Buddhism and Empire (1)

A series of reflections and notes around the relationship between Buddhism and the political category of the Empire.


The most superficial survey on Buddhist political ideas through history will immediately reveal that the favourite political system of Buddhism is the Empire (let’s forget, here, about what other religions, Indian and non-Indian, maintain).

The all-time favourite political leader in Buddhism is the cakravartin, “world emperor”. Emperor Asoka, for instance, is generally considered Buddhist because Buddhists have wanted him to be so, but there is no proof that Asoka was a Buddhist emperor at all. In any case, in Theravāda Buddhist countries it is given for granted that Asoka is the model of a ruler-patron.

Now, a superficial survey of the most dominant political ideas in the Buddhist world today (2014), East and West, will reveal that the favourite political system for the followers of this religion is democracy (and I would say that, if possible, liberal democracy). Tibetan Buddhist leaders are asking for democracy, Burmese Buddhist leaders are asking for democracy, etc.

Perhaps there is no contradiction in this, because democracy represents the political ideology of the actual empire of our times: the USA (and NATO partners). It is generally assumed that democracy is the best political system, at least in theory (but of course, in theory all systems are the best…). It is frequently assumed, also, that a “free” country has to be a democratic country.

Present day political leaders of confessed Buddhist background make efforts to justify why democracy is the most suitable political system in Buddhism, even though the Buddha was, in theory, apolitical or beyond-the-political, and even though historically the idea of democracy is absent in Buddhist literature of all schools. But still, some claim that we have to consider the spirit, and not in the letter, of Buddhist literature, and thus we will discover democracy at the very heart of Buddhist political thought.

One of these leaders cum theoreticians is the Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, a.k.a. “The Lady”. Thanks to Suu Kyi, the Pali Tipiṭaka has made an unexpected appearance in the contemporary international political arena. According to Suu Kyi, we have a proof, in the Aggaññasutta of the Dīgha Nikāya, that, according to Buddhism, Democracy is the best and the only legitimate system. She is referring, of course, to the legend of the Mahāsammata, “the great elected”–a legend that is found in that sutta. In her well-known book Freedom From Fear (1991) Suu Kyi wrote:

This [i.e. Buddhist primaeval monarchy of the Great Elected] has been criticized as antithetical to the idea of the modern state because it  promotes a personalized form of monarchy lacking the continuity inherent in the western abstraction of the king as possessed of both a body politic and a body natural. However, because the Mahasammata was chosen by popular consent and required to govern in accordance with just laws, the concept of government elective and sub lege is not alien to traditional Burmese thought.

In other words, because the primeval king was elected with the favour of the people, even though he was a king, the political system was democratic. This may sound appealing to those who are wish to find modern ideas in Buddhism, or to those who want to see the Buddha as the greatest precedent of 18th-century Enlightenment in Europe.

If someone reads the Aggaññasutta in its entirety, however, he or she will probably notice that there is nothing in there that reminds us of democracy. Some could say: “It’s a matter of interpretation”. It may be, but I really doubt we have much room for interpretation. Some scholars (e.g. R. Gombrich, S. Collins) consider this discourse as a satire of Brahmanical cosmologies, an example of the sublte irony of the Buddha, who was able to reverse moral values of the oponents using their own narrative strategies, symbols, myths, etc. If that is true, Suu Kyi’s interpretation would look even stranger. But I will grant that the Buddha is actually talking seriously.

The Agaññasutta begins with two brahmins (Vāseṭṭha and Bharaddāja) visiting the Buddha. They have become Buddhist monks and are being scolded by brahmin relatives and acquaintances, who keep telling them that the brahmins are the best, the rest of the castes are degenerate, and it is not fitting for a brahmin to mix with outcasts. The Buddha then tells an ancient tale about the evolution of a universal era, from beings made of light to normal, flesh and bone humans fighting for possessions, food and territory (this “myth” is not exclusive of the Agaññasutta, it is already referred to in the Brahmajālasutta, for instance). In order to prevent chaos, a great king is elected by the people, he is the Mahāsammata “the Great Elected”, the original king, the one with the monopoly of violence, to put it in Weberian terms. A very conspicuous interpretation of the sutta can be found at its end of the discourse, when the Buddha says:

 Vāseṭṭha, it was Brahmā Sanankumāra who spoke this verse:

The Khattiya’s best among those who value clan;

He with knowledge and conduct is best of gods and men.

