The word is derived from the root arh, to deserve, to be worthy, to be fit, and is used to denote a person who has achieved the goal of religious life (in Theravada Buddhism). See ariya-puggala.
In its usage in early Buddhism the term denotes a person who had gained insight into the true nature of things (yathābhūtañana). In the Buddhist movement the Buddha was the first arahant. He was regarded as an arahant, along with other arahants, without any distinction. Thus, after the conversion of the group of five monks (pañcavaggiya), the first converts to the teachings of Gotama, it is stated that there were six arahants in the world at the time (Vin.I.14), the Buddha being reckoned one of them. At the outset, once an adherent realised the true nature of things, i.e., that whatever has arisen (samudaya-dhamma) naturally has a ceasing-to-be (nirodhā-dhamma), he was called an arahant, and with this realisation one is said to have put an end to repeated existence. The Buddha is said to be equal to an arahant in point of attainment, the only distinction being that the Buddha was the pioneer on the path to that attainment, while arahants are those who attain the same state having followed the path trodden by the Buddha.
The arahants are described as buddhānubuddhā, i.e., those who have attained enlightenment after the Fully Enlightened One (Thag. p.111). This is brought out very clearly by a simile in the Nidāna Samyutta (S.II.105-6). A man going about in the forest sees an old road used by the people of yore and, going along it, he sees the remains of an old kingdom. He comes back to the town and tells the people that in such and such a forest he had seen the ruins of a magnificent city, and the people, too, following the road-marks indicated by the man come to the ruined city and see it for themselves. Even so the Buddha was the pioneer on the Noble Eightfold Path (ariya-aţţhańgika-magga) and having followed this path he reached the city of Nibbāna. Later, coming amidst the people he revealed this path to them, and following this path they, too, attained the goal of Nibbāna. In this respect the Buddha as well as his disciples follow the same path and reach the same goal, and the distinction between the Buddha and the disciples who become arahants is not with regard to the attainment, but with regard to the fact that the Buddha rediscovered the age-old path (purānam añjasam) to the city of Nibbāna, while the disciples come to the same city having followed the path discovered by the Buddha. The Buddha is, therefore, called the revealer of the path (maggassa akkhātā). He is the teacher (satthā) who teaches the disciples to attain the same ideal as attained by him.
But, as time passed, the Buddha-concept developed and special attributes were assigned to the Buddha. A Buddha possesses the six fold super-knowledge (chalabhiññā); he has matured the thirty-seven limbs of enlightenment (bodhipakkhika dhamma); in him compassion (karunā) and insight (paññā) develop to their fullest; all the major and minor characteristics of a great man (mahāpurisa) appear on his body; he is possessed of the ten powers (dasa bala) and the four confidences (catu vesārajja); and he has had to practise the ten perfections (pāramitā) during a long period of time in the past.
When speaking of arahants these attributes are never mentioned together, though a particular arahant may have one, two or more of the attributes discussed in connection with the Buddha (S.II.217, 222). In the Nidāna Samyutta (S.II.120-6) a group of bhikkhus who proclaimed their attainment of arahantship, when questioned by their colleagues about it, denied that they had developed the five kinds of super-knowledge—namely, psychic power (iddhi-vidhā), divine ear (dibba-sota), knowledge of others' minds (paracitta-vijānana), power to recall to mind past births (pubbenivāsānussati) and knowledge regarding other peoples' rebirths (cutū-papatti)—and declared that they had attained arahantship by developing wisdom (paññā-vimutti).
