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Ulrich Dehn {*}

Mere Peacefulness?

About the Potential for Violence in Hinduism and Buddhism


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 8/2012, P. 408-412
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In recent years, the alleged violence potential of the monotheistic world religions has repeatedly been discussed - and thus insinuated that the Asian religions are inherently more peaceable. How must this assertion be assessed against the background of past and present, but also in the light of the relevant scriptures?


It meant a reversal of stereotypes when on 6 December 1992 a crowd of about 100.000 Hindus marched to the Babri Mosque in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya and destroyed it. They had been assembled by the Hindu fundamentalist Rashtriya organizations Svayamsevak Sangh, Vishva Hindu Parishad and Bharatiya Janata Party. The ensuing riots were the death of hundreds of people.

The campaign had a long history and was based on the assertion that this was the place where, according to mythology, the popular Hindu god Rama was born 900.000 years ago. Already before the construction of the mosque by the Mughal Babur a Rama temple had been there, which had been destroyed by the Muslims. The latter is not verifiable archaeologically. The authorities, too, advocated the matter of the Hindu fundamentalists: They put the makeshift temple in honor of Rama and his wife Sita under police protection and prevented the rebuilding of a mosque by a court decision.

The conflict scenarios reflected here have not exclusively religious reasons but also socio-economic backgrounds: They rekindle very old resentments against the Muslim population of India and the demand for reparation for abuses under (Muslim) Mughal rule.

In 1984, in the northwest of India, the conflict culminated between Hindus and militant Sikhs, a religious community in the Indian state of Punjab with its central shrine Golden Temple in the city of Amritsar. On June 5, 1984, the Indian army stormed the Golden Temple (Operation Bluestar), because the leader of the radical wing of the Sikhs, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was hiding there, and caused a bloodbath. This action was the death of the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi: a few months later, on 31 October 1984, she was killed by two of her bodyguards who were Sikhs. This action, too, had not only religious components but also political and economic backgrounds: radical Sikhs took a stand for a separate Sikh state. In comparison with the Hindus, they are on average a more prosperous population group.


Media Coverage Constructs the Perceived Realities

These are just two examples which show that the issue of peacefulness and violence of a religion can hardly be answered (only) from their writings, strictly speaking, it cannot be answered one-dimensionally.



Even the form of a religion that produced a legendary Mahatma Gandhi (to whom in his parents' house the Rama-piety had incidentally been handed over, which is also the background of many Hindu fundamentalists) can become violent, if the interaction with other power groups and the circumstances bring it about. However, it would not be legitimate and reasonable if a religious tradition, whose followers' acts of violence are due to specific historical reasons more often found in the media, is stigmatized for this reason as tending towards more violence than others.

An important text of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita, a part of the great epic Mahabharata, is appreciated even by proponents of non-violence (as e.g. Gandhi). But it also describes the conflict between ethics of conviction and caste ethics and leaves no doubt that it is the duty of the warrior Arjuna to go to war against his enemies and to kill. This has priority over his duty to protect life and preserve it.

For the public assessment of peacefulness or violence of religions there is also the fact that the media coverage constructs the perceived realities. Thus the destruction of the standing Buddha statues in the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan by the Taliban in March 2001 was reported worldwide by the media as an act of Islamic barbarism. Some years earlier, in 1998/99, in Japan the senseless destruction of a large and architecturally unique meeting house took place. It had been built by the Japanese lay Buddhist movement Soka Gakkai at the foot of Mount Fuji at Taisekiji, the center of the monks' organization Nichiren Shoshu.

Out of anger about the separation of the Soka Gakkai in November of 1991, the monastic order got destroyed the imposing building and erected in its place in 2002 a separate new temple building. This was largely unnoticed by the world public, especially since it did not fit into the image of a peaceful Buddhism. But it was not just "violence against property," which is found in the history of Buddhism. In particular, in the history of East Asian Mahayana Buddhism numerous examples of monastic armies are verifiable. They went into battle either by orders of a prince against a political opponent or against another monk army.


A Predominantly Pragmatic Attitude toward Violence and War in Buddhism

Theories on propensity to violence in religions focused mostly on the traditions of monotheistic religions: particularly since this seemed to suggest itself after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. Prior to that, the discussion about violence had been inspired by theses of Jan Assmann. He suggested that the change from polytheism to monotheism had not only introduced into history a sharp religious differentiation, but also the willingness to use violence to enforce monotheistic orthodoxy.

