Martial Arts: An Overview

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The role of the warrior has been a position of importance to many cultures historically, with the efficacy of combat strategies and warrior skills often determining the course of history and the continued existence of groups of people. In the cultures of South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Far East, religious beliefs and teachings often interpenetrated the martial traditions. Just as the physical forms of these arts have varied from one country to the next, so too have their religious and meditative components. For some martial traditions, these spiritual elements constitute the highest levels of practice. This article will introduce the varied religious and meditative dimensions of martial traditions as found in India, China, Japan, and Indonesiaan orientation often overlooked by practitioners of such disciplines, who prefer to concentrate upon the physical dimensions of practice. Regrettably, most of what is known about many martial arts is limited to information transmitted by oral tradition. Hence, even theories about the origins of the martial arts remain speculative and nebulous. However, most historians agree that some of the earliest traceable roots lead either to India or China.


The origins of the martial traditions of India are difficult to trace and verify, but vestiges of fighting techniques used in ancient India do remain. Early references to combative situations can be found in such classic epics as the gveda, the Rāmāyaa, and the Mahābhārata. Contemporary writings generally emphasize wrestling forms (kuhi, varja-mui, bino, masti) and weaponry (e.g., bāa, pharī-gatkā, lāhī, paā, cilampam). Wrestling flourished in India before the beginnings of the Aryan invasions (c. 1500 bce).

Aside from wrestling and weaponry, there exists surprisingly little information concerning any organized martial disciplines. Some systems are mentioned sporadically in the literature, including aitaa, cilampam, kuttu varicai (Tamil), and mukkebazi, though no reference to religious practices is to be found. However, recent Western investigations of the Indian martial system known as kaarippayau have begun to uncover the association between religious and physical aspects of practice in Indian culture today.

Kaarippayau (kaari, "fencing school"; payau, "fencing exercise"; kaarippayau, "place where martial exercises are taught") is a system of martial training found in Kerala which, in its present form, dates back to at least the twelfth century ce. It was developed primarily to prepare Kerala's martial caste (Nairs) for combat, although higher-caste Yatra brahmans, lower-caste Tiyyas, and many Muslims and Christians were also proficient in the form. This system rests upon preliminary physical culture training (physical exercise and body massage) that is later followed by practice in unarmed combat as well as a variety of weapons.

In kaarippayau, in-depth knowledge of the marma vulnerable points of the human bodyis required in order to know where to attack one's opponent, how to protect one's own body, and how to treat injuries to these vital spots during training or battle. Further, the use of breathing exercises, repetition of mantra s, visual concentration, and performance of special rituals (paying respects to deities and teachers) all aid in achieving proper mind-body coordination and may lead to the development of power (śakti). The lower abdominal region referred to as the nabhi or nabhi mūla(m), as well as the three lower cakra s of kualinīyoga, may also be stressed in kaarippayau. The nahbi mūla(m) corresponds to the second yogic cakra, svādhihāna, and is recognized as the source of prāa-vāyu ("energy").

Attempting to articulate the spiritual dimensions of an Indian martial system is difficult in a culture that possesses such an indigenous spiritual tradition as yoga. It is evident that some of the techniques and practices employed in kaarippayau overlap with yoga. However, within most schools, the process of spiritual emancipation (moka) is overtly reserved for the discipline of yoga. These kaarippayau masters familiar with yoga acknowledge that both disciplines develop the ability to focus at will on one point (i.e., the ability to "concentrate") but beyond this similarity the practices diverge, with yoga continuing as a self-conscious path of meditation. Among the ūfī kaarippayau practitioners of the Cannanore area of northern Kerala, however, great emphasis is placed upon spiritual training and development. Advanced training in meditation involves progressing through a series of rituals known as dhikr s (Arab., lit., "remembrance, recollection" of God), which are performed silently or aloud. Such practices can lead to experiences of ecstasy, realization of the internal white light, and union with God. As the connection between Indian martial traditions and religious practices is evident historically, it is safe to assume that additional investigations will provide more information on the practices and aims associated with the overlap of these martial traditions with meditative techniques and philosophies.