An attempt is made in the Nikāyas as well as in later works to define the content of the attainment of arahantship. The commonest and one of the oldest definitions of an arahant is that he has in him the threefold knowledge (tisso vijjā), namely, knowledge of his own previous births, knowledge of the rebirths of others and knowledge regarding the utter cessation of mental intoxicants (āsavakkhayañāna). Most of the poems in the Thera-, Theri-gāthās end with the statement "The threefold knowledge have I attained and I have done the bidding of the Buddha" (tisso vijjā anuppattā katam buddhassa sāsanam : e.g., Thag. p. 9). Other definitions of arahantship are: "Arahants are those in whom the mental intoxicants (āsava) are utterly waned" (khīnāsavā arahanto: S.I.13); one becomes an arahant by the utter waning of lust, hatred and ignorance (S.IV.252); arahants are those who have cut off completely the ten fetters (samyojana) that bind a man to samsāra (Vin. I, 183); an arahant is one in whom seven things, namely, belief in a soul (sakkāya-ditthi), sceptical doubt (vicikicchā), belief in vows and ceremonies (silabbataparamasa), greed, hatred, ignorance and pride are not found (A.IV.145) ; he is one who has crossed the sea of samsāra (pāragū). The word arahant is defined in a fanciful way in some places. For instance in the Majjhima Nikāya (I.280) it is said that an arahant is so called because all sinful evil things are remote (āraka) from him. The Vimanavatthu Atthakatha (105-6) defines the term in the following words: "An arahant is so called because he is remote (ārake) from sinful things; because he has destroyed the spokes (ara) of the wheel of samsāra ; because he deserves to receive the requisites: food, clothing, etc. (paccayānam arahattā), and because he does not sin even in secret (rahābhāva).
The attainment of arahantship is expressed in several formulas of which the commonest one says 'destroyed is rebirth, lived is the higher life, done is what had to be done, after this present life there is no beyond' (Vin.I.14, 35, 183; D.I.84). The declaration itself is called "the declaration of knowledge" (aññā byākarana: M.III.29). The Buddha has indicated a method of verifying the truth of a disciple's statement when he declares that he has attained arahantship. A few questions have to be posed to him and if he answers them correctly then only should he be taken at his word. The first question is with regard to the four conventions (cattāro vohārā). A true arahant does not feel attracted to or repelled, by things seen (dittha), heard (suta), sensed (muta), or cognised (viññāta) and he is independent, not infatuated, and dwells with an open mind, and thus his mind is well freed with regard to the four conventions. The next question is connected with the five aggregates of grasping (upādānakkhandha). The true arahant understands their nature as dependently originated, and he is detached from them, and all the latent biases that arise through attachment to them are destroyed in him. The third question is regarding the six elements (dhātu). A true arahant has no notions of 'I' or 'mine' with regard to these elements and all biases that crop up through attachment to them are completely eradicated in him. The fourth question is connected with the internal and external sense spheres (ajjhattika, bāhira-āyatana). The mind of a true arahant is free from attachment, desire that is born of these sense spheres, the consciousness born thereof and the things that are known through the medium of this consciousness. The fifth question relates to the vision and insight through which all latent biases such as and 'mine' are completely cut off. A true arahant should be able to reveal how he attained supreme knowledge that is that everything has an origin, a cause to its origination, a cessation and a way that leads to its cessation, through which his mind becomes free from thirst for sense pleasure, becoming and ignorance (M.III.29-37).
The discipline of a Buddhist monk is aimed at the attainment of arahantship. There are four distinct stages of attainment as one pursues the discipline from the beginning, namely, the states of the stream-entrant (sotāpanna), the once-returner (sakadāgāmī), the non-returner (anāgāmī) and the arahant. A disciple by attaining the state of a stream-entrant does away completely with the mental intoxicant (āsava) of false views (ditthi) and the intoxicants of lust (kāma), becoming (bhava) and ignorance (avijjā) which produce birth in low states (apāya). By attaining the state of a once-returner he does away with mental intoxicants connected with gross (olārika) sense pleasures and some more cankers of becoming and ignorance. By attaining the state of a non-returner a disciple completely puts an end to all mental intoxicants connected with sense pleasures and also further alleviates the cankers of becoming and ignorance. By becoming an arahant a disciple completely puts an end to all mental intoxicants connected with becoming and ignorance (Ps.I.94).
