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Did King Bimbisara ever go to war?

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vinaya
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#1

In this article, Thanissaro Bhikkhu claims that King Bimbasara becomes a stream winner and “never engages in war.” He provides no citation for this claim. I know the Digha Nikaya reports that he became a stream winner and is reborn in heaven. But where in the Canon does it say King Bimbisara never went to war? It appears as though there are examples in the Vinaya where Bimbisara does, in fact, go to war. For example, here:

Bu-Pj.4.9.5 MS.765 At one time King Seniya Bimbisāra of Magadha was defeated in battle with the Licchavis. Then the king collected his armies and beat the Licchavis. Delight about the battle spread about: “The Licchavis were defeated by the king!”
Then the Venerable Mahāmoggallāna addressed the monks: “Friends, the king was defeated by the Licchavis.”
The monks criticised and denounced him: “How can Venerable Moggallāna say, ʻFriends, the king was defeated by the Licchavis,ʼ when delight about the battle is spreading about thus: ʻThe Licchavis were defeated by the king!ʼ The Venerable Mahāmoggallāna is claiming a super-human achievement.” They informed the Master.
“Monks, first the king was defeated by the Licchavis Vin.3.109 and then, after he had collected his army, the king beat the Licchavis. Moggallāna spoke truly. There is no offence for Moggallāna.”

Also, the Vinaya explains here that the reason the Buddha banned soldiers from ordaining is that too many were deserting Bimbisara’s army to become monks. Interestingly, the commentary seems to be aware of the tension between Bimbisara’s stream entry and his commanding troops, and attempts to resolve the tension by saying that Bimbisara merely commanded troops to the borderlands without explicitly call for killing; Horner points out:

“Vin-a.996 says that thieves were giving trouble, but because Bimbisāra was a stream-winner he did not command: “Strike them, kill them.”

Does anyone have any more light to shed on this issue? Are there sources that I am missing that validates Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s claim?


#2

I agree, I think it’s incorrect, or at least misleading, to just say he never went to war. Perhaps he was never the aggressor, or perhaps he delegated; no doubt there are nuances that can be discussed. But there remains an inherent tension between the absolute pacifism implied by a literal reading of the first precept and the pragmatics of leadership.

One if the problems is the extent to which we can accept Bimbisara’s attainment. Such claims are, in general, one of the most divergent between versions and least verifiable kinds of statement in the suttas. And it is obvious that claims for the holy purity of the magadhan Kings are perhaps the most politically expedient of all. So to use this as basis for a historical argument is dubious at best. Perhaps it is better considered mythologically, i.e. as a story told by the Buddhist traditions to cope with an unresolvable dilemma.


#3

I have to second Bhante Sujato. One of the striking things about King Bimbisāra is how peripheral he is in the Pali scriptures. In the four main Nikāyas he is exclusively talked about in the past tense - as someone who has given away property to certain brahmins or who has gone for refuge to the Buddha - or he is depicted as a deva visiting the Buddha. (It is only in this latter conjunction that he indirectly declares himself a streamenter.) By the time of the Nikāyas, he is already a legend.

It is only in the origin stories of the Vinaya that King Bimbisāra is spoken of in the present tense as an existing king. Yet these origin stories are by and large later that the four Nikāyas. Moreover, the ones that feature King Bimbisāra have a distinctly legendary feel to them, including the story of when he becomes a streamenterer. According to this story, which is found in the Mahakkhandhaka, the King visits the Buddha together with 120,000 brahmins. When the Buddha gives a teaching, the King together with 110,000 of those brahmin supposedly become streamenterers, the remaining 10,000 going for refuge. It is impossible to take this as historical truth. So quite apart from the fact that third party claims of streamentry in the suttas are highly unreliable - as Bhante Sujato points out - in this case the situation is far worse. We are dealing with deep mythology.

I have to admit I find Ajahn Thanissaro’s analysis disappointing. In this case he has not shown good judgement.


