Arhat (Arahant) | Definition

Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta Thera * 1870–1949 * Thai Thera & Arahant
Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta Thera * 1870–1949 * Thai Thera & Arahant


The Arhat (Sanskrit) or Arahant (Pāli) is a being who has attained the state of Enlightenment that is the goal of Theravāda and other Mainstream Buddhist Schools.

The Arhat is fully human yet has reached a transcendent state of wisdom and liberation that the texts describe as being almost identical with that of the Buddha.

In this way, the Arhat fulfils a dual role as both:

a) an ideal for imitation and
b) an object of veneration.

As an ideal of imitation, the Arhat represents the completion of the gradual Path that leads from the stage of an ordinary person, characterized by ignorance, to that of an Enlightened person endowed with wisdom.

Theravada texts describe this path as having 2 levels: the mundane or worldly, and the supra- mundane.

Theravada held that the path was open to all beings who could master the attainments required, and it subdivided the path into 4 stages that must be completed over many lifetimes:

These 4 stages are termed the 4 paths (mārga) or the 4 noble persons (ārya-pudgala), and comprise:

(1) the path of Stream-Attainment (srotāpanna mārga),
(2) the path of Once-Returning (sakrdāgāmi mārga),
(3) the path of Non-returning (anāgāmi mārga), and
(4) the path of the Arhat.

The division of the Path into these stages extending over many lifetimes served to make the ideal of Arhatship more viable for ordinary people.

The Buddhist Canon contains many sūtras that spell out in detail the nature of the perfections that must be accomplished at each of the stages of the path in order to progress toward Arhatship:

The perfection of moral conduct (śīla) constitutes the first requirement of the path.

In the Visuddhimagga (Path to Purification), Buddhaghoṣa (5th century C.E.) explains that a person on the path must fulfill the Precepts,

living by compassion and non-violence, living without stealing and depending on the charity of others, practicing chastity, speaking truth, and following all of the major and minor precepts.

Having made progress in śīla, the aspiring Arhat moves to perfect the restraint of sense faculties:

Controlling the senses rather than allowing the senses to control him or her, the aspirant experiences a state of peace.

The next stage involves the development of samādhi, or concentration, and here the chief obstacles to be overcome are the 5 hindrances (nīvaraa), which include:

1) sensual desire,
2) ill will,
3) sloth and torpor,
4) excitement and flurry, and
5) Doubt.

Closely related to this formulation of the states to be conquered is the list of mental fetters (sayojana) that must be abandoned in order to progress from the stage of stream-enterer to that of Arhat:

A person attains the fruit of stream-entry by eliminating the first 3 fetters:

1) mistaken belief in a self,
2) doubt, and
3) trust in mere rites and Rituals.

To progress to the stage of the once-returner, a person must reduce lust, ill will, and delusion.

The third noble person, the non-returner, completes the destruction of the first 5 fetters by completely destroying sensual desire and ill will.

To become an Arhat one must proceed to eliminate the 5 remaining fetters, called higher fetters:

1. desire for material existence,
2. desire for immaterial existence,
3. conceit,
4. restlessness, and
5. ignorance.

Having eliminated these negative states, the Arhat- to-be enters the successive jhānas (Sanskrit, dhyāna) or trance states of samādhi, and attains the mental factors ending in pure Mindfulness and equanimity.

The Dīgha-nikāya contrasts persons who have reached this stage with ordinary persons by stating that those who attain this level are:

as happy as prisoners who have been set free or
as people who have found their way out of the wilderness to safety.

To move beyond this stage, the potential Arhat perfects the 6 Abhijñā (Higher Knowledges):

The first 3 of these comprise what can be called miraculous powers:

the ability to do the miraculous deeds traditionally attributed to Indian holy persons, such as becoming invisible, flying through the air, walking on water, and other physical and psychic powers.

The 3 remaining abhijñā comprise the 3 knowledges:

1) knowledge of one’s previous lives,
2) the “divine eye” (divya-caku) that allows one to see others’ past lives, and
3) knowledge of the destruction of the cankers.

Having reached this stage, the Arhat is described throughout the Pāli canon as

one who has destroyed the cankers,
who has done what was to be done,
who has laid down the burden … and is liberated

The detailed and somewhat formulaic canonical descriptions of the Arhat’s Path serve both to present the Path as an imitable goal and to emphasize how distant this goal is from the ordinary person.

Theravāda supplemented these normative descriptions of the Path to Arhatship with hagiographical accounts of the great Arhats who had completed this Path.

The difficulty of the path implied that the figures who had completed it were greatly to be venerated.

The canonical and commentarial stories of the great Arhats describe them as performing meritorious deeds in their previous lives, which led to their having opportunities to hear and follow the Dharma.

Through hearing the Dharma and practicing the Path, these Arhats reached the perfection of Wisdom and Compassion. Theravādin accounts praise these Arhats for attaining various forms of perfection in relation to the world.

Free from the snares of desire, the Arhats were not attached to the material world:

For example, the female Arhat, Subhā, who had overcome all attachments and was living as a nun in the forest, plucked out her eye and gave it to a pursuer who said that he was attracted to her because of her deer-like eyes.

The stories of other Arhats stress their perfection of qualities such as equanimity, non-attachment, and peace.

Great Arhats like Mahākassapa (Sanskrit, Mahākāśyapa) and others were revered for their ability to teach the Dharma, and other Arhats were remembered for serving as advisers and counselors to the people.

Veneration of these great Arhats by ordinary persons at the lower levels of the path both leads to and is in itself imitation of the Arhats’ path to development.

Although the Arhat plays a primary role in Theravāda Buddhism, the ideal is also found in some Mahāyāna texts that mention a group of 16 (or sometimes 18) great Arhats.

Mahāyāna sūtras teach that the Buddha requested these 16 Arhats to remain in the world to teach the Dharma until the next Buddha, Maitreya, appears.