Buddhist Political Theory: Social Contract Theory of the Origin of State 


Reader’s Guide

Buddhist theory of the origin of state, as contained is Digha Nikaya, one of the collections of Buddha’s teachings) is a great ancient Indian contribution to the history of political theory. Purpose of this chapter is to explain the need of the state for the maintenance of the social order, arising due to emergence of evils in the society. The origin of state is explained by a social contract under which people gather together and through an agreement choose the best person among them to take upon the responsibility of punishing the wrong doer and commit to pay him taxes in the form of a portion of their produce.


“I teach because you and all beings want to have happiness and want to avoid suffering. I teach the way things are.”[1]  — Buddha

“I can die happily. I have not kept a single teaching hidden in a closed hand. Everything that is useful for you, I have already given. Be your own guiding light.”[2]  —- Buddha


Gautama Buddha epitomizes the motif:  “To rebel is to create”. He rebelled against existing Brahmanical order and the sacrificial religious rituals to create a new order based on the rationally derived principles righteous life, the Dhamma. His alternative, he provides, is quite radical – the egalitarian collectives, modeled on the Sanghas (monasteries) founded by him[3]. The practice of the Dhamma would lead to creation of society free rom miseries and sufferings, the state of Moksha[4]. If transported from spiritual to material world, it would get paralleled by the state of human emancipation, the state of the classless society in the Marxist parlance. Buddha (BC 6th-5th century), remains the greatest revolutionary thinker, teacher and activist in the history, like Marx in the 19th century, in terms of the vision of and active campaign for the egalitarian, collective society free from human miseries. Like Marx over 2000 years after him, Buddha was a philosopher, who not only sought to interpret the world but also change it.  His teachings shall remain valuable till there are miseries and sufferings on the earth. There is no scope or need to digress into the comparison of Buddha with Marx, who too like him, envisaged a world free from miseries – a state of human emancipation free from exploitation of human beings by other human beings. The purpose of reference to Marx is to allude to the similarities in terms of rational comprehension of society; the vision, worldview, conviction and commitment towards a just society in their respective contexts, across the time and space. The alternative is not only for the ethical and social realms but the principles of Dhamma, as envisioned by Buddha, are equally desirable in the political realm also. The head of the political community, the state, in the Buddhist teachings, is not a divine or dynastic ruler but a rule of the Mahasammat – the great elect. The history of political theory in India in terms of the theory of state can be traced to the Buddhist texts, Dighanikaya and Anuguttaranikay, two of the five Buddhist Nikyas (collections)[5]. Though these collections contain Buddha’s teachings of the Dhamma, the principles of the righteous life, to the monks, some sections also contain the theory of the state. Thus Buddhist theory of the origin of the state is the first theory of state in India, though “the first faint traces” of Social Contract Theory of the origin of state can be found in two “Brahmanas, which refer to the origin of kingship through election among Gods (Sura) on account of compelling necessity of carrying on successful war against the demons (Asuras”)[6]. Buddha was the first Indian thinker to propound a theory of origin of state by social contract not in the divine but in the real world, as it existed. This chapter shall look into the theory of the origin and the development of the state as mentioned in the Aggǹǹa Sutta of Dighanikaya that traces the source of the validity of its authority to the popular consent of the people — the social contract.[7]

The history of state is, roughly, as old as the history of civilization itself that evolved with the rise and development of private property and the consequent class division of societies into the classes of the haves and the have-nots. Hence the state, as an institution of governance is not natural nor universal but historic. It developed as an instrument of the new status-quo, i.e. as an instrument of domination over the classes of have-nots in the hands of the classes of haves[8]. Rousseau calls it “the second fraud played upon people” that transformed the “theft into legal rights”[9]. The first, being the invention of the private property. Ever since distinguishing themselves from the animal kingdom around 3 million years ago, for the most part of it, humans have lived without private property and state in the egalitarian communes. Humans began to distinguish themselves from the animal-kingdom by producing and reproducing their means of livelihood by exercising labor upon the nature, with hands as the tool to begin with. Henceforth the human history has been the history of evolutionary and revolutionary development in the production of livelihood and the development of the tools of production. Humans are also called as tool making animals.  Humans could develop the techniques and tools of laboring by the development human species-specific attribute, the ability to think, the mental development. Ever since, labor has been the continuing link of livelihood through all the historical epochs. Thus the history of state, i.e. the history of the civilized (class divided) world, is a miniscule small part of total human existence.

