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by ratnawalli - October 14, 2014 at 11:30 am

Published in my  Column in The Nation (print edition here) and Colombo Telegraph on Sunday, 12 October 2014

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

If you told me that Buddhism causes dilemmas to rulers who are required by tradition to uphold social norms that enshrine killing such as war, hunting, judicial homicide and honour killing, I will snigger. As I snigger, I’ll be thinking of the earliest Buddhist societies such as the Vajjis[i] and the earliest Buddhist royal disciples such as Pasenadi Kosala. The theory of a social dilemma causing Buddhism is outlined in Betraying Buddhism and Undermining Sri Lanka, an article by Tisaranee Gunasekara in Colombo Telegraph. She says; “According to the Buddha’s teaching the killing of any living being is a sin and those who commit such deeds have to suffer the consequences in this and subsequent births. The dilemma caused by this belief system to the Lankan kings is easy to imagine. They needed armies to protect their thrones and/or to extend their politico-geographical holdings. But if true Buddhism took root in the island, finding soldiers to fight their wars may have become next-to-impossible.”

The last sentence contains a clear surmise that wherever true Buddhism takes root, society will become dysfunctional. The people will tie themselves into knots over the first precept and stop behaving normally. Apparently, when true Buddhism takes root, the first precept grows like a weed crushing out all other norms until society breaks down.

As I sat contemplating this strange belief of Ms Gunasekara, it occurred to me that perhaps, she or the ideology she represents may be confusing Buddhism with Jainism. There is a very telling statement of hers which strongly suggests confusion; “Given this crystal clear and unequivocal stance, Buddhism was (and continues to be) betrayed not by Prof. Tambiah but by those who use a teaching premised on ahimsa to justify war and violence.” Buddhism can be described as a ‘teaching premised on ahimsa’ only to the extent that an elephant can be called a black animal. It fails to be a defining statement, doesn’t distinguish or convey the unique proposition of Buddhism or the elephant. In fact, in certain contexts, calling Buddhism ‘a teaching premised on ahimsa’ can be as evasive as calling an elephant in a crowd of black animals, a black animal. This is because “the teaching of ahimsa—non-harming, non-injury, so ancient that its beginnings are lost in the mists of time—held sway, even if in moderation, over the whole of India. It was a teaching much accentuated by the Jains who were precursors of the Buddha and also contemporary with him. Though they were among his greatest rivals, he would not have wished to go against them on such a point or thought a different teaching possible.”– (I. B Horner, “Women in Early Buddhist Literature[ii]”- full text). In Jainism there are practices that privilege ahimsa to the point of civilizational breakdown. A Jaina ascetic for example, does not bathe or brush his teeth to refrain from harming the bugs. Though never going to such an extreme, genuine followers of the Buddha dhamma can hardly help being attracted to the practice of ahimsa. This attraction will certainly help them to shun unlawful killing, but will it convince them to renounce lawful killing too? Did the Buddha envisage or actually experience societies that had given up their conventional norms sanctifying killing? Not really. For instance, the Licchavis or the Vajjis, the only society to be singled out by the Buddha as a model of good governance and ethical conduct, granted societal and state sanction to a husband to kill his unfaithful wife.

The Licchavis were also fond of hunting. “Now on that occasion a number of Licchavi youths had taken their strung bows and were walking and wandering in the Great Wood, accompanied by a pack of dogs, when they saw the Blessed One seated at the foot of a tree to dwell for the day. When they saw him, they put down their strung bows, sent the dogs off to one side, and approached him. They paid homage to the Blessed One and silently stood in attendance upon him with their hands joined in reverential salutation.”– (Anguttara Nikaya iii, 76 – p690, Numerical Discourses[iii]full text). The Licchavis were warlike and to judge from one story, not prepared to brook any unauthorized incursions into their territory. Once, king Pasenadi Kosala’s commander in chief, Bandhula broke through the guard and together with his wife, entered the tank which supplied water for the ceremonial sprinklings of Licchavi Royal families. This was simply to satisfy a pregnancy craving of the said wife. Yet, five hundred Licchavi kings (the state was a republic) unheeding the warning of their advisor, pursued them until all five hundred were slain by Bandhula’s arrow- (Jataka No. 465[iv] Full text).

