By W.A. Wijewardena –
A useful discussion on Buddha’s approach to government
Last week, two erudite Buddhist monks, Rev. Galkande Dhammananda of the University of Kelaniya and Rev. Dr. Uduhavara Ananda of the University of Colombo in their Poya Day discourse series discussed an important and timely topic for contemporary Sri Lanka. That was how the Buddha’s teachings could be used for governing a modern state. Rev. Dhammananda, in addition to teaching at the Kelaniya University, functions as the director of the Walpola Rahula Institute of Buddhist Studies, an outfit started by the erudite Buddhist monk by the same name.
Buddha did not want to intervene in political affairs
One may be puzzled how the Buddha being a great personality who came up with the path to end suffering of all beings could involve himself in governing a state. During his lay life, he was a prince and an heir to a kingdom. He may have personal experience in how his father, King Suddhodhana, ruled the kingdom. But after renouncing all this and becoming a wandering ascetic and later the Buddha, he should not have an interest in becoming a politically alive person.
At the beginning of the dialogue, Rev. Ananda clears these doubts in his viewers. He says that the Buddha’s mission was to help people to seek final release from suffering by following the path he has shown. During the Buddha’s time, there were two types of governments in India: absolute monarchies and republics. The rulers of both had paid homage to the Buddha and sought his advice on numerous matters concerning the administration and governance of a state.
The Buddha’s response has been to lay out an ethical code of governing a state which would help the ruler as well as the ruled. Other than this advisory service, the Buddha did not involve himself in ‘king making’ or ruling a state through a king. This was the practice adopted by his disciples too. Hence, what the Buddha has said about governing a state is an exception to the substance of the main dhamma he has preached. Rev. Ananda says that matters found in Buddhism in running a state should be read in this context.
The Buddha posited evolutionary theory long before Darwin
How has the state come into being? This was a question posed to Rev. Ananda by Rev. Dhammananda. Rev. Ananda drawing on the Aggañña Sutta in the Diga Nikaya gives a detailed elaboration of how the state and its ruler came into being, according to the Buddha. This is completely in contrast with the accepted wisdom at that time under Vedic beliefs that the state and the ruler were a creation of an almighty god.
Since the king or the ruler had been created by God and he has derived his powers from God, it was generally accepted that there was nothing wrong in his acting like a god. But the Buddha’s version, according to the above discourse, was that both the state and the king evolved into form over many thousands of years. Some 19 centuries later, Charles Darwin posited the same in his evolutionary theory.
According to the Buddha, the state as we know of it today evolved after the human beings were evolved. After human beings were evolved from gatherers of rice to cultivators of paddy, there were thefts of paddy by some unruly elements. When this became unbearable and the agriculturists could not spend time to eliminate those thefts, they elected the most suitable person as ‘Maha Sammatha’ or one elected by popular vote to resolve these issues.
Taxes were the payment for king’s services
As payment for his services, the agriculturists agreed to share a part of their crops with him. This is the origin of the modern-day taxation with only one difference: Those days people shared their crop with Maha Sammatha willingly because they received an equivalent service in return. Therefore, there was no attempt by anyone to evade the payment. But today, it is an involuntary payment and there is no guarantee that an equivalent service is delivered to them by the government. Therefore, there is every incentive for people to evade the payment.
This ruler was called Maha Sammatha because he was elected by popular vote. Since he worked in the field or kshetra, he belonged to Kshatria caste. When he started adjudicating these issues to the pleasure of people, he was called Raja or people pleasing man. As such, he does not derive powers from God but from people. Therefore, the king is not above other people, but one among them. He has to use those powers justly, independently, and impartially, as being laid down in an ethical code, called the Dhamma.
But the Buddha did not present it to rulers to intervene in the political affairs of those states, says Rev. Ananda. Those rulers had the habit of paying homage to the Buddha and seeking his views on different aspects of lay life. In answer to those queries, the Buddha came up with the ethical code that was universal at that time and is universal even today. The Buddha and the Sanga who are his disciples were simply advisors to rulers if they sought their advice.
The ruler draws power from people and not from parental heritage
Rev. Ananda’s description of the ruler, according to the Buddha, is very important today. He says that the ruler being the person popularly elected by resorting to the democratic principles of the contemporary society does not enjoy absolute powers. He should rule the state according to the Dhamma or the ethical code and if he breaks those principles, he has no right to remain as the ruler. Quoting another discourse of the Buddha, Chakkavatti Sihanada Sutta, Rev. Ananda says that the ruler does not inherit the kingdom as a right from his father. He gets it if he performs the duties of kingship in accordance with the ethical code of the people. This code says that the ruler should apply laws equally to all the people in the state, a principle known as the Rule of Law today.
The ruler should never apply the law partially, namely one law to his friends and another law to his opponents. This is an inviolable code. Any ruler who violates it is not entitled to be the ruler of that state. But when it is applied to modern Sri Lanka, it is found that there is multitude of laws being applied by the rulers: one rule to family members, another to close associates, a vicious law to enemies etc. What this means is that though Sri Lanka is claimed to be a Buddhist country ruled according to Buddhist principles, in practice, what is being done is exactly the opposite of what the Buddha has taught.
The ruler should follow established laws
The code of ethics which the Buddha has recommended to rulers will help establish a Dharma Rajya or a State governed by fair, just, and impartial laws. According to Rev. Ananda, this code could be found in different discourses. However, all of them can be summarised to four basic principles of fairness, justice, and impartiality as the main functions of a ruler. The important requirement is that these functions should be performed by rulers by following the recommended code of ethics and not by violating the same. In modern language, he should deliver them in accordance with the laws of the country.
