Buddhism and democracy

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The relationship between Buddhism and democracy has a long history with many scholars claiming the very foundations of Buddhist society were democratic.[1][2]

Early Buddhism[edit]

Kurt Kankan Spellmeyer has argued that Buddhism and Democracy have gone hand-in-hand since the beginning.

Links between the dharma and democracy have intrigued scholars for generations. Tribes like the Buddha’s could be found everywhere in the 6th century BCE, but the Shakyas stand out because their form of government strikingly resembles that of ancient Athens. According to Buddhist sources, the Shakya republic was governed from its capital, Kapilavasthu, by an assembly (the parishad) of five hundred citizens. Though not as large as the Athenian assembly (with its quorum of six thousand for major decisions), the Shakyan legislature needed an officer to manage the proceedings and so elected a raja, something like our Speaker of the House.[1]

Egon Flaig concurs claiming that early Buddhist practices were an outgrowth from republican city-states of ancient India.[2] He describes them as "often governed by a council of nobles (sabha) made up of male aristocrats, ruling either on its own or with the help of an assembly (samiti)."[2] Ajahn Brahm claims "the longest sustaining democracy in the world in the Buddhist sangha."[3]

14th Dalai Lama believes that the ancient Sangha functioned democratically saying:

The institution the Buddha established was the Sangha or monastic community, which functioned on largely democratic lines. Within this fraternity, individuals were equal, whatever their social class or caste origins...Thus, the Sangha served as a model for social equality, sharing of resources and democratic process.[4]

He believes that both Buddhism and Democracy share a common viewpoint saying "not only are Buddhism and democracy compatible, they are rooted in a common understanding of the equality and potential of every individual."[5]

Buddhadasa P. Kirthisinghe says that the spread of Buddhism led to the spread of Democratic values throughout Asia.[6]


The Aggañña Sutta of the Pali Canon introduces a figure named "Mahāsammata" (Pali; lit. "the Great Elect") as the first monarch. The scripture elaborates on the formation of civilization that occurred with the adoption of ownership. As theft became a major societal concern, it was decided that an ruler should be elected to ensure the punishment of evil and preservation of righteousness.

Mahāsammata is also said to have been responsible for the establishment of caste and law.

Later Buddhism[edit]

German historian Markus Rüttermann has found in the 12th through the 14th centuries "several Japanese monasteries were making decisions by majority vote."[2] B. R. Ambedkar believed Buddhism to be a Democratic religion which led to his conversion[7] and founding of the Navayana school of Buddhism.

Modern views[edit]

David Kaczynski believes that Buddhism and Democracy need each other saying

The ideal of democracy in the West, with its emphasis on process, inclusiveness and human dignity, is imbued with many of the qualities and insights of the dharma....Can there be a truly democratic politics without dharma in the broad sense? Is there anything more needed in public life than the dharma?[8]

James Kierstead, Senior Lecturer in Classics at Victoria University of Wellington, feels that linking Buddhism and Democracy carries on a tradition that would make the early Buddhists proud.

Actually, if I think about it at all, I feel that the earliest Buddhists, who clearly cared about democratic modes of organization, would approve of the way we do things. I feel as though we’re carrying on their tradition of spiritual equality, and that gives me a lot of contentment.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Spellmeyer, Kurt. "Is the Dharma Democratic?". Archived from the original on December 1, 2017. Retrieved September 7, 2019.
  2. ^ a b c d e Kierstead, James (2018). "Democratic from the Start". Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. Archived from the original on February 5, 2018. Retrieved September 7, 2019.
  3. ^ Brahm, Ajahn (December 14, 2017). "Why the Buddhist Sangha is the World's Oldest Democracy". YouTube. Retrieved September 7, 2019.
  4. ^ Gyatso, Tenzin (April 1993). "Buddhism and Democracy". Dalailama.com. Retrieved September 7, 2019.
  5. ^ Gyatso, Tenzin (January 1999). "Buddhism, Asian Values, and Democracy". Journal of Democracy. 10 (1): 3–7. doi:10.1353/jod.1999.0005.
  6. ^ Leidecker, Kurt; Kirthisinghe, Buddhadasa P. "Buddhism and Democracy: Two Essays" (PDF). Buddhist Publication Society. Retrieved September 7, 2019.
  7. ^ Jaffrelot, Christophe (December 13, 2017). "Ambedkar, Buddhism and Democracy". The Wire. Retrieved September 7, 2019.
  8. ^ Kaczynski, David (October 21, 2016). "Why Democracy Needs Dharma". Lion's Roar. Retrieved September 7, 2019.

External links[edit]