by Alexander Berzin
Often, when people think of the Muslim concept of jihad or
they associate with it the negative connotation of a self-righteous
campaign of vengeful destruction in the name of God to convert
others by force. They may acknowledge that Christianity had an
equivalent with the Crusades, but do not usually view Buddhism as
having anything similar. After all, they say, Buddhism is a religion
of peace and does not have the technical term holy war.
A careful examination of the Buddhist texts, however, particularly
The Kalachakra Tantra literature, reveals both external and internal
levels of battle that could easily be called "holy wars." An
unbiased study of Islam reveals the same. In both religions, leaders
may exploit the external dimensions of holy war for political,
economic, or personal gain, by using it to rouse their troops to
Historical examples regarding Islam are well known; but one
must not be rosy-eyed about Buddhism and think that it has been
immune to this phenomenon.
Nevertheless, in both religions, the main
emphasis is on the internal spiritual battle against one’s own
ignorance and destructive ways.
Imagery in Buddhism
Shakyamuni Buddha was born into the Indian warrior caste and often
used military imagery to describe the spiritual journey. He was the
Triumphant One, who defeated the demonic forces (mara) of
unawareness, distorted views, disturbing emotions, and impulsive
karmic behavior. The eighth-century Indian Buddhist master
Shantideva employs the metaphor of war repeatedly throughout
Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior: the real enemies to defeat are the
disturbing emotions and attitudes that lie hidden in the mind.
Tibetans translate the Sanskrit term arhat, a liberated being, as
foe-destroyer, someone who has destroyed the inner foes. From these
examples, it would appear that in Buddhism, the call for a "holy
war" is purely an internal spiritual matter.
The Kalachakra Tantra,
however, reveals an additional external dimension.
The Legend of
According to tradition, Buddha taught The Kalachakra Tantra in
Andhra, South India, in 880 BC, to the visiting King of Shambhala,
Suchandra, and his entourage. King Suchandra brought the teachings
back to his northern land, where they have flourished ever since.
Shambhala is a human realm, not a Buddhist pure land, where all
conditions are conducive for Kalachakra practice. Although an actual
location on earth may represent it, His Holiness the Fourteenth
Dalai Lama explains that Shambhala exists purely as a spiritual
realm. Despite the traditional literature describing the physical
journey there, the only way to reach it is by intense Kalachakra
Seven generations of kings after Suchandra, in 176 BC, King Manjushri Yashas gathered the religious leaders of
specifically the brahman wise men, to give them predictions and a
warning. Eight hundred years in the future, namely in 624 AD, a
non-Indic religion will arise in Mecca.
Because of a lack of unity
among the brahmans’ people and laxity in following correctly the
injunctions of their Vedic scriptures, many will accept this
religion when its leaders threaten an invasion. To prevent this
danger, Manjushri Yashas united the people of Shambhala into a
single "vajra-caste" by conferring upon them the Kalachakra
By his act, the king became the First Kalki - the First
Holder of the Caste.
As the founding of Islam dates from in 622 AD, two years before
Kalachakra’s predicted date, most scholars identify the non-Indic
religion with that faith. Descriptions of the religion elsewhere in
the Kalachakra texts as having the slaughter of cattle while
reciting the name of its god, circumcision, veiled women, and prayer
five times a day facing its holy land reinforce their conclusion.
The Sanskrit term for non-Indic here is mleccha (Tib. lalo), meaning
someone who speaks incomprehensibly in a non-Sanskrit tongue. Hindus
and Buddhists alike have applied it to all foreign invaders of North
India, starting with the Macedonians and Greeks at the time of
Alexander the Great. It carries the derogatory connotation of
"barbarian" and indicates ethnocentric ignorance of any high culture
the invading people might have.
The First Kalki further described the future non-Indic religion as
having a line of eight great teachers:
Muhammad will be born in Baghdad
in the land of Mecca. Baghdad, however, was built only in 762 as the
capital of the Arab Abbasad Caliphate (750 - 1258); Muhammad was
born in 570 in Arabia. Mani was a third-century Persian who founded
an eclectic religion, Manichaeism, which like the earlier Iranian
religion Zoroastrianism, emphasized a struggle between the forces of
good and evil. He was accepted as a prophet only by the heretical
Manichaean Islamic sect found among some officials in the early Abbasad court in Baghdad.