In the Mahālī Sutta (D.6) a clearer and more precise description of the four attainments is given. According to it one becomes a stream-entrant by overcoming three fetters (samyojana), namely, belief in an enduring entity (sakkāyaditthi), doubt regarding the Buddha; the Dhamma and the Sangha, (vicikicchā) and belief in the efficacy of mere rule and ritual (silabbataparamasa). One becomes a once-returner by diminishing lust, hatred and illusion (raga-dosa-moha) in addition to overcoming the three earlier fetters, and such a being returns to this world once only and puts an end to the process of birth and death (samsāra). One becomes a non-returner by overcoming the first five of the ten fetters which belong to the sphere of the senses (pañca orambhāgiyāni samyojanāni), i.e., sensuous desire (kāmacchanda) and ill-will (vyapada) in addition to the three fetters mentioned in connection with the stream-entrant and the once-returner. One becomes an arahant by completely doing away with all mental intoxicants (āsavānam khayā) having attained the emancipation of heart (cetovimutti) and emancipation through wisdom (paññāvimutti).
The disciple who undertakes to pursue the path to the attainment of arahantship has to follow a graduated process. Arahantship is the result of understanding the true nature of things (yathā-bhūtta) and one can see the true nature of things only through a non-prejudiced mind. To develop a non-prejudiced mind one has to develop concentration of the mind, and this is possible only by a disciplined mind. So the process starts with the practice of virtue (sila) which leads to concentration of the mind (samādhi) which ultimately results in true wisdom (paññā). In the Devata Samyutta (S.I.13) a deity asks the Buddha how a person disentangles the tangle of samsāra and the Buddha replies that a wise man, established firmly on virtue, concentrates his mind and develops true wisdom by which he disentangles the tangle of samsāra.
In several suttas we find detailed descriptions of how a disciple initiates himself into the dispensation of the Buddha and gradually follows up the path. A son of a noble family (kulaputta) listens to the Dhamma preached by the Buddha and begets confidence in him and decides to follow his teaching. He enters the Order of monks, thereby cutting himself away from all family bonds and making himself free from all activities that keep a layman occupied. He refrains from sinful activities such as harming life, stealing, uttering falsehood, back-biting, slandering etc. and cultivates positive virtues such as loving and pitying all beings, speaking gentle and kind words, speaking the truth etc. He guards the doors of his senses so that his mind is not distracted when objects of sensation come in contact with the sense faculties. He is always alert and mindful with regard to all his activities. He lives content with whatever he gets by way of food etc. When he has cultivated these virtues his mind is ready to embark on concentration. He retires to a lonely spot in the forest or near a mountain cave and sits in a befitting posture to concentrate his mind. He now surveys his mind and cleanses it of all shortcomings and sees to it that all five hindrances to mental cultivation (nīvarana), namely, covetousness (abhijjhā), ill-will (vyāpāda), sloth and torpor (thīnamiddha), worry and flurry (uddhacca-kukkucca) and doubt (vicikicchā) are completely done away with.
When he sees himself completely freed of all these hindrances, he becomes delighted (pamujja) and this in turn leads to joy (piti) and this makes his body tranquil (passaddha) and he experiences happiness and his mind becomes concentrated. Now he proceeds from the first ecstasy (jhāna) gradually up to the fourth. When the mind is brought to a high state of concentration in this manner, in it could be developed the sixfold knowledge (see abhiññā), the sixth being the knowledge of the utter destruction of mental intoxicants (āsavakkhaya-ñāna). When the disciple has developed the knowledge of the utter destruction of these cankers he has completely understood the true nature of things and for him there will be no more becoming—he is an arahant (D.I.62-84). The arahant is also called asekha because his training is complete.
