In his youth Siddhartha Gautama was a brawny, six-foot warrior prince, trained in the art of war—and perhaps touched by tragedy.
It is a curious fact of military history that the founders of three of the world’s four major religions were soldiers. The Torah tells of Moses, the founder of Judaism, whose tribal army plundered Egypt, who outmaneuvered the pharaoh’s army in a desert campaign, who created and trained the first Israelite national army at Sinai, who destroyed fortified cities in the Jordan Valley, and who left his successor, Joshua, a large, well-equipped and professionally led army with which to conquer Canaan.
In a single decade, Muhammad, the founder of Islam, fought eight major battles, led 18 raids and planned 38 military operations. He was wounded twice, and twice had his positions overrun before rallying his troops to victory. Muhammad was also a military theorist, strategic thinker, combat commander and revolutionary.
It will probably come as a surprise to many, however, that the founder of Buddhism was a soldier. Ancient accounts of Buddha’s early life describe a child born to a powerful Indian king named Suddhodana. It was prophesied that the boy, Siddhartha Gautama, would become either a great king or a great teacher. To prevent Gautama’s becoming a teacher, Suddhodana raised his son in great luxury, shielding him from human suffering. The day came when the young prince ventured beyond the palace grounds with his charioteer, and in these travels he happened upon an old man, a sick man and a corpse. Shocked by the realization that he, too, might suffer their fate, he resolved to become an ascetic and discover how to escape the cycle of perpetual rebirth Indians considered the central affliction of humanity. At 29, Siddhartha left his wife and infant son and began a life of wandering and contemplation that lasted until his death at 80. Centuries later monks recorded his teachings, which became Buddhism’s scriptures.
The facts of Buddha’s life are recorded in the ancient text known as the Pali Canon, a collection of early scriptural works and oral traditions regarding the life and teachings of Buddha. Pali was the official Indo-Aryan liturgical language of early Buddhism. Written in the 1st century AD, four centuries after Buddha’s death, the Pali Canon was the first attempt to gather the existing sources and determine the true record of Buddha’s life and teachings. Tradition maintains that the details of Buddha’s life in the canon are based on earlier texts, the Nikayas, written by a council of Buddhist monks assembled shortly after Buddha’s 483 BC death to create a reliable written record of his life and teachings. These early scriptural accounts of Buddha’s life and teaching are a mixture of historical fact and messianic fiction. Nonetheless, they all attest to Buddha’s Indo-Aryan heritage, warrior status and military training, royal lineage, marriage, abandonment of his family, six-year sojourn, enlightenment, attempted assassination and suspicious death.
Venetian explorer Marco Polo (1254–1324) encountered the traditional tale of Buddha’s life and teachings during his own travels, but written texts of the account did not reach the West until late in the 18th century. Though long accepted, the traditional account of Buddha’s early life is largely inaccurate and fails to consider the historical and sociological circumstances of the age in which Buddha lived. Images of Buddha are often misleading as well, as by the time accounts of his teachings reached the West in the 1700s, Buddhism had spread throughout Asia, and images of him had predictably taken on the racial and ethnic characteristics of the peoples of the region.
Indian portrayals often depict a dark-skinned Buddha, while those of other regions give him Asian features. In fact, Buddha was an Indo-Aryan, a Caucasian whose people had invaded and subjugated India for two millennia. Familiar Western portrayals of Buddha as doughy and overweight, an image intended to suggest his passive nature, are also misleading; the oldest texts describe him as at least six feet tall and of muscular build. One might obtain a more ethnically accurate picture of Buddha by looking at a modern-day Afghan: tall, muscular and white-skinned with dark hair and eyes—physical characteristics typical of the Indo-Aryan warriors from whom Siddhartha Gautama was descended.
The earliest known home of the Indo-Aryans lay in what is now Ukraine. A great migration of these peoples, probably provoked by overpopulation, began around 1800 BC, first south to Europe, then southeast into Anatolia and northern Iraq, and then farther east into the mountains of Iran and the valleys of modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. A fierce, warlike people, the Indo-Aryans introduced the horse and chariot to warfare. Wherever they conquered, their superior military technology and fighting ability allowed them to impose themselves as a warrior aristocracy upon local native peoples. From northwest India, the Indo-Aryans moved south along the Indus River, destroying the native civilization. Over the next millennia they conquered all of India, bringing the Ganges River plain and northeast Bengal under their control only a century or so before Buddha was born.
The Indo-Aryans regarded war as the most noble of callings, and all able-bodied males were trained in war from childhood. By the 7th century BC they had settled throughout India, imposing themselves upon a large population of indigenous agricultural peoples. To maintain their superior position, the Indo-Aryans forbade intermarriage with the dark-skinned native peoples and restricted their social mobility. Over time Indo-Aryan society aligned into four castes: brahmans (priests), kshatriya (warriors), vaishya (merchants and farmers) and sudra (serfs), the latter comprising primarily the conquered indigenous population.