Abbasad caliphs severely persecuted
its followers. Mahdi will be a future ruler (iman), descendent from
Muhammad, who will lead the faithful to Jerusalem, restore Quranic
law and order, and unite the followers of Islam in a single
political state before the apocalypse that ends the world. He is the
Islamic equivalent of a messiah. The concept of Mahdi became
prominent only during the early Abbasad period, with three claimants
to the title: a caliph, a rival in Mecca, and a martyr, in whose
name an anti-Abbasad rebellion was led. The full concept of Mahdi as
a messiah, however, did not appear until the end of the ninth
From this evidence, we may conclude that Manjushri Yashas was
predicting the rise of Manichaean Islam. Alternatively, we may
conclude that the Kalachakra literature was written by Buddhist
masters at a time when their information about Islam came from
contact with the early Abbasids. Such masters would most likely have
been from the great Buddhist monasteries in the Kabul region of
Many of these monasteries had architectural motifs
similar to those in the Kalachakra mandala. They also had
considerable contact with Tantric Buddhism in Kashmir, where it was
often mixed with Hindu tantra. Moreover, Kabul as well had a sizable
Hindu population at the time.
Regardless of which of the two
theories we accept concerning the origin of The Kalachakra Tantra,
we must surely look to Buddhist-Muslim relations in Afghanistan
during the early Abbasad period to understand the context of its
teachings on history and holy wars.
Prophesy of an Apocalyptic War
The First Kalki predicted that the followers of the non-Indic
religion will some day rule India. From their capital in Delhi,
their king Krinmati will attempt the conquest of Shambhala in 2424
AD. The commentaries suggest that Krinmati will be recognized as the
messiah Mahdi. The Twenty-fifth Kalki, Raudrachakrin, will then
invade India and defeat the non-Indics in a great war. His victory
will mark the end of the kaliyuga - "the age of disputes," during
which Dharma practice will degenerate. Afterwards, a new golden age
will follow during which the teachings will flourish, especially
those of Kalachakra.
The idea of a war between the forces of good and evil, ending with
an apocalyptic battle led by a messiah, first appeared in
Zoroastrianism, founded in the sixth century BC, several decades
before Buddha was born. It entered Judaism some time between the
second century BC and the second century AD. Subsequently, it made
its way into early Christianity and Manichaeism, and later into
A variation of the apocalyptic theme also appeared in Hinduism, in
The Vishnu Purana, dated approximately the fourth century AD. It
relates that at the end of the kaliyuga, Vishnu will appear in his
final incarnation as Kalki, taking birth in the village of Shambhala
as the son of the brahman Vishnu Yashas.
He will defeat the non-Indics
of the time who follow a path of destruction and will reawaken the
minds of the people. Afterwards, in keeping with the Indian concept
of cyclical time, a new golden age will follow, rather than a final
judgment and the end of the world as in the non-Indic versions of
the theme. It is difficult to establish whether The Vishnu Purana
account derived from foreign influences and was adapted to the
Indian mentality, or arose independently.
In keeping with Buddha’s skillful means of teaching with terms and
concepts familiar to his audience, The Kalachakra Tantra also uses
the names and images from The Vishnu Purana. Its stated audience,
after all, was primarily educated brahmans. The names not only
include Shambhala, Kalki, the kaliyuga, and a variant of Vishnu
Yashas, Manjushri Yashas, but also the same term mleccha for the
non-Indics bent on destruction.
In the Kalachakra version, however,
the war has a symbolic meaning.
Symbolic Meaning of the War
In Stainless Light, the Second Kalki, Pundarika, explains that the
fight with the non-Indic people of Mecca is not an actual war, since
the real battle is within the body. The fifteenth-century Gelug
commentator Kaydrubjey elaborates that Manjushri Yashas’s words do
not suggest an actual campaign to kill the followers of the
non-Indic religion. The First Kalki’s intention in describing the
details of the war was to provide a metaphor for the inner battle of
deep blissful awareness of voidness against unawareness and
The Second Kalki clearly enumerates the hidden symbolism.
