War Magic and Just War in Indian Tantric Buddhismby Iain Sinclair

Social Analysis


Arts and Humanities (all) / Sociology and Political Science / Anthropology / Cultural Studies


The Just War

W. Lillie

Just war theory

John H. Yoder

An Introduction to Tantric Buddhism.

Kenneth Ch'en, S. B. Dasgupta

American Indians in World War I: At Home and at War

Kenneth R. Philp, Thomas A. Britten


Social Analysis, Volume 58, Issue 1, Spring 2014, 149–166 © Berghahn Journals doi:10.3167/sa.2014.580108 • ISSN 0155-977X (Print) • ISSN 1558-5727 (Online)

War Magic and Just War in indian tantric BuddhisM

Iain Sinclair

Abstract: Warfare was widespread in classical India. Although the Buddhists of India abhorred killing, they could not evade or ignore war altogether. From the seventh century to the thirteenth century, various types of war magic, together with justifications for their use, developed in tantric Buddhist communities. Defensive types of war magic adhered to pacifist ethics and aimed to avoid, halt, or disperse armies. Harmful war magic was applied in the context of the transcendent ethics of enlightenment. Even when warfare was fully incorporated into Buddhist soteriology, non-violence remained a paramount virtue, and the scope of a just war was very limited. The present survey of tantric sources shows that tantric Buddhist war magic emerged as a reaction to the inevitability of war and was applied in the hope of mitigating warfare’s excesses.

Keywords: Buddhism, just war, mantra, pacifism, tantra, Vajraya¯na, violence, warfare

Non-violence is by no means incidental to Buddhist identity. The regular observance of five precepts, beginning with the precept to avoid killing, is a prerequisite for belonging to any Buddhist community, either as a monk or as a layperson. This common constraint ought to preclude Buddhist involvement in warfare, as Lambert Schmithausen (1999: 45) points out in his seminal essay.

Nevertheless, precepts can be ignored and principles abandoned. The commitment of Buddhist practitioners and institutions to non-violent behavior is increasingly coming into question as reports of majority Buddhist nation-states using military force become more frequent. In the introduction to his co-edited volume, Buddhist Warfare, Michael Jerryson (2010: 3) agrees with the popular understanding that “[v]iolence is found in all religious traditions, and Buddhism is no exception.”

Nonetheless, because abstention from killing is so central to Buddhist identity,

Buddhist pacifism is not a ‘stereotype’ (Jenkins 2010); it is axiomatic. Instances 150 | Iain Sinclair of Buddhists waging war do not necessarily constitute what Jerryson (2010) calls ‘Buddhist warfare’, much less ‘violent Buddhism’ (Tikhonov and Brekke 2012), in the sense of doctrinally sanctioned activity. A common pattern or basis for acts of violence perpetrated by followers of disparate Buddhisms is indeed difficult to establish. The various sectarian and regional manifestations of Buddhism, such as East Asian Zen or Southeast Asian Therava¯da, employ different and in some cases wholly discordant scriptural corpuses. Some traditional teaching discussed in connection with Buddhism and war carries no weight outside a sectarian domain and can be controversial even among its own adherents (Jenkins 2010; Pandita 2011). Contemporary Buddhist discourses on ‘just war’ likewise tend to rest upon weak scriptural support. The Maha¯vam. sa, for instance, often cited to justify Sri Lanka’s Therava¯din Buddhist wars against Tamils, is an extracanonical tract of only parochial relevance (Bartholomeusz 2002: 53–64). When considering the connection between doctrine and violence, those elements that are shared across traditions and are most prominent in Buddhist life—the monastic and lay precepts against killing, in particular—cannot be casually ignored.

The abhorrence of killing is a pervasive enough theme in Buddhist teachings that

Buddhist involvement in war can never be routine or straightforward. It is doubtful that there is such thing as Buddhist warfare, if this means war waged in the name of a monolithic, universalist Buddhism and condoned by it unequivocally.

In order to minimize the problems of satisfactorily defining Buddhism, attention will be focused here on classical India, the uniquely authoritative wellspring of all Buddhist traditions. Buddhist India produced an abundance of war-related material, most of it conveyed in texts called tantras. These texts appeared and gained acceptance from the sixth to the twelfth centuries ce and were widely translated into Chinese, Tibetan, and other Asian languages. The teaching of the tantric ‘vehicle’, the Vajraya¯na, focuses on the gaining of worldly power and enlightenment through techniques such as ritual, the recitation of mantras, visualization, and yoga. Although the Vajraya¯na is rarely discussed in generalist treatments of Buddhism, it was anything but marginal in South Asia. Its doctrinal foundations are shared with the Maha¯ya¯na Buddhist mainstream (Dasgupta 1950: 1–41), and it competed prominently with other tantric religions, such as

S´aivism. Followers of tantric or ‘esoteric’ Buddhism were renowned for performing spectacular rites, often as a form of ‘war magic’ in order to protect the realm and support military campaigns. The fact that war was prevalent in the heyday of the Vajraya¯na is reflected in the emergence of new religious and ritual forms adapted to it (Davidson 2002: 64–68). Numerous tantric manuals deal with the performance of war magic, here understood as the invocation of supra-mundane power for military purposes. The hundreds of spells, prescriptions, and procedures that have survived to the present day eclipse the piecemeal non-tantric

Buddhist discourse on warfare. If we are to understand the ways in which Buddhists have confronted and conducted war, we must investigate the literature concerned most directly and fulsomely with violence—the tantric corpus. This is the task that I undertake in the present article.

The treatment of Buddhist war magic here is brief and selective, covering only a few key works. I have opted for examples—some of which are from

War Magic and Just War in Indian Tantric Buddhism | 151 sources that have not yet been studied or translated—that seem typical and that could form the basis of a typology. In order to expand the discourse on Buddhist principles and war, I also examine war-magical works that illuminate ethical concerns. The branch of war magic dealing with prognostication, divination, and so on will not be considered, as magical intelligence gathering techniques do not entail the breaking of Buddhist precepts. Nor will I focus on tales of war-magical players such as tantric gurus. Vivid though they may be, the historicity of these tales is often doubtful. Rather, I will draw upon widely disseminated works of tantric Buddhism extant in the original Sanskrit, supplemented with Indian material available in translation in the Chinese Tripit.aka (hereafter referred to as T, the Taisho¯ edition, Takakusu and Watanabe 1924–1932). This material will be discussed in approximately chronological order, with the earliest and less sophisticated works treated first.