In a seminal speech delivered at the ICRC in 2003, Sri Lankabhimanya Ahangamage Tudor Ariyaratne, founder of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka, talks about Buddhist teachings in the light of conduct during war:

I am with you this evening at the request of Honourable Judge Weeramanthri who wanted me to make a short speech on the subject of Buddhism and Humanitarian Law. I confess that I am not a scholar in either Buddhism or International Humanitarian Law. In spite of that there was no way I could say no to Judge Weeramanthri because I hold him in great affection and deep respect as a great son of Sri Lanka, who has contributed to the world our indigenous knowledge in his chosen field more than any contemporary scholar or jurist. I know he too holds me with affection for the humanitarian work I have been doing to help people through the non-violent social transformation process we initiated through the Sarvodaya Movement. May be that is the reason why he wanted me to speak a few words knowing well that I do not have any proficiency or knowledge in international law. So I am solely depending on my upbringing in a Buddhist setting and cultural memories and traditions we inherited. I thought this audience consisted of students. But now I find that all of you are scholars. I normally avoid speaking to adults because it is very difficult to change their ways. However, I will do my best.

You may have heard that at Buddhist functions we always chant an invocation stanza:

Dukkappaththaca nidduka
Bhayapaththaca nibbhaya
Sokappaththca nissokha
Honthu sabbe pipanino

May those who suffer physically overcome physical suffering
May those who are in fear overcome fear
May all those who are suffering mentally overcome  that suffering
May I strive to make all sentient beings happy

You may notice that in Buddha’s teachings the wellbeing and happiness of all sentient beings are sought. In the Karniya Mettha Sutra, the discourse on loving kindness Buddha referred to all such beings starting from one celled species to the highest evolved such as human beings. No living being was left out. What is unique in Buddhism is the total rejection of violence and war and teaching the people a philosophy  based on non-violence to be practiced at all times. Long before the UN and other organizations developed humanitarian laws, 2600 years ago, the Buddha propounded what I may call a Declaration on Sanctity of All Sentient Life. This is the Karaniya Metta Sutra where not only human beings but also all sentient beings were elevated to a level of deserving compassion, equal respect and protection. Rather than going into imposing laws pertaining to war, He taught us the laws and modes of conduct applicable to life and society at all times.

I do not subscribe to the view that by nature, human beings are cruel and violent and therefore an all-powerful sovereign state must control and regulate their relationships in peace and war. I take the view that human beings from the time they evolved as a distinct species to date are motivated by their emotions to do good or evil. Positive or constructive emotions lead people to do good. Negative or destructive emotions lead people towards evil. Mind is the bridge that connects the head with the heart. The degree to which people’s minds evolved over centuries to comprehend and develop positive emotions through wisdom may have led to various customs and conventions regulating their conduct at times of conflicts and war. Today these have developed into a universally accepted system of laws we collectively call International Humanitarian Law.

If we inquire into the early stages of the development of the human species, all of us were hunter-gatherers. We persisted in this state most of the time we have existed. Since securing sufficient means of subsistence was the central problem, rules of conduct were essential to assure the survival of small groups of people. Rules of conduct were also essential for regulating the relationship between small groups of people. Generally, if the land was richly endowed with fresh game and wild foods, no material circumstance could provoke conflict. But if scarcity arose for any reason, the rules to assure cooperation or avoid conflict were sorely tested.

Eventually—probably under the pressure of greatly reduced herds of wild animals—human beings domesticated wild plants and animals. This led to three great divisions of labour: hunter-gatherer, farmer and herder. The first, and original group, based its survival on killing wild animals, which required ‘martial arts’ as well as mobility, the second group based its survival on establishing well-ordered patterns of sedentary life and the third group based its survival on establishing well-ordered patterns of nomadic or semi-nomadic life.

Each of these groups had a different relationship with land. The hunter-gatherer was inclined to take resources from any land, the farmer would try to establish life on a modest piece of land and the herder required much greater spaces than the farmer. In these three different methods for securing means of subsistence and survival, emerged three different views regarding rules which should regulate relations between people.

