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The exact interpretation and etymology of arahant and arhat remains disputed. The term was in use before the appearance of Buddhism. Bhikkhu Bodhi writes that the term arahant was current before the time of Gautama Buddha.
Arhat occurs as arhattā in the Rigveda. Though the word arhattā occurs mostly in Buddhist and Jain texts, it also occurs in the Vedas and some Vaishnava works such as the Bhagavata Purana. Arhattā also occurs in the Vaishnava Srī Narada Pañcaratnam.
Based on a possible Sanskrit etymology, arhant can be translated as "deathless", since "hant" in Sanskrit means death or killing, and "ar" is often used for negation, implying "cannot be killed" or "beyond death" or "deathless". This fits well with the central philosophical thought in Buddhism. A similar transcendence is referred to in the Mahamrityunjaya Mantra, which also occurs in the Rigveda.
In the Theravada tradition, and in early Pali Text Society publications, the word arahant or arhat is interpreted to mean the "worthy one" This interpretation is based on the assumption that the root of the word is Pali araha (cf. Sk. arha). Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:
The word is derived from a verb arahati, meaning "to be worthy," and thus means a person who is truly worthy of veneration and offerings. Among Indian spiritual seekers in the Buddha's time, the word was used to denote a person who had attained the ultimate goal, for this is what made one worthy of veneration and offerings.
The interpretation "worthy one" has been challenged by more recent research, resulting from the etymological comparison of Pali and early Jain Prakrit forms (arihanta and arahanta). The alternative etymology is "foe-destroyer" or "vanquisher of enemies," which corresponds to the Jain definition. Richard Gombrich has proposed an etymology of ari + hanta, bringing the root meaning closer to Jina (an epithet commonly used of both the leaders of the Jain religion and Gautama Buddha).
The term arhat was translated into East Asian languages phonetically as a transliterated term, exemplified in the Chinese āluóhàn (Ch. 阿羅漢), often shortened to simply luóhàn (Ch. 羅漢).
The Tibetan term for arhat was translated by meaning from Sanskrit. This translation, dgra bcom pa, means "one who has destroyed the foes of afflictions." This Tibetan translation of the meaning conforms with the Jain definition as well.
A range of views on the attainment of arhats existed in the early Buddhist schools.
The Sarvāstivāda, Kāśyapīya, Mahāsāṃghika, Ekavyāvahārika, Lokottaravāda, Bahuśrutīyas, Prajñaptivāda, and Caitika schools all regarded arhats as being imperfect in their attainments compared to buddhas.
The Mahīśāsaka and the Theravāda regarded arhats and buddhas as being more similar to one another. The 5th century Theravadin commentator Buddhaghosa regarded arhats as having completed the path to enlightenment.[note 1] According to Bhikkhu Bodhi, the Pali Canon portrays the Buddha declaring himself to be an arahant.[note 2] According to Bikkhu Bodhi, nirvāṇa is "the ultimate goal", and one who has attained nirvana has attained arahantship:[note 3] Bhikkhu Bodhi writes, "The defining mark of an arahant is the attainment of nirvāṇa in this present life."
The Mahayana discerned a hierarchy of attainments, with samyaksambuddhas at the top, advanced bodhisattvas below that, pratyekabuddhas below that, and arhats further below. According to Charles Prebish and Damien Keown, bodhisattvas and buddhas were distinguished from śrāvakas and arhats, more than anything, by "the altruistic orientation of the bodhisattva."[note 4]
Meaning of Arhat
In the early Buddhist schools
In pre-Buddhist India the term arhat, denoting a saintly person in general, was closely associated with miraculous power and asceticism. The Buddhists drew a sharp distinction between their Arhat and Indian holy men in general, in Buddhism these miraculous powers were no longer central to arhat identity or to his mission.
A range of views on the relative perfection of arhats existed amongst the early Buddhist schools. In general, the Mahāsāṃghika branch, such as the Ekavyāvahārikas, Lokottaravādins, Bahuśrutīyas, Prajñaptivādins, and Caitika schools, advocated the transcendental and supermundane nature of the buddhas and bodhisattvas, and the fallibility of arhats. The Caitikas, for example, advocated the ideal of the bodhisattva (bodhisattvayāna) over that of the arhat (śrāvakayāna), and they viewed arhats as being fallible and still subject to ignorance.
According to A.K. Warder, the Sarvāstivādins held the same position as the Mahāsāṃghika branch regarding arhats, considering them to be imperfect and fallible. The Kāśyapīya school also held the doctrine that arhats were fallible and imperfect, similar to the view of the Sarvāstivādins and the various Mahāsāṃghika sects. The Kāśyapīyas believed that arhats have not fully eliminated desires, that their "perfection" is incomplete, and that it is possible for them to relapse.
In Theravāda Buddhism
In Theravada Buddhism, an arahant is a person who has eliminated all the unwholesome roots which underlie the fetters – who upon decease will not be reborn in any world, since the bonds (fetters) that bind a person to the samsara have been finally dissolved. In the Pali Canon, the word tathagata is sometimes used as a synonym for arahant, though the former usually refers to the Buddha alone.[note 5]
After attainment of Nibbana, the five aggregates (physical forms, feelings/sensations, perception, mental formations and consciousness) will continue to function, sustained by physical bodily vitality. This attainment is termed the nibbana element with a residue remaining. But once the Arahant pass-away and with the disintegration of the physical body, the five aggregates will cease to function, hence ending all traces of existence in the phenomenal world and thus total release from the misery of samsara. It would then be termed the nibbana element without residue remaining. Parinibbana occurs at the death of an Arahant.