What does this mean for Buddhism? Besides the well-meaning cliché, that it was a peace-loving religion, Buddhism has, in fact, in addition to a succinct, categorical commandment not to destroy but to preserve life a predominantly pragmatic attitude towards the developments in politics, governmental use of violence and questions of war and peace. It provides a series of stories, and regulations in the writings of the Pali canon, the Mahayana sutras and other traditions how this had to look like.

Oliver Freiberger and Christoph Kleine have shown that in the speeches of the Buddha, it is generally recommended - if a choice is possible - to take a job where you needn't kill. But otherwise a pragmatic attitude is prevailing: It is accepted that livestock breeding farmers, hunters, butchers, soldiers and executioners exist. But at the same time, for example, the up to this day continuing stigmatization of professional groups, which were and are involved in the killing and processing of animals (butchers, tanners, leather goods industry, up to shoe dealers, etc.), comes often from Buddhism, as e.g. the traditional discrimination and ghettoization of the "Buraku" in Japan: here the refraining from killing has changed into violating the human rights of those who have to kill occupationally.

The relevant regulations were initially regarded as rules for the monastic life of monks and nuns.



Even killing people could be allowed under certain circumstances, as e.g. "tyrannicide" or generally the killing which has to prevent something much worse, and to save those who must be killed from accumulating bad karma. This can be described as "compassionate killing"; it is even imperative, not only permitted. However, it is - there are different statements in the written material about it - only permitted to bodhisattvas on higher (or lower) levels of development. The defense of Buddhism by force was possible and allowed. The killing of "infidels" is expressly praised by monks in an anecdote about the Sinhala king Dutthagamani from the second century: he killed numerous enemies under the protection of a Buddha relic. The mass killing of non-Buddhists would be compensated by the meritorious defense and dissemination of the Dharma, the Buddhist teachings.

It is known that in Japan since the 10th century local rulers deployed monastic armies, and hostile armies of monks fought against each other. After the annexation of Tibet by China, in the fifties Tibetan armed monks were fighting with the assistance of the CIA against Chinese troops. Only at the beginning of the seventies, the Dalai Lama followed a nonviolent course towards China. It then went down in history as the "actual Buddhist" way and was in 1989 awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize.


Taking into Account the Overall Dynamism of History and Societal Reality

There were also authors who - regardless of the armed clashes with Chinese troops - ascribed violent intentions to the Dalai Lama and his school of thought, the Tibetan Buddhism Gelug. With their book "The Shadow of the Dalai Lama" in 1999 the couple of authors under the pseudonym Victor and Victoria Trimondi provoked a controversy about Tibetan Buddhism and its supposedly violent, undemocratic and misogynistic aspects.

However, for its criticism of the Dalai Lama the book does not use historical events of violence and war; it works with a literal understanding of Buddhist scriptures, especially of the Kalachakra Tantra, the basic text of the Gelug Buddhism, and its apocalyptic scenarios. There the battle and conquest scenes are enriched with contemporary and medieval material. In a symbolic representation, they are intended to illustrate the spiritual and karmic forces during the Tantric practice. They are read by the authors as description of reality and political claims: forces hostile to the spiritual practice invade the civilized world. The latter gets assistance against them from the kingdom of Shambhala, and is able to repel them. Now a golden age begins; it is conducive to spiritual development.


Self-mutilations and Ritual Suicides

The Trimondis conclude a real political claim of the Tibetans from these passages of the Kalachakra Tantra: to achieve by magical-symbolic means a "Buddhocratic" world domination, even at the cost of violence and war. In addition, lines are drawn to fascism and the "esoteric Hitlerism". These lines are deepened by the Trimondis in another book ("Hitler, Buddha, Krishna," 2002) - with similarly low power of persuasion, as in the aforementioned book. In the mid-nineties, the instruction of the Dalai Lama to stop in his Gelug school the cultic worship of the protective deity Shugden resulted in the murder of some Gelug monks - probably by followers of Shugden worship.

A phenomenon throughout the Buddhist history is the violence perpetrated against oneself in the form of ritual self-mutilation and suicide. In contrast to adverse ethical arguments in the monotheistic religions, the Buddhist tradition knows different positions on this issue. One strand of the argument is in Mahayana Buddhism that the motivation for a deed has to be rated higher than the act itself. This is illustrated by the examplary story of the nascent Buddha: He offers his own flesh as urgently needed food for a tiger cub.

