Arhat in Theravada Buddhism


1. Arhat

The Sanskrit term Arhat (Pāli, Arahant) derives from the root arh (Arhati) and literally means “worthy” or “deserving.”

The term is especially important in Theravāda Buddhism, where it denotes the highest state of spiritual development, but it also has pre-Buddhist and non-Buddhist applications.

2. History and Development of the Term

In Vedic and non-Vedic contexts, the noun Arhat and the verb Arhati applied generally to persons or gods whose particular status earned for them the characterization of “worthy” or “deserving of merit.”

The terms also denoted “being able to do,” or “being capable of doing.”

For example, in Ṛigveda 1.94.1 Agni is addressed in a song of praise as “the worthy one” (Arhat).

The term Arhat does not appear in the Upaniṣads, but the verb Arhati occurs there 5 times with the sense of “being able.” The 10 occurrences of the verb in the Bhagavad Gītā convey a similar general meaning.

In the Jain sūtras the term is often used in a sense closer to that found in Buddhist writings:

Here the Arhat is described as one who is free from desire, hatred, and delusion, who knows everything, and who is endowed with miraculous powers.

While these characterizations are consistent with the Buddhist use of the term, it should be noted that the Jains applied the word exclusively to the tīrthaṁkaras or revealers of religion,

whereas in Buddhism Arhatship is an ideal to be attained by all serious religious strivers, especially monks and nuns.

In the Pāli scriptures of Theravada Buddhism Arahant/ Arhati shares with Vedic, Hindu, and Jain sources the same general meanings “worthy, able, fit.”

In a more specific usage, but one that is not yet part of the most prevalent formulas found in the Sutta and Vinaya Piṭakas, the term is applied to those who have supernatural powers or who practice austerities.

3. Place in Buddhist Soteriology

In its most typical usage in Theravāda Buddhism, however, the term Arahant signifies persons who have reached the goal of Enlightenment or Nibbāna (Skt., Nirvāṇa).

In the Pāli Canon the Arahant emerges not simply as the revealer of the religion or the person worthy of receiving gifts but as one who

- has attained freedom of mind and heart,
- has overcome desire and passion,
- has come to true knowledge and insight,
- has crossed over the flood (of saṁsāra) and gone beyond (pāragata),
- has destroyed the āsavas (deadly attachments to the world),
- is versed in the 3-fold knowledge (tevijja) of past, present, and future,
- has achieved the 37 factors of Enlightenment, and
- who has attained Nibbāna.

In the Vinaya, the concept of the Arahant appears to be connected with the concept of uttarimanussa (“further being, superhuman being”):

Here, the Arahant is said to possess:

- one or more of the 4 trance states (jhāna),
- one or more of the 4 stages of sanctification,
- mastery of the 3-fold knowledge and
- the 6-fold knowledge (chalabhiññā), which includes knowledge of previous rebirths, and
- to have achieved the destruction of the āsavas, or “cankers.”

Indeed, it may be that the notion of uttarimanussa constitutes the earliest beginning of a more elaborated and refined concept designated by the term Arahant.

It is in the Nikāyas, however, that the concept of the Arahant achieves its mature form:

In the 1st volume of the Dīgha Nikāya 10 of the 13 Suttas, deal almost entirely with this theme; the other 3 are indirectly related to it:

In these texts Arhatship is extolled as

- the highest of social ranks,
- the only form of sacrifice worth making,
- the best asceticism, and
- the true form of brahmacariya (Skt., brahmacarya).

Clearly, the term Arahant signifies the Buddhist transvaluation of terms applied to the most worthwhile aspects of life.

In the Majjhima Nikāya the Arahant is said

- to recognize things as they really are,
- to have eliminated the āsavas,
- to be far removed from evil, and
- to be beyond birth, decay, and death.

There are several Arahant formulas in the Pāli Tipiṭaka.
Perhaps the best known is the following:

Rebirth has been destroyed.
The higher life has been fulfilled.
What had to be done has been accomplished.
After this present life there will be no beyond.

(Dīgha Nikāya 1.84 and elsewhere)

Other formulas emphasize:

- the attainment of the emancipation of mind,
- the transcendence of rebirth,
- the realization of jhāna states,
- knowledge of the Four Truths,
- the overcoming of the āsavas, and
- the gaining of salvation and perfect knowledge.

