can it be invoked for either justifying or condemning a mundane act? Indeed, in so doing one is led to an absurd position of moral anarchism. Professors Ranade and Belvalkar have noticed the absurdity involved in this
absolutistic concept of the self. They observe: “To say that Atman dies not is legitimate. To say that weapons cannot cut Him nor fire bum Him is also a legitimate varying of the phrase. But to argue that therefore the murderer is no murderer and there is nobody
really responsible for his action is to carry this ‘sasvata’ or ‘Akriya’ doctrine to a point, which if seriously preached would be subversive of all established social institutions and religious sacraments.”19 The theological argument also fares no better in the
Buddhist context. The existence of God being unacceptable and the theory of the divine origin of society as well as the doctrine of the divinely ordained duties of men being rejected, the teaching of serving God through the disinterested discharge of one’s divinely
ordained duty loses meaning.
As regards the Gita’s exhortation to Arjuna to follow his prescribed duty even before attaining the ideal state detachment on the ground that even a little of the discipline of detachment will save him from great fear, Buddha is found to take an opposite
stand by saying that one must fear even a little bit of vice (anumatjesu vaijesu bhayadassavi, D. I. 63: III. 78), because even that much of defect may prove detrimental and dangerous; Buddha gives the simile of a man pierced by a poisoned arrow, who, only because
the arrow has been taken out, moves about carelessly, not protecting his still unhealed wound and, as a result, comes to grief once again.20 Buddha, therefore, emphatically urges us to maintain utmost care and vigilance till the goal is fully realized, lest the
consequences may be grave. He does not permit any slackness or complacency in the course of following the discipline.
Regarding the considerations of the noble tradition, the attainment of heaven and the establishment of fame also early Buddhism takes an opposite stand. A warrior chief (yodhajivogamani) telling Buddha that he had heard from his ancestral teachers in the
martial arts that the spirited soldier who fights energetically and kills his enemies in the battle is born in heaven, wants to know whether it is correct. 21 Buddha, to the utter disappointment and dismay of the warrior chief, says that such a soldier “at the
dissolution of body after death is born in a hell named, parajita” (so kayassa dheda param marana parajitonama nirayo tattha upapajjati’ti. S. IV. 309). So far as the question of fame about gallantry and bravery is concerned, it is pointed out that the real gallantry
consists in achieving victory over one’s own passions and in meeting out love or non-anger to the angry. The display of brutal force is considered merely foolish and this can win applause and fame only from fools. The truly enlightened one should not care for such
fame and try to acquire true virtue and real fame. Thus Buddha observes: “One may conquer a thousand of a thousand men in the battlefield, yet he, indeed, is the noblest victor (sangamajuttamo) who conquers his own single self.” 22 It is again stated: “One expressing
no anger to the angry (really) wins a war difficult to win” (kuddham appatikujjhnato sangamam jeti dujjayam, S. I. 222).
The Gita’s concept of righteous war (dharmyam sangramam), according to which it is deemed morally right to fight against evil-doers, is also incompatible with the Buddhist ideal. In fact, according to the true Buddhist ideal, the phrase ‘righteous war’
cannot but be a contradiction in terms since righteousness and war can hardly go hand in hand. In no circumstance is a true Buddhist to resort to violence. The instruction of Buddha is to meet anger with love and not with anger; evil with good and not with evil. He
says: “Conquer anger with non-anger (love), evil with good; conquer the miser with generosity and the liar with truth.” 23 This is the Buddhist ideal.
The early Buddhist attitude to war is well indicated in the Mahasilava jataka where Buddha narrating the story of his own previous life describes how he, as a king of Benares, was attacked by the then king of Kosala and how he even amidst the most
provocative situation remained firmly established in non-violence and peace, and ultimately succeeded in changing the heart of the enemy by sheer force of love. 24
The fact that the early Buddhist position is antithetical to that of the Gita becomes quite evident when we compare the dialogue between king Sakra and his charioteer. Matali in the early Buddhist text (Samyutta Nikaya) with the dialogue between Arjuna and
his charioteer, krishna in the Gita on the question of war and peace. The arguments used in the two dialogues are quite similar, and yet what is held superior by Krishna in the Gita is shown to be inferior by Sakra in the early Buddhist text.25 In this text, the
demonking, Vepacitti displays outrageous conduct and uses abusive words against King Sakra at which his charioteer, Matali tells Sakra that it would simply indicate weakness and fear on his part if he tolerates such abuses of Vepacitti. But Sakra replies that it
would be unbecoming of a wise person like him to be stirred by such words and behavior of an ignorant one.26 Matali tells him that not to fight and control evil is to give encouragement to it, but Sakra emphatically says that to remain awakened and silent at the anger
of others is alone the best way to control it.27 Matali further argues that by so doing he will not only be betraying his fear and weakness but will also earn bad name to which Sakra replies that fame or bad name, praise or slander are immaterial to the really wise one. To resist force with force is only brutal, and is really an indication of weakness. For the wise ones, it is tolerance and forgiveness which matter most.28 To fall victim to anger is a sin. The real victory lies in victory over anger. One who does not give way
to anger does good both to himself as well as to others. 29
Buddha makes it clear that people resort to violence and war on account of their selfish desire or passion and reap the consequences of their evil deeds both here as well as hereafter. Thus he observes: “It is on account of passion or desire that they
wage war having taken sword and shield, having girded on bow and quiver and being drawn out in battle-array on both sides. Hurling arrows, hurling daggers, flashing swords, they pierce with arrows, pierce with daggers and cut off heads with swords. They thereby
suffer death or death-like pain. This, monks, is the visible (sandilthiko) worldly consequence of passion or desire. Having performed evil deeds by body, speech and mind they at the destruction of body after death are born in lowly and evil state of downward hell.