In Vedic and post-Vedic literature, we do not find any theorization about the state, as a law making and enforcing authority over a fixed domain. They lived in tribal and clan organizations, authorities of which operated on the basis of customs and kinship traditions and bonds, with no fixed geographical territory. As RS Sharma informs us the first implicit, divinized reference to the process of state formation is found in the Aitreya Brahmin[10].

There was no theory of state, as there was no state. Ideas historically emanate from the object. State had not yet acquired firm footing; it was still in the process of formation. From the clan and kinship organizations in ancient India, emerged advanced political entities in the form of Mahajanpadas[11] and the Sanghas, known as the post-Vedic republics. The first reference of the contract theory of state, found in in Aitreya Brahman is mythological. The Suras (Gods) approached, Indra, the most efficient war leader among them, for the imminent wars between Sura (Gods) and Asura (demons)[12] — a euphemism for Aryan-non Aryan conflict[13]. By the time of Buddha, the state as a centralized authority of making and enforcing decisions concerning a social aggregate in a particular domain, had acquired firm footings. The first secular theory of state is found in the Buddhist teachings. Though the teachings are meant for the monks of the Sanghas about the Dhamma – the principles of the righteous ways of life, they also contain the theory of the origin of the state. It is a social contract theory, anticipating the modern social contract theories of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau.

Life and time of Buddha

Some people become legends in their own life time. Gautama Buddha is one of such ancient legendry figures.  Most of the 20th century historians concur that the Buddha lived, taught, and founded the monastic orders during the 6th-5th century BC, during the successive reigns of Bimbisara and his son, Ajatasatru over Magadha. The most agreed time span of Buddha’s life among the 20th century historians is BC 563-483. Plenty of legends and recorded documents about his life and teachings have travelled to us through generations. He was a committed teacher and an activist philosopher with the life-long mission of imparting knowledge to enlighten people to become their “own light”.

By the time of Buddha, i.e. by the 6th century BC the state as an institution had clearly evolved and there were numerous, large and small states in the north India.  Of these some were monarchical and some non-monarchical, which could be termed as some kind of republic. Buddha belonged to the Shakya republic of Kapilvastu in the Himalayan foothills bordering the present day Nepal. One of the popular legends is that son of the king Suyodhan, Siddhartha Gautama was disillusioned with the worldly affairs after seeing a dead body and left home in search of truth and peace of the mind. But his parental place, Kapilvastu, in the present eastern Uttar Pradesh, was not a monarchy but one of the post Vedic republics[14]. The monarchies were known as Mahajanpadas like Magadh, Kashi and Koshal on the south of the Ganga and the post Vedic republics, the Sanghas on the north.  Kautilya also refers them as Sanghas in his Arthshastra[15]. The monarchies had the standing regular army. In the Sanghas all the men and women had necessary military training. In normal times, they would be pursuing their normal socio-economic occupation and would become warriors in the times of war[16]. Under the leadership of Vaishali, 12 republics had formed a confederation for the war times. Siddhartha Gautam’s father was the head of the Shakya republic of the Kapilvastu.

