Violence And Disruption In Society:
A Study Of The Early Buddhist Texts
3. The Roots Of Violence
The Attadanda Sutta of the Sutta Nipata is the voice of someone overcome by despair because of the violence he sees:
"Fear results from resorting to violence -- just look at how people quarrel and fight. But let me tell you now of the kind of dismay and terror that I have felt.
Seeing people struggling like fish, writhing in shallow water, with enmity against one another, I became afraid.
At one time, I had wanted to find some place where I could take shelter, but I never saw such a place. There is nothing in this world that is solid at base and not a part of it that is changeless.
I had seen them all trapped in mutual conflict and that is why I had felt so repelled. But then I noticed something buried deep in their hearts. It was -- I could just make it out -- a dart. "
The above is from a translation of the Sutta Nipata which attempts to preserve the spirit of the text rather than the letter. Here it is the spirit of dismay and fear leading to discovery which is of prime importance. The speaker detects a common root -- the dart of craving (tanha) and greed (lobha) -- a view directly in line with the Four Noble Truths. Violence arises because the right nourishment is present.
However, it has been pointed out earlier that differences may exist in the way in which tanha conditions situations of violence. On analysis, two broad and mutually interdependent areas emerge: (1) violence arising from an individual's maladjustment, and (2) craving and violence arising from unsatisfactory social and environmental conditions, caused by the craving of others.
The latter can be taken first with reference to the following texts: The Kutadanta Sutta; the Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta; and certain Anguttara Nikaya passages. The first weaves a myth within a myth. The inner myth tells the story of a king, King Wide-Realm, whose land is wracked with discontent and crime such that people are afraid to walk in the streets for fear of violence.
The king's solution is to hold a sacrifice for the nation and he goes to a holy man for advice. But the king is not given what he expects. The sage tells the king that fines, bonds and death for the wrongdoers would be self-defeating. Punishment is not the right path. On the contrary, it would increase the malady because the root causes remained untouched, in this instance, economic injustice and poverty. King Wide-Realm is advised to give food and seed corn to farmers, capital to traders and food to those in government service:
"But perchance his majesty might think: "I'll soon put a stop to these scoundrels' game by degradation and banishment and fines and bonds and death." But their license cannot be satisfactorily put a stop to so. The remnant left unpunished would still go on harassing the realm. Now there is one method to adopt to put a thorough end to this disorder. Whosoever there be in the king's realm who devote themselves to keeping cattle and the farm, to them let his majesty give food and seed corn. Whosoever there be in the king's realm who devote themselves to trade, to them let his majesty give capital. Whosoever there be in the king's realm who devote themselves to government service, to them let his majesty give wages and food. Then those men, following each his own business, will no longer harass the realm; the king's revenue will go up; the country will be quiet and at peace; and the populace pleased with one another and happy, dancing their children in their arms, will dwell with open doors." 
The above analysis recognizes that men and women can be pushed to violence if the prevailing conditions do not enable them to preserve their own lives without it. The instinct to survive is credited with enough strength to push people to struggle before they will sink into need. In such a situation, it follows that to press down the hand of the law will not be effective. In fact, it could encourage a growth in serious crime.
This is what happens in the Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta, another mythological story dealing with disruption in society. It has already been mentioned with reference to the duty of kingship. But there is one clause concerning his duty that has not yet been mentioned:
"Throughout your kingdom let no wrongdoing prevail. And whosoever in your kingdom is poor, to him let wealth be given." 
The kings of the story who keep to this are blessed with peace. Yet a king eventually arises who neglects the giving of wealth to the poor. He is soon faced with a situation beyond his control. Poverty becomes rampant and this leads to theft, since people would rather steal than die. When the king realizes the cause, he starts by being lenient on the wrongdoer, by giving him the means to live. Such kindness too late leads others to see the only way to survive is turning to theft and receiving a royal handout in return. The king has given charity, not justice, and crime increases leading to a return to brutal punishments. The brutality of the punishments encourages the people to be more extreme in their own crime as they try to survive. Punishment here fails to deter because of the desperation of the people.
The sutta presents a disturbing picture of how a society can fall into utter confusion because of a lack of economic justice. The extremes reached are far greater than anything envisaged in the Kutadanta Sutta and they stem from the state's blindness to the realities of poverty. Thus the sutta states in refrain after every deterioration:
"Thus from goods not being bestowed on the destitute, poverty ... stealing ... violence ... murder ... lying ... evil-speaking ... immorality grew rife.
Theft and killing lead to false speech, jealousy, adultery, incest and perverted lust until:
Among such humans, brethren, there will arise a sword-period (satthantarakappa) of seven days during which they will look on each other as wild beasts; sharp swords will appear ready to their hands, and they thinking, "This is a wild beast, this is a wild beast," will with their swords deprive each other of life." 