#4

The story of his meeting with the Buddha and attainment of stream-entry is found in the Madhyama Agama at MA 62.
It does seem a little evolved and embellished when compared to other early discourses but the teaching is standard EBT and Bimbisara is the only one of the large crowd of devas and humans who attains stream-entry at the end.


#5

Thank you, @vimalanyani, @brahmali, and @sujato for your input! I can’t help but wonder if Ajahn Thanissaro let his own pro-pacifist bias influence his interpretation of King Bimbisara’s life.

That’s a good point, about King Bimbisara being a rather marginal figure in the Nikayas, while he appears prominently in the Vinaya origin stories. Hmm.

Nice find! Do you know if an English translation of this agama is available online? Perhaps a story like this was the basis for the more embellished version in the Mahakkhandhaka.


#6

There is an English translation freely available.
Go to the thread “In the Buddha’s words” and download the madhyama agama part 1 pdf from post #54. (I don’t seem to be able to link to it when using D&D on my phone…)
Or just google it.


#7

Thank you! However, I am reading the Agama now, and it does in fact say that the Dhamma eye arose in the thousands of Gods and humans, not just King Bimbisara:

As the Buddha delivered this teaching, [the mind of] Seniya Bimbisāra,
king of Magadha, became free of defilements, and [in regard] to all phenomena
the Dharma eye arose [in him]; and [the minds of] eighty thousand gods and
twelve thousand citizens of Magadha became free of defilements, and [in
regard] to all phenomena the Dharma eye arose [in them].


#8

Oh, you are right. Thanks! How did I miss that? :sweat_smile:

I somehow just saw the next two paragraphs that don’t mention anyone except Bimbisara:

Bimbisara%20streamentry

Discrepancies like this might be an indication that the large crowds of devas and humans might have been added later. :woman_shrugging:


#9

Indeed.


#10

Interesting hypothesis. It does seem a bit clunky — first the King, people and Gods get the dharma eye, THEN the the king saw and realized the Dharma. But Isn’t attaining/seeing the dharma the same as the dharma eye arising? I also notice that, in conjunction to the dharma eye arising, it says that the minds of all the gods/people became free of defilements. But isn’t “freedom from defilements” normally how Arahatship is described, not stream entry? So yeah, I think there is some merit to the idea that this agama story might have been edited/embellished.


#11

For what it’s worth “free of defilements” is a simplification of the Chinese, which reads “separated from dust and free of defilement” (= something like viraja-vitamala). It probably just means the bonds, not the asavas.

The same description occurs in the Chinese version of the Pāṭaliya sutta (SN.42.13) after the discourse and he converts to Buddhism, and a few other places. It seems to be a stock passage for realizing the Dharma and converting in the Madhyama Agama.

Charlie


#12

The parallel passage is also found on Mahavastu (Mvu 110 on SC numbering, or Mahavastu vol. III pp.443-9). The English translation by Bhikkhu Anandajoti is found here: The Earliest Recorded Discourses of the Buddha - The First Discourse

Note: SC parallel information on MA 62 didn’t list Mvu 110 as one of the parallel. I think this should be added.


#13

It’s interesting to say here: it’s not only Buddhist tradition claimed that Seniya Bimbisara (Sanskrit: Srenika Bimbisara) was their supporter king, but also Jain tradition which claimed he is a devotee of Jainism:

Bimbisara is referred to as Shrenika of Rajgir in Jain literature who became a devotee of Jainism impressed by the calmness of Yamadhar (a Jain Muni). He frequently visited Samavasarana of Lord Mahavira seeking answers to his queries. He asked about the true version of Ramayanaand an illuminating sage (King Prasana). He is said to be a Balabhadra in one of his previous lives.