According to one of the legends, he was born on the way to his mother’s parental house at Lumbini in the present Nepal. Not much is authentically known about his childhood. The Shakya republic had many ruling families who ruled by turn sanctioned by some sort of election. The head of the ruling family was known as Raja. At the time of Buddha’s birth it was his father’s turn to be the Raja. Siddharth Gautam lost his mother within few days of his birth. At the age of 8 years he was initiated in education, to be taught by learned Brahmans and sages. From them he learned Vedas and Upanishads. He also learned concentration and meditation. Belonging to warrior class, he was also taught archery and other related traits. At 16 he was married to Yashodhra from a noted Shakya family.  At the age of 20 he was formally admitted as a member of the Shakya Sangha.  He took the same interest in the affairs of the Sangha as he did in his own life. His conduct as a member of the Sangha was exemplary, and he had endeared himself to all[17]. Koliyas the neighboring republic of Shakyas of Kapilvastu was separated from it by the river Rohini and there would be dispute among the two regarding the sharing of the water for irrigational purposes. When Siddharth was 28, there was a major quarrel between the two tribal republics. The army chief (Senapati) of Shakyas called the assembly to decide over declaration of war on Koliyas. Siddhartha opposed the resolution of war and proposed the matter to be solved by negotiations between the elected representatives from the both the Sanghas. The war resolution was approved by the overwhelming majority. Those siding with Siddharth’s resolution, i.e. the minority had the dichotomous choice of submitting to majority or face action. Siddhartha Gautama openly opposed the war saying that it was inimical to the interest of Shakyas and humanity against the public opinion. Like ancient Athens, in the political cases, in the ancient Indian post Vedic republics also the accused had the choice of facing trial or banishment. In Athens Socrates had chosen the trial and as is well known was sentenced to death by the majority of the judicial assembly in BC 399, Aristotle had chosen the banishment. Siddharth Gautama chose banishment and set on the journey of seeking enlightenment at the age of 28 years.[18] Various collections of teachings attributed to him were passed down by oral tradition and were committed to writing couple of hundred years later.

Over the next six years of wandering, he met many talented meditation teachers and mastered their techniques. He always found that they showed him mind’s potential but not mind itself. He continued his journey, contemplating, discussing and debating the issues concerning happiness of humanity and the existing views and religions. He is said to have his first discourse with learned men at Sarnath, near the ancient city Varanasi, where subsequently emperor Ashok constructed stoops and is one of the Buddhist pilgrimages. Finally, at a place called Bodhgaya, the future Buddha decided to remain in meditation until he knew mind’s true nature and could benefit all beings. After spending six days and nights cutting through mind’s most subtle obstacles, he reached enlightenment and became Buddha, the enlightened one[19]. Bodhgaya like Lumbini (the place of his birth) and Sarnath (the place of his first substantial discourse) is also one of Buddhist pilgrimage. Hence forth he spent his life wandering mainly in the regions in present Uttar Pradesh and Bihar) teaching through discussions, debates and sermons and creating monasteries for Bhikshus and Bhikshunis (monks and nuns), which functioned on the principles of equality and collectivity. He was invited by many noted and prominent individuals and the monarchs for teachings and debates. At the age of around 80 he died after eating poisonous meat offered by an old woman in Kushinagar, another place of Buddhist pilgrimage. His teaching spread in far off places through monks, particularly after the patronage of the emperor Ashoka of Magadh in BC 3rd century. He refuted the Brahmanical principles of divinity and divinely created social order of inequalities. Contrary to the Brahmanical divine theory of origin of state and the kingship, Buddhist theory envisages the origin of the state in popular consent through social contract, anticipating in some way, the 17th century Social Contract theories of 17th century AD in Europe.

As mentioned above, two of the five Buddhist Nikayas (compilations)—Digha and Anugattara (400-300 BC)[20] contain Buddha’s teachings regarding the evolution of the society and subsequent formation of the state. These collections contain huge mass of Buddist canonical literature in Pali language consisting of the discourses of Lord Buddha, his sayings, songs and narratives etc. In Digha Nikaya one comes across the need and the origin of state after the passing away of the golden age of harmony and happiness on the earth due to emergence of greed, selfishness and other evils. The story consists of all the basic factors of the theory of the evolution of the society.  It talks of the time when people started building up houses, called agāra (huts). The primordial men and women might have lived in the huts. There were two more units of inhabitant called Gāma (village) and Nigama (town: indicates some sort of urbanization. Nigama might be the place where the products were exchanged, the marketing place). The fourth, the society in the Sutta was primarily agricultural society. People tasted wildly self-grown paddy and then started cultivating it. It was the time of disintegration of communal property and the appearance of private properties and various safe guards of its protection. Persons who stole the paddy were banished. Thus sense of morality also arose and the decisions were taken in assembly. The need to institutionalize the system of punishment led to the need of state. This proves the intimate link between the rise of the private property and the state.

