The Buddha and the Māgadha-Vajjī War

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 18, 2011

The Buddha and the Māgadha-Vajjī War

Ven. Pandita (Burma)
University of Kelaniya

According to an account recorded in Mahāparinibbānasutta, the Buddha had to meet a royal minister named Vassakāra when King Ajātasattu ordered the latter to visit the Buddha and inform him about the king’s plan to subdue the Vajjīs. After hearing Vassakāra, the Buddha spoke on seven Conditions of Welfare (satta aparihāniyā dhammā), which would ensure the prosperity of the Vajjīs as long as its citizens observed them. Vassakāra shrewdly inferred from the Buddha’s discourse how to defeat the Vajjī people and later actually forced them into submission. Regarding that event, there are some perplexing questions:

  1. Why did King Ajātasattu choose to consult a wandering ascetic on a significant matter of state like fighting a war?
  2. Vassakāra discerned how to defeat the Vajjīs from the Buddha’s exposition of the Seven Conditions of Welfare. So did the Buddha intend to help Ajātasattu defeat the Vajjīs? If not, what was his purpose in expounding the seven Conditions of Welfare to Vassakāra?
  3. If the Buddha really did not accept any kind of violence, as the tradition would have it, why did he not openly speak against it?

This paper will attempt to answer these questions and will argue, in the conclusion, that this event shows the Buddha’s disapproving attitude toward a political role of the Buddhist Order.

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7 thoughts on “The Buddha and the Māgadha-Vajjī War”

  1. The author’s thinking is laid out clearly, but the thesis is vague.

    “If the Buddha really did not accept any kind of violence, as the tradition would have it”…

    “therefore, it cannot be conclusive evidence for the theory that Buddhism accepts violence in certain contexts.”

    I’d like to hear what is meant by “accept.” It should be unpacked. For example we could describe it as “sanctioning the use of violence by lay people to accomplish some compassionate end.” But now it becomes obvious — Buddha never sanctioned the use of violence.
    We can only examine what Buddha said. Determining an omniscient being’s intentions will have to be done, according to many, on faith alone.

  2. My statement about the Buddhist attitude toward violence is necessarily vague because this is only a by-product, so to speak, of my argument, not the main conclusion, which is rather concerned with the political role of the Order. the Buddha’s role in the Māgadha-Vajjī war was only part of the textual evidence supposed to show that the Buddha justifies the king’s use of violence to mete out “proper” punishments to his enemies or criminals.

    And we should not hurry to conclude that “Buddha never sanctioned the use of violence”! You should see Steven Collins’s Nirvana and Other Felicities (419–423) for evidence seemingly showing that the Buddha sanctioned the use of violence in certain contexts.

    Of course, I agree with you in that we can only examine what the Buddha said. it is very difficult to determine the intention of even an ordinary mortal in modern times, let alone a wise man of the Buddha’s caliber who prospered more than two thousand years ago.

  3. It’s one thing to use the Buddha and his words as a justification for violence; or even as Collin puts it, that “Buddhist ideology could be used…to legitimate wars of aggression.” It’s another for Buddha to specifically sanction violence. The first is interpretation from outsiders. The second are his own words, which cut through any doubt we may have of his intentions. This highlights the importance of clearly determining buddhavacana.

    I don’t claim an exhaustive reading of his direct instructions, but of what I have read he only sanctioned the order and the rules to be followed, leaving the affairs of the world to benefit indirectly. The world, the impermanent, was not his concern. By his disciplined example in abnegating it, his disciples and others would know what to abandon and what to adopt. He did declare the world and its inhabitants, but I think this is a teaching for others to see what he was renouncing, should they doubt that he was merely indifferent to the world or ignorant of its scope. He was saying “Here is everything, and I give up all of it! Follow me if you would do the same!”

    You might say that even without words his mere presence on a battle ground was an act of sanction, just as someone who goes to a bar is somehow legitimizing it, even though they may despise it and pray who its destruction. And you might have a point here. Violence as a phenomena might be sanctioned by physical presence, but for the will to violence, to initiate it –- that would surely require an act of speech.
    But then we ask what wouldn’t Buddha sanction? What depths of samsara wouldn’t he go to to save sentient beings? This is only the human realm and Buddha visits the hell realms where violence is unavoidable. His presence in samsara at all is then an act of sanction.

    In light of this I think we need to distinguish words like recognize, declare, accept –- which show the Buddha as nothing more than a presence / an awareness among dependencies –- with those like sanction, dictate, approve –- which show engagement in the world and if ascribed to the Buddha would make inappropriate that epithet of his as “The Great Renunciate.”
    This naturally leads us to question why the Buddha spoke at all, but as you’ve stated this would be getting off the subject of his reception in the world and the role of the order.

