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
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”