Though lacking in strong documentation, historical reviews generally credit Bodhidharma (c. 448527 ce) with playing a central role in the development of a systematized martial discipline in China. Bodhidharma is an obscure figure. However, he is generally acknowledged to be the first patriarch of the Chan (Jpn., Zen) school in China. Although no Indian records of his life are known to exist, Chinese sources indicate that he was trained in Buddhist meditation in Kāñcīpuram, a province south of Madras. Upon the death of his master Prajñātara, he reportedly left India for China, in part due to the decline of Buddhism in those areas outside of India proper. After visiting with the emperor at Nanking, Bodhidharma proceeded north to the Shao-lin Temple in Henan province. In his teaching there he reportedly became disturbed by the inability of monks to stay awake during meditation. To eliminate this tendency as well as to improve their health, Bodhidharma allegedly introduced a systematized set of exercises to strengthen the body and mindexercises that purportedly marked the beginning of the shao-lin style of temple boxing. These exercise forms were transmitted orally and transcribed by later monks in the Yijin jing and Xishui jing.

In addition to his contributions in the area of physical training, Bodhidharma was also said to have been centrally involved in transmitting the Lakāvatāra Sūtra to his disciple Huike, insisting that it represented the key to buddhahood. The teaching of the Lakāvatāra Sūtra focuses upon enlightenment, with specific reference to such doctrines as "mind-only" (vijñāptimātra) and "all-conserving consciousness" (ālaya-vijñāna). It essentially records the Buddha's own inner experience (pratyātmagata) concerning the religious teachings of Mahāyāna Buddhism. A central theme of the Lakāvatāra Sūtra is the importance of transmission of doctrine from mind to mind without reliance upon written texts. In keeping with the Chan tradition, it appeals directly to the enlightened mind as its source of authority, rather than depending upon words to convey its message.

Many of these teachings were later incorporated into Chinese philosophy, interspersed with the already prevailing Daoist precepts of the dao, yin-yang, and the principle of dualism and change, the importance given to deep breathing (lianqi) and its relationship to the goal of longevity or immortality, and the doctrines of "nonaction" (wuwei) and "natural spontaneity" (ziran). The interpretation of Buddhist and Daoist precepts transformed martial and nonmartial teachings into a new form, the early search for dao being later replaced by the goal of qianxing ("illumination"), because of the Chan Buddhist influences noted above.

Contemporary Chinese martial arts are said to be derived from the original shaolin techniques introduced by Bodhidharma. These forms of gongfu are generally divided into two groups"internal" (neijia zhuanfa), or "soft" (rou), and "external" (waijia zhuanfa), or "hard" (gang). In addition to stressing the importance of the Daoist and Buddhist philosophical-experiential principles described above, the "internal" system also concentrates on the will (yi), vital energy (qi), and internal strength. Further, Daoist deep breathing techniques of qigong are practiced to cultivate qi in the dantian ("cinnabar fields"), where it is collected and stored. Styles falling within the "internal" category include taiji, bagua, and xingyi, while shaolin boxing is classified as "external." Principles of Daoist philosophy and cosmogony are reflected in the three primary internal styles. Ironically, while the internal styles clearly draw upon the principles of Daoist and Chan teachings in the employment of specific self-defense techniques, strategies, and forms, few of the internal schools today emphasize the transformative religious goals stressed by the classical meditative systems and by some of the earlier practitioners of these martial disciplines.


From roughly the eighth century to the end of the sixteenth century ce, Japan was beset by numerous domestic wars. This sociopolitical climate provided the classical professional warriors (bushi) with not only a prominent role in molding the natural character of Japan, but also an opportunity to further develop and refine the combative techniques of the bujutsu (martial arts). During these centuries martial traditions (ryū) were founded with the specific purpose of formalizing and perpetuating practical combat systems. It was during the Kamakura period (11851333 ce) that Zen Buddhism was introduced to Japan from China, largely through the work of the Japanese Buddhist priests Eisai (11411215) and Dōgen (12001253), who had studied Chan in China. Through the efforts of their followers Tokiyori (12271263) and Tokimune (12511284), Chan, as Zen, was introduced into Japanese life, having a distinct impact upon the life of the samurai. The successful cooperation of the martial and spiritual disciplines led to the creation of Bushidō, the warrior code, which idealized such virtues as loyalty and courage and espoused the goal of achieving that state of mind in which the warrior's thoughts would transcend life and death (seishi o chōetsu).