Dighanikaya also throws some light on the duties of the ruler also. Anugattaranikaya mentions essential qualities of the ruler.

The Origin of the State

The attempts have been made to find out the counterparts of the Western theories of state in ancient Indian texts, a difficult task owing to the uncertainties hanging over many texts regarding their time and the content. For reconstruction of political theory on the basis of these texts, it’s appropriate to go by the generally accepted chronology: the Brahmanas; the Buddhist texts – Digha and Anugattara Nikayas; Kautilya’s Arthasastra and the Rajdharma section of the Shanti Parva of Mahabharata[21]. As mentioned above the Contract theory in Brahmanas is mythological – a war oriented contract among the Gods, hence the Buddhist theory can be considered as the firstvsecular theory of state formulated in terms of a contractual power. Unlike the western philosophers of 17th century Buddha did not depict the individuals as essentially egoistic but as specific historically arisen condition. Unlike Hobbes the sovereign emerging out of Social Contract is not an all-powerful Leviathan not accountable to people or the Brahmanical incarnation of God but a Mahasammat, or the Great Elect with the duty of observing and preserving Dhamma,  the righteous ways of life[22].

  • The State of Nature

The origin of the universe and state out of the original state of nature is explained in the Aggañña Sutta, 27th Sutta of the Digha Nikaya. It is like other sections of the Nikaya, in the dialogue form like Plato’s Republic. It is discourse imparted by the Buddha to two Brahmins, Bharadvaja and Vasettha, who left their family and caste to become monks. Buddha, in his discourse negates the importance of the lineage and emphasizes the moral practices and the Dhamma. Anyone from any lineage can become a monk and achieve the state of enlightenment. Then, he explains about the beginning of the Earth and the birth and the rise of the social order. In Buddhist discourse the universe appears Vivaṭṭa kappa (opening up) and disappears, Samvaṭṭa kappa (closing down).  In a very long span of time, “the society opens up in the particular time and it closes down after millions of periods of that particular time.”[23]

Buddha emphasizes the message of universality in the Dhamma. Discussion on the rise of social order that is the Varna social division is beyond the scope of this discussion, Buddha rejects the divine origin of hierarchical Brahmanical order that everyone including Brahmans are born through the biological process from the wombs of the mother and not from different organs of Brahma, as claimed by Brahmanical sources.

According to depiction of the State of nature in Agnna Sutta of Dighanikaya, there was a time when people were perfect and lived in a state of happiness and tranquility. This perfect state lasted for ages but at last this pristine purity declined and there set in evils. Distinction of sex and color manifested themselves and eventually the heavenly life degenerated into earthly one. Now the shelter, food and drinks were required. People gradually entered into a series of agreements to set up institutions of family and property. But this gave rise to new set of problems, for there appeared theft and other forms of unsocial conduct. “The human beings gathered themselves and said: Evil customs, sins have appeared among men. For in the past we were made of mind, we fed on rapture; self-luminous we traversed the air in abiding loneliness; long-long period we so remained. For us sooner or later after a long while, the savory earth had arisen over the waters. We set to work to make earth into lumps and feast on it. As we did so our self-luminance vanished; when it was gone, moon and sun, star shapes and constellations, nights and day months and half months, the seasons and years became manifest. We enjoying the savory earth, feeding on it, nourished by it, continued so for a long while. But since evil and immoral customs became prevalent among us, these out growths disappeared. When they had vanished creepers appeared clothed in color, odor and tastes them we turned to enjoy; fed and nourished thereby. We continued so for a long while. But since evils and immoral customs became prevalent among us, creepers also dis appeared. When they had ceased, rice appeared ripening in the open spaces ….”[24] This description corresponds to the origin of the universe that considers that in the beginning there was water all around and in course of time earth appeared.

