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Relationship Between Buddhism and Politics

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Religion
Wordcount: 1499 words Published: 8th Aug 2018

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  • Hale, Hunter

Power, Politics, and Buddhism

Religion and politics are considered by some, like the founders of the United States, items that should remain separate. But try as anyone might as long as people believe in religions their personal beliefs in these religions will always help shape their decision making processes. Buddhism is no different and specifically in Southeast Asia many political policies and views have been shaped by the Buddha’s teachings. Buddhism has a model in which the relationship of Buddhism practices, values, and institutions manage to influence the negotiation of power and politics and there are also different relationships between Buddhism, kingdoms and modern states dotted during different historical times in Southeast Asia.

To begin, the discussion of a model that dictates all relationships between Buddhism and politics seems quite hard to believe in. This is because once the Buddha passed onto parinirvana and time took its toll, Buddhism branched out into different sects which have different ways of interpreting the dhamma. Although this is not to say that Buddhism did not have influences with politics and power while the Buddha was still alive. It can be safely assumed that Buddhism was supported by “…the social, economic, and political elites for social, political, and also religious reasons.” (Swearer 2010: 71) Siddhartha was brought up within the ruling khattiya class and therefore as the legends of the past might infer, monarchs such as his own father were giant supporters of Buddhism when it was first beginning to bloom and it is noteworthy to mention this. Royal and religious institutions supported each other in South and Southeast Asia on mutual terms; for the royal patronage of the order found in Buddhist monasteries was “reciprocated by institutional loyalty, and the construction of religious cosmologies and mythologies that valorized the king as the propagator of the Buddha’s religion (sansa) were regarded as essential to the peaceful harmony and well-being of the state.” (Swearer 2010: 72).

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Now if there was a model to speak of that would help bring a strong example for how to rule for future Buddhist monarch it would be Asoka, The Exemplary Buddhist Ruler. Buddhism traditionally uses Asoka as the archetype of the cakkavattin, which is mythic Buddhist ruler who would personify the dhamma and rule by it, Asoka personified the dasarajadhamma or what is also known as the ten royal virtues. These royal virtues are, “generosity, moral virtue, self-sacrifice, kindness, self-control, non-anger, nonviolence, patience, and adherence to the norm of righteousness.” (Swearer 2010: 73) Asoka, was the grandson of Candragupta (the founder of the Mauryan dynasty which lasted from 317 – 189 B.C.E), and he took on the approaches of expansion shown by his forefathers and soon amassed the farest stretching political unity India knew before the coming of the colonial period. He ruled this immense empire starting from 270 B.C.E. until 232 B.C.E. and most of our understanding of Asoka comes from pillars of that commemorated Asoka. The pillars were not the only things that show us into the history of Asoka but The Story of King Asoka, written in Sanskrit and three different Pali works named The Island Chronicle, The Great Chronicle, and commentary by Buddhaghosa on the Vinaya. (Swearer 2010: 73) When Asoka converted to Buddhism he changed history in a meaningful way which included the forming of Theravada Buddhism. King Kyanzittha of Pagan) and King Tilokaraja of Chiang Mai were two rules whom followed the ways of Asoka. They themselves became part of the history of Buddhism for, “The religion they support literally has its roots in the person of the Buddha, whose physical presence magically resides in his relics, and their political rule is grounded in the mythologized career of Asoka who, in turn, is represented as the historical embodiment of the first world ruler.” (Swearer 2010: 73)

Narratives of Asoka, although somewhat a problem in historical terms with the different texts not always supporting each other, is something other rulers (like the previous mentioned ones) let them be guided by. Asoka in his ninth year of reign had a war break out within Magadha, which was the heartland of the Mauryan, and the Kalinga which the kingdom with the most power in India that still was not under Asoka’s rule. Asoka was moved by the horrors he inflicted upon the Kalingans which included the forced disruption of noncombatants, including priests and monk. Events such as these paved a way for his conversion and he transformed his beliefs into believing that true conquest could not be won over by arms but instead be won by the dhamma. Although some legends say that Asoka became extremely religious and even was a monk in his old age, the pillars provide us with a less figure much less religious and someone who promoted more by idealistic, humanitarian philosophy as opposed to Buddhist doctrinal interests. Rock edict number seven said that Asoka urged fidelity, purity of heart, self-mastery, and gratitude. Buddha’s life story is mirrored by the story of Asoka’s conversion to Buddhism where one method (nibbana) replaced the other (samsara) and the prior then presupposes the rearmost. Asoka went from one who promoted things such as disorder and wickedness to someone who promoted positived things like order and righteousness. (Swearer 2010: 74-75) Asoka was the center point of the founding of the Theravada Buddhism and according to chronicles by the Theravada in Southeast Asia successful rulers, according to those who created the chronicles were the ones who emulated King Asoka. Those who did emulate Asoka built edifices especially stupas which were the centers for Buddhism in Southeast Asia, as well as purified the dhamma and the sangha. (Swearer 2010: 82)

Buddhist monarchs in Southeast Asia emulated Asoka frequently. Especially in Asoka’s frequent building of the stupas. One such example is King Anirruddha who made Pagan become the dominant kingdom in Burma. Although the monuments in Pagan cannot match Angkor Wat or Borobudur, the sizes and extents are wondrous. Anniruddha brought to Pagan a relic from a stupa called the Baw-baw-kyi that was within the Pyu center of Thaton. Anniruddha’s successors also helped complete the stupas that he began and were even given more wondrous titles than him. (Swearer 2010: 94) Another king, called King Ramkhamhaeng helped foresee the Manansilapatra which was a stepped pyramid with which the king granted assemblies and then the monks were there to preach the dhamma. (Swearer 2010: 98) Buddhism has continued to influence political leaders and power even in recent times for example U Nu of Burma in January 1948 was elected the first prime minister of the freshly independent Union of Burma. He preached an dogma that mixed socialism and Buddhism basically stating that a community on a national level could only be built only if each person within the nation could overcome their selfish interests. He also argued against material goods saying that they were not meant to be saved or used for personal comfort but only for the necessities of life in “the journey to nibbana.” (Swearer 2010: 110) U Nu’s own lifestyle used elements of the traditional ideal of the righteous Buddhist monarch for example six months after he had taken up office the government was nearly toppled by an insurrection in which he responded with a vow of sexual abstinence. Another example of Buddhism effecting modern politics is S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike who was became the prime minister of Ceylon in the year 1956. Similar to U Nu he used the institutional power of Buddhism and symbols to gain office, however things such as a call by a monastic political party to make Sinhala the national language led animosities which ended Bandaranaike’s life in assassination. (Swearer 2010: 116-117) Bandaranaike also like U Nu promoted Buddhism rooted within socialism and although his lifestyle did not follow the righteous Buddhist monarch ideal the same as U Nu he used the Buddhist “Middle Way” to appeal to the masses in international as a well as national party; to many he is considered a national hero.

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In conclusion, Buddhism is deeply rooted within the political kingdoms and modern societies of Southeast Asia. Using the model Asoka set as a righteous ruler many rulers within Southeast Asia have emulated him. There has been a chain reaction of relationships between Buddhism and politics starting from the Buddha and his early monarch supporters, to King Anirruddha and in recent times U Nu and Bandaranaike.


Swearer, Donald K.The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia. Albany: State U of New York, 1995. Print.


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