In the Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta, the nourishment of the violence is the state's neglect of the poor. The whole myth illustrates the principle of paticca samuppada. Each state of degeneration is dependent on the state before it. An evolutionary process is seen. An inevitability seems to emerge, an inevitable movement towards bestiality. It is significant that the sutta does not concentrate on the psychological state of the people. The obsessive cravings which overtake them are traced back to the failure of the state rather than to failings in their own adjustment to reality. The root is the defilement in the state -- the raga, dosa and moha in the king which afflict his perception of his duty.
An Anguttara Nikaya passage states this principle in simple and direct terms. If the king is righteous, his ministers will be righteous, the country will be righteous and the natural world will be a friend rather than an enemy. The opposite, of course, is also true and is placed first in the sutta:
"At such time, monks, as rulers are unrighteous (adhammika), their ministers are unrighteous, brahmins and householders are also unrighteous...."
The above passages show that a change of heart is needed where violence exists but this change is needed in those who wield power in society. When a state is corrupt, the citizens become victims of the state and their own wish to survive and they are then led to actions they would never consider if they were free from want. There is an understanding that, besides those who do evil, there exists a category of people to whom wrong is done and whose reactions are conditioned by the original wrongdoing.
To pass now to the psychological roots of violence, another myth can be cited, the Agganna Sutta. Like the Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta, it describes an evolutionary process which takes on its own momentum. The root of the process is significant -- the craving of beings. The sutta explains, in myth form, the process by which undifferentiated beings come to earth from a World of Radiance to eat the earth's savory crust, to the point where there is private property and the division of labor. One of its purposes is to challenge the static, non-evolutionary theory of a divinely ordained caste system but it is significant also because evolution is guided by the growth of craving and individualism. The whole sutta turns on the individual and his craving as the root of violence. It depicts a situation before state power is established. Craving first enters when the beings taste the crust of the earth:
"Then, Vasettha, some being of greedy disposition said, "Lo now, what will this be?" and tasted the savory earth with his finger. He thus, tasting, became suffused with the savor, and craving (tanha) entered into him. "
The craving develops. The natural world evolves to accommodate the beings, becoming ever less easy to manage. The bodies of the beings become gross and individually differentiated into male and female, comely and unlovely. Jealousy and competition enter. The savory crust disappears. Vegetables and plant life evolve. An important point is reached when the beings establish boundaries around their individually owned rice plots. Individualism is therefore institutionally consolidated and the consequence is violence:
"Now some being, Vasettha, of greedy disposition, watching over his plot, stole another plot and made use of it. They took him and, holding him fast, said, "Truly, good being, you have done evil in that, while watching your own plot, you have stolen another plot and made use of it. See, good being, that you do no such thing again." "Aye, sirs," he replied. And a second time he did so. And yet a third. And again they took him and admonished him. Some smote him with the hand, some with clods, some with sticks. With such a beginning, Vasettha, did stealing appear and censure and lying and punishment became known." 
The sutta illustrates that tanha coupled with individualism nourishes violence and conditions the necessity for state power to curb excesses. As such, its teaching is directly in the mainstream of Buddhist thought: craving and grasping lie at the root of negative and unwholesome states in society. However, more needs to be said about the causes and consequences of individualism.
The term "puthujjana" is used to describe the ordinary, average person:
"Herein, monks, an uninstructed ordinary person, taking no account of the pure ones (ariyanam), unskilled in the Dhamma of the pure ones, untrained in the Dhamma of the pure ones, taking no account of the true men, unskilled in the Dhamma of the true men, untrained in the Dhamma of the true men, does not comprehend the things that should be wisely attended to, does not comprehend the things that should not be wisely attended to. "
The term "puthu" has two main meanings: "several, many, numerous," on one hand, and "separate, individual," on the other. The usual definition of puthujjana is "one of the many folk," linking it with the first of the above-mentioned meanings. However, a case can be made for the second meaning also. In this analysis, the puthujjana is one who believes himself to be separate from the rest of humankind; one who believes he has a self to be protected, promoted and pampered. It is this assumption which leads to so much that is disruptive in society.
Violent tendencies link, at this point, with the defilement of moha (delusion):
"delusion in terms of a misunderstanding of anicca and anatta. The latter states that there is no abiding, unchanging substance within the human being. Men and women are verbs rather than nouns, causal processes rather than unchanging souls. Buddhism does not deny that there is a person, but it reformulates the definition of what constitutes a person to embrace continuity rather than static entity. As the sound of the lute cannot be found within the lute as it is taken apart, so the "I am" cannot be found in the human personality when it is dissected into the five khandhas." 
