The Buddha’s Teaching on Statecraft
A citizens’ guide to assess their politicians
by Dr. Nalin Swaris
@ The Island 2000
The great kings of Kosala and Magadha of the Buddha’s Day, were advised by amoral theoreticians of statecraft. The policies and principles developed by successive generations of kings in this region were eventually compiled and systematised in ‘The Arthasastra’ by Kautilya in the 4th Century BCE. The Buddha’s policies for just governance need to be appreciated in the context of the principles and practices of real politik in the monarchical states of the Mid-Gangetic Valley. The Buddha’s views on righteous and despotic governance are presented clearly and succinctly in the Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta: "The Lion’s Roar on the Turning of the Wheel" (Digha Nikaya III.26). That this discourse is presented in popular style shows it was intended as much for the education of the people, as for the instruction of rulers. The title ‘Lion’s Roar’ given to some discourses distinguish them es ‘challenge discourses’ which the Buddha and the first Buddhists proclaimed as distinctly ‘Buddhist’ views. They were intended to shake the world, just as the lion’s roar makes the denizens of the forest tremble (Digha 1.176, Majjhima 1.70 and passim).
Symbolism of the Wheel of Righteousness
The wheel is one of the most ingenious human inventions. It has had a profound impact on practical life. From the wheel and axle other inventions grew. The original inventors and everyday wielders of wheels were ordinary men and women, working at the spinning wheel, the potter’s wheel, the carter’s wheel, the grinding wheel, etc. The power of the wheel also created the most feared weapon of conquest and destruction in the ancient world: the war-chariot. The wheel became a symbol of more than human power. People imagined that the cyclic reproduction of the cosmo-social order was due to the mysterious turnings of an Invisible Wheel. Historically, a tool produced and controlled by working men and women, the wheel was celestialised and transformed into an objective alien force existing outside and above them, beyond their control.
In the non-Brahmanised states of North East India, the great kings projected themselves as "wheel turning" cosmocrats empowered to reproduce the cosmo-social order and prevent it from falling back into primordial chaos. The power and prestige of a king’s imperial might was symbolised by possession of ‘seven gems’, or insignia. The first and foremost of these was the Wheel (of the War Chariot), symbolising the right of King and State to dominate and rule by physical coercion.
A Radical Revaluation of Values
The Buddha gave the Wheel of State a new significance. He began his teaching career by presenting himself as a new type of hero and conqueror, who had gained mastery over himself, not others. He called his first sermon the "Turning of the Wheel of Dhamma". Through this re-valuation, the Buddha formulated not only a general ethic, but an inspiring theory of statecraft as well. He replaced the despotic and amoral policies advocated by royal advisors of his day with principles and policies imbued with righteous values. He called upon kings to abandon violence and to turn themselves into noble - ariya - turners of the Wheel. The Brahmins identified nobility with birth, property and power. The Buddha took this valuation of nobility and gave it a new worth. The true ariya, he pointed out, are the morally unimpeachable. He provided to a similar revaluation to the terms brahmana and arahat. The brahmins used the first with reference to themselves as ‘the most excellent of beings. The word arahat in ordinary usage was used to address a person of high social status, like our "Honoured, Sir/Madam". The Buddha told his disciples that only persons of moral excellence deserve to be addressed as ‘Excellency’ or ‘Honoured Sir/Madam’ (Anguttara Nikaya 1.223) They were also advised to shun corrupt persons as the real untouchables. A ruler could claim to be ariya - an aristocrat - by birth, but be a sudra or candala, by his or her actions.
The lion’s roar of the wheel turning king
The Buddha began his morality tale by recalling that a long time ago there lived a Noble Wheel-Turner monarch named Dalhanemi, the ‘Well Girded’ (in righteousness). He was a cakkavatti dhammiko dhammaraja: a wheel turning, righteous king of righteousness. This king ruled over the entire earth, from ocean to ocean, - adandena asatthena, dammena - "without the sword and without the rod, but righteously". The rod and the sword symbolise monopolisation of the means to violence by King and State. In patriarchal culture, the rod or sceptre is also a symbol of phallic power. By ruling ‘without the sword and the rod’, the righteous king had renounced despotic and patriarchal power. The Noble Wheel Turner was in possession of the seven gems of power. In the Buddha’s revaluation, the first of these attributes, the Heavenly Wheel does not descend from the skies. As we shall see, it ascends to its place in the heavens through righteous rule and functioned as guardian and guarantor of righteousness in the kingdom. After a period of just rule, King Dalhanemi decides to make a significant innovation. He appoints ‘a person’, ekam sattam, to act as Watchman of the Wheel and to report to him if the Wheel were becoming unsteady. The laconic ekam sattam shows indifference to privileges of birth, gender, wealth or status. What mattered was whether the person would conscientiously perform the duty.