The reference of creepers (Vanalata) and some sort of roots (Bhumiparpataka) as the earliest means of subsistence in pre state societies, in the Buddhist text, corresponds to the Brahmanical and Jain traditions that inform us that earliest means of subsistence was the fruits and the roots of trees. In them “the description of Kalpvriksha as the main source of livelihood of the people is very common affair.”[25] Naturally in the earliest states of their lives, humans lived as food gatherer and not as food producers, corresponding with the Rousseau’s description of the early state of nature[26]. This is also supported by the modern anthropological studies that point out that the first livelihood was “natural subsistence upon fruits and roots on a restricted habitat”[27] Nobody then conceived them as belonging to anyone with any sense of possession or ownership that in distant civilized future developed as a “commanding force in human mind.”[28]

In the early state of nature there was no institution like family based on supremacy of man over woman. There is reference of the land of Kuru in Dighanaikaya, where “the men live calling no goods their own, nor as their chattels any womankind.”[29] Kautilya talks about Vairajya (stateless society) in Uttar Kuru where the concept of family and mine and thine were unknown[30]. There was no division of people into social classes. The absence of social division is also mentioned in Puranas (Vayu Puran). “In their account of earliest life of humankind, “there were no Varnas””[31]. Thus in the early human societies without the institutions of family and the property, the state did not exist. Thus we see that there is a vital connection between the existence of family, private property and the state. This harmonious tenor of the state of nature was destroyed by the discovery of art of cultivation and the idea of ownership in land. “Come now let us divide off the rice fields and set the boundaries round it”[32]. The fencing of land and the development of the art of cultivation enabled the people to produce more than they could consume leading to the tendency of storing he rice. And for the first time people established their separate houses that made people to claim, “this is mine and this is thine.”[33] This description finds echo in Rousseau’s view. “The first man who fenced a piece of land and declared it to be belonging to him and found people simple mined to believe him is the founder of the civilization.”[34]  

The repeated mention of rice is the testimony of the fact that during those days the cultivation of rice was the main economic activity. With the emergence of the family and private property and the tendency to store, the evils like theft crept in.  “Now some being, Vasettha of greedy disposition, watching over his own plot, stole another plot and made use of it.”[35]  People thought that to be evil and reminded him to “not do such thing again”. On repetition “they took him and admonished him”. “With such a beginning, Vasettha, did stealing appear and censure and lying and punishment became known.”[36]

The State of Nature and human nature can be summed up in following stages:

  1. In the process of the evolution of the universe, the earliest stage in an indefinite imagined past was divine, where people were “made up of mind, fed on rapture; ……traversed the air in the abiding loneliness; ….”[37]
  2. With the stages appearance of evils the divine stage transited into earthly State. The earliest inhabitants of the earth were not food producers but food gatherers. They survived on creepers; fruits and some sort of roots. This view is also supported by Brahmanical and Jain sources and also by anthropological studies about the people of Paleolithic age[38]. The institutions like family or private property did not exist. The people were not divided into social classes. People lived in egalitarian harmonious communities.


  1. With the development of art of cultivation and plantation many stages of division of labour occurred and the institutions of family and property in cattle and land came into existence. People began to produce in surplus to the consumption needs. This was accompanied tendency in human beings “to store rice and appropriate to themselves. “The invention of iron and corn revolutionized the life and ruined the humanity”[39], as stated by Rousseau, many centuries after Buddha.


  1. With the emergence of individual family and property, evils like greed and theft also appeared. This state of nature whose harmony and peace is disturbed by “evil customs” like theft of rice and stealing of the agricultural plot by certain errant individuals. This can be compared with John Locke’s state of nature, whose state of “happy freedom” is disturbed by “certain inconveniences”. These inconveniences are transgression by some individuals into natural rights of life, liberty and property of others in violation of natural laws.