This, monks, is the otherworldly (samparayiko) consequence of passion or desire.”30 Thus Buddha discards not only the traditional view of war being the prescribed duty of a Kshatriya and the possibility of its being fought dispassionately or disinterestedly, but he
also speaks of its dreadful consequences both from a worldly as well as an other worldly point of view - a position diametrically opposed to that of the Gita. 31
This makes it evident that the Buddhist ideal of morality has no room for war. Evidences are many where we find Buddha indicating either directly or indirectly his abhorrence of war. He conveys his views firstly by showing the futility, harmfulness and
inconclusiveness of war, secondly by contrasting the use of physical force with the exercise of righteousness and thirdly by actual demonstration of the life of loving - kindness within the community of monks.
It must, however, be conceded that the true Buddhist ideal of absolute non-resistance, non-violence and peace in the face of any provocation is extremely difficult to practice for an average ruler or a householder. After his enlightenment Buddha himself
is found pondering over the question as to whether it is possible to reign with dharma, without killing or causing to kill, without conquering or causing to conquer, without grieving or causing to grieve (sakkanu kno rajam karetum ahanam aghatayam ajinam ajapayam
asocam asocapayam dhammena’ ti? S. I. 116). Mara at once, asserting its possibility, prompts him to take up the life of a king (Karetu, bhante, bhagava raijam, karetu sugato rajjam ahanam aghatayam..., loccit.). But Buddha rebukes Mara and adds: “How can one be
inclined towards worldly pleasures (kamesu) which he has seen to be the source of suffering? knowing that attachment to the world is an entanglement, a man should learn to surmount it.” 32 It is not quite clear whether in disapproving of Mara’s advice. Buddha
precludes the possibility of ruling a kingdom altogether without killing or causing to kill etc., for he does not say anything direct on the subject, though he declines to reign on the ground that worldly pleasures are sources of suffering (dukkham) and attachment
to them is an entanglement or a bondage (upadhim). In any case, it seems that Buddha also considers it very difficult for a king to avoid the duty of punishing criminals. In the Cakkavatti Sutta, however, we find reference to Cakkavatti kings conquering and ruling
the entire world without punishment and without arms (imam pathavim sagarapariyantam adandena asatthena dhammena abhivijiya ajjhavasi. D. III. 59). This may be the Buddhist concept of an ideal king who rules the land righteously without waging war against others,
though it seems to be acknowledged that this ideal is difficult of realization. In any event, it is important to note that even this ideal (cakkavatti) king had to abandon his kingship and practice the holy life as a recluse in order to attain the highest goal. 33
Even Sakra, who is portrayed as a great admirer of Buddha (S. I. 233-235) and is considered extremely kind and compassionate, is found fighting against demons in defense of peace - loving and righteous people (S. I. 216-224).
This indicates that a peace loving defender is considered moderately good, though he still fails short of moral perfection in as far as he wavers from the true Buddhist ideal. We find no occasion whatsoever when war is approved, appreciated or justified
by Buddha. On the contrary, he takes every opportunity to express his disapproval and deprecation of war in any shape or form.
A. Anguttara Nikaya
B. Digha Nikaya
M. Majjhima Nikaya
S. Samyutta Nikaya
1 Gita XVIII. 43
2 Ibid. II. 11-30
3 Ibid. II. 18
4 ibid. XVIII. 46
5 ibid. IX. 28
6 ibid. V. 107.
7 ibid. III. 30
8 ibid. II. 38
9 Svalpam apy asya dharmasya trayate mahato bhayat. Gita. II. 40.
10 ibid. II. 31
11 Anaryajustam asvargyam akirti karam Arjuna. Gita. II. 2
12 Atha cet tvam imam dharmyam samgramamna karisyasi: tatah svadharmam kirtim ca hitva papam avapsyasi., Gita. II.
13 ibid. IV. 8
14 ibid. XVIII. 45
15 A. III. 208
16 M. II. 181
17 M. II. 113 - 114
18 M. III. 143-144
19 Belvalkar, S. K. and Ranade. R. D., History of Indian Philosophy. Vol. II, Poona, 1927, p. 399
20 M. III. 256-257
21 S. IV. 308 - 309
22 Dh. 103
23 ibid. 223
24 Jataka I. 261-267
25 Compare Gita. chapter II with S. I. 221-224
26 Matali: bhaya nu maghava Sakka dubbalya no titikkhasi, sunanto pharusam vacam sammukha Vepacittino ti.
Sakka: naham bhaya na dubbalya khamami Vepacittino, katham hi madiso vinnu balena patisamyuje, ti. S. I. 221
27Matali: bhiyyo bala pakujjheyyum no cassa ptisedhako, tasma bhusena dandena dhiro balam nisedhaye’ ti.
Sakka: etad eva aham manne balassa patisedhanam, param sankupitam natva yo sato upasammati ti. Ibid. I. 221
28 Sakka: Abalam tam balam ahu yassa balabalam balam, balassa dharpmaguttassa pativatta na vijjati, sada tthaparama attha khantya bhiyyo na vijjati. Ibid. I. 222.
29 Sakka: tasseva tena papiyo yo kuddham patikujjhati, kuddham apatikujjhanto sangamam jeit dujjayam, ubhinnamattham carati attano ca parassa ca. Ibid. S. I. 222.
30 M. I. 86-87
31 Contrast the Gita’s view: ‘hato va prapsyasi svargam jitva va bhoksyase mahim’ B. G. II. 37.
32 Yo dukkham addakkhi yato nidanam, kamesu so jantu katham nameyya? upadhim viditva sango ti loke, tass’eva jantu vinayaya sikkhe ti. S. I. II?
33 D. III. 76-77.