It should be stated that this peak of mental culture cannot be reached quickly. One has to cultivate virtues for a considerable length of time in order to clean the mind of its latent biases. The various methods adopted to purify the mind also vary according to the character of the individual concerned. There are several types of characters discussed in this respect, namely, the passion dominated man (raga-carita), the ill-will dominated man (dosa-carita), the ignorance dominated man (moha-carita), the faith dominated man (saddha-carita), the intelligence dominated man (buddhi-carita) and the reflection dominated man (vitakka-carita). The details of the training differ according to the character of the individual (Vim. p.82).
Though it is generally accepted that the path to the attainment of arahantship is a graduated one, there are instances of people who attained arahantship without following all the details, for instance, Suddhodana, Khemā, Mahā Arittha and many others who attained arahantship even before they entered the Order of monks. There is recognised a type of arahants called the sukka-vipassaka and if we accept the view that sukka stands for Buddha (pure or mere) the term then denotes those who attain perfection without ever having attained any of the mental absorptions (jhāna). The Visuddhimagga (ch.xviii, 503) calls such persons suddha-vipassanā-yānika as distinguished from those with "tranquillity as vehicle" (samatha-yānika). The Milindapañha (trsl. 2, 254) discussing this problem says "there is no realisation of arahantship in one single life without keeping of the vows. Only on the utmost zeal and the most devoted practice of righteousness and with the aid of a suitable teacher is the realisation of arahantship attained." It would thus not be incorrect to say that the Theravada view regarding arahantship is that the practice of virtue is essential and that even those who follow the suddha-vipassanā-yāna can do so because they have practised the virtues in previous births.
Lay life and arahantship. Though there are many instances of persons attaining spiritual development up to the third stage of non-returner, instances are not many of individuals attaining arahantship while yet being laymen. Yasa attained arahantship while being a layman, but he, too, entered the Order immediately afterwards (Vin.I.15-20). Khemā, chief of the Buddha's women disciples, attained arahantship before she entered the Order, but she entered the Order with the consent of her husband Bimbisāra, probably on the same day (ThigA.126f). Suddhodana, the father of the Buddha, attained arahantship a little while before his death (DPPN. s.v. Suddhodana). The Mahāvamsa (chap. xvi, 10-11) records that fifty-five brothers headed by the chief minister Mahā Arittha attained arahantship in the tonsure hall, while their heads were being shaved prior to being admitted into the Order. In the Kathavatthu (157-8) the question whether a layman can become an arahant is discussed. The point maintained in it is that what matters is not the external characteristics of a recluse or a layman, and that anybody who is free from the mental fetters and lives a life of complete renunciation could attain arahantship. King Milinda, too, maintains this view and quotes the following words of the Buddha: "I would magnify, o brethren, the supreme attainment either in a layman or in a recluse. Whether he be a layman, o brethren, or a recluse, the man who has reached the supreme attainment shall overcome all the difficulties inherent therein, shall win his way even to the excellent condition of arahantship" (Man. trsl., SBE. vol.36, p.56), but so far this statement has not been traced in the Tipitaka. In the Milindapañha (ibid. p.57) again, a question is posed as to why a person should enter the Order if laymen, too, could attain arahantship. In reply it is shown that facilities and opportunities for cultivating the mind are greater if one enters the Order, since monks are not bound up with duties of laymen such as earning to maintain oneself, wife and children and looking after the needs of relatives. In the Subha Sutra (M.II.197) the Buddha says that a person, whether he be a layman or a recluse, who leads a virtuous life, ever striving to cleanse the mind of impurities, would progress in the path to liberation.
There is a current belief among the Buddhists that when a layman attains arahantship he should enter the Order the same day or else he would die before the end of that day. Nagasena, too, confirms this view. It is difficult to trace from canonical sources any evidence to substantiate this view.
Again, if we examine the connotation of the word anāgāmī (non-returner to the material world) we obtain more evidence to support the view that arahantship is attainable outside the Order of monks. If an anāgāmī does not attain arahantship in that very existence, he will pass away and will be reborn among the Suddhāvāsā deities, where he will put an end to reiterated existence (see anāgāmī).