Much anger and violence stem from the felt need to defend what is seen to be one's own or to grasp personal gain. It is a need which sees the gain of others as a threat to personal power and the rights of others as an attack on personal prestige. This is none other than the fault of the puthujjana, a failure to see the truth of anatta and the interdependence of all phenomena. It is this failure which leads to the self becoming the touchstone and measuring rule for every perception and judgment. It is the failure which leads to the urge to be violent in defense of needs and seeming rights. The Agganna Sutta shows this ego illusion manifesting itself in the form of competitive individualism. That the ego illusion and tanha feed on one another is a theme found in many texts:
"Monks, I will teach you the craving that ensnares, that floats along, that is far flung, that clings to one, by which this world is smothered, enveloped, tangled like a ball of thread, covered as with blight, twisted up like a grass rope, so that it does not pass beyond the Constant Round, the Downfall, the Way of Woe, the Ruin....
Monks, when there is the thought: "I am" -- there come to be the thoughts: "I am in this world; I am thus; I am otherwise; I am not eternal; I am eternal; Should I be? Should I be in this world? Should I be thus? Should I be otherwise? May I become. May I become in this world. May I become thus. May I become otherwise. I shall become. I shall become otherwise." These are the eighteen thoughts which are haunted by craving (tanhavicaritani) concerning the inner self (ajjhattikassa)." 
One result of this interdependent feeding, the Buddhist texts assert, is disruption in society.
Another important area of study is the mechanism through which the "I" notion helps to generate unwholesome states. Buddhism sees a danger in the view of some schools of psychology that there is a creative use of the concept of self. In this respect, the Pali term "papanca," commonly translated as proliferation, is important. The Madhupindika Sutta declares papanca to be the root of taking up weapons, and the defeat of papanca is the way to end such violence:
"This is itself an end to the propensity to ignorance, this is itself an end of taking a weapon, of quarreling, contending, disputing, accusation, slander, lying speech." 
As the previous analysis in this paper points out, discrimination is central to the Buddhist approach and therefore generalizations such as the above need to be studied carefully. There is no doubt, however, that papanca is central to a Buddhist psychology of violence and to an understanding of the danger in the "I am" notion.
A study by Bhikkhu Nanananda, Concept and Reality, gives extensive coverage to the term "papanca". He puts forward the view that it is linked with the final stage of sense cognition and that it signifies a "a spreading out, a proliferation" in the realm of concepts, a tendency for the conceptual process to run riot and obscure the true reality of things. He makes much use of the above-quoted Madhupindika Sutta and quotes the following:
"Visual consciousness, brethren, arises because of eye and visible forms; the meeting of the three is sensory impingement; because of sensory impingement arises feeling (vedana); what one feels, one perceives (sanjanati); what one perceives, one reasons about (vitakketi); what one reasons about, one turns into papanca (papanceti); what one turns into papanca, due to that papanca-sanna-sankha assail him in regard to visible forms cognizable by the eye belonging to the past, the future and the present." 
The same is said of the other senses.
Nanananda points out that a grammatical analysis of the above reveals that the process of perception involves deliberate activity up until papanceti. After this, deliberation vanishes. The subject becomes the object. The person who reasons conceptually becomes the victim of his own perceptions and thought constructions. So Nanananda writes:
"Like the legendary resurrected tiger which devoured the magician who restored it to life out of its skeletal bones, the concepts and linguistic conventions overwhelm the worldling who evolved them. At the final and crucial stage of sense-perception, the concepts are, as it were, invested with an objective character." 
His analysis is of immense significance to the study of how certain negative and destructive tendencies can grow in society; how objective perception and reason can seem to fade before the force of what might be irrational and obsessive. He roots the cause in the nature of language in the minds of persons governed by tanha, mana and ditthi -- craving, conceit (the tendency to measure oneself against others), and views -- which in themselves flow from ego-consciousness. Papanca, according to this analysis, manifests itself through tanha, mana and ditthi. It underlies each of these qualities and breeds conflict in society.
To look at the process in more detail: The conventions of language enter near the beginning of the process of sense perception, at the point where feeling gives rise to mental activity and concepts. The mind, if unchecked, will attempt to place order on its feelings through language. This language immediately introduces the duality of subject and object, subject and feeling. The "I" enters with "I feel aversion" or "I feel attraction" or "I like this" or" I don't like this." This emphasis on the "I" is predetermined by the very nature of language and reinforces the strength of the feeling and the tendency for the person to identify completely with what is felt. What seems to happen after that is that language takes on a dynamism of its own. Concepts proliferate and leave the empirical behind, under the driving force of tanha, mana and ditthi. For instance, the observation, "I feel aversion" might lead to further thoughts such as:
"I am right to feel aversion.... Therefore, the object is inherently worthy of aversion.... So, the object must threaten me and others.... Therefore the objects must be got rid of.... I cannot survive unless the object is annihilated from my sphere of vision and feeling.... It is my duty to annihilate this for my sake and the sake of others."
