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War: An Indictment of Humanity
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War: An Indictment of Humanity

Bhikkhu Dr. Beligalle

Dr. Ven. Dhammajoti is the author of numerous books about Buddhism and its practical relevance, such as Buddhist Economic Philosophy and Modern Society and Buddhist Spirituality. He has lectured at various universities in Sri Lanka.


In recent decades we have seen incredible progress in science and technology. Scientific progress has created technologically powerful nations. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, scientific paradigms have spread all over the world. At the same time, however, human values are being suffocated by the unprincipled, capitalist market economy. Misguided competition has given shape to consumerism and the global cutthroat struggle we see in the news every day.
With the potency of technology and wealth, some nations assumed themselves be the leaders of global society.  If a country wished to civilize the world, it needed to win territory. Mottoes such as “the white man’s burden”highlight the hypocrisy and double-speak that came to serve politics. To civilize the world, nations needed armies and weapons to enforce their will. In the name of duty, powerful nations were to overpower weaker ones.

International Hatred

At the turn of the 20th Century, nations bayed for war even as they hosted peace conferences. The mass manufacturing of weapons gave birth to bitter intercontinental hatred. The shadow of guns and steel was spreading. It was the age of the First World War, the beginning of the end of the European empires.
There were no real victors. There was only rape, pillage, the physical pulverization of societies and communities, and the discontent that led to yet another World War. Everyone was a loser. 
Supremacy and Neutral Nations

The antagonistic attitudes of certain countries frightened the whole of Europe. There were also crucial misunderstandings about the perceived enemy. Some feared attack from another. Unexpected news could galvanize public opinion for violent action. A country mobilized by showing her supremacy and martial prowess. Or it declared war against another country for violating the liberty of others. Here, it seems that everyone had a reason to go to war, but the excuses were simply such – excuses. These were the misguided and distorted approaches that eventually exasperated the European people. Even the neutral nations were forced to join in the machinations of the World Wars. Resources were devoured for the sole purpose of physically eradicating human beings.