By the 6th century BC the Indo-Aryan tribes had coalesced into organized states with large standing armies and governmental administrative systems. This was the age of the Mahajanapadas (“great realms”), 16 major states organized as monarchies, oligarchies and republics that frequently fought one another to establish regional empires. Two of these states, Kosala and Magadha, were the main rivals in Bengal during Buddha’s lifetime, and they fought frequent wars until the Magadha empire subjugated and absorbed Kosala. The major states also fought wars with the smaller republics, which often formed alliances to prevent their absorption by the larger states.
Siddhartha Gautama, known to history as the Buddha, or “the enlightened one,” was born in the Indo- Aryan Sakya republic, amid the Himalayan foothills north of the Ganges near the modern-day border between Nepal and the Indian province of Bengal. The Indo-Aryan republics of Buddha’s day were kingdoms (rashtra), each governed by an oligarchy of nobles led by a warrior chief. A rashtra comprised tribes, subtribes and villages. The nucleus of the tribe was the family (kula), with the oldest male as its head (kulapa). The Sakya social structure was closer to that of earlier Indo-Aryan tribes than to the more complex social organization of newly emerged Mahajanapanda states. The scriptures portray Buddha’s father as a mighty king living in great luxury, but he was in fact a warrior chief, or raja, a position that in Buddha’s day was hereditary.
Although the republics were small, they were not insignificant military powers. The texts record that the Sakyas comprised 160,000 families (the country was about the size of modern-day Belgium), and that seven defensive walls ringed their capital at Kapilavastu on the banks of the Rohini River (modern-day Kohana). Within those walls was a famous school of military archery. The Sakyas had to contend with the predations of not just Kosala and Magadha, each of which sought to control the Ganges River plain, but other surrounding hostile republics. War was an almost perpetual state.
According to the Indo-Aryan rule of primogeniture, Buddha, as the chief’s eldest son, was expected to succeed his father, and like all kshatriya men, he trained from a very young age to be a soldier. The term kshatriya means “noble warrior.” Buddha was taught the alphabet and numbers at age 3, and by 6 he’d entered the formal educational and military training program that lasted until age 16. The curriculum included courses in logic, politics and economics. Kshatriya also studied the ancient Vedic religious texts but were only required to memorize the first line of the Vedas. For more than a decade the young warrior pursued a rigorous curriculum of studies and military training that required proficiency in all the Indo-Aryan weapons of war, including the chariot, warhorse and elephant.
The weapons curriculum was called the dhanurveda (literally “bow knowledge”). Experienced warriors taught the kshatriya. Instruction was personalized, and students lived in the homes of their instructors for the duration of the course. Special tutors called sutas recited the Itihasas (“histories”)—the exploits of great warriors and battles of the past—to students at fixed times each day. The training emphasized discipline, hardship and endurance; Indo-Aryans believed that luxury weakened a warrior’s martial spirit.
In order to be consecrated a knight, a kshatriya was required to demonstrate his competence with weapons. One who passed this test participated in a formal coming-ofage ceremony in which he received the sacred thread, which he wore beneath his garments for life. He was also given the special uniform of the kshatriya, fashioned of dyed flax cloth and fastened by a munja grass girdle adorned with bits of iron. The consecrated warrior was now allowed to take part in battle and enjoy the privilege of rendering and receiving the military salute. He was also allowed to marry—although only within his caste.
According to the texts, Buddha completed this ceremony at age 16. His father then announced Buddha would become his heir apparent and, as such, was required to further demonstrate his martial prowess with the bow, sword, spear, lasso, iron dart, club, battle axe, thrown iron discus and trident. He would also have to prove his abilities in fencing, swimming, wrestling, hand-to-hand combat, horsemanship and archery from a moving chariot. The texts say Buddha passed readily and was named heir apparent, and that the nobles were satisfied he was capable of leading them in war. A short time later he married his cousin. Buddha was now a kshatriya.
Ancient legal texts are clear that a warrior was forbidden to give up the military life and take up a life of asceticism, as Buddha did some time after leaving his father’s court at age 29. Even then Buddha rode his warhorse, Kanthaka, and carried his broadsword, his hair still worn in the warrior’s topknot. The Samyutta scripture tells us, “For the kshatriya there is no other rule but to fight,” and the Adi Parva that “among men the highest duties are those performed by the kshatriya.” Even the Indo-Aryan gods were warrior gods, like Indra, who helped the warrior in battle, and Agni, the fire god, revered for means to destroy enemy strongholds. The weight of Indo-Aryan religious sanctions and social conditioning required warriors to fight. War was a fundamental function of the Indo-Aryan state, and waging it was the primary responsibility of the kshatriya.