Duties of a righteous ruler
After a long period of time, the Watchman reports to the King that the Wheel has slipped a little. The King, now well advanced in years, has not deviated from righteousness, but the omen suggests that age is weakening his control over state affairs. In ancient India, as elsewhere, kings tended to cling to power even when senility made their rule ineffective. Impatient princes often committed particide to usurp the throne. The Arthasastra warns kings that, "princes, like crabs, are father eaters". Kings should be ever vigilant and guard themselves against the machinations of any heir-apparent. The next chapter advises the heir how to circumvent his father’s precautions and capture the throne (Kosambi 1977: 144-145). The Buddha recommended a different policy. The Watchman warns the King that the Wheel is unsteady. The King sees it as a sign that the time has come for him to retire; he abdicates in favour of his heir. The transfer of power takes place through formal handing over of the seven gems. The old king retires to the forest to devote his last years to meditation.
The ascent of the new king to the throne is marked by a dramatic disappearance of the Wheel Treasure. The Watchman informs the new incumbent of this portent. Without the Wheel, the king would lose his power to rule credibly. Disturbed by the Wheel’s disappearance, the young king hastens to his father to seek an explanation for the strange phenomenon. The stage is set for the Buddha to present his own views on governance through the mouth of the royal sage. The opening sentence thunders like a lion’s roar against rulers who use their birthright and religious ritual to mystify the legitimacy of their rule:
The Heavenly Wheel Treasure, my son, is not a paternal inheritance.
Considering the period when it was made, this is a truly astonishing statement. Until recent times, all over the world the right to rule was regarded as a birthright. Societies may have various conventions for deciding who will rule over them. For the Buddha, dynastic succession is for him one such convention. This gave a prince a legal right to inherit his father’s throne. But the seal of legitimacy has to be earned through righteous rule. The disappearance of the Wheel symbolically expresses this. The new king asks his father how he can regain the Wheel Treasure and is told:
You must, my son, turn yourself into an Ariyan Wheel-Turner.
The young king asks: ‘In what way, Sir, must an Ariyan Wheel-Turner turn the Wheel?". The royal sage replies:
It is this, my son:
Yourself depending on the Dhamma; honouring the Dhamma;
Revering the Dhamma; cherishing the Dhamma;
Doing homage to the Dhamma; and, venerating the Dhamma.
With the Dhamma as your Badge; with the Dhamma as your Banner;
Acknowledging the Dhamma as your Master,
You should establish guard and protection, according to Dhamma,
For your household, your nobles and vassals,
For Brahmins and householders, town and country folk,
Samanas and Brahmins, for beasts and birds,
Let no unrighteousness prevail in your kingdom and to those who are in need give wealth (emphasis added).
What the royal sage enunciates is a concise but comprehensive state policy embracing all sentient beings. The Buddha begins by re-valuing all the conventional insignia of royal power and making them signifiers of righteousness. The State is morally obliged to protect and foster the welfare not only of humans but also of the beasts and birds in its territory. In establishing "guard and protection", the new king is admonished to be vigilant about the practice of righteousness in his kingdom: "Let no unrighteousness prevail in your kingdom." The royal sage immediately mentions the one policy of state by which the righteousness of any government must be judged: to those who are in need, distribute wealth. Following his father’s advice, the young king conscientiously performs the duties of an Ariyan Wheel-Turner and the Wheel Treasure reappears in the heavens. Having established himself in righteousness, the Noble Wheel-Turner resolves to spread righteousness throughout his realm.
Establishing the legitimacy of government
In describing how a just king spreads righteousness, the Buddha presents a counter-model to the Brahmin ideal, enacted through the liturgy of the Horse Sacrifice. His listeners would have been familiar with this bizarre rite and would have grasped this revaluation of ethics. The rubrics of the Horse Sacrifice are recorded in the Brahmin scriptures, enabling us today to appreciate the revolutionary character of the Buddha’s teaching on statecraft.
The Horse Sacrifice was unabashed glorification of violence and warfare, the subjugation of working people and degradation of women to the status of child-baring vessels and objects of masculine lust. At the prelude to a military campaign a pure-breed stallion would be unloosed and driven into enemy territory. Regarded as an incarnation of Indra - the god of warfare - the horse would be followed by the king and his fourfold army consisting of elephant, horse, archery and infantry brigades. A rival allowing the horse free passage was deemed to have surrendered to the invader. If passage was denied or resisted, war would break out. After a victorious campaign, the horse was brought back to an esplanade and tied to a post. An obscene and revolting ritual followed, beginning with exchange of lewd remarks between the presiding priests and the king’s chief consort with her female escorts. After this build up of sexual tension, the horse was forced to lie down, suffocated to death and covered with a gold cloth. Thereafter, the king’s chief consort was required to lie down beside the dead animal and press the equine phallus into her vagina, while begging it to lay its divine seed inside her. Once this union of queen and beast was completed, the horse was offered as a burnt sacrifice to Indra. Its marrow was extracted, cooked and offered to the king, who breathed in the fumes, symbolically taking in the virility of the stallion and by extension, that of the warrior god. The Buddha recast this sordid ritual in terms of righteousness and non-violence. The Wheel of Dhamma replaces the War Horse. Accompanied by his fourfold army, the king approaches the Wheel Treasure and exhorts it:
May the noble Wheel-Treasure roll on! May the noble Wheel-Treasure conquer!