Farming was essentially non-violent, herding was only violent when turning stock into meat but hunting was violent by definition. Since hunters could use their tools against human beings as well as animals, the co-existence of these three groups depended upon evolving rules to regulate their human and property relationships. At this time we saw the emergence of the hateful idea that ‘might makes right’—an idea later developed by the greatest hunters of all, the empire builders.

In this context, we see the emergence of the Hindu tradition in South Asia. However, Buddha’s approach and teachings were unique. He discovered the Four Noble Truths and advocated the Noble Eight Fold Path as the only way to overcome suffering. He did not formulate any laws pertaining to violent conflicts. The only way to overcome hatred, He preached, was by cultivating non-hatred.  He wanted his followers to comprehend three universal conditions of impermanence, suffering and non-ego. By cultivating non-craving, non-hatred and wisdom he showed us that we could overcome all suffering.

On two occasions the Buddha intervened and prevented Sakyas and Koliyas from fighting over the waters of River Rohini. For the third time he did not intervene allowing Kamma Niyama, the Cosmic Law pertaining to cause and effect to take its own course. The other four Cosmic Laws Buddha pointed out are, Bija Niyama, biological laws, Uthu Niyama, physical laws, Citta Niyama, psychological laws and Dhamma Niyama, laws pertaining to all phenomena. In the case of wars all these five universal Cosmic Laws get violated and invariably more suffering will follow.

In Indian texts we read, for example, about tribal communities who resorted to seizing cattle from their enemy communities. Then there were bigger wars like those described in Maha Bharatha and Ramayana. When tribal communities slowly developed into self-governing village republics there developed a very broad based system for dispensation of justice as we read in the case of Vajjins and Lichchavis of ancient India. In the case of Maha Bharatha and Ramayana we see the existence of laws and customs that regulated the conduct of war. They even went to the extent of talking about righteous wars (Dharma Yuddha) and unrighteous wars (Adharma Yuddha). In addition to Maha Bharatha and Ramayana the Agni Purana and the Manu Smrti describe ethical concepts that emerged in ancient India in the conduct of wars.

In the third century BC for the first time, non-violence (Ahimsa), as taught by Buddha, emerged as an important principle pertaining to social organizations and relationships. There was no question of Dharmic or Adharmic war. War is war and violence. All wars and violence were rejected in Buddhist teachings. It was Emperor Ashoka after his victorious wars who completely abandoned the use of violence and war. To resort to non-violence at the height of his power and glory in war by Emperor Ashoka was the crowning example of the normative principle of Non-violence being translated into state policy.  Perhaps many opportunistic rules of warfare taught by Kautilya were completely rejected and negated by Ashoka with his upholding the principle of not using force in international relations. Of course today this principle is now enshrined in article 2 paragraph 4 of the UN charter.

In Sri Lanka, while Buddha’s teachings and Emperor Ashoka in general influenced our kings and people, we should not ignore the fact that whatever customs, conventions, moral principles, laws and rules pertaining to conflicts as found in Indian texts and philosophies from the Vedic period and Shastras would have certainly influenced our people. For example methods of warfare, weapons of war, treatment of civilians, the wounded, prisoners and even non-combatants in wars, protection of temples, cultural monuments, properties and agricultural lands, harvests, etc. had to be treated according to certain norms.

When we study Sinhala history as recorded in Mahawamsa and Chulawamsa and later Manu Nithi we come across a number of instances where the kings and nobles followed these laws. To prevent wars and bloodshed certain kings voluntarily abdicated and handed over the throne to the contender and retreated into the forest to lead a life of renunciation and spiritual development. A well-known case is King Sirisangabo. But the destructive emotions of his successor who doubted the sincerity of the king went on to see that the king was no longer alive by offering gifts to who brought his head.