The two World Wars were extremely vicious, consuming millions of human lives. Science was exploited to provide venomous gases and chemical weapons. Planes became bombers, giant machines were used for mass killings, and families of the soldiers suffered from deprivation and enemy reprisals. Nobody could have imagined the heights of human suffering reached. Grief, distress, torture, and agony became part and parcel of human life. Otherwise normal human beings lost their mental balance and became criminals in the machine of violence and genocide, the most notorious case of which was the Shoah (Holocaust).
‘Yearning for revenge’, ‘crazy hatred’ and ‘triumph or invasion’ over the enemy was the common political discourse of Europe’s unrepentant leaders. They never personally saw the heartbreaking state of soldiers on the Somme, or smelt the stench of mass graves or smoking ruins of cities. They only saw the statistics and continued to give their blustering speeches.
Patriotic Fervor
We know that throughout history, the only result of war is the devastation of every village and every family. Millions of people are horrifically affected. Ill-conceived patriotic fervor resulted in a devastated Europe. Africa and Asia also suffered unfairly. Dogmatic views and erroneous nationalism murdered many millions of young people in their prime of life. Surely this is a crushing indictment of humanity’s folly?
Each side named other the ‘enemy-aggressor’ and pretended to attack in self-defense only. The irony is that for the sake of self-defense, they crushed others.
Ethical Reasons?
Many nations claimed that they had good reasons for war. Some countries came to warfront in the name of defending another country. For them, they went to war for a moral and worthy reason. But was it really the real motivation?
For years, newspapers had created a violence-charged atmosphere throughout Europe. The paradox is that even celebrated scientists, professors, writers, and thinkers lost their mental balance and supported unreasonable policymaking. The meaning of life because one of death. This was the product of catastrophically imprudent thinking.
Mental Balance
Soon, the self-appointed peacemakers forgot their priorities and were in favor of war. Even the ideal peace lovers abandoned their principles and analyzed everything through the paradigm of conflict. Newspaper editors misled their readers by paving the way for the bloodlust of patriotism.
While massacres were being perpetuated in many parts of Europe, people were saturated with pompous phrases in their homelands that were supposed to justify killing. Fighting was, “a war to end war”; “war for the freedom of small nations”; “war for Democracy”; and “war for honor”. They created fine patriotic slogans and young ones were also expected to play their nationalistic part. The reality of humanity had been denied, replaced by pitiless ideologies that only ended with death.
Needless to say, war is a terribly expensive business. It easily consumes staggering quantities of priceless materials. It directs people’s energy towards destruction. Some rich nations pay for war in order to satisfy their ‘conceit’ (māna). Also, some countries begged for financial help from other nations. The countries that lent money to war movements were, of course, interested in the triumph of their borrowers.
Central Asia
We can see the scars of past wars all over the world. Many Buddhist oases were situated in Central Asia. But they were demolished by religious extremists who sought to justify their erroneous views (ditthis) about idolatry. They had no common sense in either ethics or propriety. Ruthless rulers ransacked great cities and killed many people, including monks. Fanatics reduced the great cultural city of Bokhara, with over a million in population, to ashes. In the ancient city of Samarkand they killed nearly a million people.
All the amazing artistic monuments that flourished in Persia and Central Asia for centuries have disappeared, their host civilizations and histories lost with them. Millennia of wondrous cultural heritage were consigned to historical amnesia. Today, we can see only the remnants. Who can ever create such amazing architecture, art, and culture again?
It is estimated that 20 million people died in the First World War. The Second World War consumed the lives of 55 million people.  Where is the sense of humanity? If world leaders are sincere about rational decision-making, they cannot attach any satisfaction to the superficial statistics of the battlefield.
The Buddhist View
What are the reasons for humanity’s impulse conquest and oppression? Why does he hate others? When the Buddha was explaining the Mahanidhāna Sutta (The Great Causes Discourse), he said:
      “Feeling conditions craving (tanhā),
        craving conditions seeking (pariyesana),
        seeking conditions acquisition (lābha),
        acquisition conditions decision-making (vinicchaya),
        decision-making conditions lustful desire (chandarāga),
        lustful desire conditions attachment (ajjhosana),
        attachment conditions appropriation (pariggaha),
        appropriation conditions avarice (macchariya),
        avarice conditions guarding of possessions (ārakkha),
        and because of the guarding of possessions
        there arise the taking up of stick and sward (danḍadāna);
        conflicts, quarrels, and disputes; accusations
        divisive speech, and lies(pesuññamusavada).”
Therefore, because of greed and ego, unskillful phenomena come into play: the taking up of sticks and swards; conflicts, quarrels, and disputes; accusations, divisive speech, and lies.
Defensiveness is the reason for conflict and it is dependent on unwholesome desire (tanhā). Craving or unwholesome desire is the cause and origination.  Therefore, unwholesome desire causes all kinds of social evils and distortions, from hostilities to confrontations and wars.

In the Pațhama Sangāma Sutta, the Buddha explains:
 “Victory breeds enmity
  The defeated one sleeps badly
  The peaceful one sleeps at ease
  Having abandoned victory and defeat.”
In the Dutiya-Sangama sutta, the Buddha categorically expounds the results of killing thus:
 “The killer begets a killer
  One who conquers, a conqueror
  The abuser begets abuse
  The reviler, one who reviles
  Thus by the unfolding of kamma
  The plunderer is plundered.”
These are the inevitable results of kamma. The Dhammapada explains the way of controlling our hateful mentality:
                “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world;
                 It is appeased by love. This is an eternal law.”
The person who creates hateful mental volitions against others means that he is actually molding a sorrowful future for himself. This is what many people are doing because they do not yet understand universal ethics. Explaining the ineffectiveness of war, the Dhammapada says:
          “One may conquer in battle a thousand times a thousand men,
            Yet he is the best of conquerors who conquers himself.”
Ten Duties of Kings
The dasa-raja-dhammas, or ten duties assigned for kings, do not advocate any kind of war against others. The king should be kind-hearted and practice gentleness (maddava). He should be free from hatred, violent volitions (akkodha), and jealous mental states. He is to be non-violent (avihimsa) and promote peaceful environment in his kingdom. He is to practice tolerance (khanti). Therefore, these ruler’s duties show the path to a peaceful society and its co-existence with other communities.
1. Nehru, J., ‘Glimpses of World History’, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1995.
2. The Mahanidhana Sutta, The Digha Nikaya vol. ii, Eds: T.W. Rhys Davids and J. E. Carpenter, PTS, London, 1966.
3. The Samyutta Nikaya vol. i, Ed.; M.L. Feer, PTS, London, 1973.
4. The Dhammapada, Tr.; Max Muller, Motilal Benarsidas, Delhi, 1965.

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