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Buddhist Political Thought

Buddhism is other worldly religion. Buddha is not considered as a political philosopher though scholars like Gail Omvedt and Kancha Illaiah do recognize Buddha as political philosopher. According to them, many kings visited Buddha to take advice on good governance. Buddha also provided his wisdom on the statecraft.

Salient features of Buddhist political theory

Origin of the state.

If Hindu political thought associates origin of the state with Arajakata, Buddhist political thought associate it with fall of the man or corruption. Corruption comes into existence because of the emergence of materialism.

Origin of the king.

Buddhism represent republican tradition. King is called as Mahasammat which shows that the king has been elected by the council.

Qualities of the king.

Buddhist king resembles Plato’s philosopher king. People have chosen ‘the noblest of all’. King embodies wisdom. King as a source of knowledge. Purpose of knowledge is to check corruption, since knowledge enforces morality.

Buddhist foreign policy.

Buddhist foreign policy is based on peace and non-violence. Chakravarti Samrat wins others by Dhammachakra.

Upinder Singh Kaur in her recent book POLITICAL VIOLENCE IN ANCIENT INDIA mentions three major sources to understand Buddhist idea of kingship and statecraft.
1] Ashvaghosha’s BUDDHACHARIT

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According to her, Buddhist political discourse is much more heterogenous than we usually imagine. There are some texts like BUDDHACHARIT which has much in common with Hindu texts. Asvaghosha belongs to ‘bahushrutiya‘ school. Asvaghosha has projected Shuddhodhan (Father of Buddha) as the ideal king. Ideal king is ‘Atmajit’ (one who has conquered himself), calm, generous, learned, truthful, and is loved by the people rather than feared. In the kingdom of ideal king, rain comes at proper times, women give childbirth painlessly, kingdom is free from famine, disease and dangers. Ideal king is paternalistic, benevolent. He does not give death penalty. Punishment aims at reformation. The most important characteristic of the king is compassion. He does not aim to harm others. King is ascetic (saintly). King is a symbol of sacrifice. Ideal king crushes the swollen pride of the enemies with the battle of virtue rather than war.

According to Asvaghosha, Shuddhodhan was the ideal king yet he had flaw. He loved his son more than his Dhamma. He wanted his son not to turn ascetic and forced his son to remain indulged in sensual pleasures.
Asvaghosha mentions Buddha as Sarvat-Siddha. His qualities surpass the qualities of the ideal king. His potential surpassed the ability of good governance and created scope for moksha for all. He represents Karma, Nischaya, Parakrama, Tejas, Atmavatta.

Asvaghosha mentions that kingship is ‘dangerous delusion. “For a kingdom is charming, yet full of dangers. Like golden castle in fire. Like food mixed with poison. Like lotus pond filled with crocodiles.” Hence rational king prefers to leave his job. Kingship destroys calmness. If you want peace, you will loose kingship. If you want kingship, you’ll not have peace. Like day and night, hot and cold they are incompatible.

2] Ideas in ASOKVADANA.

Buddha is a renounce, Asoka is a more positive role model for the kings. Asoka is a better example of philosopher king. Ashoka is addressed as priyadassi (king loved by the people.), devanamapriya (loved by gods). The ideals of kingship are themselves provided by Ashoka. His edicts give first hand account of his own views.

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As per Asoka:

King should live as per dhamma.
King should serve humanity.
King should promote toleration among different religions.
King should forbid cruelty towards animals.
King should go for dhammavijaya.
King should send messengers of peace.
King should follow the policy of non-aggression towards neighbors.
King should aspire to be virtuous.
According to Upinder Kaur, Buddhist texts overemphasis on compassion.


The other sources are JATAKs. In JATAKS it is mentioned that good king provide the best governance, but best king, with his wisdom takes care of the entire universe.
Aggana Sutta mentions that greed, arrogance, falsehood, lust, punishment destroys king.
Mahasudassana Sutta also suggests that the problem of overwhelming power can be handled only by treating state as a moral institution. The most important quality of the king is that he should be gentle, liberal, noble, modest, selfless.

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Prominent ideas of Buddhism.

A] Three basic principlesannicca (nothing is permanent), anatta (denial of self), dukha (World is full of sorrow.).

B] Four noble truths –  1| World is full of sorrow.  2| Ignorance, greed and hatred is a source of sorrow.  3| Liberation from sorrow is liberation from ignorance.  4| To liberate from ignorance, follow eightfold path.

C] Eightfold path – Right conduct, Right speech, Right thinking, Right aspiration, Right believes, Right efforts, Right contemplation and meditation. Right source of livelihood.

Comparison between Buddhist and Hindu tradition

Hindu tradition this worldly, Buddhist tradition other worldly.
Hindu – monarch, Buddhist – republic.
Hindu – Realist, Buddhist – Idealist.
Hindu talks about geopolitics.
Buddhist advocate renunciation.

Test Your Knowledge!

1] What leads to the origin of state according to Buddhist philosophy?
a) Arajakta (Anarchy)
b) Fall of man or corruption
c) Struggle among various tribes
d) Natural disaster

Show Answer

Ans: b) Fall of man or corruption

2] Buddhist foreign policy is based on
a) Expansionism
b) War
c) Peace and non-violence
d) Hegemony

Show Answer

Ans: c) Peace and non-violence

3] Who is an ideal king according to Asvaghosha?
a) One who has conquered himself
b) One who conquers neighbouring states
c) Who who is skilled in warfare
d) One who has an efficient espionage system

Show Answer

Ans: a) One who has conquered himself

4] Which of the following is not correct?
a) Hindu political thought talk about monarch while that of Buddhist talk about republic
b) Buddhist political thought is realist in nature
c) Buddhist political thought advocate for renunciation
d) According to Buddhist political thought, a king should be loved rather than feared

Show Answer

Ans: b) Buddhist political thought is realist in nature

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Please give a brief note on political orgNisation and judiciary of buddhist tradition

Somya jaiswal

I didn’t get that asokavadana point much ,plz explain


King can’t follow Buddh’s example, because Buddha renounced the world. A king has to rule. He has to be a philosopher king(knowledgeable and moral) like Ashoka. Ashoka’s principles are written on his famous rock edicts.


Thanks, its really precise and helpful

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