Women and arahantship: The Buddha placed women on a par with men in the capacity of developing the mind to the highest level.. A few years after the inauguration of the Order of monks, an Order of nuns, too, was set up with Mahapajapati Gotami, the Buddha's foster-mother, as the first recruit. The Vinaya Pitaka contains a section of special rules laid down for the guidance of bhikkhunis. As is obvious, the purpose of the religious life is to attain arahantship. Women, like men, entered the Order in order to realise this state. Nowhere in Buddhist literature do we come across statements denouncing the capacity of women to develop their minds, and in this respect no distinction is shown between men and women. The Therīgāthā is full of instances of therīs who had attained arahantship (e. g., Thig. pp. 126, 129, 131 etc.). Mara once attempted to dissuade Somā, a therī, from attaining arahantship saying that she with little brains could not aspire to attain a noble state attained by sages with high mental powers. Soma's reply was that if the mind is properly cultivated so as to develop true know-ledge by which one understands the real state of things, womanhood is no barrier to the attainment of arahantship (Thig. 129). Mrs. Rhys Davids in the Introduction (p. xxiv) to her translation of the Therīgāthā states that the instances of therīs declaring their attainment of arahantship are more in the Therīgāthā than of monks doing so in the Theragāthā.
Arahants and Society. When we study the life-history of the Buddha as well as those of his chief disciples who were arahants, it becomes abundantly clear that the Buddha did not expect his disciples to forsake society altogether, before or after the attainment of arahantship. During a period of forty-five years the Buddha was busy doing missionary work among the people. The better part of his day was spent in going about and meeting people and teaching them how to lead better lives. When he met people he did not always speak to them about the misery of life. When he met ordinary people he admonished them to refrain from anti-social activities and to do things which are for the benefit of the many (D. III, 180-93). When he met kings and higher ministers he spoke to them of ways and means of good government which would result in the happiness of all concerned. When he came across people who were grieved by various misfortunes, he spoke words of comfort to them (ThigA. 108-17). When he came across criminals he preached to reform them for the benefit of the criminals as well as for the benefit of society (ThagA. III, 54-64). He spoke of the duties of children towards their parents and vice versa, of the duties of a wife towards her husband and those of a husband towards his wife, and he also spoke of the mutual duties of all people for the better and smoother running of society. When he gathered round him his first group of disciples, sixty in number and all of them arahants, he dispersed them in all directions asking them to preach the Dhamma for the welfare of the many (Vin.I.21). Chief disciples like Sāriputta, Moggallāna, Kaccayana and others, following the example of the Buddha, spent all their lives in working for the spiritual upliftment of the masses. The Buddha as well as his disciples lived in society, but they were not of society. They lived lives of complete renunciation, though they depended on the generosity of the public for their sustenance, and worked for their spiritual upliftment. Theirs was a disinterested service. The life of a true disciple of the Buddha is compared to a lotus in the pond (A.II.39; Sn. p.101). The lotus bud grows in the mud in the pond, is nourished in it, but it grows through the water, comes above the surface, blossoms out, and is untouched by the water. Likewise the disciple develops into a fully-awakened man, while being in society, but he is not bound by the fetters of social life. He is not carried away by what takes place in it. In the Mahamangala Sutta (Sn.46-7) it is said that if one can stand unmoved (cittam yassa na kampati) when affected by the things of the world (phutthassa lokadhammehi) it would be a great blessing.
Though such is the general attitude of a disciple towards society, we see a parallel development in some texts admonishing the true sage (muni=arahant) to steer clear of society and make a quick escape from samsāra. Society is depicted as a very evil place, full of vicious people, the haunt of all viles, and hence the muni should have nothing to do with it. He should wander about all alone, far away from society, like the rhinoceros (Sn. pp.6-12).
The Mahayanists put forward the ideal of the bodhisattva - a being dedicated to the services of humanity, probably as a protest against this development.
