Violence And Disruption In Society:
A Study Of The Early Buddhist Texts
1. The Forms Of Violence
The Buddha's Awareness
The sermons of the Buddha, as they have been handed down to us, are replete with details about the contemporary realities of the times. They reveal much about the social contexts within which the Buddha moved and the faces of society with which he was familiar.
The Canki Sutta shows a brahmin overlord insisting that the Buddha is equal to him in birth, riches and the knowledge of the Vedas. He continues:
" Indeed, sirs, King Seniya Bimbisara of Magadha with his wife and children has gone to the recluse Gotama for refuge for life. Indeed, sirs, King Pasenadi of Kosala with his wife and children has gone to the recluse Gotama for refuge for life. Indeed, sirs, the brahmin Pokkharasati with his wife and children has gone to the recluse Gotama for refuge for life." 
Important here is the reference to kings. The texts show clearly that the Buddha had an intimate knowledge of statecraft. Records of his conversations with Pasenadi and Bimbisara show him speaking in a language which those involved in government could understand. Pasenadi, for instance, comes through as a man torn between his duties as king, involving some degree of ruthlessness, and his concern for spiritual things. At one moment, he is seen preparing a sacrifice in which many animals are to be slaughtered and menials beaten and, at another, speaking seriously with the Buddha about the dangers of wealth, power and evil conduct.  What is significant is the level of knowledge shown by the Buddha about the pressures on a king such as Pasenadi. His use of similes and illustrations, for instance, appeals to Pasenadi's experience, including the central concern of all rulers at that time -- defense against aggression. At one point Pasenadi asks about the value of gifts and to whom a gift should be given for the gift to bear much fruit. The Buddha replies:
"A gift bears much fruit if given to a virtuous person, not to a vicious person. As to that, sire, I also will ask you a question. Answer it as you think fit. What think you, sire? Suppose that you were at war, and that the contending armies were being mustered. And there were to arrive a noble youth, untrained, unskilled, unpracticed, undrilled, timid, trembling, affrighted, one who would run away -- would you keep that man? Would such a man be any good to you?" 
The Buddha thus uses similes from Pasenadi's military world to indicate that virtue does not depend on birth but on qualities of character. In fact, in a number of texts, illustrations drawn from the context of the state, defense and martial arts can be found. Not only does the Buddha make use of military metaphors, but the texts show that he had extensive knowledge of the strategies of war, punishment and political patronage. The Mahadukkhakkhandha Sutta, for instance, uses graphic description to show that war and conflict spring from sensual desires:
"And again, monks, when sense pleasures are the cause ... having taken sword and shield, having girded on bow and quiver, both sides mass for battle and arrows are hurled and knives are hurled and swords are flashing. Those who wound with arrows and wound with knives and decapitate with their swords, these suffer dying then and pain like unto dying....
And again, monks, when sense pleasures are the cause ... having taken sword and shield, having girded on bow and quiver, they leap on to the newly daubed ramparts, and arrows are hurled and knives are hurled and swords are flashing. Those who wound with arrows and wound with knives and pour boiling cow-dung over them and crush them with the portcullis and decapitate them with their swords, these suffer dying then and pain like unto dying." 
In the next part of the sutta, a variety of horrific punishments are described and a keen awareness of their nature is seen:
"Kings, having arrested such a one, deal out various punishments: they lash him with whips and they lash him with canes and they lash him with rods, and they cut off his hand ... his foot ... his hand and foot ... his ear ... and they give him the "gruel-pot" punishment ... the "shell-tonsure" punishment ... "Rahu's mouth" ... the "fire-garland" ... the "flaming hand" ... etc."
In another sermon handed down to us, two men are pointed out while the Buddha is talking to a headman, Pataliya. One of them is garlanded and well-groomed; the other is tightly bound, about to lose his head. We are told that the same deed has been committed by both. The difference is that the former has killed the foe of the king and has been rewarded for it, whilst the latter was the king's enemy.  Hence it is stressed that the laws of the state are not impartial: they can mete out punishment or patronage according to the wish of the king and his cravings for revenge or security.