This verse was rightly sung, not wrongly, rightly spoken, not wrongly, connected with profit, not unconnected. I too say, Vāseṭṭha:

 The Khattiya’s best among those who value clan; 

He with knowledge and conduct is best of gods and men.

The main question in the Agaññasutta is to know which varṇa “caste” (?) is the best one. The solution is offered in the quoted passage: kṣatriyas (the army) are the most important varṇa, because they guarantee social peace and stability (this reminds us more of the Burmese military-junta discourse…).

Second conclusion of the sutta: Among religious (apolitical) people, the “knowledgeable” are the best (understand: even if they are not Brahmins). That is, I think, the whole point of the Aggaññasutta.

And if we move now to another important text, the Mahāvaṃsa (Book IV), the classic Buddhist chronicle of the Theravādins in South and Southeast Asia (i.e. the tradition Suu Kyi allegedly follows), we will see how, indeed, the legacy of the Mahāsammata was everything but democratic. It was, according to ancient Buddhists, a regular monarchy, a lineage of blood, not of merit. Even the Buddha Gotama himself was a descendant of this primaeval kṣatriya (“warrior”).

All that being said, we could ask wherefrom comes this fever of some leaders to demonstrate that Democracy is not contradictory with Buddhist political philosophy. Sometimes Democracy is used as a synonym of social justice, but the spirit of Democracy is lost in favour of more traditional ideas that tend to correspond with what I said in the beginning, namely that the favourite political structure for Buddhists has always been the Empire (a Dhamma Empire, of course). Let us only consider the silence of Suu Kyi regarding the massacres of the Rohingya muslims. Or, for instance, what a Burmese student leader, Min Ko Naing, said back in 1988, when during the protests against the Burmese dictatorship he was asked about the greatest obstacle to democracy:

 As you know, Min Ko Naing can only conquer a bad king. If the ruler is good, we carry him on our sholders.

Hans Bernd Zöllner, a German scholar who has devoted an entire volume to the relationship between the military-junta and Suu Kyi, has synthesised the problem in this line:

 “Democracy” was thus synonymous with everything other than the current government, which was not trusted.

I think this is a good starting point for the discussion.

16 Replies to “Buddhism and Empire (1)”

  1. this is a rich and thought-provoking topic. my first thought was of augustine and the necessarily different destinies of the “city of god” and the “city of man.” in that vein: couldn’t we say that buddhism appropriated the vocabulary of kingship, and in particular of imperial kingship, entirely as a way of imagining its own soteriological mission, as many religions are inclined to do? of course, lots of people have tried to realize the ideal of the dharma-cakravartin in the political sphere, just like many people tried to realize the “kingdom of god” on earth. but one could say—as lots of christians say today—that these attempts in themselves don’t make a religion “imperial,” or even that by presenting its world-vision in the language of empire, a religion presents an alternative to, or criticism of, actually existing imperial political forms. empire may be the preferred political vocabulary for imagining buddhism, but that doesn’t mean that it will always be buddhism’s preferred political form.

  2. You could actually argue the opposite, namely that people who wanted to form an empire chose Buddhism as religion in opposition to Brahminical or Hindu empires, if you look at it from the point of view of Realpolitik. Moreover, you are stating something that is obvious, namely that what is considered to be democracy in the Aggaññasutta is not democracy. If you take a real look at what is considered the ancestor of our democratic system, namely Greek (Athenian) democracy, you see that it is not what we understand now as democracy (no universal suffrage). I think that you are looking for the Empire in Buddhism, and you are finding it. If you were looking for Buddhism in the Empire, you will find it. But why do you have this approach?

  3. Re: “there is no proof that Aśoka was a Buddhist emperor at all.” Well, I suspect you’re demanding one meet a burden of proof here that is rather unattainable. We might question the the sincerity of Aśoka’s conversion or call him “nominally Buddhist,” but given his activities as a ruler in propagating Buddhist and Buddhist-like teachings (e.g., sending ‘missionizing’ emissaries on behalf of Buddhism to other countries; specifically addressing some of the edicts to Buddhists in particular; and a familiarity with Buddhist texts) and practices (ordering construction of stupas to house relics; concrete demonstrations of concern for animal and human welfare and the relief of suffering) it would appear there is more evidence for the case that he was a Buddhist rather than not.

