“They are not following dharma who resort to violence to achieve their purpose”

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This one was passed on to me today, with a query about whether it might have been misattributed:

“They are not following dharma who resort to violence to achieve their purpose. But those who lead others through nonviolent means, knowing right and wrong, may be called guardians of the dharma.”

This certainly sounds very modern. I can imagine a contemporary teacher using those words. But the problem here isn’t misattribution, but mistranslation, or at least very free translation. The quote is from Eknath Easwaran’s version of the Dhammapada, and it purports to be verses 256–257.

In Thanissaro’s translation these verses are:

To pass judgment hurriedly
doesn’t mean you’re a judge.
The wise one, weighing both
the right judgment & wrong,
judges others impartially —
unhurriedly, in line with the Dhamma,
guarding the Dhamma,
guarded by Dhamma,
intelligent:
he’s called a judge.

Buddharakkhita’s translation is similar:

256. Not by passing arbitrary judgments does a man become just; a wise man is he who investigates both right and wrong.

257. He who does not judge others arbitrarily, but passes judgment impartially according to the truth, that sagacious man is a guardian of law and is called just.

As is Gil Fronsdal’s:

One is not just
Who judges a case hastily.
A wise person considers
Both what is and isn’t right
Guiding others without force,
Impartially and in accord with the Dharma,
One is called a guardian of the Dharma,
Intelligent and just.

Of the three more literal translations, only Frondal’s comes close to mentioning non-violence, where it says “Guiding others without force.” But this is a rather minor part of the whole.

The word in question here is “sahasa,” which means “forcibly, hastily, suddenly.” What Fronsdal translates as “without force” is the negative of this word, asahasa, which could mean “not hastily” or “not forcibly.”

Eknath (I’m not being overly familiar here; that was his family name) also takes the verb naye to mean “lead” rather than “judge,” although the context seems to be about making assessments rather than about leading. (Fronsdal also makes this word choice, incidentally.)

While I admire the sentiment in Eknath’s version, and while it’s certainly in line with the Buddha’s teaching, his translation is very much an outlier, relying on secondary meanings to create a rather idiosyncratic version of these verses — a version that’s more an expression of what the translator wanted to read than of what the Buddha intended to communicate.

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