Kings, Thieves and Sages: The Buddha, Pasenadi, Aṅgulimāla and Aśoka

I have recently been considering the Majjhima Nikāya, the middle-length discourses of the Buddha, in connection to my exploration of the interactions between kings and sages across early Indian religious literature. The dialogues of the Majjhima Nikāya are overwhelmingly addressed to members of the saṅgha, which has led some commentators to conclude that, unlike the Dīgha Nikāya, or longer discourses of the Buddha, the text was intended largely for a monastic – Buddhist -audience. In this regard it is interesting then that the Majjhima Nikāya, while containing a range of dialogues between the Buddha, his disciples and both princes and kings, emphasizes one royal interlocutor in particular, King Pasenadi, who is involved in five of the nine suttas that feature royal discussants. I will restrict myself to comments on the first of his appearances today.

King Pasenadi’s first appearance in the Majjhima is a walk-on part in the celebrated story of the rehabilitation of the violent robber Aṅgulimāla (lit. ‘Garland of Fingers’). This story, which sees the Buddha, by means of a teaching underscored by a miracle, change a murderous dacoit into a monk is most often approached as a parable of the reformed sinner. Pasenadi’s role is minor, but significant, as it shifts the focus of the story from the individual to the community and expresses a certain ambivalence about the institution of kingship. The foundations for both this shift -and the ambivalence with regard to kingship- are laid early on in the tale: in the context of Aṅgulimāla’s conversion, kingship is implicitly equated with dacoitry by the Buddha by means of their common association with violence:

I, Añgulimāla, am standing still, having for all beings everywhere laid aside the stick, but you are unrestrained regarding creatures; therefore I am standing still, you are not standing still. [MJ 2.99]

The image of the Buddha, always ahead of Aṅgulimāla, but not moving in any fundamental sense, is a powerful one, but it is the association of the robber and the daṇḍa, or stick, that is significant from the perspective of royal prerogative: the daṇḍa is also the scepter in early Indian thought, and harm the currency of rule. This idea is reinforced when King Pasenadi arrives at the monastery of Anāthapiṇḍika, at which the Buddha is present, when he brings with him five hundred men on horseback. The Buddha’s first question to the king is consequently connected to foreign policy; he asks:

What is it sire? Is King Seniya Bimbisāra of Magadha angry with you, or the Licchavis of Vesālī, or some hostile king? [MJ 2.101]

That the Buddha asks this question suggests that he might be consulted on such matters. King Pasenadi states, however, that it is the domestic problem of the depredations of Aṅgulimāla that presently occupy him. The reformed bandit is presented to him and, after expressions of fear, amazement, he states:

Him, revered sir, that I was unable to tame with stick and sword, the Lord has tamed without stick or sword. Well, I am going now, revered sir. I am very busy. There is much to be done. [MJ 2.102]

The story of Aṅgulimāla thus emphasizes that the agency of the Buddha in the non-violent resolution of social problems and suggests that he is a logical and fit advisor to the king. It also associates the business of rule with the wielding of the daṇḍa, which was wielded also by the brigand, Aṅgulimāla. The king, like the dacoit, is ‘forever moving’. The concluding verse of the sutta, in which ‘Garland of Fingers’ reverts to his original name, ‘Harmless’ (Ahiṃsaka) reinforces this emphasis on the presence, or absence, of harm. There is, albeit germinal, a sense of dhamma as social policy here, which sits well with Aśokan policy, as it is reflected in his edicts:

King Devānāṁpriya Priyadarśin speaks thus.  (When I had been) anointed twelve years, the following was ordered by me:  everywhere in my dominions the Yuktas, the Rājūka, and the Prādeśika shall set out on a complete tour (throughout their charges) every five years for this very purpose; for the following instruction in morality (dhaṃmānusastiya) as well as for other business.  ‘Meritorious is obedience to mother and father. Liberality to friends, acquaintances, and relatives, to Brāhmaṇas and Śramaṇas is meritorious. Abstention from killing animals is meritorious. Moderation in expenditure (and) moderation in possessions are meritorious.’ The council (of Mahāmātras) also shall order the Yuktas to register (these rules) both with (the addition of) reasons and according to the letter.

Aśoka’s dhamma addresses the implicit critique by the Buddha of Pasenadi, at least in part: non-harm is valorized, if not made compulsory. Thus, although only a vestigial king-sage dialogue, the first appearance of king Pasenadi in the Majjhima Nikāya is a significant one. It establishes the role of the Buddha as an advisor, but crucially also as an intervener in social affairs. The reformation of Aṅgulimāla suggests that the Buddha’s teachings are good not just for the individual, but for society. It also implies that kingship is akin to banditry, at least in the sense that both are inalienably harmful. The robber finds peace in the monastery. For the king, in contrast, there is always ‘much to be done’. We also begin to see the possibility of quite close dialogue between public inscriptions – those of Aśoka- and semi-public teachings, as we find them in the Majjhima Nikāya

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