Thus we see in the fourth stage the Rousseau kind of state of nature degenerates into Hobbesian state of nature via Lockean state of nature in which people enjoy their natural rights including right to property and right to sell and buy labour. The harmonious state of nature, as described in the Dighanikaya is disturbed owing to the emergence of the institution of property accompanied by the evils like theft of rice or stealing of the rice producing plots of land of others and other unsocial conducts of some erroneous individuals. Thus the story of creation reminds us of the ideal state of nature of Rousseau followed by the one depicted by Hobbes. The Buddhist description refutes the Brahmanical claim of precedence of the members of one class over the members of the other social classes. There was a time when “people were perfect and lived in a state of happiness and tranquility” that “lasted for ages.”[40] As discussed above this “pristine purity declined and there set in the rottenness.”[41] This rottenness needed to be corrected by punishment to the wrong doers as deterrent from wrong doing for others. In order to legitimately institutionalize the system of punishment, the need for a legitimate public authority was felt, for which people entered into a social contract among them to choose an appropriate authority.

  • The Social Contract

To institutionalize the system of just punishment to take care of the rottenness set in the society, people assembled to choose as chief a most favored and capable person from among themselves. “Now these, Vasettha, gathered themselves together and bewailed these things, saying: From our evil deeds, sirs, becoming manifest, in as much as stealing censure, lying, punishment has become known, what if we have to select a certain being, who should be wrathful, when indignation is right, who should ensure that which should rightly be censured and should banish him who deserves to be banished. But we will give him in return a proportion of the rice.”[42]

From the above two things are manifested, the need of a legitimate authority elected by the people as a whole with coercive power of punishment to the wrong doer and the system of taxation in kind, in the form of the produce from people’s economic occupation.

“Then Vasettha, those beings went to the being among them, who was the handsomest, the best favored, the most attractive, the most capable and said to him: Come now, good being, be indignant at that whereat one should rightly be indignant, censure that which should rightly be censured, banish him who deserves to be banished. And we will contribute to thee a proportion of our rice.”[43]

He acceded to their request “and did so as they gave him a proportion of their rice.” The person thus elected came to hold the titles of “Mahasammat (The Great Elect)” implying the one chosen by the whole people, “the first standing phrase to arise”; the Khattiya, “Lord of the fields”, “the next expression to arise” and lastly the Raja, who charms the people by Normthe Dhamma, “the third standing phrase to arise”[44].

The description made in Dighanikaya seems to be the attributes of the stage of social development of disintegration of tribal society, “giving rise to clash of interests between men and women; between the people of different races and colors; and between the people unequal wealth.”[45] From the repeated references of paddy; paddy fields; theft of rice and taxes in the form of rice, the inference is made that the paddy cultivation was the basis of the economy of the people in the middle Ganga plains, the region of Buddha’s activities and sermons. It is to be noted that no other crop than paddy is mentioned in the text, though other crops find reference in Subsequent Jataka[46] stories and other texts but nevertheless, paddy was the main produce. “Originally the agreement takes place between a single Kshatriya on the one hand and the people on the other, but at a later stage it is extended to the Kshatriya as a class.” Towards the end, the Dighanaikaya talks about the circle of nobles, “the Kshatriya mandala”[47]. “This obviously is intended to justify and strengthen the rule of oligarchies, which existed in the middle Gangetic plains, in the age of Buddha.”[48]

Thus we see that the state arises as a punitive institution with the aim of maintaining order in the society, as a result of agreement between the ruled and the ruler, in which the ruled transfers part of the sovereignty to the ruler for specific purpose. The contractual relationship between the people and the state involves the institutionalized taxation on the condition of the state’s obligation of the protection of life and property of the people. Unlike Hobbesian contract, the obligation is not one-sided[49] but like Locke’s contract the obligation is mutual, as shall be discussed in subsequent pages. If one party violates the terms of the contract other party is not obliged to abide by it. But without the contract there shall prevail anarchy as it existed before it, therefore neither have a choice outside it[50].