    Democracy is more than and thus not simply reducible to a “political ideology.” And, in any case, insofar as it can be or is an ideology, it should be defined as inextricably bound up with capitalism, which reminds us that democracy is distinguishable in theory and practice from capitalism (as the case of China demonstrates: industrial and post-industrial capitalism sans democratic rule) as well as the fact that there are different sorts of democratic regimes: corporatist, liberal, social democratic, for instance (as forms of welfare state that endeavor to deal with the problems or ‘contradictions’ generated by capitalism that it cannot solve on its own). There is also the possibility that we might have, say, a “socialist democracy” at some point in the future that transcends capitalist political economy.

    Democracy is also a political practice, and as such, denotes the attempt at collective self-rule, rule by “the people” as it were (how ‘the people’ are circumscribed and represented varies to some degree according to time and place). Minimalist or thin theories of democracy focus on the electoral components of the democratic process, the desiderata being free and fair, multiparty elections by secret and universal ballot. An electoral democracy is a constitutional order in which the chief executive (for example, president or prime minister) and legislative offices are filled through regular and competitive elections. In Adam Przeworski’s words, “In the end, the miracle of democracy is that conflicting political forces obey the results of voting.”

    For individuals and peoples around the world, as well as for democratic theorists, this “thin” theory is insufficient, hence the development of myriad “participatory” and “deliberative” models (and combinations thereof) as well as different sorts of (written and unwritten) “constitutional” democracy. It is democratic demands of one kind or another that are the source of the critiques and protests against the Neoliberal model of capitalist democracy around the world (and the ‘informal’ American empire), indeed, I would say “Neoliberalism” is the regnant political ideology (globally speaking) and, as such, is only thinly, vicariously, and ideologically “democratic.” All the same, and given the choice between democratic government and governance and the possible alternatives on offer, it’s hardly surprising that most people around the world, and not just Buddhists (and Buddhists of course are free to prefer democratic rule to whatever sort of rule Buddhists in the past believed to be the ideal form of governance), express a belief in and desire for “democratic” rule of one kind or another rather than not. That demands for democracy may reflect an impoverished understanding of its possible meanings and political implications or become reduced to slogans for nefarious partisan political purposes is hardly surprising.
    As there is no canonical Buddhist political philosophy that Buddhists are obliged to subscribe to according to basic Buddhist doctrines, precepts, or the Eightfold Path, Buddhists are not obligated to show fidelity to any specific Buddhist political philosophy nor need they explain why or how their political beliefs and practices may differ from Buddhists of yesteryear. And Buddhists in Burma and elsewhere need to be politically and morally judged by their actions, which may (as in the case of many Burmese Buddhists) or may not be in blatant violation of Buddhist moral principles and ethical precepts in particular or secular morality and ethics more generally (especially insofar as those have come to be incarnate in some measure within human rights discourse and practice and constitutional protections of same).

    • I would agree with Patrick re Aśoka. It’s not a matter of lack of proof; we probably have more good evidence about Aśoka than we do about any other Indian before 1000 CE or so. What it is, is a matter of whether the concept “Buddhist” even applies in that era, at least to non-monks.

      • Amod

        We’ve seen that Buddhists are very keen to adopt Asoka as the first Buddhist Emperor and play up the association in various “histories”. Early Buddhist texts (collectively) do not mention Asoka. Many local city-based kings are mentioned and archaeology suggests these cities began to develop by the 6th century BCE. The obvious conclusion is that the kings mentioned in early Buddhist texts predate Asoka. I’m not aware of any scholar who has placed them after Asoka. These texts are full of stories of non-monastic followers of the Buddha. Why can we not call these people “Buddhist”?

        • We could if we wanted to. We should just be aware that the modern connotations of the term may not apply, especially before terms like bauddha start to get used. As far as I know, it does not usually seem in that period to have been a conscious identity – a lay householder usually gave alms to Buddhist monks and got spiritual support, did the same to Jain monks, and may have also made Vedic sacrifices.

          • Conscious identity as a lay follower of the Buddha is very common in early Buddhist texts – as the 100s of references to upāsaka/upāsika in the Nikāyas and Vinaya attest.