In the first place, the ruler should provide protection to the nation from invasions by foreign elements. Second, within the state, crimes should be properly managed by following laws and not by using illegal methods. This is important for modern-day Philippines and Sri Lanka.
In the Philippines, the ruler has ordered that drug addicts should be eliminated by killing them openly in streets violating the legal protection available to citizens. In Sri Lanka, it is a common occurrence that those linked to the underworld gangster groups are shot dead by Police when they are taken out to show concealed weapons. Such things cannot happen in the administration of crimes according to the Buddha’s teachings. That is because after arresting a criminal, the ruler and his officials should deal with him in accordance with the accepted code of ethics or established laws.
The third function of the ruler is to implement economic development measures to improve the material wellbeing of people. The fourth function requires rulers to seek advice from all religious leaders, shramana-brahmana, and not from Buddhist religious leaders only. And what the ruler should inquire from those shramana-brahmana is what is good and what is bad for the proper governing of a state. Rev. Ananda says that this purpose is different from the purpose of visiting religious places by rulers today. Those visits are marred by the need for self-glorification or seeking the help of those in charge of the religious places concerned to wash off one’s dirt. Rev. Ananda says that the religious leaders too have an obligation not to become a yielding hand to those orchestrations of crafty rulers.
Listen to bad advisors and adopt bad economic policies
The Chakkavatti Sihanada Sutta, according to Rev. Ananda, highlights failed economic policies of rulers. In this Sutta, the king finds that his country is marred by a wave of robberies and thefts. His advisors tell him that people resort to such criminal activities because they have no means of living. If funds are supplied to them to start income earning self-employment enterprises, the king is told, that they would stop such activities.
Taking this advice, the king opens his treasury and distributes free money to robbers to start new enterprises. After some time, the robbers realise that if they commit more robberies and thefts, they can get more money from the king. Therefore, instead of thefts and robberies decreasing, they in fact start rising. Such human behaviour is known in modern economics and ‘moral hazard problem’. It is a bad economic policy implemented by the king consulting bad advisors.
Good advice leads to good economic policies
In the opposite, Kutadanta Sutta highlights the nature of successful economic policies, according to Rev. Ananda.
In this Sutta, Brahmin Kutadanta had asked the Buddha how he should perform the sacrifices of animals correctly. The Buddha in reply had narrated the story of King Mahavijita who had reigned a kingdom a long time ago. This king also had wanted to make a great sacrifice of animals to improve the welfare of people. But the sacrifice needed additional money which could be raised only by increasing taxes. When he asked his advisor Brahmin how to raise taxes to perform the great sacrifice, the learned advisor gave the correct advice to the king. He had said that in the kingdom, there had been robbers who had been in the habit of robbing farmers and therefore they are unable to pay additional taxes. Therefore, while tackling the problem of robberies through normal legal means, the king should improve the earnings of the farmers too.
To do this, the advisor had told the king that he should provide all facilities to farmers like providing them with seeds, fodder for animals and facilities for trading of agricultural products. The public service should be improved by providing foods and higher wages to public servants so that they can deliver these services to farmers and traders efficiently. When people start working hard, the king’s revenue also will increase. There will not be a necessity to perform the big sacrifice because people are now happy with the improved economic conditions. This is a successful economic policy because it targeted not the robbers but the people who are actually at work in the field. It is also based on sound economic advice.
Overnight organic transformation: Bad advice?
What this means is that rulers should consult good advisors and not bad advisors. Bad advisors will ruin both the state and the ruler. But the good advisors will help the ruler to make the state prosperous, improve the living conditions of people, and establish his power not by coercive laws but by people’s votes. An example of how bad advice can lead to catastrophic results is found in Sri Lanka’s recent attempt at converting its agriculture to organic farming overnight. Had it been implemented over a period with necessary facilities provided to farmers, it would have been a successful economic policy.
Gilgamesh Problem in Buddha’s teaching
Intervening in the discussion, Rev. Dhammananda had observed that the government and religion should be separate from each other because they have two different objectives. The government should seek to improve the worldly life of people. The goal of the religion is to help people to search for the meaning of life beyond this worldly life. Hence, when the rulers and religious leaders begin to depend on each other, the result will be the establishment of two corrupt institutions, the government and the religious centres. Both will then ruin the lives of people.
This problem has been referred to as the Gilgamesh Problem by two leading economists, Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson in a recent book titled ‘The Narrow Corridor’. The Gilgamesh Problem refers to 4,200-year-old Sumerian epoch in which the despotic ruler Gilgamesh was violating all principles of human rights for his personal benefits. The citizens who could not bear this injustice any longer complained to their chief deity Anu for redress. Anu’s solution was to create a double of Gilgamesh by the name of Enkidu to counter his every unruly action.
This is similar to the modern day ‘checks and balances’ introduced to constitutions of nations. But after some time, both Gilgamesh and Enkidu realise that if they get together, they could improve the welfare of both. As a result, instead of helping the people, the solution became a problem. The same Gilgamesh Problem occurs when the religious leaders and religious centres get together to advance their personal goals.
Citizens should be more informed
Rev. Ananda’s lucid presentation quoting original discourses of the Buddha should be an eye-opener to both the rulers and the citizens alike. The Buddha’s message to rulers had been that they should treat all people, irrespective of their origin, ethnicity, language, caste, or religion, equally and impartially. This is what is lacking in the modern world, including Sri Lanka. But if citizens become more informed, both rulers and religious centres will amend their ways to avoid these pitfalls.
*The writer, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org