The code of the kshatriya required the soldier to die gloriously in battle, for only then could he attain release (moksha) and enter paradise (svarga), freeing him from the cycle of rebirth and suffering. Cowardice was punishable by death. Senior officers who showed a lack of resolve were required to dress in women’s clothes until the public disgrace drove them to suicide. To live long enough to die in bed was a sin. After a battle, details would gather the dead and cremate them in a huge funeral pyre. Wives of the dead then climbed upon the pyre to be burnt with the corpses of their men. This custom (suttee) remained in practice in India into the 19th century, when the British put an end to it.
Against this background, key elements of the commonly accepted narrative of Buddha’s early life fall into question. First, the story that Buddha’s warrior chief father raised his son in luxury cannot be true. After all, the kshatriya regarded luxury as a sin. Had Buddha been raised in this manner, he could neither have become a warrior, nor have succeeded his father. Second, as the eldest son of an aristocratic kshatriya family and heir to an Indo-Aryan chief, Buddha must have been trained as a soldier, as were all Indo-Aryan males of his caste. Had he failed to meet the warrior standard, he would have been relegated to a life of obscurity. Third, during Buddha’s life frequent wars wracked what is now northeast India, and King Virudhaka of Kosala invaded Buddha’s native Sakya republic, massacring its entire population. No known accounts record Buddha’s activities from age 16, when he became a warrior knight, until he left home at 29, but it is almost certain he experienced war as a soldier in the Sakya army.
We are left to explain why Buddha abandoned his wife and child and left his father’s court to embrace the life of a wandering ascetic. The catalyst may have been some sort of traumatic event, perhaps his war experiences. The notion that this 29-year-old warrior was shocked by his first encounter with an old man, a sick man and a corpse is hardly credible, though it may contain a kernel of truth. Accounts of Buddha’s wanderings after he left home suggest a soldier with symptoms akin to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): The former warrior abandoned his wife, child and extended family (disruption of traditional social ties) and cut off his traditional topknot, a distinguishing mark of his caste (alienation). He forsook his uniform for the saffron robe worn by condemned criminals on their way to execution (identification with the damned). He wandered in a forest, sometimes with others, sometimes alone (aimlessness). He inflicted what the texts call “tortures” upon himself (selfdestructive behavior), going without food until he looked like a skeleton; one text says he grew so thin that his stomach touched his spine (anorexia). He remained silent for long periods, often falling into deep trances (disorientation) and suffered from disturbing dreams about battles with demons (night terrors). Buddha was homeless during this time and slept outdoors. After six years of this penitent existence, he encountered a young girl who brought him a bowl of milk and rice. Buddha then realized his life of selfinflicted suffering was not the way to achieve nirvana and relief from the birth-death-rebirth cycle. He renounced asceticism for what he called “the middle path,” left the forest and began a new life as a wandering teacher.
It may have been Buddha’s combat experiences that led him to renounce the warrior caste into which he had been born. The central ethical claim of the kshatriya was that he protected society at large, and his selfless service and glorious death in battle would ensure his entry into paradise. Buddha rejected this claim in the Samyutta when he admonished a soldier that death in battle did not bring the soldier salvation at all. Instead, Buddha asserted the soldier would be reborn as an animal or suffer the purgatory of yet another life, directly challenging the moral legitimacy of the warrior class. Along with his signature pacifism and rejection of war, Buddha discarded the very notion the warrior class possessed any moral legitimacy; just being a soldier violated many of the basic ethical principles of Buddhism.
Buddha’s public rejection of the moral legitimacy of the kshatriya in turn may have prompted the attempts on his life. The texts indicate that as Buddhism gained popularity, many soldiers joined the movement, posing a threat to both the fighting élan of the warrior class and the caste system itself, which Buddha also rejected. Sometime after 491 BC, assassins made several attempts to kill Buddha. The texts imply that Buddha’s cousin and second in command, Devadatta, conspired with King Ajatashatru of Magadha to carry out an assassination plot. If the popularity of Buddhism was indeed eroding the moral status and martial spirit of the warrior caste, then Ajatashatru, who came to the throne by murdering his father and was engaged in a protracted war at the time, may have had reason to neutralize Buddha.
As it was, Buddha died under circumstances that remain suspicious; indeed, murder cannot be ruled out. In 483 BC he visited the town of Kushingara and took to sleeping in a grove. A metalsmith named Chunda came to him and offered to feed him, which was not unusual, as monks routinely received food from people who offered it to gain merit. The texts tell us Buddha ate the meal at Chunda’s house, immediately fell violently ill and died. The suddenness with which he was stricken suggests the possibility of poisoning. It is interesting that the massacre of the Sakyas (circa 490 BC) seems to have occurred about the same time as the first failed attempts to assassinate the man we might rightly call Buddha, the warrior who transcended war.
For further reading Richard A. Gabriel recommends The Wonder That Was India, by A.L. Basham, and A Military History of Ancient India, by Maj. Gen. Gurcharn Singh Sandhu.
Originally published in the May 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.