The case of the Lichchavi adulteress given in the Bhikkunivibhanga of the Vinaya Pitaka (Vin.IV, 225 @ p182-184 of Horner III[v]full text) revolves around the practice of honour killing, which was sanctioned by a society that the Buddha himself had upheld as a model. It also gives us a glimpse of how the Buddhist Order legislated to withhold its asylum from individuals the society had marked for death. Here is the story.

“Now at that time in Vesali, the wife of a certain Licchavi came to be an adulteress. Then that Licchavi spoke thus to that woman; “Please desist, else will we do you harm.” But being spoken to thus, she paid no heed. Now at that time a group of Licchavis were assembled in Vesali on some business. Then that Licchavi spoke thus to those Licchavis: “Let the masters allow me power over one woman.”

“What is her name?”

“My wife commits adultery, I will kill her.”

“Take your right,” they said.”

Now this woman hears that her husband wants to kills her and taking precious belongings (which in our laws she has a right to, but were solely her husband’s property in those days) she flees to various religious sects for asylum. She is denied admission by every sect including by Buddhist nuns. Finally a Buddhist nun notorious in the tradition for her malpractices admits her after taking those precious belongings. Her husband tracks her down; “Then that Licchavi, searching for that woman, having gone to Savatthi, seeing her gone forth among the nuns, approached King Pasenadi of Kosala; having approached, he spoke thus to King Pasenadi of Kosala: “ Sire, my wife, taking precious belongings, has reached Savatthi; let the king allow me power over her.” When the king learns that she is with the nuns, he advices the husband to give it a rest; “If, good sir, she has gone forth among the nuns, there is nothing to do against her. Well preached by the lord is dhamma; let her lead the Brahma-life for the utter ending of ill.” This doesn’t put an end to the matter. The mutterings soon start; “How can these nuns let a woman thief go forth?”, “How can the lady Thullananda let a woman thief go forth?” Finally it leads to the setting down of the following Vinaya rule; “Whatever nun should knowingly receive a woman thief found to merit death, without having obtained permission from a king or an Order or a group or a guild or a company, … that nun also has fallen into a matter that is an offence at once, entailing a formal meeting of the Order involving being sent away.”

There’s no doubt that the Buddhist Doctrine per se can be invoked against lawful killing as well against unlawful killing. After all, it’s the current norm, which makes killing lawful or unlawful and it’s the society which makes the norm. Nevertheless, throughout its long history Buddhism seems to have been cautious about invoking the doctrine against killing sanctioned by law, such as war and judicial homicide. As a result, modern activism, which tries to rope in Buddhism for a purpose which it was never intended to serve, will continue to come up against embarrassing ironies. Tisaranee Gunasekara is a good example. Warming to her task in Betraying Buddhism and undermining Sri Lanka she writes; “In fact the only kind of governance which seemed to have met with his (the Buddha’s parenthesis mine) unqualified approval was the collective, consensual and quasi-democratic rule of the Vajjis”. The next moment, someone points out that this unqualified approval earning governance also allowed a wronged husband to kill his wife. And that in such a contingency even the Buddhist Order would withhold its asylum. Most people would blush and determine to be cautious in future about using an ancient religion for simplistic modern lobbying.


[i] Vajji and Licchavi in Buddhist Dictionary of Pali Proper Names where most entries have been taken from ‘Dictionary of Pali Proper Names’ by G. P. Malalasekera


[ii] Women in Early Buddhist Literature’– A Talk to the All-Ceylon Buddhist Women’s Association, Colombo, 18 January 1961 by I. B. Horner- (Full text)


[iii] The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha – A Translation of the Anguttara Nikaya

By Bhikkhu Bodhi.- (Full text)


[iv] The Jataka No. 465, Vol. IV, tr. by W.H.D. Rouse, [1901], at sacred-texts.com, BHADDA-SĀLA-JĀTAKA – (Full text).


[v] The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya-Pitaka), Volume III (Suttavibhanga), translated by I. B. Horner- (Full text)



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