A powerful tribe of India in the time of the Buddha. They were certainly khattiyas, for on that ground they claimed a share of the Buddha's relics. D.ii.165; according to the Mtu.i.283, etc., they belonged to the Vāsistha gotta; cp. the Mallas (q.v.), who are called Vāsetthas.
Their capital was Vesāli, and they formed a part of the Vajjian confederacy, being often referred to as the Vajjīs (q.v.). Their strength lay in their great unity; if one Licchavi fell ill, all the others would visit him. The whole tribe would join in any ceremony performed in the house of Licchavi, and they would all unite in honouring any distinguished visitors to their city (DA.ii.519). They were beautiful to look at and wore brilliantly coloured garments, riding in brightly painted carriages (D.ii.96; A.iii.219: cp. Mtu.i.259). The Buddha once compared them to the gods of Tāvatimsa (D.ii.96; also DhA.iii.280).
Though this would seem to indicate that they were very prosperous and rich, they do not appear to have lived in luxury and idleness. They are, on the contrary, spoken of (S.ii.267f) as sleeping on straw couches, being strenuous and diligent and zealous in their service (as skilful hardy archers, says the Commentary). They also practised seven conditions of welfare (aparihānīyadhammā), which the Buddha claimed to have taught them at the Sārandada cetiya:
The young men among the Licchavis were evidently fond of archery, for mention is made (A.iii.76) of large numbers of them roving about in the Mahāvana, with bows and arrows, the strings set, and surrounded by hounds. They were a martial people and fond of "sport," but we find one of their Elders, Mahānāma complaining (A.iii.76, the Lalitavistara is even more condemnatory) of them to the Buddha: "The Licchavi youths are quick tempered, rough and greedy fellows; such presents as are sent by the members of their tribe sugar cane, jujubes, sweet cakes, sweetmeats, etc. they loot and eat; they slap the women and girls of their tribe on the back." Violation of chastity was considered a serious offence among the Licchavis, and the assembly would even give its consent to a husband's request that his unfaithful wife should be murdered (Vin.iv.225).
According to the Buddhist books, the Licchavis were devout followers of the Buddha and held him in the highest esteem. Five hundred Licchavis once gave a garment each to Pingiyāni, because he recited a verse in praise of the Buddha (A.iii.239). Even careless boys, referred to above as wandering about with hounds and bows and arrows, would lay aside their arms when they saw the Buddha seated under a tree and would surround him with clasped hands, eager to hear him (A.iii.76). There were numerous shrines in Vesāli itself, several of which are mentioned by name: Cāpāla, Sattambaka, Bahuputta, Gotama, Sārandada and Udena. Buddhaghosa says (E.g., UdA.322f ) that these shrines were originally Yakkha cetiyas, where various Yakkhas were worshipped, but that they were later converted into monasteries for the Buddha and his Order. It is, however, apparent from the Buddhist books themselves (E.g., in the story of the general Sīha), that Vesāli was also a stronghold of the Jains. The Buddha visited Vesāli at least three times, and is frequently mentioned as staying in Kūtāgārasālā (q.v.) in Mahāvana. The first visit was in order to destroy the threefold panic of drought, sickness and non human foes. It was probably this act which earned for the Buddha the gratitude of the Licchavis. There the Licchavis visited him in large numbers, sometimes (E.g., A.v.133f ) disturbing the calm of the spot and obliging resident monks to seek peace in Gosingasālāvana near by. Once, five hundred Licchavis invited the Buddha to a discussion held by them at the Sārandada-cetiya regarding the five kinds of treasures. The Buddha went and gave his opinion (A.iii.167f).
But not all the Licchavis were followers of the Buddha. When Saccaka the Nigantha visited the Buddha at Mahāvana, he was accompanied by five hundred Licchavis, who did not all salute the Buddha as their teacher, but showed him only such respect as was due to an honoured stranger (M.i.229; MA.i.454 gives their reasons). Several eminent Licchavis are specially mentioned by name as having visited and consulted the Buddha; among whom are Mahānāma, Sīha, Bhaddiya, Sālha, Abhaya, Panditakumāra, Nandaka, Mahāli and Ugga. Several Licchavis, both men and women, joined the Order - e.g., the famous courtesan Ambapālī, Jentī, Sīhā and Vāsitthī, and, among monks, Añjanavaniya, Vajjiputta and Sambhūta.