  4. If we are to recognize only what the Buddha explicitly said and disregard the outsiders’s interpretation, as you seemingly suggest, it will be very difficult for Buddhism to remain relevant in our times or later. It will not be easy even with Vinaya, the monastic rules for the ascetic community. For instance, it is not legal for monks to touch money, according to one Vinaya rule. However, it is possible for a monk of our times to do all kinds of financial transactions without touching a single coin or note, using electronic banking, credit cards, etc. But is it legal to do so? Whether you answer yes or no, you are “interpreting” the rule! And without such an interpretation, that particular rule is dead, not really usable in the real world.

    The Buddha’s attitude toward violence remains something not well understood as long as we cannot resolve the fundamental conflict that Collins states (420): “In systemic thought, the contradiction between violence and nonviolence is logically unavoidable, and so the conflict between Mode 2’s ‘all kings are bad’ and Mode 1’s ‘there can be a good king’ is insoluble.”

  5. I think we should never take refuge in outsiders, but we should consider the interpretations of contemporary insiders. If there are none, then I agree it could be difficult to see the Dharma in our world, but I think it would be unacceptable for those who have not seen the Dharma to adapt the precepts.

    I question the motives of anyone taking an incident in the life of the Buddha and trying to establish generalizations from which we could derive apologies for our own or others’ actions. Is the purpose of teaching the Dharma to sanctify our wayward tendencies or to redress our ignorance with meaning and vitality? If there are novel interpretations for our age then they would not come before an understanding of the essence of the teachings, and not from intellectual attempts at cheating history, which only provides the container and the context. Buddha placed his vision and speech ahead of him and let his body and his tracks follow behind. It shows a misunderstanding of the mode of transmission to scrutinize those tracks so closely. Not that this is what you are suggesting – in your article you argue against it, but not in principle – but still it is very much a trend in our rationalist age to take this route, to look at the finger instead of the moon, as the more familiar metaphor goes. The working classes, which means all of our post-capitalist technocracy, have been drawn into this grand scheme to cheat a living for ourselves, to outsmart the system, to defy authority. It is with this method of thinking that so many mistakenly approach the Dharma: the oxymoronic “spiritual materialism.”

    We need to be vigilant in avoiding the bait of accepting or rejecting experiences. The order needs even more vigilance against being consumed by the concerns of lay people. I’m not a monk but those who know me have all measured me up as a staunch Buddhist. I’ve found that there is a definite disadvantage to an overtly religious persona. After a short introduction to my beliefs, conversation with an outsider will quickly and inevitably turn into an exercise in defending those beliefs. My friends and colleagues alike metamorphosise into a legion of devil’s advocates. It feels something like a trench-war. The whole process is not without an endearing sense of charm, and so I humour them to the point of trivializing my convictions. Incidentally, surprisingly, this neither dilutes my adherence to the teachings, nor do I seem to lose their respect. Humouring his audience was not something the Buddha did (at least not for the books) yet contemporary insiders like Holiness Dalai Lama are obviously at pains to keep the conversation light when talking with outsiders.

    So it doesn’t concern me that the Buddha never cracked a joke. I have the example of an acclaimed contemporary master to follow, and his behaviour, by my observation or mimicry, has not appeared in contradiction to the teachings – apart from the mimicry itself which is something the Buddha did sanction. And maybe this is the key: we should seek a saint to mimic and then follow his actions – not entertain some deviance and then seek a precedent among the ages. There are precedents of violence in the Jataka tales, but in our particular era we are dealing with something of greater concern – the act of seeking them out. When all of history and every knowledge is so close at hand we no longer care for what is good and true. Instead we quest for the inflammatory, controversial, and the petty. Something that can guarantee us a niche and a nipple in the system. Anything to secure the attentions of others, that they might substitute for the attention that escapes us in every moment.

  6. In the conclusion part of this paper, I have given two reasons why many non-political monks had to suffer during the (2007) Sangha uprising in Burma. Of these two, the second is:

    ” … it can also partly be attributed to an intelligence failure, for the gov-ernment at the time seemingly had no proper means to identify their targets because they themselves had wiped out the whole intelligence hierarchy in the 2004 internal power struggle.”

    I have also noted therein that “The second reason will need further research to be confirmed.”

    On my last visit to Burma, I had a chance to meet an old friend, who is working as an agent in an intelligence unit of the Burmese regime. I asked for his opinion about my observation above, and he agreed with me. So I think I can claim that the second reason can be confirmed.

  7. To Delany:

    I said regarding violence vis-a-vis Buddhism:
    “The Buddha’s attitude toward violence remains something not well understood as long as we cannot resolve the fundamental conflict that Collins states (420): “In systemic thought, the contradiction between violence and nonviolence is logically unavoidable, and so the conflict between Mode 2′s ‘all kings are bad’ and Mode 1′s ‘there can be a good king’ is insoluble.”

    Well, I have published another paper entitled “If Intention is Karma: A New Approach to the Buddha’s Socio-Political Teachings” in this very journal (Vol. 19, 2012). I believe I have solved, in that paper, the fundamental conflict that Collins has spoken of. You may check it out if you wish; I would also like to hear your opinion.

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