No-self (anatta) in The Questions of King Milinda

Author: Sonia Sikka (University of Ottawa)

The Questions of King Milinda is an Indian Buddhist text probably written between 100 – 200 B.C. Its authorship is uncertain, and it is most likely a composite work.   The narrative is composed as a fictional dialogue between the Greek King Milinda (an Indianization of Menander) and the Buddhist Sage Nagasena. A portion of the dialogue presents the Buddhist doctrine of anatta or no-self. Using the analogy of a chariot, Nagasena demonstrates to Milinda that the person named “Nagasena” cannot be identified with any part of his body or consciousness nor with any sum of these parts, but also cannot be conceived as existing independently of his parts. The conclusion is that “Nagasena” is only a conventional term to name something that has no substantial existence, and that this is generally true of what we understand as the “self.”


Primary Sources
Secondary Sources
Compare/Contrast with

Primary Sources:

Part II, “Questions on Distinguishing Marks,” Chapter 1.
pp. 32-34
The Questions of King Milinda: An Abridgement of the Milindapanha, ed. N.K.G. Mendis (Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1993); pp. 28-31.

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The Questions of King Milinda: An Abridgement of the Milindapanha, ed. N.K.G. Mendis (Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1993).

The Questions of King Milinda, translated from the Pâli by T. W. Rhys Davids, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1890, 1894).

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Secondary Sources:

Peter Harvey, “Theravada Philosophy of Mind and the Person,” Chapter 23 in Buddhist Philosophy, ed. William Edelglass & Jay L. Garfield (Oxford University Press, 2009), 265-74.
Short introductions and extracts from relevant texts, including the Milindapanha.

Rupert Gethin, “No Self: Personal Continuity and Dependent Arising,” Chapter 6 in The Foundations of Buddhism (Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 133-162.
Introductory overview of the Buddhist thesis of no-self (anatta), as developed in opposition to the affirmation of a unified stable self (atman) in the Upanishads and other Indian schools of thought.

James Giles, “The No-Self Theory: Hume, Buddhism, & Personal Identity,” Philosophy East and West, 43/2 (1993), 175-200.
Comparison of Hume’s bundle theory of the self with the Buddhist doctrine of anatta, focusing on the Buddhist distinction between two types of discourse. Includes a discussion of the Questions of King Milinda.

Eliot Deutsch, “Personhood and Self-Deception,” Chapter 1 of Personhood, Creativity and Freedom (University of Hawaii Press, 1982).
Provides an overview and analysis of the doctrine of anatta or no-self, adopting an analytic philosophical approach. Includes discussion of the chariot analogy in the Questions of King Milinda.

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Compare/Contrast with:

Rejections of substantial self: Hume, Nietzsche, Derek Parfitt
Arguments for the unity of the self: Locke; see also Sankara’s arguments for unity of the self


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