Raudrachakrin represents the "mind-vajra," namely the clear light
subtlest mind. Shambhala represents the state of great bliss in
which the mind-vajra abides. Being a Kalki means that mind-vajra has
the perfect level of deep awareness, namely simultaneously arising
voidness and bliss. Raudrachakrin’s two generals, Rudra and
stand for the two supporting kinds of deep awareness, that of the pratyekabuddhas and of the shravakas.
The twelve Hindu gods who help
win the war represent the cessation of the twelve links of dependent
arising and of the twelve daily shifts of the karmic breaths. The
links and the shifts both describe the mechanism perpetuating samsara. The four divisions of Raudrachakrin’s army represent the
purest levels of the four immeasurable attitudes of love,
compassion, joy, and equality.
The non-Indic forces that Raudrachakrin and the divisions of his
army defeat represent the minds of negative karmic forces. Muhammad
represents the pathway of destructive behavior. The horse on which
Mahdi rides symbolizes unawareness of behavioral cause and effect
and of voidness. Mahdi’s four army divisions stand for hatred,
malice, resentment, and prejudice, the exact opposites of the
Shambhala armed forces.
Raudrachakrin’s victory represents the
attainment of the path to liberation and enlightenment.
Buddhist Didactic Method
Despite textual disclaimers of calling for an actual holy war, the
implication here that Islam is a cruel religion, characterized by
hatred, malice, and destructive behavior, can easily be used as
evidence to support that Buddhism is anti-Muslim. Although some
Buddhists of the past may in fact have had this bias and some
Buddhists of today may likewise hold a sectarian view, one may also
draw a different conclusion in light of one of the Mahayana Buddhist
For example, Mahayana texts present certain views as characterizing
Hinayana Buddhism, such as selfishly working for one’s liberation
alone, without regard for helping others. After all, the stated goal
of Hinayana practitioners is self-liberation, not enlightenment for
the sake of benefiting everyone. Although such description of
Hinayana has led to prejudice, an educated objective study of
Hinayana schools, such as Theravada, reveals a prominent role of
meditation on love and compassion.
One might conclude that Mahayana
was simply ignorant of the actual Hinayana teachings. Alternatively,
one might recognize that Mahayana is using here the method in
Buddhist logic of taking positions to their absurd conclusions in
order to help people avoid extremist views. The intention of this
prasangika method is to caution practitioners to avoid the extreme
The same analysis applies to the Mahayana presentations of the six
schools of medieval Hindu and Jain philosophies. It also applies to
each of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions’ presentations of the views
of each other and the views of the native Tibetan Bon tradition.
None of these presentations gives an accurate depiction.
exaggerates and distorts certain features of the others to
illustrate various points. The same is true of the Kalachakra
assertions about the cruelty of Islam and its potential threat.
Although Buddhist teachers may claim that the prasangika method here
of using Islam to illustrate spiritual danger is a skillful means,
one might also argue that it is grossly lacking in diplomacy,
especially in modern times.
The use of Islam to represent destructive threatening forces,
however, is understandable when examined in the context of the early
Abbasad period in the Kabul region of Afghanistan.
Buddhist-Islamic Relations during the Abbasid Period
At the start of the period, the Abbasids ruled Bactria (northern
Afghanistan), where they allowed the local Buddhists, Hindus, and
Zoroastrians to keep their religions if they paid a poll tax. Many,
however, voluntarily accepted Islam, especially among the landowners
and the educated upper urban classes. Its high culture was more
accessible than their own and they could avoid paying the heavy tax.
The Turki Shahis, allied with the Tibetans, ruled Kabul, where
Buddhism and Hinduism were flourishing. The Buddhist rulers and
spiritual leaders might easily have worried that a similar
phenomenon, conversion out of convenience, would happen there.