The Mahayanists accuse the arahat of selfishness because he strives only for his own liberation from sorrow instead of working for the liberation and happiness of all beings. They exert themselves only for their own complete Nirvana (ātma-parinirvana-hetoh: Sdmp. p.75). The sravakas (arahat) think only of their own good (svartha: Mahayanasutralankara, 53.4). The arahat saves no one but him-self. He is like one confined in a dungeon, who, having found a way of escape, hastens to set him-self at liberty, while callously leaving his fellow-prisoners in darkness and captivity.
The bodhisattva, on the other hand, is the embodiment of supreme unselfishness. He solemnly dedicates himself to the service of all beings who stand in need of succour, suffering the most atrocious tortures, if necessary, if thereby he may save others from pain and sorrow.
It must be stated, however, that this charge of selfishness made against the arahat, in contrast with the unselfishness of the bodhisattva, is not in accordance with fact. In the first place, the concept of the bodhisattva is not peculiar to Mahayana. In the second place, it would be quite incorrect to say that the arahat, as depicted in Hinayana, is entirely occupied with his own salvation and is callous of the salvation and sufferings of others.
As has been stated earlier, the word arahat means 'one who is worthy' and his worthiness is of a kind that cannot be reconciled with any form of selfishness. "Even as a mother watches over her only begotten child," says the Sutta Nipata, one of the oldest texts of the Theravada, "so let his heart and mind be filled with boundless love for all creatures, great and small, let him practise benevolence towards the whole world, above, below, across, without exception, and let him set himself utterly free from all ill-will and enmity." And, another text, the Itivuttaka (19), says “all the means that can be used as bases for doing right are not worth one-sixteenth part of the emancipation of the heart through love. That takes all those up unto itself, outshining them in radiance and glory."
No selfish being could, therefore, become an arahat. Arahatship consists in a spiritual exaltation that transcends the limitations of temporal individuality. No system which aims at the elimination of the phenomenal ego can be accused of egoism or selfishness. Arahatship is the full realisation of the transcendental self and such self-realisation is far removed from selfishness and, indeed, involves self-sacrifice.
In charging the arahat, therefore, with being over-mindful of his own development and salvation and with ignoring the moral and spiritual well-being of his fellow-men, the Mahayanists were. hardly fair. The arahat, on the other hand, is one who acts in accordance with the principle that each man forms part of a spiritual whole of which all his fellow-men are also parts and that to serve them is to enrich and ennoble his own higher self, while to neglect them would be to impoverish it. Even at the lowest estimate, the arahat is one who seeks and attains an enlightenment for himself so that he might subtract at least himself from the vast burden of sorrow and pain that weighs upon the world. Having done this, he continues the good life for the gain and the welfare of the many, in benevolent activity, although it could add nothing to the reward which he has already won.
After he has won Arahatship, up to the time of his death, the arahat lives wishlessly, happy and con-tented, because his supreme achievement leaves no room for wishes of any kind. According to the Milindapañha (pp. 134 IT., 253) he is liable to suffer bodily pain, however, because he cannot control his body. But such pain he bears with equanimity which nothing can disturb.
According to the Theravadins, the acquisition of Nirvana is final and definite and can never again be lost. The Sammitiyas, Vajjiputtiyas, Sabbatthivadins and some Mahasanghikas, however, held that the arahat is liable to fall away. The Saddharmapundarika (v, 59—83) speaks of the nirvana of the arahats as a temporary repose and distinguishes it from the final Nirvana of the Buddha. The Theravadins regard the arahat as being of almost god-like stature but the Mahasanghikas maintained that he was human and he had many imperfections, e.g., that he could still be troubled by demons, have various doubts and be ignorant of many things. The Andhakas said that the arahat could be surpassed in knowledge by others, in opposition to the Vibhajjavadins in whose view the arahat has complete knowledge.GP Malalsekara