In Theravada Buddhism the Buddha himself is first identified as an arahant, as are his enlightened followers, because they are free from all defilements, without greed, hatred, delusion, ignorance and craving. Lacking "assets" which will lead to future birth, the arahant knows and sees the real here and now. This virtue shows stainless purity, true worth, and the accomplishment of the end, nibbana.
In his study of the roles of arahants, buddhas, and bodhisattvas, Nathan Katz writes that there is a tendency in the Theravāda school to exclude laypeople from the possibility of achieving arahantship.
While in the Sutta Piṭaka, arhattā was open to all, both in principle and in fact, there was a growing tendency among later Theravāda saṅghikas to restrict arhattā to those wearing the robe. Earlier we indicated a Milindapañha verse which held that while arhattā might be attainable by a layperson, within one day of its attainment he would have to either enter the saṅgha or die.
- one develops insight preceded by serenity (Pali: samatha-pubbaṇgamaṃ vipassanaṃ),
- one develops serenity preceded by insight (vipassanā-pubbaṇgamaṃ samathaṃ),
- one develops serenity and insight in a stepwise fashion (samatha-vipassanaṃ yuganaddhaṃ),
- one's mind becomes seized by excitation about the dhamma and, as a consequence, develops serenity and abandons the fetters (dhamma-uddhacca-viggahitaṃ mānasaṃ hoti).
For those that have destroyed greed and hatred (in the sensory context) with some residue of delusion, are called anagami (non-returner). Anagamis will not be reborn into the human world after death, but into the heaven of the Pure Abodes, where only anagamis live. There, they will attain full enlightenment.
In Mahāyāna Buddhism
Mahāyāna Buddhists see the Buddha himself as the ideal towards which one should aim in one's spiritual aspirations. In Mahāyāna Buddhism, a hierarchy of general attainments is envisioned, with the attainments of arhats and pratyekabuddha being clearly separate, and below that of fully enlightened buddhas (Skt. samyaksaṃbuddha), or tathāgatas, such as Gautama Buddha.
In contrast to the goal of becoming a fully enlightened buddha, the path of a śrāvaka in being motivated by seeking personal liberation from saṃsāra, is often portrayed as selfish and undesirable. There are even some Mahāyāna texts that regard the aspiration to arhatship and personal liberation as an outside path. Instead of aspiring for arhatship, Mahāyāna Buddhists are urged to instead take up the path of a bodhisattva, and to not fall back to the level of arhats and śrāvakas. Therefore, it is taught that an arhat must go on to become a bodhisattva eventually. If they fail to do so in the lifetime in which they reach the attainment, they will fall into a deep samādhi of emptiness, thence to be roused and taught the bodhisattva path, presumably when ready. According to the Lotus Sūtra (Skt. Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra), any true arhat will eventually accept the Mahāyāna path.
The Mahāyāna teachings often consider the śrāvaka path to be motivated by fear of saṃsāra, which renders them incapable of aspiring to buddhahood, and that they therefore lack the courage and wisdom of a bodhisattva. Novice bodhisattvas are compared to śrāvakas and arhats at times. In the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, there is an account of 60 novice bodhisattvas who attain arhatship despite themselves and their efforts at the bodhisattva path, because they lacked ability in prajñā-pāramitā and skillful means to progress as bodhisattvas toward complete enlightenment (Skt. Anuttarā Samyaksaṃbodhi). This is because they are still viewed as having innate attachment and fear of saṃsāra. The Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra compares these people to a giant bird without wings that cannot help but plummet to the earth from the top of Mount Sumeru.
Mahāyāna Buddhism has viewed the śrāvaka path culminating in arhatship as a lesser accomplishment than complete enlightenment, but still accords due respect to arhats for their respective achievements. Therefore, buddha-realms are depicted as populated by both śrāvakas and bodhisattvas. Far from being completely disregarded, the accomplishments of arhats are viewed as impressive, essentially because they have transcended the mundane world. Chinese Buddhism and other East Asian traditions have historically accepted this perspective, and specific groups of arhats are venerated as well, such as the Sixteen Arhats, the Eighteen Arhats, and the Five Hundred Arhats. The first famous portraits of these arhats were painted by the Chinese monk Guan Xiu (Chinese: 貫休; pinyin: Guànxiū) in 891 CE. He donated these portraits to Shengyin Temple in Qiantang (present day Hangzhou) where they are preserved with great care and ceremonious respect.
In some respects, the path to arhatship and the path to complete enlightenment are seen as having common grounds. However, a distinctive difference is seen in the Mahāyāna doctrine pushing emotional and cognitive non-attachment to their logical consequences. Of this, Paul Williams writes that in Mahāyāna Buddhism, "Nirvāṇa must be sought without being sought (for oneself), and practice must be done without being practiced. The discursive mode of thinking cannot serve the basic purpose of attainment without attainment."
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- , an article by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi