Why is "Khattiya" being translated as "Aristocrat?"

I am deleting my post. Thank you friends :pray: :pray:

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I believe the word kṣatriya/ khattiya has not only the sense of one from the military order, but also of the reigning order, the highest social class, the top of the heap.
So probably Ven. Sujato has selected ‘aristocrat’ since it captures the ‘reigning order’ sense of the word.

But of course Ven. Sujato is more than capable to explain it himself, I do not mean to speak for him.


Maybe so, friend. But my worry is that if we start giving new words to those that we already have an agreed English meaning for, we will begin to lose the meaning and message of the dharma in question.

In my opinion, if we were not to call a “khattiya” a “warrior,” the most skillful thing to do would just be to leave it untranslated.

100 years down the road, an aristocrat may not mean the same thing that it did today. But “Khattiya” will hold it’s meaning so long as we preserve the texts. It is said that we are “in the dharma ending age” after all. Where the dharma will decline because it’s meaning is lost.

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Thankfully, there are multiple translations of these words. Things are oftener missed in translation, the nature of the beast. Warrior is only one facet of the word. It had other connotations at the time it was used. We should appreciate that people try and elucidate a term or phrase in more than just one way.

Also, I never appreciated the slippery slope argument. People who are sincere in practicing and understanding the Dhamma won’t be confounded by simple variances in translations. Concentration is widely translated for samadhi, but plenty of people have had problems with that translation in a visceral way.


While that is where the name comes from, historically all varnas have participated in warfare. The overall distinguishing factor of the varna, especially in the canon, is their secular social leadership and authority. When, for instance, it is said that the khattiya are foremost of those who take clan as their banner, it would be confusing to translate this as “warrior” because in most civil societies warriors do not have any such connotation of prominence. It also doesn’t come across as a hereditary term. Finally, it would be confusing when applied to women (a warrior woman sounds like a woman who personally fights, not one from a family of fighters).


I don’t think that’s actually correct. While it is often explained that way, I can’t find any support for the idea that khattiya inherently has anything to do with be a warrior. Obviously a khattiya may be a warrior, but the word for warrior is yodha, and there are plenty of khattiyas who are not warriors.

Rather, the term in the suttas is said to be related to khetta (“field”). From DN 27:

‘Lord of the fields’ is the meaning of ‘aristocrat’,
Khettānaṁ adhipatīti kho, vāseṭṭha, ‘khattiyo’

Thus a khattiya is from a land-owning class. Whether this is the actual etymology is not sure; the PTS dictionary traces it to the root kṣatra rather than kṣetra. But that has the connotation of power and possession, which is similar.

So a khattiya is essentially someone who has power via the ownership of lands. Traditionally in English such people were referred to as “nobles” or “aristocrats”, and since the former is already used for ariya I used the latter.

Obviously those who possess lands will end up having to fight to keep them, so they become associated with warriors. But it’s no more accurate to call khattiyas “warriors” than it would be to call the medieval English gentry “knights”. Some of them were, sure. But this, apart from anything else, erases the role of the “lower” castes who would have been pressed into service defending their masters’ lands.

As you can see, the meaning is not that simple.

This is not how language works. All languages change their meaning, and they do so constantly. The meaning of Pali words has always been changing, and there is scarcely a single word in common use in Pali today that has the same meaning that it did in the Suttas.

By leaving words untranslated, it does not ensure meaning is preserved. On the contrary, it means the translation will be done in the heads of people who are not experts and have not done the work needed to understand the issues. That’s why we have translators, and it’s our job to make the hard call.

Basically yes, everything you said.


I’ve wondered about that saying in the EBT’s, as I’ve seen it appear in texts in which the brahmins are being sort of chastised, as in DN 3:

And so, Ambaṭṭha, the aristocrats are superior and the brahmins inferior, whether comparing women with women or men with men.

The Buddha seems to be putting forth an argument immediately before this to prove that ksatriyas are superior to brahmins. But if the brahmins already agreed with it, there would be no reason for the Buddha to cover that ground. And also no reason for Ambattha to disrespect the Sakyas.

