The term arhat (Sanskrit) or arahant (Pali) denotes for Buddhism a being who has reached a state of perfection and enlightenment. The term has been thought to derive from pre-Buddhist contexts in India, where it signified a “worthy” being. Theravada Buddhism regards the arhat as a being who has completed the path to enlightenment by transcending the ordinary human state (puthujjana) and completing the stages of liberating wisdom as spelled out in the buddha’s teachings and in the later Visuddhimagga (Path of purification). For Theravada, the arhats represent figures who are worthy both of imitation and veneration because they embody the highest ideals of the tradition. Mahayana Buddhist schools also venerate the arhats but generally assign them a penultimate rather than an ultimate position on the Buddhist spiritual path.
The volume Horner 1936 represents one of the earliest studies of this ideal, and its author’s work remains essential for understanding the history and significance of the term. Horner 1934 has a more focused discussion of the path. Katz 1989 complements Horner’s work very well and extends the scope of the discussion by taking into account other factors, such as psychology and society. Gombrich 2009 offers an important new theory about the derivation of the term arahant. Harvey 1995 and Jaini 1992 examine the meaning of the arhat ideal. Bond 1988 offers a general discussion of the significance of the arahant in Theravada.
Bond, George D. “The Arahant: Sainthood in Theravāda Buddhism.” In Sainthood: Its Manifestations in World Religions. Edited by R. Kieckhefer and G. Bond, 140–171. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Article traces the nature of the arahant ideal in the Theravada textual tradition and examines some of the stories of figures venerated for having fulfilled the ideal.
Gombrich, Richard F. What the Buddha Thought. Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. Oakville, CT: Equinox, 2009.
The author argues that the Buddhist use of the term arahant may have much in common with Jainism, and he suggests that the term may originally have derived from a term meaning a “conqueror” or “destroyer of enemies.”
Harvey, Peter. The Selfless Mind: Personality, Consciousness and Nirvāṇa in Early Buddhism. Surrey, UK: Curzon, 1995.
In one section of this work, pp. 227ff., the author discusses the meaning of arhat in relation to tathāgata and buddha.
Horner, I. B. “The Four Ways and the Four Fruits of Buddhism.” Indian Historical Quarterly 10 (1934): 785–796.
A useful, concise discussion of the evolution of the ideal of the arhat and the path.
Horner, I. B. The Early Buddhist Theory of Man Perfected. London: Williams and Norgate, 1936.
A classic study of the arahant in the Pali texts, which traces the ideal in the context of Indian thought. First published in 1900.
Jaini, Padmanabh S. “On the Ignorance of the Arhat.” In Paths to Liberation: The Mārga and Its Transformations in Buddhist Thought. Edited by R. Buswell and R. Gimello, 135–145. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992.
Examines the nature and limits of the arhat.
Katz, Nathan. Buddhist Images of Human Perfection: The Arahant of the Sutta Piṭaka Compared with the Bodhisattva and the Mahāsiddha. 2d ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1989.
A thorough examination of the path of the arahant according to the Pali texts and formulae. This fine study also addresses important questions such as the comparison of the arhat and the buddha, the role of the arhat in society, and the relation to the bodhisattva.
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