Questions of King Milinda in Buddhism
The “Questions of King Milinda” is a Buddhist text written between 100 B.C – 200 B.C. It is a fictional dialogue between the Buddist Sage Nagasena and the Greek King Milinda. Although it is not included in the Pali Canon, it is cherished because it addresses Buddhism’s most complicated questions with much clarity. King Milinda is an indo-greek king who is said to have ruled Bactria, current Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan from 160-130 BC. Although the text’s author is unknown, it is purported to be made from a discussion with the King, a devout Buddhist, and an enlightened teacher. This study will analyze some of the most famous questions that the King used, such as starting from the problem of evil, the nature of truth, how the process of rebirth occurs, why philosophical inquiry unveils these issues, and provide an account of the justification, sense, and significance of the claims.
One of the significant questions that the King asks Nagasena is regarding the doctrine of no-self or annata. The King was interested in learning the nature of self and personal identity. The King asks Nagasena about his identity, whereby Nasangena acknowledges that Nasangena was his name, but that was only a designation; there was no permanent individual named Nasangena. He states, “I know I am Nagasena, O’ King, and it is by that name that my brethren in faith address me. But although parents, O King, give such a name as Nagasena, or Surasena, or Virasena or Sihasena,yet this, Sire is a generally understood term. For there is no permanent individuality (Soul) involved in the matter.” (William 40).
The King was amused by this response and asked who wears the robe, earns the merits or demerits, causes Karma, and so on (Willian 40). Additionally, the King adds that if someone kills Nagasena, there would be no murder committed because Nagasena would be nothing but sound. In this case, the King seeks to understand the meaning of self and soul. According to the King, the soul is attached to the body and responsible for the body. However, Nagasena wants to prove to the King that the soul can leave the body and the two are separable identities.
For Nagasena to prove his claims, he asked the King how he had come to his hermitage, and the King said he came on a chariot. Nagasena asked the King what a chariot was. Is it the axles, wheels, frame, draught pole, or seat? The King answered “No” to each question (William 41). The Nagasena stated that a chariot is a combination of all those things, and therefore a chariot is a mere concept or just a name. In the same way, a designation is something conceptual. So for a human being to be, the five skandhas have to be there. In this simile, Nagasena uses an example and questions to answer the King.
Nagasena also uses similes and questions to explain why Buddha forbade killing. Nagasena provides a comprehensive answer that a person who is truly good and full of benefit to all other human beings should not be killed (William 103). The King wonders why human beings are not allowed to kill, yet the same person who does not allow killing has instigated them to do it. Nagasena explains to the King different types of pain that occur to individuals, such as losing a relative, wealth, suffering from disease, loss of insight, and decline in goodness (William 104).
He adds that just as rivers flow from the Himalayas Mountain, they meet different obstacles that try to change their course, but they have to overcome them to get to their destination. In the case regarding suicide, Nagasena sufficiently supports his claim because he states that we are instigated to kill so that we may overcome these barriers. However, in this case, he seems to support the killing of people who act as barriers to our destination, while on the other hand, he condemns killing. In this context, it is still unclear whether Nagasena promotes killing people who hinder us from achieving the final goal or not.
Concerning a person’s identity and rebirth, the King wanted to know when a person is reborn, is he the same as who died, or is he another? Nagasena replies by giving the King an illustration; he states, “When you were a tiny infant, newly born and quite soft, were you then the same as the one who is now grown up?” (William 50). He goes further and gives the King a simile on fire; he asks the King if he was to light a flame throughout the night, would the flame that burns at the beginning of the night be the same as the one that would burn in the morning? He finally explains to the King that at rebirth, when one dharma arises, another one stops almost simultaneously (William 51). The text generally provides answers to various life questions through similes that give real-life examples, making most of its claims trustworthy. Similes also make the text more interesting, and it helps to create lasting impressions in readers’ minds.
William, Thomas. The Questions of King Milinda. Vol. 35, Clarendon Press, 1890, pp. 1–396.