Thank you for the reply Bante :pray: and thank you for the lesson on the word Khattiya. I definitely did not know a good deal of that.

If I may say this on the topic of leaving terms in the Palī:

For myself, I still greatly appreciate appreciate some terms to be left untranslated. Or at least be expounded upon / put in the foot notes like Maurice Walshe and Bhikkhu Bodhi often do.

Words like: pañña, mettā, samadhi, muditā, upekha, Karuna, sadhā, sīla, dāna, nekkhama, Viriya, uposatha etc.

When words like that are left in Palī it makes it easy for us students who are familiar with them to better understand what exactly is being said as we can often pull to mind other suttas that used the same term. Or look them up in the wiki where they have detailed explanations.

I definitely see the reason for giving an English term as it helps the newcomer but I think it puts us advanced students at a disadvantage.


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Thank you very much, Bhante, for your ideas on what makes a Khattiya. I admit to relying on quick dictionary definitions rather than fully investigating these concepts.

I did make a quick internet search for the word kṣatriya and the concept of a warrior, this came up:

This includes quotes from the Mahābhārata, as quoted in:
Sathaye, Adheesh. 2007. “How to Become a Brahman: The Construction of Varṇa as Social Place in the Mahābhārata’s Legends of Viśvāmitra,” Acta Orientalia Vilnensia 8.1 (2007): 41-67.

‘I am a Kṣatriya, not a Brahman, and according to my ethics, I possess physical valor [bāhuvīrya]; and so here, I will steal her from you, as you look on, with the strength of my arms [bhujabalena]’ (Mbh1.1758*).
The Kṣatriya characteristics of Viśvāmitra’s body, his ‘physical valor [bāhuvīrya]’ and ‘strength of arms [bhujabala]’, are what sanction him to behave as a Kṣatriya and take the cow by force, reinforcing the embodied nature of varṇa.
‘You are a king who is firm in strength [balastha]’, retorts Vasiṣṭha, ‘a Kṣatriya possessing physical valor [bāhuvīrya]. Just do whatever you want, but do it quickly—don’t deliberate over it’ (Mbh 1.165.20).

This quote would seem to associate the kṣatriya with qualities associated with a ‘warrior’, but I leave it there as I am not an Indologist.


@stephen Historically wealthy landlords amass and command armies whether it is in Europe, Africa, South Asia or East Asia.

You are not necessarily wrong and Sujato isn’t exclusive right. The difference is one of taste, not of consequence.

This attitude is always off putting and it is worth having this post hidden to point this out.

This quote would seem to associate the kṣatriya with qualities associated with a ‘warrior

Honestly, to me, that really seems to be the theme in most sutta’s I have read (I’ve copied a few below).

Given Venerable Sujato’s post above, I will not push the subject matter any further than this post :pray:

AN 3.12

3.12. To be Remembered

“Bhikkhus, there are these three places that a head-anointed khattiya king should remember all his life. What three? (1) The first is the place where he was born. (2) The second is the place where he was head-anointed a khattiya king. (3) And the third is the place where, having triumphed in battle, he emerged victorious and settled at the head of the battlefield. These are the three places that a head-anointed khattiya king should remember all his life…

And this one at SN 21.11


At Savatthi. Then the Venerable Mahakappina approached the Blessed One. The Blessed One saw him coming in the distance and addressed the bhikkhus thus: “Bhikkhus, do you see that bhikkhu coming, fair-skinned, thin, with a prominent nose?”

“Yes, venerable sir.”

“That bhikkhu is of great spiritual power and might. It is not easy to find an attainment which that bhikkhu has not already attained. And he is one who, by realizing it for himself with direct knowledge, in this very life enters and dwells in that unsurpassed goal of the holy life for the sake of which clansmen rightly go forth from the household life into homelessness.”

This is what the Blessed One said. Having said this, the Fortunate One, the Teacher, further said this:

“The khattiya is the best among people
For those whose standard is the clan,
But one accomplished in knowledge and conduct
Is best among devas and humans.

“The sun shines by day,
The moon glows at night,
The khattiya shines clad in armour,
The meditative brahmin shines.
But all the time, day and night,
The Buddha shines with glory.”

@sujato :pray: I also happened to find this sutta (SuttaCentral) where it explicitly calls a warrior “Yodha” in Pali. Just as Bhante Sujato said above! BUT it would seem to me that if we were to be as accurate as we could be in terminology “Marksman or Archer” would be more fitting than “warrior” for the term “Yodha” as per this line:

He’s skilled in the basics, a long-distance shooter, a marksman, one who shatters large objects.

. . Ahh, but then I find this sutta (SuttaCentral) where it uses the same term “Yodajivo” to describe a general person engaged in battle. Certainly this is a difficult subject matter…

I will concede, it does seem to me now that the term “Aristocrat” or “Nobleman” is a much more fitting term for Khattiya. Among the texts, I see that the difference between a common warrior and a Khattiya is mostly that of stature, rank, and power.

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I wasn’t aware of the relationship before between ksetra (field), and ksatriya. But that is interesting. Ksatriyas are definitely stereotyped as warriors in some Indian literature. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that their origin or main role wasn’t related to land or aristocracy in the EBT’s. Or that those associations did not change over time in the history of India. I suppose we would need to look back to pre-Buddhist literature to understand more about the origins.

I’m just reading over the Wikipedia article, and it looks like there is a connection between the etymology of ksatriya, and rulership over land:

And of course, if it is on Wikipedia, it must be true.

Thanks, these are good quotes and give some more context.

With the passage on a rājā khattiyo muddhāvasitto “anointed aristocratic king”, then it refers to specifically to a king, and is open about how generally that applies.

This one is a little unclear. The Pali for “armor” is sannaddha, which literally means “binding, wrapping”. “Armor” is normally sannāha or kavaca. Given that the metaphor is of “shining”, then it would seem that armor is the obvious sense, but it doesn’t seem to be confirmed in any early source. I mean, I think it does mean armor, and have translated it as such, but I’d like a little more supporting evidence before relying on it as a premise.

Again, I don’t want to overstate it: clearly there is a connection between the ideas of the khattiya and the warrior, and to translate it is warrior-noble is not incorrect per se. I just feel that it overdetermines one aspect of the khattiya. We meet lots of khattiyas, and only rarely are they in the context of warriors. Most khattiyas are ordinary folk.

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Thank you, Bhante🙏. I have definitely learned a lot this evening. I had no idea that the word Khattiya was so diverse as it is. My world view has certainly expanded.

. . Would I be correct in assuming that the picture being painted here, when the Khattiya is described as a warrior, is that it is in a “Knight of the Round Table” sort of way? For me, that is what comes to mind when thinking of a Noble Warrior who would be deserving of the throne. The likes of King Arthur.

I’ve stuck to “warrior” as a translation thus far, but I think it is a complex issue. The thing I see in my studies of ancient history is that many societies went through a process by which elite warriors or leaders of armies are the class who later become the aristocracy/nobility. Typically, once a territory is consolidated under a single ruler, that ruler would reward his loyal warriors and generals with land rights.

This land ownership would be hereditary, and so noble families were then established who evolved into an upper class of landowners as Sujato explained. These later generations might continue to be skilled in leading armies in battle if warfare or internecine strife was regular, or they might become rich people with power over the peasantry if there was a long period of peace. It really depended on circumstances.

So, for example, in Europe throughout the medieval period, the aristocracy had to know how to lead armies and win battles if they were to survive for any amount of time, and they often fought in battles themselves. As nation states formed, this became less necessary, but the aristocracy continued to provide leadership of armies right up until the Napoleonic era. Indeed, one of the reasons the Germans were quite good at warfare in the past couple hundred years was because the Prussian aristocracy had continued that tradition of martial training and experience. (I recall an historian once remarked that “Prussia was not so much a country with an army as it was an army with a country.”) In England, royalty still serves tours of duty in the officer corps out of tradition in modern times.