The term also appears in the formulaic phrase characterizing the Buddha:

“A Tathāgata arises in the world, an Arahant, a fully Enlightened One perfect in knowledge and conduct, a well-farer, a world-knower, unsurpassed driver of men to be driven, a teacher of devas [gods] and mankind, A Buddha, an Exalted One.”

Arhatship figures prominently into the Theravāda notion that the salvific journey is a gradual path (magga)

in which one moves from the condition of ordinary worldly attachments governed by ignorant sense desires to a state of liberation characterized by utter equanimity and the knowledge of things as they are.

As Buddhaghoṣa put it in his Visuddhimagga (Path of purification), the classic synopsis of Theravada doctrine,

the Arahant has completed all of the purities derived through the observance of the moral precepts (sīla), meditational practice (jhāna), and the purity of knowledge (paññā-visuddhi).

The essential part of this path is meditation, which leads to extraordinary cognitive states and stages of consciousness (Jhāna) and, allegedly, to the acquisition of various supernormalpowers” (iddhi).

These attainments became fundamental to the cult of Saints, an important aspect of popular Theravada Buddhist practice:

This popular aspect of Arhatship has not always been easy to reconcile with the classical notion, which emphasizes the acquisition of what Buddhaghoṣa refers to as the “analytical knowledges,” for example, the analysis of reality in terms of its conditioned and co-arising nature (paticca-samuppāda; Skt., pratītya-samutpāda).

Both the Theravada Kathāvatthu (Points of controversy) and Vasumitra’s Samayabhedoparacanacakra (History of the schisms, a Sarvāstivāda work) -

- give ample evidence that during the first few centuries following the death of the Buddha there were frequent disputes within the order concerning the nature and attributes of the Arhat.

The greatest challenge to the Arhat ideal, however, came from the Mahāyāna tradition, which proclaimed the career of the Bodhisattva to be superior to that of the Arhat:

Texts such as the Lotus Sūtra and Vimalakīrti Sūtras criticize the Arhat for pursuing, in their view, an unacceptably self-centred soteriological path.

4. The Arhat as Cult Figure

In popular Buddhism the Arhat has become a figure endowed with magical and apotropaic powers:

In Myanmar, the Arahant Shin Thiwali (Pāli, Sivali), declared by the Buddha to be the foremost recipient of gifts among his disciples, is believed to bring prosperity and good fortune to those who petition him.

The Arahant Upagupta, who tamed Māra and converted him to Buddhism, is thought to have the power to prevent storms and floods as well as other kinds of physical violence and unwanted chaos.

Customarily, Buddhist festivals in Myanmar and northern Thailand are initiated by an offering to Upagupta in order to guarantee the success of the event.

In Myanmar, offerings are made to the Buddha and the 8 Arahants (Sāriputta, Moggallāna, Ānanda, Revata, Upāli, Koṇḍañña, Rāhula, and Gavampati) –

- as part of a long-life engendering ceremony in which each Arahant is associated with one of the 8 days of the Myanmar week and with a special planet.

Piṇḍola Bhāradvāja, one of the 16 great Arhats, was particularly venerated as the guardian saint of monasteries’ refectories in China and Japan (where he is known as Binzuru), and was also worshiped as a popular healing saint.

The Arhat, as one who has realized the highest good of the spiritual path, is worshiped on the popular level as a field of merit (puṇya kṣetra) and source of magical, protective power.

Some, such as Upagupta and Piṇḍola, became in effect protective deities believed to have the power to prevent violence and illness. Offerings to their images or symbolic representations of their presence constitute cultic practice in both domestic and public rituals.

However, Arhats other than those associated with the Buddha during his lifetime or the 16 Arhats enumerated in Nandimitra’s Record of the Abiding of the Dharma have served as sources of power.

Claims of Arhatship are continuously being made on behalf of holy monks in countries such as Śrī Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand.

Devoted laypersons seek them out for boons and wear protective amulets bearing their image or charred remains of their hair or robe.

They may be venerated as wizards (Burm., weikza) with magical skills in alchemy, trance, and the like.

Elaborate hagiographies tell of extraordinary natural signs announcing their birth and detail careers characterized by the performance of miraculous deeds. Their monasteries, in turn, may become holy pilgrimage centres both during and after their lifetime.

In short, the Arhat embodies one of the fundamental tensions in the Buddhist tradition between the ideal of Enlightenment and equanimity and the extraordinary magical power concomitant with this attainment.

This tension, while present in the texts, is further heightened in the light of popular Buddhist attitudes and practices regarding the figure of the Arhat.