Thus the entrance of "I" leads to the urge to protect the wishes of the ego and what is ego-based becomes a seemingly rational decision about duty. The above is a purely hypothetical progression, yet it is not an implausible one. It illustrates the way in which thought progresses further and further away from what is empirically observed. Speculation enters as the mind attempts to reason. Eventually, as the thought process develops further, what might appear to be reason cloaks obsession which, in turn, can make the person a victim of the apparent logic of language.
Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason  seems to adopt a similar point of view. He challenged the view that speculative metaphysics using the categories of pure reason could extend our knowledge of reality. He attacked particularly those theologians who believed that the existence of God could be proved through logic alone. There was, he claimed, an irresistible impulse of the mind towards seeking unification and synthesis which led to the illegitimate use of language. It is this which is particularly relevant to this study. For instance, he posited that the mind assumed an unconditional personal ego just because all representations were unified by the "I think" construction. It also assumed a concept of God because of the drive to find an unconditioned unity. Such concepts, Kant felt, arose through the impulse of the mind and passed beyond the legitimate purview of language. It passed beyond the perceptions which could add knowledge and were not based on truly empirical data. Therefore, they could not give statements with any factual reality.
Kant grasped that there was an irresistible impulse which led to concepts taking on an unwarranted life of their own. Buddhism says that these concepts can generate obsessions, victimize the person who believes he or she is thinking logically, and lead to disruption in society. What is lost in the process is the ability to see objectively and value the empirical through senses unclouded by craving, conceit and views, or by greed, hatred and delusion.
Papanca, fed and generated by tanha, is therefore central to the theme of violence in the thoughts and actions of human beings. Buddhism suggests that the human person can become the victim of obsessive actions, thoughts and inclinations. It holds that the drift towards violence within one person or within society, especially if a communal or cultural obsession has arisen, may become an inevitable causal process unless the inner mechanism is discovered. Related to this is the danger and motivating force of dogmatic and speculative views as one of the roots of violence -- the ditthi, connected in the above analysis with papanca. In his advice to the Kalamas and to Bhaddiya, the Buddha said:
"Be not mislead by report or tradition or hearsay. Be not misled by proficiency in the Collections, nor by mere logic or inference, nor after considering reasons, nor after reflection on or approval of some theory, nor because it fits becoming, nor by the thought: the recluse is revered by us." 
Here, logic and inference are deemed to be as dangerous as what is passed on by doubtful report and tradition. The same approach is seen in the Brahmajala Sutta  where a number of mistaken views, according to Buddhist analysis, are discussed. Tanha is seen as the root of these but logic and inference are also mentioned.
In the following, the question of conflict in relation to dogmatic views is more clearly expressed. The Buddha points out the danger of saying, "This is indeed the truth, all else is falsehood" (idam-eva saccam, mogham-annam). For dispute is the result and:
"If there is dispute, there is contention; if there is contention, there is trouble; if there is trouble there is vexation." 
Adhering dogmatically to views is a form of papanca, a particularly dangerous form. Several suttas in the Sutta Nipata take up this theme: the Pasura Sutta and the Kalahavivada Sutta,  for instance. The former speaks of the person who goes forth roaring, looking for a rival to contest with, filled with pride and arrogance over his theories. A battle-like situation is implied, an attitude closely allied to that which actually results in warfare and armed struggle. Contemporary struggles in the world give ample evidence to prove that war and struggle are caused by the conflict of ideas, ideologies and concepts. They show how powerful and charismatic a force ideas can be. Whether it is nationalism, ethnicity or religion, groups can be pushed towards violence in defense of them. Buddhist analysis points out that some ideologies which might appear logical could, in fact, be the fruit of papanca. Adherents may be convinced of their truth but they might have progressed far from analysis based on empirical data.
In the above analysis of the roots of violence, two broad areas have been studied: the external and the internal, the environmental and psychological. Yet the two are not separate. They interconnect and feed one another, just as external sense objects interconnect with the senses, giving rise to consciousness and psychological processes. If a people's environment is unhealthy, corrupt or unjust, the seeds are sown for violent resistance, through the growth of motivating ideologies which take on a life of their own as they grip the minds of those who are being oppressed. If the environment is excessively competitive, consumer-oriented and materialistic, tanha will quickly arise, develop and expand into obsessive patterns of greed, taking over and dominating the perception of people who find themselves victims of craving rather than masters of their own perceptual processes. The step to violence is then small. If other elements are present, such as a group without access to the wealth visible in others, discrimination against minorities or racism, then the drive towards violence will be more rapid.