In East Asian, it was a similar story in China and Japan. In Japan, we can trace the way the samurai began as elite warriors but changed into administrators after the fighting of the feudal period was over. During the Tang dynasty in China, the nobility wielded a great deal of power because they led armies as well as owned land, but during the Song there was a change to a civil society after a long period of destructive warfare. This was partly because the destruction created a disgust with war, but also because the nobility had largely destroyed each other.

Getting back to translating EBTs, what I really wonder is how much the kṣatriya were divorced from warfare at the time of the Buddha. I get the impression that they were still essentially a feudal society in which warfare took place periodically, so my image of them isn’t like e.g. 18th century French nobility. On the other hand, as the OP shows, “warrior” can be misconstrued as simply a soldier. In truth, neither translation seems to capture the full meaning to me unless the reader understands how intertwined the nobility and military were in ancient times.

Another issue to me is the way the Sakya are often described as the “warrior caste” as opposed to the “priest caste” in a couple sutras, as though it were an description of different ethnic groups. It made me wonder if it was actually describing them as members of a “barbarian” tribe who had recently settled and thus was considered crass and warlike by their brahmin critics. But the sutras in question (I believe it was those like the Ambattha sutta) seem likely to be later compositions, so perhaps it was a kind of social commentary using the Buddha as a setting.


We have a similar problem in translating “brahmin”. Technically, “priestly caste” would be the best. But then, many, perhaps most, of the brahmins we meet don’t actually act as priests. And in Europe, there’s no notion of a hereditary priesthood; it’s a vocation, not a birthright. In that case, as “brahmin” is pretty well adopted in English I stuck with that.

It seems that the four castes are only mentioned in a late book of the Vedas, raising the question as to whether it was a feature of ancient Aryan culture at all. I’ve not studied the issue, but it would make sense if the brahmins were the upper class of the Aryans and they had to jostle with the land-owners (khattiya) already in India. But yeah, I haven’t really studied the origins.

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I’ve seen these two together in some studies… In some early Mahayana sutras, such as the Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra, and Ratnagunasamcaya Gatha, there is a warrior analogy in which these two words appear in close relation. The bodhisattva is “armed with great armor” (mahā-saṃnāha-saṃnaddha).

In the former text, the Great Vehicle is described as a war chariot of the jinas for subduing the armies of Mara. In the latter text, it’s compared to a flying fortress or chariot (mahā-vimāna). Joseph Walser has also found that another epithet for bodhisattva, mahasattva, is basically the same term used in the Mahabharata, used for mythical heroes in that epic.

Being later texts, ca. 1st century CE, it’s not possible to “prove” anything about earlier EBT’s or earlier contexts, but it’s just an example that came to mind when I saw those two words here.

I’m wondering to what extent the armor was actually “shining”. I know in some places they speak of leather armor. But the simile here suggests that a “knight in shining armor” was a fairly common sight.

This has its roots in two old Vedic qualities: the close association of kṣatriyas with the bellicose Indra, and with the responsibility of protection.

In Vedic literature it’s quite clear that the root is kṣatra (might, rulership) and not kṣetra.
The root of kṣatra refers to protection from physical harm.

Already in the Vedas/Samhitas kṣatriyas are to be heroic, skilled in archery, and in the Brahmanas also assoiciated with sword, bow, and the chariot.

So the executive powers of ruling, deciding, protecting, and enforcing seem to have been well in the realm of the kṣatriyas’ responsibility.


Thanks! That definitely gives some context. Given that the four varnas only appear in the latest strata of the Vedas, I’d guess there’s an evolution in the term; usually things start out more fluid and get fixed over time.

Given this, then, it would seem that the etymology in the Agganña Sutta is a deliberate attempt to re-frame the khattiya, parallel to the re-framing of Indra as an acolyte of peace.

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