Mahavamsa - story of the King and arahats giving advice to him

This is from a letter I replied to by a friend who was shocked that the arhats seemed to play down the war and resultant deaths to King Dutthagamani.
> Dear Robert,
*> *
> Thank you for giving a little more of the story of the King and his good deeds. I do not doubt that the King did many good things. I don’t question whether or not the King felt there was no other course than to go to war against the Tamils, causing such a large number of deaths. He seems to have been wracked by guilt and
> remorse because of it. What I was shocked by, was that the Arahants told him that he had not killed millions - only one and a half human beings … the remainder of the millions were mere unbelievers. Millions died in pain and terror, men women children, young, elderly - not worth worrying over? - they weren’t beings, just
> unbelievers?

Dear Christine,

The King was fighting in Sri lanka after the Tamil kings invaded from India and had almost taken over the country. These were battles between soldiers and so I think there would have been less loss of life of woman and children and elderly than we see in wars these days.

The duty of a King is grave and not to be envied. In one of the Jatakas the Buddha is born as a prince but remembers that his last life was 60,000 years being roasted in hell. And that was because in his prior life he was a King, (who no doubt had to fight and inflict punishment). So he refused to be King again. Still whenever I hear of a wise person taking difficult duty I am happy as I believe it is for the betterment of the society; otherwise only buffoons and ruffians will become presidents, generals, diplomats and police.

The Mahavamsa is not part of the Tipitaka but is a chronicle of Kings and the Sangha, and of immense value, I believe. The arahants knew that this king would do much for the Sangha and wanted to help him out of his depression (BTW I checked; this wasn’t on his deathbed as I thought). The abbreviated paragraph in the Mahavmasa may not do full justice to all the discussion they had with the King. But when you are
relating hundreds of years and a long line of kings we can perhaps forgive the author some occasional overzealous dialogue editing.

In the Dhammapada atthakattha there is the following story:


“Tambadathika served the king as an executioner of thieves for fifty-five years; he had just retired from that post. One day, after preparing rice gruel at his house, he went to the river for a bath; he had intended to take the specially prepared rice gruel on his return. As he was about to take the rice gruel, Thera Sariputta, who had just arisen from sustained absorption in Concentration (jhana samapatti), stood at his door for alms-food. Seeing the thera, Tambadathika thought to himself, “Throughout my life, I have been
executing thieves; now I should offer this food to the thera.” So, he invited Thera Sariputta to come in and respectfully offered the rice gruel. After the meal, the thera taught him the Dhamma, but Tambadathika
could not pay attention, because he was so agitated as he recollected his past life as an executioner. When the thera knew this, he decided to ask Tambadathika tactfully whether he killed the thieves because he wished to kill them or because he was ordered to do so. Tambadathika answered that he was ordered to kill them by the king and that he had no wish to kill. Then the thera asked, “If that is so, would you be guilty or not ?” Tambadathika then concluded that, as he was not responsible for the evil deeds, he was not guilty. He, therefore, calmed down, and requested the thera to continue his exposition.”

Perhaps if I had to put that into a sentence or two it might sound like I’m trying to say killing is no big deal. But if we know the purpose of Sariputta - to calm the Executioner, so he could listen to Dhamma - we will understand better.

It is said that giving even the washings of a teacup to some fish will bring great merit. And then giving to a normal human much more. But giving to someone who has just the beginning of faith in the Dhamma much more than that. Giving to someone who understands Dhamma and keeps the precepts much more again , giving to a sotapanna much much more and so on. Likewise it is much worse to kill a sotapanna (from the point of view of the kammic results) than to kill a normal human being. Worse to kill a person of average morality than a bad man. That is not to say that any killing is without result - simply that the texts say that there are variations in kammic result. And I think this is what the arahants were stressing to the King.

They (and he) knew that the Kamma was bad but dwelling on evil done in the past can make matters worse. Best to encourage the person to do good deeds now and in the future. And the King, after that discussion, seemed almost superhuman in the energy he put into the projects for the benefit of the Ti-ratana, Triple gem.

When I’m in Thailand I have had a few times someone confide in me some illdeed that is bothering them and I always say words to the effect of “Don’t worry, that’s all in the past, Now you are a man (or woman ) of faith and the results of that are incomparable and wonderful.” And I mean it.

About the war the King said “Not for the joy of sovereignty is this toil of mine[the war], my striving (has been) ever to establish the doctrine of the Sambuddha

He listened to his mother(like a good buddhist son):

The king Dutthagamani also took counsel with his mother and by her counsel formed thirty-two bodies of troops. In these the king placed parasol-bearers and figures of a king;’ the monarch himself took his place in the innermost body of troops


It is a simile and a wise tactic

  • to make the king’s mind healthy at the death bead, who has done a lot to the Buddhasasana
  • by showing the comparative value of a Buddhist and a Non-Buddhist

Somewhat similar to the act of Venerable Sariputta in Tambadathika Vatthu, Dhammapada atthakattha.

And not to be taken as a racist remark, since they are Arahants.

Actually the shocking is needed, if one has not yet known the value of a Buddhist over a Non-Buddhist.

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The chapter can be read, for example here

In particular

Sitting then on the terrace of the royal palace, adorned, lighted with fragrant lamps and filled with many a perfume, magnificent with nymphs in the guise of dancing-girls, while he rested on his soft and fair couch, covered with costly draperies, he, looking back upon his glorious victory, great though it was, knew no joy, remembering that thereby was wrought the destruction of millions (of beings).