There are a number of Jataka stories where the legitimate king who willingly gave away the kingdom to prevent war and violence was arrested and publicly executed. On one such occasion at the time of the execution, when the king saw his son in the crowd in disguise he advised him never to take revenge as hatred produced hatred. The prince in disguise elevated himself later to be the Commander of the King who killed his father. He got three opportunities to kill the King while he was sleeping on his lap while on a hunting expedition in the forest. But the advice of the dying father came to his mind and he spared the king. When the King woke up three times having seen the old King’s son in a dream trying to kill him, the prince confessed to him the third time that he was the son of the murdered king and also told the him that he would never kill him because of the advice of his father at the time of his execution that Violence begets Violence.  The king immediately handed over to the prince not only his own kingdom but also his other domains.

In the Ummagga Jatakaya how Pandith Mahaushada conducted the war on behalf of King Vedeha against King Chulani and won the war without any bloodshed is another example we come across in old texts.

When prince Tissa was hiding in a temple after fighting the brother Gamini, Gamini forgave him rather than punish him and asked him to come out and join him in fighting the invading king. Buddhist monks at the temple conducted themselves very intelligently to save the life of the prince and bring amity between the two brothers. To prevent more bloodshed King Dutugemunu called King Elara for a combat between the two of them and when the latter was defeated he treated the dead king with great respect. King Dutugemunu gave King Elara a royal funeral. He pardoned the late King Elara’s army and rehabilitated them. He got a tomb erected in the memory of this great South Indian Tamil King and he had certain rules enforced for the future generations to respect the tomb of Elara. This is the same manner in which Alexander the Great is said to have treated the last king he defeated, King Paurava. When Alexander defeated Paurava after a bitter battle and when the latter was brought to him as a prisoner he asked him how he would like Alexander to punish him.  Paurava’s reply was “Emperor, conduct yourself as a king.”  Alexander pardoned him and asked him to continue ruling his kingdom.

King Voharaka Tissa, Tissa the Lawgiver, in the Third Century A.D., set aside bodily injury as a punishment. In the Thirteenth century King Parakramabahu the second  abolished capital punishment. Certain Buddhist kings in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and Cambodia prohibited the killing of beasts and birds- Abhayadana. In Japan Buddhist Prince Shotuka, who formulated the constitution of Japan was said to have laid down principles of legal social justice in great reverence to Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha as ‘the final ideal of all living beings and the ultimate foundation of all nations’, according to Prof. K.N. Jayatillake.

There are many examples I can give about the conduct of our kings at times of war. What we have to remember is like in other countries there is a wide gap between the precept and practice in our history too. There were those who abided by those principles and others who grossly violated them. This action was the result of the emotional state of mind of the people concerned. The way in the 19th century British massacred innocents in India, Sri Lanka and other colonies cannot be forgotten. As recent as 1970s and late 1980s we witnessed in Sri Lanka gross violations of International Humanitarian Laws by the government forces, insurgents and Tamil armed groups.

The five precepts that the Buddhist has to follow had their origins long before the Buddha. The Buddha gave recognition to the validity of those universal precepts and asked us to abide by them at all times. The Paticcasamuppada Dharma, the Law of Dependent Origination very clearly explains the interdependence of all life. The central role played by Craving and how it is closely related to Hatred and Ignorance, He taught us. So, not only at time of conflicts of war but at all times if we abide by these ethical principles and comprehend the philosophy from which they originated that would help us  in the prevention of conflict as well as minimizing the after effects of a conflict and giving as much relief as possible  to all affected human beings.

When Sri Lanka experienced 1971 and 1989-91 insurgencies followed by a civil war with the Tamil militants most of the Humanitarian Laws were in place. But can we say the parties involved including the government adhered to these laws? We all know they were mostly led by very destructive emotions. Therefore, imposing and educating in humanitarian laws are not enough. What is necessary according to Buddhist Teachings is to awaken human personalities to the Dhamma and help them to follow a Dhammic path, the Noble Eight-fold Path, at all times.

May I end with the following quotation:


– Prof. Bapat in “2500 Years of Buddhism”