The Mahasammat was not a law giver or legislator but an executive head, which enforced the customary or the tribal conventions and a punitive authority against the transgressors. It can be compared to Lockean sovereign or commonwealth, who was not a lawgiver; he only interpreted, codified and enforced the natural laws that already existed. Thus we see that the text refers to the ideal state of life to start with, followed by its degeneration due to emergence of evils like theft and falsehood and establishment of family and property by a series of agreements and finally establishment of state by electing the most gracious, capable and wise person from among them as the legitimate ruler, Mahasammat to punish those who deserve punishment and cherish those who deserve to be cherished. The contract theory of the origin of state is the original contribution of ancient Indian thinkers, particularly Buddha. Ancient Greek thinkers Plato and Aristotle considered to be the founders of political science in the West did not envisage the origin of state as a result of contract between the people and the rulers. In Republic Plato envisages the origin of state consequent to peoples’ coming together for fulfilling the mutual needs that can be treated as some kind of contract by implication[51]. In the Laws, the state is established by a lawgiver; subsequently people take oath in accordance with the common laws applicable equally to the ruler and the ruled[52]. The contract theory in ancient India could be attributed to the existence of post Vedic republics, which functioned through popular assemblies in the age of Buddha[53]. In modern times the social contract theories of state were propounded under monarchies, either to justify it (Hobbes); to limit it (Locke) or to overthrow it and replace it with the popular government in which the ruled is the ruler, through the popular assemblies (Rousseau).

Thus we see that in Buddhist theory, the state is a human institution arising out of state of nature, which is depicted synonymous with anarchy that was ended by popular election of a ruler for the establishment of order. The ruler is basically a punitive authority to deter people from wrong doing by inflicting punishment to a bandit or a miscreant.  Thus we see that in Buddhist discourse compiled in the Agganna Sutta of Digha nikaya, the state arises as a contractual, punitive institution with the responsibility of making society orderly. The laws enacted by state emanate from an agreement between the ruler and the ruled, wherein the ruled transfer a part of their sovereignty to the state for a specific purpose. The relationship between the state and the subject is a contractual obligation in which one commands and the other obeys. The contract is symbolized by the institution of taxation, which is payment for specific work of maintaining the order in the society. The obligation is mutual, like in Locke’s contract; if one party violates it unilaterally the other is no longer obligated by the terms of that contract. The contract is a basic condition of organized human society, for in the absence of such a contract before the birth of the state, anarchy prevailed. It is, therefore, existential and neither the people nor the state has any choice outside it. The state is the central institution of the society, distinct from other social institutions typical of some stateless societies, such as chiefdoms. The state under a popularly chosen ruler is considered to be the mediator between various parts of the society.

Qualities; Functions and the Duties of ruler

The “anointed warrior Raja”, as described earlier is not a dynastic or a divine king but a popularly chosen ruler is , “well born on both sides; pure in descent as far back as seven generations both of mother and father, unchallenged and without reproach in point of birth; he is rich with great wealth and resources and his treasure and granaries overflow; and his strength is in four divisions of his army loyal and alert to commands; his minister is wise, intelligent; discreet,  able to judge rightly the future from past happenings; and these four things ripen to his glory; and with the fifth quality of glory, wheresoever he abides he abides where he himself has conquered. …”[54]. The well born aspect of the ruler’s quality seems paradoxical as in the beginning of the discourse in the Agganna Sutta Buddha refutes the Brahmanical view of superiority of birth to Vasettha and Bhardwaj, the Brahmans who seek admission to Sangha and depicts social division based on functional deeds. According to a Sri Lankan scholar, Sita Arunthavanathan, “A ruler was expected to have ten personal qualities such as generosity, liberality, virtue and so on. Four cardinal principles a king had to possess were generosity (dana); pleasant words (piya vachana); welfare of the subjects and equal treatment of all”[55