The Turki Shahis ruled the region until 870, losing control of it
only between 815 and 819. During those four years, the Abbasad
Caliph al-Mamun invaded Kabul, forced the ruling shah to accept
Islam, and sent a gold Buddha statue from Subahar Monastery there as
booty to Mecca. In smashing the idols as the Prophet Muhammad had
done, the caliph was demonstrating his authority to rule the entire
Islamic world after vanquishing his brother in a civil war. He did
not force all the Buddhists of Kabul to convert, however, nor did he
destroy the monasteries. After the Abbasad army withdrew to fight
against movements for autonomy in other parts of their empire, the
Buddhist monasteries quickly recovered.
The next period in which the Kabul region came under Islamic rule
was also short, between 870 and 879. It was conquered by the Saffarad rulers of an autonomous military state, remembered for its
harshness and destruction of local cultures. The conquerors sent
many Buddhist "idols" back as war trophies to the Abbasad caliph.
When the successors to the Turki Shahis, the Hindu Shahis, retook
the region, Buddhism and the monasteries once more recovered their
The Turkic Ghaznavids conquered Kabul in the 980s. It was at about
this time that the Kalachakra teachings openly appeared in India,
transmitted in visions to two Indian masters attempting to reach
Shambhala. Although the Muslim Ghaznavids tolerated Buddhism and
Hinduism in Kabul, they smashed the Ismaili Islamic state of Multan
in north central Pakistan in 1008.
The Ismaili Fatimids in Egypt
were the rivals of the Ghaznavids for supremacy over the entire
Muslim world. After this victory, the Ghaznavad ruler Mahmud of
Ghazni, driven undoubtedly by greed for more land and wealth,
pressed his invasion further eastward as far as Madhura, south of
He looted and destroyed the wealthy Buddhist monasteries that
lay in his path. When the Ghaznavad troops pushed northward from
Delhi, however, and tried to invade Kashmir, the Kashmiri King Samgrama Raja, a supporter of both Buddhism and Hinduism, defeated
them in 1021. This was the first attack on Kashmir by a Muslim army.
The Kalachakra Tantra reached Tibet from Kashmir in 1027, the year
predicted by the First Kalki.
Correlation between the Predictions and History
The First Kalki’s historical predictions, then, clearly fit the
above times, but mold the events to illustrate lessons. The
reference in the Kalachakra literature to the non-Indic invaders as
Turushka, meaning Turkic people, undoubtedly refers to the
Turkic Ghaznavids. However, the references to Turkic people are most likely
later interpolations. The Ghaznavids were only the second Turkic
people to adapt Islam, and this occurred in the late 970s.
Western Qarakhanids of Kashgar were the first, in the 930s. On the
other hand, the Turki Shahis, who ruled the Kabul region in the late
eighth century - the most likely candidate period for the Kalachakra
description of the non-Indic religion - were also Turkic people.
Most of their rulers were Buddhist.
As the thirteenth-century Sakya commentator Buton remarks about the
Kalachakra presentation of history, "To scrutinize historical events
of the past is meaningless." Nevertheless, Kaydrubjey explains that
the predicted war between Shambhala and the non-Indic forces is not
merely a metaphor without reference to a future historical reality.
If that were so, then when The Kalachakra Tantra applies internal
analogies for the planets and constellations, the absurd conclusion
would follow that the heavenly bodies exist only as metaphors and
have no external reference.
Kaydrubjey also cautions, however, against taking literally the
additional Kalachakra prediction that the non-Indic religion will
eventually spread to all twelve continents and Raudrachakrin’s
teachings will overcome it there too. The prediction does not
concern the specific non-Indic people described earlier, or their
religious beliefs or practices. The name mleccha here merely refers
to non-Dharmic forces and beliefs that contradict Buddha’s
Thus, the prediction is that destructive forces inimical to
spiritual practice - and not specifically a Muslim army - will
attack in the future, and an external "holy war" against them will
be necessary. The implicit message is that, if peaceful methods fail
and one must fight a holy war, the struggle must always base itself
on the Buddhist principles of compassion and deep awareness of
This is true despite the fact that in practice this
guideline is extremely difficult to follow when training soldiers
who are not bodhisattvas. Nevertheless, if the war is driven by the
non-Indic principles of hatred, malice, resentment, and prejudice,
future generations will see no difference between the ways of their
ancestors and those of the non-Indic forces. Consequently, they will
easily adopt the non-Indic ways.