The Wheel rolls on across the four quarters of the earth, followed by king and army, until the entire kingdom is brought under the reign of righteousness. Whatever territory the Wheel Treasure enters, the rulers and people see it as a harbinger of righteousness and peace. They welcome the king with enthusiasm, freely submit to his rule and seek instruction from him. The king gladly complies and instructs his subjects in the Five Moral Precepts: do not take life; do not take what has not been given; do not abuse pleasures of the senses, do not make wrong use of speech; do not take intoxicating substances. In a radical reversal of the invader’s war cry "Woe to the conquered!" the righteous king tells his subjects: "Continue to enjoy your possessions as you have been accustomed to do." Having established the Rule of Righteousness throughout the Four Quarters, the King returns to the royal city, led by the Wheel-Treasure. The Heavenly Wheel then stood in front of the Judgement Hall, lighting up the inner chambers of the royal palace.
There follows a long line of righteous kings, until an ascendant to the throne decides to abandon the noble traditions of his ancestors. He does not seek the advice of his father, the royal sage, nor counsel of the moral guardians. He uses his army to consolidate rule and begins "to rule the people according to his own ideas". As a result, "the people did not prosper so well as they had done under the previous kings". With the king departing from righteousness, moral degeneration gradually sets in and engulfs the whole of society. The Buddha traces these conditions to a single root cause: the unjust king "did not gave wealth to the needy, and as a result poverty became rife."
Moral Decline of Society
Applying his basic explanatory principle of conditioned co-genesis to social analysis, the Buddha discloses how with maldistribution of wealth and the rise of poverty other unwholesome social conditions surface and proliferate. Following the example of their ruler, the people become indifferent to the plight of the poor and begin to take what is not given:
As the taking of what was not given increased, the use of weapons increased, from the increased use of weapons, killing increased.
The king thinks he can pacify society not by tackling the root cause of poverty, but by trying to alleviate it through charity. This only makes the cunning lazy. They turn dependence on state handouts into a way life. Poverty continues to spread and with it, plunder and killing. Deprived of food, the poorest of the poor were reduced to eating wild grasses. Widespread hunger and malnutrition has a dramatic impact on the health of the people. Their physical comeliness and longevity decline; children begin to die prematurely. In the absence of moral restraint, people follow their impulses; even members of the same family burn with lust for one another. Sexual violence and incest become common place; girls who have just attained puberty are violated and become pregnant. The breakdown of private and public morality is such that people no longer understand the meaning of morality.
As greed, lust and violence become rampant, people burn with fierce animosity towards one another. They feel no compassion "just as a hunter feels no pity for the beast he stalks". With the downward spiral of morality, society is plunged into what the Buddha calls "a sword period". Basic human values disappear and people are filled with a brutish sense - miga sanna. Armed with swords and knives, with hatred in their hearts, people attack each other shouting: "This is a wild beast! Kill! Kill!". The Buddha could have been describing conditions in Sri Lanka today.
Moral Renewal of Society
The Buddha pins his hopes on a minority with the courage ‘to go against the current’ and lift society out of its moral morass. Amid rampant immorality, greed and violence, a few say to themselves: "Let us not kill or be killed by anyone!" These dissenters opt out of society and retire to the wilderness, where they reflect on the tragedy overcoming the society they have left: divided into conflicting interest groups, each side denying the humanity of the other.
After a period of reflection and self-transformation, these renouncers come out of seclusion. They meet with others who, like themselves, had fled the insanity of society. No longer filled with hatred, without the old social differences and labels to divide them, they embrace each other and greet each other saying: "O good being how happy I am to see you alive". They see each other only as fellow human beings and not in terms of gender difference or according to status categories like candala, sudra, vaisya, ksatriya, brahmana or national indentities such as Vajjian, Sakyan, Magadhan, Kosalan.
Become aware of their common humanity, the ‘new humans’ resolve to create a new society. The first step on the way to social renewal is the common resolve: ‘Let us renounce the taking of life." Beginning with respect for life, the small moral vanguard proceeds to produce wealth justly and share it equitably. The example begins to have an impact on society at large. With wealth being shared, poverty disappears, and with it, plunder, killing and licentiousness. Gradually, society begins to prosper again and a vigorous urban civilisation emerges, built on solid moral foundations. The morally healthy society produced physically healthy people, with comely bodies and long life spans. But the Buddha does say that in this ‘paradise’ the bodies of people would be spiritualised and that they would become immortal. Even in the most perfect of societies, the law of anicca will prevail, for while living under conditions most favourable to and worthy of their human dignity, they will still be subject to three kinds of limitations: physical needs, indispositions and decay. The true realm of freedom can blossom if people live according to Dhamma, but always with this realm of necessity - impermanence - as its basis. The Buddha did not make promises he could not keep, nor raise hopes he could not fulfil. He remained resolutely and realistically on ‘this-side’ of the threshold of hope.
Moral decline began when the king departed from righteousness. Its renewal began not from above but from below. As a result, the people got what they earned; a just ruler named Sankha. As if to crown the efforts of the people, a Maitriya Buddha - a Buddha of Universal Friendliness - appeared in their midst accompanied by a community of saintly mendicants.