When the arahants in Piyangudipa knew his thought they sent eight arahants to comfort the king. And they, coming in the middle watch of the night, alighted at the palace-gate. Making known that they were come thither through the air they mounted to the terrace of the palace.

The great king greeted them, and when he had invited them to be seated and had done them reverence in many ways he asked the reason of their coming. `We are sent by the brotherhood at Piyangudipa to comfort thee, O lord of men.’

And thereon the king said again to them: `How shall there be any comfort for me, O venerable sirs, since by me was caused the slaughter of a great host numbering millions?’

`From this deed arises no hindrance in thy way to heaven. Only one and a half human beings have been slain here by thee, O lord of men. The one had come unto the (three) refuges, the other had taken on himself the five precepts Unbelievers and men of evil life were the rest, not more to be esteemed than beasts. But as for thee, thou wilt bring glory to the doctrine of the Buddha in manifold ways; therefore cast away care from thy heart, O ruler of men!’

I think this should just be regarded as historical text and not Dhamma because there are a lot of nonsense (from the viewpoint of Buddhism), e.g. taking 500 bhikkhus to war, bringing “glory” to the doctrine via war.

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Obviously it is not the Atthakatha and a historical text. But we should not be in a hurry to conclude that it doesn’t include Dhamma. Because there are evidences that ancient Sinhala Atthakata was referred by the Authors of Mahavamsa.

It takes a long time studying to get to know what Buddhism really is. Hurrying to jufge a valuable historical record merely by “a group of selected and hard to understand (to ordinary readers) statements that lead to different interpretations”, would not be beneficial for the learners of Dhamma at the beginning. We have to ensure if there are different explanations regarding those statements mentioned.

Generally, it is believed that the King took monks with him for the purpose of offering Dana to accumulate merits.

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WHEN the king Dutthagámani had provided for his people and had had a relic put into his spear he marched, with chariots, troops and beasts for riders, to Tissamaháráma, and when he had shown favour to the brotherhood he said: `I will go on to the land on the further side of the river to bring glory to the doctrine. Give us, that we may treat them with honour, bhikkhus who shall go on with us, since the sight of bhikkhus is blessing and protection for us.’ As a penance the brotherhood allowed him five hundred ascetics; taking this company of bhikkhus with him the king marched forth, and when he had caused the read in Malaya leading hither to be made ready he mounted the elephant Kandula and, surrounded by his warriors, he took the field with a mighty host.

This is just a statement that was spoken by the King to his brother.

he said: `I will go on to the land on the further side of the river to bring glory to the doctrine.

And after he won the war, we know, he upheld the Sasana. It can obviously be considered as bringing glory to the doctrine.

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yes, this is a frequent point of conflict for some modern authors. Specially when they see how these episodes are a frequent talk to the military people in Buddhist countries.

No doubt the sense of the talk was to be useful for the progress of the executioner. However, it doesn’t mean the words are false.

Beyond what today can be considered politically right, it is a truth that the real evolution of the human beings only can be measured in moral terms. Not biological, technological or whatever other aspect. Only the moral evolution is what can explain and guarantee the evolutive success in both the individual and collective ambits. Also for the whole civilization. Just anyone can check how all the atrocities we see in the world, all arise because a lack of moral.

The label of half-humans or sub-humans applied to human beings lacking of enough morality can sounds wrong to our ears. However, it is fully right in the true sense of the real evolution of human beings. And these labels are a logical measure when some humans don’t respect the higher sources of morality like the Dhamma. Of course, this is not something exclusive of the Buddhist religion. As you wrote, it is a worse crime and kamma the attacks or killing of beings with higher morality of whatever religion or belief.

of course any Buddhist should promote the non-violence until the last existing resort. However, at least I understand it could be a wrong view allowing the destruction of Dhamma to avoid a war. Because there is a risky slavery to the appearences in that position.

In such situation, probably some Buddhist people would avoid killing while others no. About those who not avoid killing in order to protect the Dhamma, disparaging about them wouldn’t be right; this would be a bad kamma.


Yes, it is the measure. That is the very reason for the Exalted One to be the most valuable one in all the Galaxies.

Everyone is equal is a view which is highly immoral and destructive.

In any kind of situation, Dhamma is the highest. It is wrong to betray Dhamma for the sake of any other purpose.

The Buddha has mentioned four ways of deriving answers. One of them is “Vibhajjavadi Byakarana (divided-answer)”. If we apply it here, we can say:

If one engage in war to protect the Sasana, he commits both “Kusala” + “Akusala”.

The Dakkhinavibhanga Sutta says, one would receive uncountable benefits, if he offer a Dana to a “Mere Buddhist”.
So we can infer what one would receive, if he offer knocks to Buddhists.


thanks for your words and the more exact quotations. The famous episode and the whole issue is not easily shared even in some Buddhists environments.Happy to read your words :slightly_smiling_face: :pray:


I appreciate the clarification which occurred in this thread, even beyond Robert’s original comments. I think the origin of this question and odd reference from a beginner came from the controversy surrounding Sitigu Sayadaw’s most controversial moments. (He is like the pope of Myanmar, but also an example by Westerners of how scholarship is useless and worthy of rejection). I and many others believe this sermon was done in very poor taste. From what I heard, many devotees split from the temple in Austin, TX after this occurred. One should be very careful when one walks the very thin line of controversy. It is easy to cross.

Here is one of many articles that were floating about during this troubled time:

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