  4. “there is no proof that Asoka was a Buddhist emperor at all.”

    I agree. I think our view of Asoka has become more nuanced in recent years. The “dhaṃma” he mentions is more likely the Asokadhamma than the Buddhadhamma. His missions have been shown by K R Norman to have been political rather than religious. When one separates out the Buddhist propaganda, there is not much left to link him to Buddhism at all.

    I agree that we Buddhists wanted, still want, him very much to be Buddhist because he is so grand, and we think we are grand by association. We adore celebrity Buddhists for the same reasons. Sadly I think it speaks of an inferiority complex, a lack of confidence on the part of Buddhists. Perhaps because so very few people ever seem to get anywhere on the Buddhist path (in traditional terms of arahantship), we’re unsure whether it really does lead to awakening and having some celebrity endorsement helps maintain faith. But that I think is another story.

    I think the Burmese and Tibetan situations are quite different. And both might be usefully compared with Bhutan.

    In Burma, as I understand it, the British left a power vacuum when they pulled out and this lead to widespread communal violence. The military stepped in and then never really left the stage. The Burmese junta might be nominally Buddhist (I’m not sure) but in any case they have little time for passivism or non-violence. They are not afraid to use wield real power.

    Suu Kyi is trying to make links between traditional values and liberal democracy because that is the surest way to wrest power from the Junta. It will be interesting to see how stable the resulting political system is. Do they have the kind of powerful personalities that Indian had in 1948 to hold it all together, or will the factions all pull in different directions. Buddhism might represent the glue that binds the nascent democracy together.

    BTW I don’t think Suu Kyi was silent about the communal violence. I heard her being interviewed on the subject. What she said was that she could not afford to take sides – it was a no win situation for her. Any intervention was likely to lose her support from somewhere. She is a lovely person and all that, but still a politician with one eye on the road to power.

    The Tibetans are another story. There are two Tibets – one in the land of Tibet and one in the diaspora. The former is now the thoroughly oppressed vassal of China. The latter the uneasy guest of India. The continued existence of diaspora Tibet is predicated on a continued welcome in India and continued support from the West. The USA and it’s allies have recently been hell-bent on imposing democracy on it’s enemies: first bombing them into submission, then super-imposing democratic institutions over the existing tribal power structures. Sykes & Picot are two names we ought to keep in mind. So Tibet by jumping first is seen to be appeasing their benefactors. A small religio-feudal state within the world’s largest democracy was never a great look, even with Roman Catholic ecclesiastical titles. Note how modern the Dalai Lama has become – he recently endorsed the idea of same-sex marriage!

    The other main problem faced by Tibetans is that the Dalai Lama is old and will die soon. Everyone knows that at least two Dalai Lamas will be “discovered” 3 years after that. One will be a Tibetan living in exile, and one will be a Tibetan living in the Chinese Empire. The Chinese Dalai Lama will be educated by the Chinese state, and placed over the Tibetan people as a puppet ruler. He’ll be in Tibet, possibly even living in the Potala Palace, and carrying his little red book along with his mala. If the diaspora are to retain their government in exile, and receive all the Western support and Indian indulgence they need in order to survive, then they’ll need to be pragmatic about it. Democracy is only the most obvious requirement for associate membership of the modern world for poor countries.

    Bhutan is an interesting contrast because they are changing without so much in the way of coercion. Though they also have the Chinese Empire as a neighbour. But the Bhutanese people are not so keen on democracy. They didn’t want to vote. They love and trust their king. It was really only because members of the royal family were educated in the west and possibly, like the Tibetans, saw the writing on the wall, that they began to modernise. Another stark comparison is the feudal state in Saudi Arabia, which shows very little desire for or movement towards democracy. They are insulated by their oil and there willingness to deal with their Western Allies. But many Saudis, particularly women, would very much like to have a greater say in the running of the country. The Bhutanese were apparently happy with their medieval lifestyle, but are being forced to modernise by a progressive king.

    Everyone will be carefully watching the Russia empire reclaiming part of it’s former territory in the Crimea at the moment. Will Ukraine be carved up, or possibly recaptured by Tsar Putin? There’s nothing anyone can do to stop him short of war. No one has ever successfully fought a war against Russia – unless you count Afghanistan (which has also twice routed British invasion forces in the past). The Great Game is still being played out.