Islamic Concept of Jihad
Is one of the "barbarian" ways the Islamic concept of jihad? If so,
is Kalachakra accurately describing jihad, or is it using the
non-Indic invasion of Shambhala merely to represent an extreme to
avoid? To avert interfaith misunderstanding, it is important to
investigate these questions.
The Arabic word jihad means a struggle in which one needs to endure
suffering and difficulties, such as hunger and thirst during
Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. Those who engage in this
struggle are mujahedin. One is reminded of the Buddhist teachings on
patience for bodhisattvas to endure the difficulties of following
the path to enlightenment.
The Sunni division of Islam outlines five types of jihad.
military jihad is a defensive campaign against aggressors trying to
harm Islam. It is not an offensive attack to convert others to Islam
(2) A jihad by resources entails giving financial and
material support to the poor and needy.
(3) A jihad by work is
honestly supporting oneself and one’s family.
(4) A jihad by study
is to acquire knowledge.
(5) A jihad against oneself is an internal
struggle to overcome wishes and thoughts counter to the Muslim
The Shiah divisions of Islam emphasize the first type of
jihad, equating an attack on an Islamic state with an attack on the
Islamic faith. Many Shiites also accept the fifth type, the internal
Similarities between Buddhism and Islam
The Kalachakra presentation of the mythical Shambhala war and the
Islamic discussion of jihad show remarkable similarities. Both
Buddhist and Islamic holy wars are defensive tactics for stopping
attacks by external hostile forces, and never offensive campaigns
for winning converts. Both have internal spiritual levels of
meaning, in which the battle is against negative thoughts and
Both need to be waged based on ethical
principles, not on the basis of prejudice and hatred. Thus, in
presenting the non-Indic invasion of Shambhala as purely negative,
the Kalachakra literature is in fact misrepresenting the concept of
jihad in the prasangika manner of taking it to its logical extreme
to illustrate a position to avoid.
Moreover, just as many leaders have distorted and exploited the
concept of jihad for power and gain, the same has occurred with
Shambhala and its discussion of war against destructive foreign
forces. Agvan Dorjiev, the late nineteenth-century Russian Buryat
Mongol assistant tutor of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, proclaimed that
Russia was Shambhala and the Czar was a Kalki. In this way, he tried
to convince the Thirteenth Dalai Lama to align with Russia against
the "mleccha" British in the struggle for control of Central Asia.
The Mongols have traditionally identified both King Suchandra of
Shambhala and Chinggis Khan as incarnations of Vajrapani. Fighting
for Shambhala, then, is fighting for the glory of Chinggis Khan and
for Mongolia. Thus, Sukhe Batur - leader of the 1921 Mongolian
Communist Revolution against the extremely harsh rule of the White
Russian and Japanese-backed Baron von Ungern-Sternberg - inspired
his troops with the Kalachakra account of the war to end the
He promised them rebirth as warriors of the King of Shambhala, despite there being no textual foundation for his claim
in the Kalachakra literature. During the Japanese occupation of
Mongolia in the 1930s, the Japanese overlords, in turn, tried to
gain Mongol allegiance and military support through a propaganda
campaign that Japan was Shambhala.
Just as critics of Buddhism could focus on abuses of Kalachakra’s
external level of spiritual battle and dismiss the internal level,
and this would be unfair to Buddhism as a whole; the same is true
regarding anti-Muslim critics of jihad. The advice in the Buddhist tantras regarding the spiritual teacher may be useful here. Almost
every spiritual teacher has a mixture of good qualities and faults.
Although a disciple must not deny the negative qualities of a
teacher, to dwell on them will only cause anger and depression. If,
instead, a disciple focuses on a teacher’s positive qualities, he or
she will gain inspiration to follow the spiritual path.
The same can be said about the Buddhist and Islamic teachings
regarding holy wars. Both religions have seen abuses of its calls
for an external battle when destructive forces threaten religious
practice. Without denying or dwelling on these abuses, one can gain
inspiration by focusing on the benefits of waging an inner holy war
in either creed.