It cannot be argued that the Buddha was ignorant of the political realities of his day. He spurned frivolous talk about such things as affairs of state  but he was neither indifferent to them nor uninformed. On the contrary, his concern for the human predicament made him acutely aware of the potential for violence within the economic and political forces around him. The political milieu of rival republics and monarchies in northern India forms a backdrop to his teaching, whether the rivalries between the kingdoms of Kosala and Magadha or the struggles of the republics to maintain their traditions and their independence in the face of the rising monarchies. 
However, the violence attached to politics and statecraft forms one section only of the picture which emerges from the texts. Violence is detected in the brahminical sacrificial system, in the austerities practiced by some wanderers, and in the climate of philosophical dispute among the many sramana groupings as well as in the area of social discrimination and the economic order.
Religion, to take this first, is seen as a cause of physical, verbal and mental violence. The violence inflicted through sacrifices is described thus:
"Now at that time a great sacrifice was arranged to be held for the king, the Kosalan Pasenadi. Five hundred bulls, five hundred bullocks and as many heifers, goats and rams were led to the pillar to be sacrificed. And they that were slaves and menials and craftsmen, hectored about by blows and by fear, made the preparations with tearful faces weeping." 
In contrast, the sramana groupings within this period eschewed sacrifice. Denying the authority of the Vedas and a realm of gods to be manipulated, their emphasis was on renunciation, the gaining of insight and philosophical debate. Nevertheless, a form of violence was present. The austerities practiced by some of those who came to the Buddha were worse than any enemy might inflict as punishment. The Buddha himself confessed to having practiced them before his enlightenment. In the Mahasaccaka  and the Mahasihanada  Suttas there is vivid description of the excesses undertaken. Taken together, the two suttas cover the complete range of contemporary Indian practices, which included nakedness or the wearing of rags, tree-bark fiber, kusa grass, wood shavings or human hair; deprivation of food to the extent of existing on a single fruit or rice grain; self-mortification through lying on thorns or exposing the body to extremes of heat and cold; copying the habits of animals such as walking on all fours or eating similar food. It was the Buddha's view that such practices were a form of violence, although undertaken in the name of religion and truth-seeking. 
Undertaken also in the name of truth were verbal battles between different groups of wanderers. The Buddha's followers, in fact, were frequently at the receiving end of an aggressive campaign by other groups to ridicule their beliefs. The description of these incidents gives useful evidence of the prevailing atmosphere.  In the Udumbarika Sihanada Sutta, Nigrodha the Jain claims:
"Why, householder, if the Samana Gotama were to come into this assembly, with a single question only could we settle him; yea, methinks we could roll him over like an empty pot." 
In the Kassapa Sihanada Sutta, the Buddha speaks out:
"Now there are, Kassapa, certain recluses and brahmins who are clever, subtle, experienced in controversy, hair splitters, who go about, one would think, breaking into pieces by their wisdom the speculations of their adversaries." 
Violence of state and violence in the name of religion were two faces of the Buddha's society. Violence within the economic order was another. The sixth century B.C. in India witnessed urbanization and commercial growth. Savatthi, Saketa, Kosambhi, Benares, Rajagaha and Champa would have been some of the most important centers known to the Buddha, who spent much time in urban environments. As Trevor Ling argues in his study, The Buddha,  the growth of these cities spawned individualism and competition in response to changing economic patterns and social dislocation. The potentially violent tensions generated are reflected in the Buddha's teachings through such themes as the rightful gaining of wealth, the place of service and work,  correct duties towards employees, and the wise choosing of friends. For instance, a Samyutta Nikaya text contains a conversation between Rasiya the Headman and the Buddha. The Buddha speaks out against those who gain wealth by unlawful means, especially with violence.  Then, in the Sigalovada Sutta, the Buddha outlines rights and duties for the different social relationships in society.  An employer is advised to: assign work according to the strength of the employee; supply food and wages; tend workers in sickness; share with them unusual delicacies; grant them leave. The same sutta comments on friendship and says that four foes in the likeness of friends should be avoided: a rapacious person, a man of words not deeds, the flatterer and the fellow-waster.