    On the other hand although there were seldom any other choices than Empire in the past (democracy being a quite recent political invention), empires have not always been good for Buddhism. The history of Buddhism in China and Japan suggests that Buddhism was the expedient for Empires, rather than the other way around as in Burma and Tibet. Emperors adopted Buddhism because it helped to strengthen their grip on power. Whether it was the greater magical power of the rituals, the sheer pomp and circumstance, or the Buddhist texts such as the Golden Light Sutra which reinforce the role of King, something about Buddhism made the grip on power easier to maintain. I’ve no doubt that the same was true of Asoka. And when this was not true – as in the late Tang when the scale of the Buddhist economy rivalled the state economy – the Emperor was quite capable of punishing Buddhists, closing monasteries and confiscating their wealth.

    • Jayarava, thanks for this very interesting comment. In this perspective, what do you think of Davidson’s and Sanderson’s view that Buddhist Tantrism developed because Buddhism was no longer appealing to the kings?

      • Sorry for the delayed response. It’s a long while since I read Davidson and I’m not sure what work of Sanderson’s you are referring to, but I think Davidson’s view is a bit more nuanced than this isn’t it?

        Davidson’s thesis as I recall it, is that Tantricism was in part a response to the collapse of the Gupta Empire and the subsequent chaos as long distance trade routes broke down and the sphere of influence of rulers contracted into their (often walled) cities. The socio-political changes drove the evolution of religion. The same is true of Europe isn’t it?

        Did Buddhism really appeal to the Gupta Kings, or were they simply beneficent patrons of religion with more of an affiliation to nascent Hinduism? I seem also to recall that the Gupta Period has been called a Golden Age for the Brahmanical religion. I think Buddhism was probably always a minority religion (and always will be).

        And let’s not forget that Tantricism transformed religion generally in India from the 6th century onwards. It wasn’t only Buddhism. don’t know, but I would guess that Tantricism appealed to rulers more than non-Tantric religions, and probably because it was a stronger magic. The Buddhist abhiṣeka ritual is a re-purposed royal consecration which seems significant in this light.

        Which is the long way of saying that I don’t really know.

        • Jayarava,

          thanks for the response. I am not sure about the deterministic connections between economical and political situations and the “corresponding” religion. I would say that there are always different ways to react, that one cannot foretell which religion will be developed departing from given political situations and so on (I am not saying that you claimed it, I am replying to a possible implication of your words).

    • >Emperors adopted Buddhism because it helped to strengthen their grip on power. Whether it was the greater magical power of the rituals, the sheer pomp and circumstance, or the Buddhist texts such as the Golden Light Sutra which reinforce the role of King, something about Buddhism made the grip on power easier to maintainEmperors adopted Buddhism because it helped to strengthen their grip on power. Whether it was the greater magical power of the rituals, the sheer pomp and circumstance, or the Buddhist texts such as the Golden Light Sutra which reinforce the role of King, something about Buddhism made the grip on power easier to maintain.

      I can’t forget Wu Zeitian,for some reason.

  5. Dear friends,
    I take note of all your valuable comments and criticisms. Please allow me to deal with them separately and in more detail in subsequent posts of Buddhism & Empire.

  6. I think that Ashoka followed Buddhism religion, his great Ashoka Pillars are counted as one of the Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India. He has also built some stupas and monasteries in India, which further proves that he was one of the many Buddhist devotees.

  7. You said that there is no proof of Ashoka emperor being Buddhist devout.
    Let’s just say that he is not Buddhist devout, but you should agree that he developed Buddhism in such level that led to the development of Buddhism in the recent situation. If the buddhist campaign wasn’t led by Ashoka then, Buddhism wouldn’t be in the condition right now.
    And the Ashoka Pillar can be considered as the core of his campaign and the existence of such numbers of Ashoka pillar shows that He was a devout Buddhist and yeah he was great political leader too and he actually increase the empire to vast country.

  8. Ashoka stopped war after the greatest battle of his life which is Kalinga where the rival ruler of Kalinga was no match for the brutality of Ashoka. The horrific scene of deaths of 100000s of warriors, Ashoka stopped the war forever. After this he walked into the path of Buddhism and led a new policy of Conquest by Dharma.

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