Buddhist political thinking

by Sita Arunthavanathan

Buddha as a religious teacher confined his teachings strictly to religious discipline and questions involving eschatology and soteriology.

He refrained from making any pronouncement on the relative merits of the political systems or the political theories that existed in his time. However as Prince Siddhartha he was brought up to be a universal monarch and was given an extensive training in statecraft and military arts.

The Buddhist texts show that the style of language the Buddha used in his conversations with kings such as Bimbisara and Pasenadi savouring of military similes, metaphors, illustrations from the context of the state, defence and martial arts, evinced a thorough knowledge of war strategies.

Buddha appeared at a time of political evolution when the existing republics were being swallowed up by the powerful neighbouring rulers with the emergence of monarchies. The scattered references in the suttas help us to gain an insight into the political power, authority and duties of a temporal ruler.

Origin of kingship

The myth prevailing at the time of the Buddha was that kingship was of divine origin; it was war that necessitated a king to give leadership. But the Buddhist concept as given in Agganna Sutta (Digha Nikaya) is that kingship originated as a genuine political need of the society as opposed to the Brahmin theory of divine origin and divine creation of the society divided into four castes.

According to this sutta, at a certain juncture of evolution, the logical need to show what mother nature offered, to arrest the diminishing of natural resources due to greed, to stop stealing and other vices, prompted a genuine social need for a charismatic leader to arbitrate whenever such a situation arose.

Hence the king was a figure chosen and approved by the people (Mahasammata); a logical outcome of a social need.

Definition of a king

Definition of a king as a given in the Agganna Sutta is, "one who makes others happy by righteousness" (dhammena param ranjeti ti raja). Buddhist texts refer to rajas, maharajas and cakkavatti rajas but whatever the title was, a king had to honour, respect and hold righteousness in high esteem. (Cakkavatti Siha Nada Sutta - Digha Nikaya). Consensus among people gave authority to the king and all the power he had, was that of the people.

This was the emergence of democracy. Moral degeneration (adhamma) due to fighting and friction necessitated a ruler for moral regeneration (dhamma). There were unwritten norms, political law-givers, chaplains (purohita) and others to advise the king and keep him off from indulging in excesses or becoming a despot/dictator. In the Buddhist tradition of social evolution, king was the first among all equals and was not above the law.

Qualities of a king

A ruler was expected to have ten personal qualities such as generosity, liberality, virtue and so on. Four cardinal principles a king had to possess were generosity (dana), pleasant words (piya vacana), welfare of the subjects (atta cariya) and equal treatment of all (Samanatmata).

He was also to have the following five qualities: (1) Understanding things with a clear vision (attannu), (2) Knowing that which is righteous (dhammannu), (3) Having a clear idea of limit and measure with regard to punishment, fines and taxes, (4) Knowing the right time for action (Kalannu) and (5) Knowing the assemblages of men (parisannu).

Duties of a king

A king had to rule with justice and equity ensuring security from within and without. Here it must be stressed that moral responsibility lay not only with the ruler but also with the ruled. Each person in the society had a share of responsibility so that the community could present a united front. According to Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta a king's duty could be summarised as protection of the state, elimination of crime, effecting economic stability and ruling in consultation with the clergy (samana - brahmana). The Pali term 'dhammikam rakkhavaranam guttim' mean watch, ward and protection righteously.

According to this Sutta protection had to be provided not only to the subjects, army, religious bodies etc but even to beasts and birds. Here word 'dhammikam' is of importance because a ruler can give protection even by unrighteous means (adhammikam). There is an illustration in Sutta Nipata where two men who had committed murder being treated in two different ways. One was garlanded because he killed an enemy of the king; the other was bound with ropes because he was a foe of the king. This difference in treatment for the same charge - murder - shows that laws of the state were not always impartial.

Violence and crime

Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta and Kutadanta Sutta (Digha N) show that violence raises its head when the economy of a country is at a low ebb and the destitute are neglected, consequently crime increases and it is the king's duty to eliminate it. These two suttas say that there will be a gradual loss of values due to economic instability. Men and women would resort to violence if living conditions are not conducive to preserving their lives and they would take to stealing rather than perish.

"As a result of goods not being accrued to those who are destitute poverty becomes rife. From poverty becoming rife stealing.........violence ........murder.......lying.........evil speech........adultery........incest, till finally lack of respect for parents, filial love, religious piety and lack of regard for the ruler will result." (Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta) 

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