In 1603, the Tokugawa military government (bakufu) was founded by Tokugawa Ieyasu, an event that marked the end of war as a pervasive aspect of the Japanese culture and the beginning of the Edo period (16031867 ce). In this era of peace, maintained by strict tyrannical rules, governmental influences stressed the redirection of the people's attention to the ideals of the past. This marked a notable shift in social awareness for bushi and commoner alike, leading to the development of the classical budō forms. Influenced by the Confucian interpretation of the Dao, the Japanese culture took the principle of dao dō in Japaneseand modified it in such a way as to be compatible with Japanese feudal society and applicable to man in his social relationships. The shift from bujutsu (bu, "military [martial] affairs"; jutsu, "art") to budō (dō, "way") signified a change in emphasis from combat training to cultivation of man's awareness of his spiritual nature. The primary goal of classical budō was enlightenment as outlined in Zen teachingsa shift again from simply external perfection of (martial) techniques to self-mastery via "spiritual forging" (seishin tanren). The distinction between bujutsu ("martial arts") and budō ("martial ways") still holds true today.

The formation of specific budō systems began during the early seventeenth century. Kenjutsu ("sword art") was transformed into kendo ("sword way"); and the essence of iaido ("sword drawing technique") as a spiritual discipline appeared at this time in contrast to iaijutsu. Weaponless budō systems, such as jikishinryu, also appeared. The classical budō forms continued to evolve until the latter part of the nineteenth century when, with the rise of ultranationalism among the Japanese people, both the aims of classical budō and classical bujutsu disciplines were redirected to support this effort.

Modern bujutsu and modern budō are generally viewed as beginning in 1868, after the overthrow of the Tokugawa government. However, there are significant differences between these modern martial traditions and their classical counterparts. Collectively speaking, the modern disciplines are generally characterized as methods of self-defense or as tactics for sparring or grappling with an opponent. Modern bujutsu consists of hand-to-hand combat systems that are used as methods of self-defense and spiritual training. Modern budō consists of various systems of physical exercise or sport seen as methods of self-defense or as spiritual training aimed at bringing man into harmony with a peace-seeking international society. Examples of modern budō include modern kendō, modern jūdō, karatedō, aikidō, (nippon) shōrinji kenpō, and kyūdō.

In many cases, a comparison of the modern budō to their classical counterparts (which are still practiced today in Japan) reveals major differences in purpose. While the proclaimed concern for discipline, morals, and the importance of "spirit" carries over from the classical traditions, the concept of dō is largely distorted in the modern disciplines. Modern exponents have been accused of reinterpreting the dō to fit their own subjective interpretation of their personal role and needs in the world, rather than focusing upon classical martial-meditative goals. However, to dismiss all of the modern budō systems as poor imitations of once-thriving, authentic spiritual disciplines may be premature. For example, select schools of modern kendō and kyūdō do stress goals associated with the classical (budō) disciplines. It may be that the individual practitioners within a particular discipline remain the best measure of the degree to which the classical budō aims are stressed, realized, and exemplified.


Throughout its history, Indonesia has been subject to the cultural and combative influences of other countries, including India, China, and Indochina. Furthermore, Java, its cultural and political core, has always been a center of magical and mystical beliefs and practices, which have become even more widespread since independence from the Dutch in 1949. With ongoing migrations of peoples of the many Indonesian islands and the combative and mystical elements continuing to evolve over time, highly sophisticated martial arts have developed, which are currently referred to as pukulan.

While several major combative forms are presently found in Indonesia, the martial art known as pencak-silat is the dominant self-defense discipline and the one with the strongest spiritual roots. It reportedly first developed on the Riouw archipelago in the eleventh century ce. By the 1300s it had become a highly sophisticated technical art that was open solely to members of nobility and the ruling classes. Indian, Chinese, Arabic and, later, Japanese influences permeated in varying degrees a number of the styles. These developments as well as travel between the different islands further modified its combative form (which was no longer limited exclusively to select social classes) leading to rapid diversification. There are now hundreds of different styles.