The study of what the Early Buddhist texts say about violence must be seen against this background of political violence and social change. The empiricism of Early Buddhism also demands this -- the Buddha's appeal to what is observed in society as a basis for evaluating the truth of his teachings. 
The analysis of historical context calls into question whether any philosophy or thought system can have universal relevance. Since the human situation across the permutations of history is indeed subject to change, the issue is a valid one. Yet there is also a continuity in evolution such that parallels can be drawn between the forces at work in the sixth century B.C. and those operating in the latter part of the twentieth century. The sixth century B.C. is not identical to the twentieth but neither is it completely different. The teaching of Early Buddhism on violence, therefore, should not be used as if there were either identity or utter separateness. In each new context and historical period, there is a need for re-interpretation and re-evaluation. At this point, it is enough to stress that the texts reveal much about Indian society at the time of the Buddha and about the Buddha's own breadth of awareness. It cannot be argued that he had no knowledge of the violence within his own society or that his words were divorced from the tensions around him. On the contrary, their import drew urgency from contemporary observable reality.
The Buddha's Approach to Empirical Questions
Central to Buddhism's approach to the analysis of social phenomena is the doctrine of paticca samuppada or dependent origination, which can be expressed thus:
When this is, that is; this arising, that arises. When this is not, that is not; this ceasing, that ceases.
Imasmim sati idam hoti; imass' uppada idam uppajjati. Imasmim asati idam na hoti;imassa nirodha idamnirujjhati.
Events and tendencies within the material world are interpreted from the standpoint of causality. Phenomena are conditioned. Buddhism, therefore, calls for an analytical attitude in dealing with anything to do with human life, including the question of violence. 
One consequence which flows from this is that generalizations and statements based on categories of pure reason are suspect. Evidence can be drawn from the suttas to show that the Buddha insisted on making discriminations when presented with dogmatically held views. For instance, in the Subha Sutta, Subha comes out with the view that a householder is accomplishing the right path and one who has renounced is not. The Buddha replies: "On this point, brahmin youth, I discriminate, on this point I do not speak definitely." He stresses that both householder (gihin) and the one who has renounced (pabbajita) can be living wrongly; both can be living rightly. The deciding factor is not the label, but rightness of action, speech and thought. 
A similar approach can be seen in the Esukari Sutta where the Buddha speaks about service. In this case, the deciding factor as to whether a person should serve is whether the one who serves is better for the service in terms of such things as growing in moral habit and wisdom.  Then, when faced with the question of sacrifice by the brahmin Ujjaya, there is again discrimination according to condition. Not every sacrifice is blameworthy. Where living creatures are not killed or where the sacrifice is an offering for the welfare of the family, there is no blame: "No, brahmin, I do not praise every sacrifice. Yet, I would not withhold praise from every sacrifice."  The deciding factor here is the presence of suffering for animals.
Paticca samuppada opposes the human tendency to generalize and encourages analysis on the basis of empirical data and moral values applied to these.  It criticizes standpoints which use inappropriate categories through insufficient observation and dogmatic statements about right and wrong which do not take empirically observed facts into account.
To understand Early Buddhism's analysis of violence, this conditionality is important. When the Buddha speaks about the causes and the remedies of violence, his approach is dependent on the conditions prevalent in a particular situation. For instance, psychological factors are not emphasized when the Buddha is speaking to those in power about societal disruption; social and economic causes are stressed instead.  Yet, in other contexts, particularly when monks are addressed, it is the psychological factor which is given prominence.  In contrast again, with King Pasenadi, the Buddha does not condemn violence in defense of the realm but places it within the larger context of impermanence and death to encourage reflection. 
It is possible to hold together the above divergent emphases if we bear in mind the full implications of conditionality and the empiricism of Early Buddhism. We should not expect dogmatic, non-empirical generalizations. For instance, if craving (tanha) is to be posited as the root of much violence, it would not follow that every situation was conditioned by tanha in the same way or that the remedy in each situation would be identical. Likewise, it would not follow that what was incumbent on one type of person in one situation would be incumbent on all sections of society in all contexts.