The Buddha and the Four-Limbed Army:
The Military in the Pali Canon

___Matthew Kosuta Ph.D.

This 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)[1], 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 pacifist ideal.

The 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.[2] 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 contexts.

My 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.

The 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 theory.

I 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.

Next, 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.

Not 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The final category is titled The Bodhisatta[3] 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 India.

The 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.

The 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.

In 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.

During 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) [4], especially energy/effort (viriya). The battlefield also provides excellent ground for fulfilling of one's duty despite great personal danger.

On 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.

Even 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 men.

On 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.

This 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 more suffering.


BAKSHI, G. D. 1990. Mahabharata a Military Analysis. New Delhi: Lancer Press.

BASHAM, Arthur L. 1976. La civilisation de l'Inde ancienne. Trans. of the English. Paris: Librairie Arthaud.

BOISVERT, Mathieu. 1993. "Le rôle didactique de la Métaphore dans le Milindapañha". Religiologiques, 7, Littérature et sacré, II, p. 35-47.

DAS, S.T. 1969. Indian Military -- Its History and Development. New Delhi: Sagar Publications.

DATE, Govind T. 1929. The Art of War in Ancient India. London: Oxford University Press.

DIKSHITAR, V. R. Ramachandra. 1944. War in Ancient India. London: MacMillan and Co., Ltd.

HARVEY, Peter. 1990. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teaching, History and Practices. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

LAKOFF, George, and Mark JOHNSON. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

LAMOTTE, Étienne. 1976. Histoire du bouddhisme indien: Des origines à l'ère Saka. Louvain: L'Institut Orientaliste de Louvain.

MACDONELL, Arthur A. 1976. A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

MASSON-OURSEL, P. 1951. L'Inde antique et la civilisation indienne. Paris: Éditions Albin Michel.

NA-RANSI, Sunthorn. 1976. The Buddhist Concepts of Karma and Rebirth. Bangkok: Mahamakut Rajavindyalaya Press.

PALI TEXT SOCIETY. 1963-. Books of the Pali Canon. London: PTS.

PALI TEXT SOCIETY. 1969-. Pali Text Translation Series. London: PTS.

RAHULA, Walpola. 1962. What the Buddha Taught. New York: Grove Press, Inc.

REYNOLDS, Frank E. 1979. "Four Modes of Theravada Action". Journal of Religious Ethics, vol. 7 no 1, p. 12-26.

RHYS DAVIDS, T. W. and W. STEDE. 1992. The Pali Text Society's Pali English Dictionary. Oxford: The Pali Text Society.

ROY, P. 1970-73. Bhisma Parva and Drona Parva. Vol. V and VI of The Mahabharata. Trans. of the Sanskrit. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.

SADDHATISSA, H. 1970. Buddhist Ethics: Essence of Buddhism. New York: George Braziller.

SARKAR, J. 1969. Military History of India. New Delhi: Orient Longman's, Ltd.

SECRETAN, Philibert. 1984. L'analogie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, coll. "Que sais-je?", no 2165.

SENSARMA, P. 1975. Kurukshetra War: A Military Study. Ganganagar, India: D.R.D. Udjog.

SHAMASASTRY, R. 1967. Kautilya's Arthasastra. Trans. of the Sanskrit. Mysore: Mysore Printing and Publishing House.

SRIVASTAVA, A. K. 1985. Ancient Indian Army: Its Administration and Organisation. Dehli: Ajanta Publications.

WARDER, A. K. 1970. Indian Buddhism. Dehli: Motilal Banarsidass.

1991. Introduction to Pali. Oxford: The Pali Text Society.

WALKER, Benjamin. 1968. An Encyclopedic Survey of Hinduism. London: George Allen and Unwin, Ltd.

[*] Matthew Kosuta is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Religious Studies, Université du Québec à Montréal.

[1] 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 Editor]

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] The ten qualities that a Bodhisatta must perfect in order to become a Buddha.