Though varying definitions exist, pencak usually connotes skillful body movements in variation, while silat refers to the fighting application of pencak. Pencak-silat is known to have been influenced by Hindu religious elements and to have evolved further through contact with a rich Islamic spiritual tradition. The emphasis placed on the spiritual aspects of the art will vary from one style to another, but most systems start with physical training aimed at learning and applying various techniques for avoiding physical harm at the hands of an assailant. Upon successful acquisition of these motor skills, the practitioner may develop his inner power, which can be expressed in varying forms. For example, the practitioner of the Joduk style of Bali is able to engage in mystic, trancelike statesan ability that distinguishes the individual as a guru ("teacher"). Further internal development in the various styles of pencak-silat leads to the title of maha guru ("master teacher") while those who have attained the summit of technique are given the title of pendekar ("fighter"; also connotes "spiritualist" and leader or champion who has obtained an understanding of trueinnerknowledge).

The final stage of training in pencak-silat is referred to as kebatinan. Importance is placed on inner emotional experience and personal revelation as derived from the practice of the mystical discipline, although the practices and methods employed as one advances on the mystical path vary noticeably from one sect to another. The path of kebatinan stresses intuitive feeling (rasa) and surrender (sujud); man rids himself of impulses and bodily desires by emptying himself so as to be filled with the divine presence of Godthe revelation of the divine residing within the heart (batin). The path of kebatinan is no easy understanding. Overcoming one's attachment to the outward aspects of existence (lahir) may involve ascetic practices (tapa): fasting, prayer, meditation (particularly visual concentrative techniques), sexual abstinence, remaining awake throughout the night, or retreating to the mountains and into caves. It should be pointed out, however, as noted earlier with other martial systems, that the degree to which the mystical practices are pursued and realized will vary from one practitioner to another. For example, some pendekar avoid all involvement with mysticism and kebatinan, while others practice also the noncorporeal, mystical aspects of their discipline.


While the spiritual dimensions of several martial systems of India, China, Japan, and Indonesia have been briefly outlined, the meditative-religious dimensions of martial arts and martial traditions of other countries still need to be critically and comprehensively assessed. Today, the spiritual dimensions of practice are often overlooked, although increased interest in the concept of the "spiritual warrior" has begun to appear. Inclusion of this important component will serve to broaden our understanding of the interrelationship between the physical and spiritual sides of human existence.

See Also

Attention; Bodhidharma; Bushidō; Spiritual Discipline; War and Warriors.


A scholarly overview of Asian martial systems can be found in Donn F. Draeger and Robert W. Smith's Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts (New York, 1980), originally published as Asian Fighting Arts (Tokyo and Palo Alto, Calif., 1969); discussions of religious dimensions are limited, as are references supporting textual material. A less critical discussion of Indian martial arts is in the Encyclopedia of Indian Physical Culture, edited by Dattatraya C. Mujumdar (Baroda, India, 1950). Excellent discussions of kaarippayau appear in Phillip B. Zarrilli's When the Body Becomes All Eyes (Delhi and New York, 1998). Perhaps the best historical review of the Chinese martial arts can be found in A Source Book in the Chinese Martial Arts, 2 vols., edited by James I. Wong (Stockton, Calif., 1978). Donn F. Draeger's three volumes on the martial arts and martial ways of JapanClassical Bujutsu (New York, 1973), Classical Budo (New York, 1973), and Modern Bujutsu and Budo (New York, 1974)are among the best writings on the topic. For the Indonesian martial arts, Draeger's Weapons and Fighting Arts of the Indonesian Archipelago (Rutland, Vt., 1972) remains the definitive source. Finally, an in-depth discussion of the religious dimensions of martial traditions appears in my forthcoming Meditative-Religious Traditions of Fighting Arts and Martial Ways.

New Sources

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Green, T. A. Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif., 2001.

Jones, D. E. Combat, Ritual, and Performance: Anthropology of the Martial Arts. Westport, Conn., 2002.

McCarthy, P., et al. Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts: koryu uchinadi. Boston, 1999.

McFarlane, Stewart. "Mushin, Morals, and Martial Artsa Discussion of Keenan's Yogacara Critique." Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 17 (1990): 397420.

McFarlane, Stewart. "Fighting Bodhisattvas and Inner Warriors: Buddhism and the Martial Traditions of China and Japan." Buddhist Forum (1994): 185210.

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Michael Maliszewski (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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Martial Arts: An Overview

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