The Licchavis were greatly admired for their system of government. It was a republic (gana, sangha), all the leading members of which were called rājā. According to Mtu.i.271, there were 68,000 rājās in Vesāli; the Jātakas (i.504; iii.1) speak of 7707; DhA.iii.436.
They held full and frequent assemblies at which problems affecting either the whole republic or individual members were fully discussed. When the assembly drum was heard, all left other duties and assembled immediately in the Santhāgārasālā (DA.ii.517f). Sometimes, as appears from the story of the conversion of Sīha, religion was also discussed at these meetings. The rules of procedure adopted evidently resembled those followed in the upasatitpāda ordination of a monk. See D.ii.76f., where the Buddha enjoins on the monks the observance of the same habits as practised by the Licchavis. These are given at Vin.i.56 (VT.i.169f.).
Besides the rājās there were also numerous uparājās, senāpatis, and bhandāgārikas (J.iii.1). There was an elaborate judicial procedure by which any person charged with an offence was handed over, in turn, to the Vinicchayamahāmattas (inquirers), the Vohārikas (experts in law), Suttadharas (experts in tradition), the Atthakulakas (probably a judicial committee), the Senāpati, the Uparājā, and finally to the Rājā, who would inflict the proper sentence according to the pavenipotthaka (DA.ii.519).
In their political relationships with their neighbours, the Licchavis seem to have been on friendly terms with Bimbisāra (q.v.), king of Magadha, and with Pasenadi, king of Kosala (See, e.g., M.ii.101, where Pasenadi says this). Generally speaking, they were friendly also with the Mallas, though the story of Bandhula (q.v.) shows that a certain amount of rivalry existed between the two tribes.
After the death of Bimbisāra, Ajātasattu, in his desire for the expansion of Magadha, resolved to destroy the Licchavis. He was probably partly influenced by his fear of his foster brother Abhayarājakumāra (q.v.), who had in him Licchavi blood. Buddhaghosa gives another story. (DA.ii.516f.; AA.ii.703; was the port Pātaligāma? see UdA.408). There was a port on the Ganges, extending over one yojana, half of which territory belonged to Ajātasattu, and the other half to the Licchavis. Near by was a mountain, from which much fragrant material (? gandhabhanda) flowed into the river. While Ajātasattu was making preparations to claim his portion of this material, the Licchavis would go before him and remove it all. This happened on several occasions, and Ajātasattu vowed vengeance. In order to discover what the Buddha thought of his chances of success, he sent to him his minister Vassakāra. The Buddha predicted (D.ii.72ff ) that as long as the Licchavis remained united they were proof against any foe. Ajātasattu then decided to bring about disunion among them. He was successful in this, with the aid of Vassakāra. (For details see Vassakāra). When Ajātasattu arrived at the gates of Vesāli, the Licchavis, owing to their disunion, were unable to put up any opposition, and Ajātasattu captured the city without further trouble (DA.ii.524). The degeneration may have set in earlier among the Licchavis, for we find reference to their giving up their earlier austere habits and to their fondness for soft pillows, long sleep and other luxuries. (S.ii.268; see also DhA.iii.280, where they quarrel over a woman; cp. Sp.i.284). Their power and prosperity were probably also weakened by the plague and drought which had ravaged Vesāli.
The Commentaries contain a mythical account of the origin of the Licchavis. (MA.i.258; KhpA. etc.; for a very comprehensive account of the Licchavis, see Law, Ksatriya Clans in Buddhist India, pp.1ff). The queen of Benares gave birth to a lump of flesh, and, wishing to avoid disgrace, her ladies in waiting put it in a sealed casket and threw it into the Ganges. A deva wrote the king's name on the casket, which was picked up by an ascetic, who tended the embryo until two children, a boy and a girl, emerged from it. The ascetic fed them with milk. Whatever entered the stomachs of the children could be seen as though the stomach were transparent, so that they appeared skinless (nicchavi); some said the skin was so thin (līnachavī) that the stomach and whatever entered it appeared as though sewn together. From this the children came to be called Licchavi, and, as they grew, were brought up by the villagers living near the hermitage. The other children disliked them, saying they were to be avoided (vajjitabbā) because of their quarrelsome disposition. When they were sixteen years old the villagers obtained land for them from the king, founded a town, and married them together. Their country came to be called Vajjī. They had sixteen pairs of twins, and their city had to be greatly enlarged - hence its name, Visālā or Vesāli.