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The Buddhist Ideals of Good Governance

Ashoka the Great, an Indian emperor of the Maurya dynasty, played a critical role in helping make Buddhism a world religion. From
Ashoka the Great, an Indian emperor of the Maurya dynasty, played a critical role in helping make Buddhism a world religion. From

In Buddhist Ideals in Government (2011) published by the Buddhist Publication Society, the author, Gunaseela Vitanage, writes:

It must be remembered that the Buddha was born into a society which, comparatively speaking, was politically advanced and through the ages had developed certain very solid ideas of government. In the Manu Neeti or the Code of Manu, the Hindus already had laws hallowed by time to guide them in their civic duties. . . . These laws discussed not only the rights of the rulers, but also their duties towards their subjects. They also discussed the obligations of the subjects and their rights. (Vitanage 4, 2011)

The author goes on to explain, however, that such laws were laid down based on an assumption about the innate depravity of man—that man, ungoverned, lived according to the law of the jungle—and, therefore, a ruler needed to have the authority to divide, conquer, and control differing factions. Under such a system, the ruler had to have the power to impose punishments to keep people from harming one another for the sake of social stability and for the ruler’s continuing safety. 

When the Buddha came along, he did not see things quite that way. He saw that many jungle animals could, indeed, live together in harmony and get along amicably and not all were living in conflict. Rather than emphasizing power and punishment, the Buddha, stressed four ways of treating subjects: “They are dana or charity, priyavacana or kind speech, artha cariya or the spirit of frugality and of service, and of samanatmata or equality.”

In line with Buddhist principles:

The virtuous king should practice dana or charity, giving alms to the poor and gifts to those who serve the kingdom well.

The virtuous king should practice priyavacana or kind speech, never using unkind words or harsh speech with anyone.

The virtuous king should cultivate artha cariya, which means acting in the spirit of service as well as living a simple and frugal life.

The virtuous king should cultivate samanatmata, which means equality. Despite being in an exalted position, the king must never feel himself to be superior to the least of his subjects.

The virtuous king should learn to dispense justice to all his subjects without fear or favor.

The virtuous king should treat all of his subjects equally. (Vitanage 7–8, 2011)

Moreover, the 10 royal virtues of the Buddhist Ideal of Kingship(dasa raja dharma)may be explained as follows:

Dana . . . means giving alms to the needy. It is the duty of the king to look after the welfare of his needy subjects, and to give them food, clothing, and other wherewithalls.

Sila . . . means morality. The monarch must so conduct himself in private and in public life so as to be a shining example to his subjects.

Paraccaca means the grant of gifts to those who serve the monarch loyally. By the grant of gifts, not only does the monarch acknowledge their efficient and loyal service, but he also spurs them on to more efficient and more loyal service.

Ajjivan means that the ruler must be absolutely straightforward. (Vitanage 7–8, 2011)

The good king must never take recourse to any crooked or doubtful means to achieve his ends. His yea must be yea, and his nay must be nay.

Majjavan means gentleness. The monarch’s straightforwardness and rectitude, that will often require firmness, should be tempered with gentleness. His gentleness will keep his firmness from being over harsh or even cruel, while his firmness will keep gentleness from turning into weakness. A harmonious balance of these two qualities is essential not only for a ruler but for all leaders of men. 

Tapan means the restraint to the senses. The ideal monarch is the one who keeps his five senses under strict control, shunning indulgence in sensual pleasures.

Akkhodha means non-hatred. The monarch should not indulge in games where killing is resorted to or cause injury to any being. He must practice non-violence to the greatest possible extent that is reconcilable with the duties of a ruler.

Avihimsa means non-violence. The monarch should not indulge in games where killing is resorted to, or cause any injury to any being. He must practice non-violence to the greatest extent that is reconcilable with the duties of a ruler.

Khanti means patience, the king must conduct himself with patience, courage and fortitude on all occasions. In joy and sorrow, in prosperity and adversity, in victory and defeat. He must conduct himself with calmness and dignity without giving in to emotions.

Avirodhata means non-enmity, friendship. The king must cultivate the spirit of amity amongst his subjects, by himself always acting in a spirit of amity and benevolence. It will be seen that avirodhata is in this context opposed to bheda—the divide and rule policy in Hindu statecraft. 

The Buddha also laid emphasis on the fact that the good and evil of the people depend on the behavior of their leaders; and for the god of  the people he set out these ten royal virtues to be practiced by the rulers of men. (Vitanage 8–10, 2011)

Such a system may seem simple to us today, but in the Buddha’s day, the Brahmin hierarchy divided society into a system that was broken down into castes and levels and sanctioned by religion, in which human equality was lacking. The Buddha went against that trend, he swam against the stream and welcomed all comers into the monastic order:Upali, who was a barber, and Sunita, who was a former outcast, both found places of honor in the sangha.

The Buddha said, “Monks, just as all the great rivers, that is to say the Ganges, the Jammu, the Aciravati, the Sarabhu, the Mahi, on reaching the great ocean lose their former names and identities and are reckoned as the great ocean, similarly, the Kshatriya, the Brahmana, the Vaisya and the Sudra after entering the sangha, lose their former identities and become one with the members of one order.”(Vitanage 11, 2011)

There is also a story in the Jataka tales that illustrates the virtue of kingship. A ruler, called King Ummadayanti, once saw a beautiful woman during his rounds of the city and he fell in love with her at first sight, but when he learned that she was married, he felt ashamed. As it happened, the woman’s husband, who had guessed the secret, out of deference to the ruler, offered his wife to the king as a concubine, but the ruler refused. 

The monarch replied, “If I should lack the power of ruling my own self, say, into what condition would I bring the people who long for protection from my side? Thus considering and regarding the good of my subjects, my own righteousness, and my spotless fame. I do not allow myself to submit to my passion. I am the leader of my subjects, the bull of my herd.” (Vitanage 15, 2011)


Vitanage, Gunaseela. 2011. Buddhist Ideas in Government. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society.

The above book may be found as a PDF at the Buddhist Publication Online Library

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