Holy Wars in Buddhism and Islam

Often, when people think of the Muslim concept of jihad or holy war, 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 battle. 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.

Military 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 8th-century CE 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. The 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 Shambhala

According to tradition, Buddha taught The Kalachakra Tantra in Andhra, South India, in 880 BCE, 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 meditation practice.

Seven generations of kings after Suchandra, in 176 BCE, King Manjushri Yashas gathered the religious leaders of Shambhala, specifically the brahman wise men, to give them predictions and a warning. Eight hundred years in the future, namely in 624 CE, 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, far in the future, 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 empowerment. By his act, the king became the First Kalki – the First Holder of the Caste. He then composed The Abridged Kalachakra Tantra, which is the version of The Kalachakra Tantra that is presently extant.

The Non-Indic Invaders

As the founding of Islam dates from in 622 CE, 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. The other major Sanskrit term used is tayi, which derives from the Persian term for Arabs, used, for instance, in reference to the Arab invaders of Iran in the mid-7th century CE.

The First Kalki further described the future non-Indic religion as having a line of eight great teachers: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mani, Muhammad, and Mahdi. Muhammad will come to Baghdad in the land of Mecca. This passage helps to identify the invaders within the Islamic community.

  • Muhammad lived between 570 and 632 CE in Arabia. Baghdad, however, was built only in 762 CE as the capital of the Arab Abbasid Caliphate (750 – 1258 CE).
  • Mani was a 3rd-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. Within Islam, he would have been accepted perhaps as a prophet – although it is not clear that he ever was – only by the heretical Manichaean Islamic sect found among some officials in the early Abbasid court in Baghdad. The Abbasid caliphs severely persecuted its followers.
  • Buddhist scholars from present-day Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent worked in Baghdad during the latter part of the 8th century CE, translating Sanskrit texts into Arabic.
  • 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 Abbasid period, with three claimants to the title: a caliph, a rival in Mecca, and a martyr, in whose name an anti-Abbasid rebellion was led. The full concept of Mahdi as a messiah, however, did not appear until the end of the 9th century CE.
  • The Ismaili Shia list of the prophets is the same as that found in Kalachakra, only minus Mani. The Ismailis are the only Islamic sect that asserts Mahdi as a prophet.
  • Ismaili Shia was the official sect of Islam followed in Multan (present-day northern Sindh, Pakistan) during the second half of the 10th century. Multan was an ally of the Ismaili Fatimid Empire centered in Egypt and challenging the Abbasids for supremacy over the Islamic world.

From this evidence, we may postulate that the Kalachakra description of the non-Indic invaders was based on the Ismailis of Multan in the late 10th century CE, mixed with some aspects of the Manichaean Muslims of the late 8th century. The compilers of this description would most likely have been Buddhist masters living under Hindu Shahi rule in eastern Afghanistan and Oddiyana (Swat Valley, present-day northwestern Pakistan). Buddhist monasteries in the Kabul region of Afghanistan, such as Subahar, had architectural motifs similar to those in the Kalachakra mandala. Oddiyana was one of the main regions in which Buddhist tantra developed. Moreover, Oddiyana had close contact with Kashmir, where both Buddhist and Hindu Shaivite tantra flourished. A major Buddhist pilgrimage route connected the two. Thus, we must look to Buddhist-Muslim relations in eastern Afghanistan, Oddiyana, and Kashmir during the Abbasid period to understand the context of its teachings on history and holy wars.

[For further detail, see: The Prophets of the Non-Indic Invaders in Kalachakra]

The 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 CE. 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 6th century BCE, several decades before Buddha was born. It entered Juda­ism some time between the 2nd cen­tury BCE and the 2nd century CE. Subsequently, it made its way into early Christianity and Manichaeism, and later into Islam.

A variation of the apocalyptic theme also appeared in Hinduism, in The Vishnu Purana, dated approximately the 4th century CE. 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.

The Symbolic Meaning of the War

In The Abridged Kalachakra Tantra, Manjushri Yashas 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 15th-century CE Gelug commentator Kedrub Je 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 destructive behavior.

Manjushri Yashas 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 Hanuman, 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, assisted by hatred, malice, resentment, and prejudice. Victory over them is the attainment of the path to liberation and enlightenment.

The 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 didactic methods.

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 of selfishness.

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. Each 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 Abbasid period in the Kabul region of eastern Afghanistan.

[See: History of Buddhism in 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 CE, losing control of it only between 815 and 819. During those four years, the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma'mun invaded Kabul and forced the ruling shah to submit to him and accept Islam. To represent his submission, the Kabul Shah presented the Caliph, as a gift, a gold Buddha statue from Subahar Monastery. As a sign of the triumph of Islam, Caliph al-Ma'mun sent the enormous statue, with its silver throne and jeweled crown, to Mecca and displayed it there at the Kaaba for two years. In doing so, 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. He did not even smash, as an idol, the Buddha statue that the Kabul Shah had presented him, but sent it instead to Mecca as booty. After the Abbasid 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 CE. It was conquered by the Saffarid 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 Abbasid caliph. When the successors to the Turki Shahis, the Hindu Shahis, retook the region, Buddhism and the monasteries once more recovered their previous splendor.

The Turkic Ghaznavids conquered eastern Afghanistan from the Hindu Shahis in 976 CE, but did not destroy the Buddhist monasteries there. As vassals of the Abbasids, the Ghaznavids too were strict followers of Sunni Islam. Although they tolerated Buddhism and Hinduism in eastern Afghanistan, their second ruler, Mahmud of Ghazni, launched a campaign against the Abbasid rivals, the Ismaili state of Multan. Mahmud conquered Multan in 1008 CE, driving the Hindu Shahis from Gandhara and Oddiyana on the way. The Hindu Shahis had allied themselves with Multan. Wherever he conquered, Mahmud looted the wealth from the Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries, and consolidated his power.

After this victory in Multan, and driven undoubtedly by greed for more land and wealth, Mahmud pressed his invasion further eastward. He conquered the present-day Indian Punjab, known in those days as "Delhi." However, when the Ghaznavid troops pushed northward from Delhi to the foothills of Kashmir, chasing after the remnants of the Hindu Shahis in 1015 or 1021, depending on the sources one uses, they were defeated, purportedly by the use of mantras. This was the first attack on Kashmir attempted by a Muslim army. The Kalachakra description of the future invasion and defeat of the non-Indic forces in Delhi is most likely, then, a conflation of the Multanese threat to the Abbasids and Ghaznavids with the Ghaznavid threat to Kashmir.

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. However, as the 13th-century CE Sakya commentator Buton remarks about the Kalachakra presentation of history, "To scrutinize historical events of the past is meaningless." Nevertheless, Kedrub Je 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.

Kedrub Je 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 teachings.

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 reality. 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.

The Islamic Concept of Jihad

Is one of the invader 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:

  1. A military jihad is a defensive campaign against aggressors trying to harm Islam. It is not an offensive attack to convert others to Islam by force.
  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 teachings.

The Shia 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 spiritual jihad.

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 destructive emotions. 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 19th-century CE 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 kaliyuga. 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 Inner 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.

[See: Use of the Shambhala Legend for Control of Mongolia]


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.