If it is on the one hand not allowed to shorten acute pain by suicide, then on the other hand, the state of consciousness can be the decisive factor for this assessment: If the person concerned enters into the highest state of consciousness in which he is able to think and act in perfect non-attachment, balance and clarity, he is allowed to commit suicide. An example from the Japanese Buddhism of the Pure Land illustrates this: The person concerned throws himself into the water. His mental state can be identified by the fact of whether the rope which is tied around his waist moves. If that is the case, this means that the consciousness is restless, and he is pulled up again by means of the rope. The examples are not uniform in the written material, especially not in the later East Asian Mahayana traditions.

Facets of violence in Buddhism, this is pointed out also by Michael von Brück, cannot be settled just by pointing to the difference between theory and "real" religion on the one hand, and its historical reality on the other hand; let alone, by dismissing the latter with regard to the former. On the contrary, the entire dynamism in history and social reality has to be taken into account, where religious communities and religious people exist and develop.



As part of this dynamism, there took place in historical conflict situations also fanciful actions which were not pre-recorded in the written tradition. In 1997, on the occasion of a major natural gas pipeline project of the governments of Thailand and Myanmar an action of Buddhist monks took place. It caused a worldwide sensation. The pipeline should range from the Yadana gas field in the Andaman Sea up to the Ratchaburi power plant in Thailand, across the jungle areas with rich animal and plant population and needed a clearing of 17 hectares.

The monks chose numerous trees in the relevant area for an "ordination" and thus declared them to be "holy". Consecration, blessing, and a saffron-colored robe were given to each tree which should be ordained. The monks put thus considerable pressure on the governments of both countries and achieved at least that first environmental opinions had to be obtained. Unfortunately, with the result that the project could nevertheless be carried out - on condition that ecological compensation measures are taken.

Since 1992 from Phnom Penh the Cambodian monk Maha Ghosananda (1929-2007) regularly performed peace marches, with the strict condition that they were characterized by non-violence, neutrality and the spirit of compassion. He had learned from the Japanese monk Fuji Nichidatsu the principles and methods of peace and nonviolence. Together with the Dalai Lama, the Thai social reformer and activist Sulak Sivaraksa and the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, he was until his death one of the patrons of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, which was founded in 1989.


Gandhi made the Peaceful Action Instruments of Hinduism to Myths

Hinduism has produced a figure such as "Mahatma" Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948). He has developed the ancient Indian principles of ahimsa, of non-harming into a comprehensive political technique, and at the same time combined with the claim to holding on to truth (satyagraha). The two most important aspects of Gandhi's strategy, the (legal) non-cooperation and the (illegal) civil disobedience were applied to mass campaigns which got worldwide attention - with the result that the peaceful action instruments of Hinduism and Gandhi became myths. But just the aspect of voluntary adoption and acceptance of suffering and pain claimed a high death toll in the course of these actions - due to occasional political miscalculations of Gandhi, as e.g. his "Salt March" (1930) against the British salt monopoly, and some actions in the villages ending in uncontrollable violence.


In Many Cases, Religious Violence is Embedded in Broader Contexts

Gandhi's ideas of an independent people's democracy had a determining influence on the Sri Lankan Buddhist movement Sarvodaya Shramadana. It works since 1958 in Sri Lankan villages in community work for the satisfaction of ten basic needs. However, in addition to the examples given above, Gandhi is an important example for the ambivalence of Hinduism. It cannot be regarded in its "substance" as a peaceful, tolerant religion which rejects violence. It rather acts under historical conditions and does not resist the temptation to use violence in the respective historical situation.

According to Hans-Martin Gutmann (Gewaltunterbrechung. Warum Religion Gewalt nicht hervorbringt, sondern bindet, Gütersloh 2009 [Interrupting Violence. Why Religious does not Produce but Bind Violence]), the moment of taking action unfolds its elements of suggestion and fascination of violence: inspite of prior ideological or religious inhibitions regarding violence they nevertheless generate violent behavior and turn out to be inherently dynamic. Normally, a stimulus is needed, a "spark" that kindles the fires of violence. But in a conflict situation there are nevertheless a number of influencing factors. Conversely, says Gutmann, religious mechanisms are conceivable. They interrupt the violence of the moment and cause that a different dimension just lights up within the kairos of fascinating violence: it binds und interrupts violence. The "potential for inflammability" may be less in a religion that does not directly manifest itself as a denominational religion but rather as a force that, with great heterogeneity, is influencing and forming culture.