Per Jain scripture, Bimbisara killed himself in a fit of passion, after his son had imprisoned him. Consequently, he was reborn in hell, where he is currently residing, until the karma which led to his birth there comes to an end. It is further written, that he will be reborn as Mahapadma (sometimes called Padmanabha ), the first in the chain of future tirthankaras who are to rise at the beginning of the upward motion ( Utsarpini ) of the next era of time.

Source: Bimbisara - Wikipedia

Perhaps, Bimbisara was indeed a distinctly legendary king, not just for Buddhists, but also Jains


#14

Thanks for clarifying. It sounds like the Chinese is trying to parallel the language in Pali, that speaks of the Dhamma eye as being “dustless” and “stainless.”


#15

Interesting, @seniya, about the Jain perspective on King Bimbisara. I wonder how old the Jain tradition about him is. It’s curious that even the Jains seem to concede he was a good king, but nonetheless have him going to hell anyway for suicide.


#16

Yes, that’s probably it.


#17

Yes, it seems they are probably less willing to make allowances for the consequences of kingly violence.


#18

My understanding is that a Sotapanna never breaks the five precepts.

“He possesses the virtues dear to the noble ones—unbroken, untorn, unblemished, unmottled, freeing, praised by the wise, ungrasped, leading to concentration.


#19

not the only example. The SN 11.4 shows Sakka, another king and stream winner, involved in a war:
https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn11/sn11.004.olen.html

My understanding is that a Sotapanna never breaks the five precepts

there is also a popular mythology around stream winners which is exacerbated in our times. According sources, stream winners still have remaining fetters which include angry, ill-will, etc… Despite being weakened still could drag to lay people to be involved in these worldly issues depending the environment and times. Maybe from a more distance position and no directly in situations of killing. As in the case of those kings.

And it is obvious that claims for the holy purity of the magadhan Kings are perhaps the most politically expedient of all. So to use this as basis for a historical argument is dubious at best. Perhaps it is better considered mythologically, i.e. as a story told by the Buddhist traditions to cope with an unresolvable dilemma.

yes, a face-wash for those rulers is an historical option because this is very frequent at all times. Although at same time, those old histories can sound more problematic today, because the requested image of Buddhism for our times. It seems these histories (even working like propaganda) were no so strong dilemma for those past times, and then we are finding these. Show buddhist rulers with attainments and strongly compromised with peace, although at same time without rejecting a war instigated by evil forces or trying to destroy Dhamma.

Then today we find prologues and introductions with an added effort to explain its metaphorical side, etc. So the modern reader does not scandalize with contradictions regarding the Buddhist image of what should be an spiritual path. However, these introductions are made mostly with wishful thinking instead real historical data about what happened.

I miss many times in contemporary authors being more aware about different epochs. At those times an army could arrive to some city to recruit citizens for a war. Those cities were smaller and the propaganda to be engaged in wars could be the affronts to collective pride or the same ruler’s honor, etc. So they produced histories with a political moral message for a populace who was easily ready to die in those testosterone times

However, our times are much more estrogen. Our cities are much bigger than armies, and the populace should peaceably digest in front the TV the distant wars, a closer drop of wages, the global wild greed or whatever outrage or disaster. Today the rulers should not be heroic figures but the people only requires them to avoid selling themselves with money, drugs and prostitutes. Contemporary notion of honor is made with volatile images, clicking likes or Instagram.

All together can make those ancient histories mixing violence and Dhamma still more uncomfortable or contradictory for our times.


#20

Yes, it seems like people in modern 1st world countries really live in a bubble of peace. Hence, we underestimate how dang hard it was to maintain a purely pacifist lifestyle back in the day (and still is, in parts of the world). I recently read Stephen Jenkins’ article “On the Auspiciousness of Compassionate Violence,” and one argument he makes is that modern Ghandi-influenced notions of “non-violence” are anachronistically projected back into ancient Indian texts (and lead to sloppy translations). Dunno how correct he is (or how it relates to what the historical Buddha actually believed/taught, vs. his followers), but it was an interesting read.