Regardless of other factors, this means that Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as religions which are denominational oriented and marking their identity, are more likely as components to play a role in situations dominated by violence. That's why also Kippenberg ("Gewalt als Gottesdienst" [Violence as Divine Service]) brings in examples from the area of monotheistic religions. However, his theory can be applied to all religions. The key word of "Kairos", of violence generated in a certain moment, also means that the use of force needn't be always be understood as a means to an end but possibly as a performative act that has a meaning on its own.



In many cases, however, religious violence is embedded in broader contexts; it is a "product of courses of action" (Kippenberg 206). This applies also to the examples described at the beginning. Apart from religious, also numerous political, social and economic factors are involved in these courses of action. They influence and shape them - as it is illustrated very clearly by the Hindu-Muslim conflicts in many parts of India. For this reason, it can indeed make sense to deal also with violence-related or even violence-inciting texts in the writings of the religions and to detect possible intrinsic motivations in order to clarify religious motivations (see Georg Schmid in: Reinhard Hempelmann and Johannes Kandel [eds]: Religionen und Gewalt, Göttingen 2006). With it, however, only a small and often not even central part of a complex array of conditions is usually identified, and thus often given a rather a hermeneutically restricted view that hampers understanding.


Buddhism Unfolds the Greater Potentials for Peace

So what are the findings for Hinduism and Buddhism? According to our findings, religiously shaped processes of violence are embedded in historical, socio-cultural processes. They are influenced by many factors which have only indirectly to do with the respective religion. The scriptures, too, speak an ambivalent language - both Hinduism and Buddhism know texts that prevent or promote violence. But due to the given experience it would be shortsighted to attribute only historical contingency to processes which are shaped by religious violence - a contingency that had nothing to do with religious fundamentals and texts. Although you have to avoid here the trap of opposing the "ideal of religion" to the "abuse (of religion) by violent people."

The history of Buddhism reveals comprehensive potentials for peace and a large reservoir of non-violent fantasy. The history of Hinduism is too complex, and thus it is impossible to make a trend statement about it. Also the Bhagavad Gita, which is ambiguous with regard to this issue, represents only a part of Hindu tradition and piety. The ancient texts and epics of India, as e.g. the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, contain great stories, including numerous battle scenes and other violence scenarios, but also moments of peace and nonviolence. They cannot be connected to the current subject.

Beyond their diverse traditions, the potentials for peace of Buddhism and Hinduism, which have been rediscovered since the 19th century, need stakeholders who make them fruitful and assert them - against the appearances of political reality.



- Oliver Freiberger und Christoph Kleine: Buddhismus. Handbuch und kritische Einführung, Göttingen 2011
- Michael von Brück: Einführung in den Buddhismus, Frankfurt 2007
- Hans-Martin Gutmann: Gewaltunterbrechung. Warum Religion Gewalt nicht hervorbringt, sondern bindet, Gütersloh 2009
- Reinhard Hempelmann und Johannes Kandel (Hg.): Religionen und Gewalt, Göttingen 2006
- Hans. G. Kippenberg: Gewalt als Gottesdienst, München 2008
- Hans-Joachim Klimkeit: Der politische Hinduismus, Wiesbaden 1981
- Lambert Schmithausen: Gewalt und Gewaltlosigkeit im Buddhismus, Hamburg 2006
- John R. Hinnells und Richard King (Hg.): Religion and Violence in South Asia. Theory and Practice, London 2007
- Virendra Kumar Gupta: Ahimsa in India's destiny: A study of the ethico-spiritual ahimsa, its roots in ancient Indian history, and its role as a political weapon during the Gandhian era, Delhi 1992
- Manfred B. Steger: Gandhi's Dilemma. Nonviolent principles and nationalist power, New York 2000


    {*} Ulrich Dehn (born in 1954) is since 2006 professor of missiology, ecumenism and religious studies at the Faculty of Protestant Theology at the University of Hamburg. 1985 PhD. 1992 Habilitation in "History of Religion and Missiology" (Heidelberg). 1995-2006 in der Evangelischen Zentralstelle für Weltanschauungsfragen (EZW Berlin) Research consultant for non-Christian religions.


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