As said above, Buddhist state as depicted in Dighanikaya is basically a punitive institution, which inflicts punishment on bandits and malefactors through a contractual ruler, to deter others from wrong doing.  In doing so, the ruler “should lean on the Norm, the Dhamma” (the law of truth and righteousness)[56]. This implies that the ruler should be truthful and righteous in governance. “The sacred duty of the king was to observe Dhamma[57]”. The ruler must use his discretion of analyzing the crime reasonably and award punishment righteously in accordance with the crime. “With Dhamma as his standard, with Dhamma as his banner, with Dhamma as his mandate, he sets a Dhamma watch, bar and ward for the folk within his realm.”[58] The government’s other important obligation towards people is their protection from external as well as internal forces. The wrong doers must be punished and no wrong doing should prevail in the territory. Another important duty of king is to provide wealth to poor[59], as poverty may lead to anarchy[60].  Kautilya’s Raj dharma of Rakshana-Palana and yogakshema meaning security protection and well-being of the people[61], seems to be bearing the Buddhist influence.

Buddha said that the qualities of the subjects of a kingdom depend largely on the behavior of the kingdom’s ruler. He then outlined the ten qualities) –“Dasa-Raja-Dhamma (ten virtues of the ruler” to guide rulers and produce virtuous subjects):

  1. Dana — liberality, generosity. It is the duty of the government to look after the welfare of his needy subjects. The ideal ruler should give away wealth and property wisely without giving in-to craving and attachment.
  2. Sila: morality – a high moral character. He must observe high moral precepts, and conduct himself both in private and in public life as to be an imitable example to his subjects. This virtue is very important, because, if the ruler adheres to it, strictly, then bribery and corruption, violence and indiscipline would be automatically wiped out in the country.
  3. Making sacrifices if they are for the good of the people – personal name and fame; even the life if need be. By the grant of gifts etc. the ruler spurs the subjects on to more efficient and more loyal service.
  4. Ajjava: Honesty and integrity. He must be absolutely straightforward and must never take recourse to any crooked or doubtful means to achieve his ends. He must be free from fear or favor in the discharge of his duties. “If a person maintains justice without being subjected to favoritism, hatred, fear or ignorance, his popularity grows like the waxing moon.”
  5. Maddava: Kindness or gentleness. A ruler’s uprightness may sometimes require firmness. But this should be tempered with kindness and gentleness. In other words a ruler should not be over – harsh or cruel.
  6. Tapa: Restraint of senses and austerity in habits. Shunning indulgence in sensual pleasures, an ideal king keeps his five senses under control. Some rulers may, using their position, flout moral conduct – this is not becoming of a good monarch.
  7. Akkodha: Non-hatred. The ruler should bear no grudge against anybody. Without harboring grievances he must act with forbearance and love.
  8. Avihimsa: non-violence. Not only should he refrain from harming anybody but he should also try to promote peace and prevent war, when necessary. He must practice non-violence to the highest possible extent so long as it does not interfere with the firmness expected of an ideal ruler.
  9. Khanti: Patience and tolerance. Without losing his temper, the ruler should be able to bear up hardships and insults. In any occasion he should be able to conduct himself without giving in-to emotions. He should be able to receive both bouquets and brickbats in the same spirit and with equanimity.
  10. Avirodha: Non – opposition and non-enmity. The ruler should not oppose the will of the people. He must cultivate the spirit of amity among his subjects. In other words he should rule in harmony with his people.”[62]


The Dhamma Raja, the righteous ruler, “relies just on Dhamma saying (to his subjects), “Follow such practice in deed, not that other; follow ye such practice in word, not that other; follow such practice in thought, not that other; follow ye such a livelihood, not that other.”[63] Thus the ruler apart from maintaining the order by punishing the wrong doer; protecting the people and ensuring their wellbeing also performs the role of a teacher of the people, teaching them to practice the principles of Dhamma, the righteous life in deeds, words and thoughts.


The Buddhist theory of the origin of state is a great ancient Indian contribution to the history of political theory. It rejects the prevailing Brahmanical divine theory of state and divinely ordained hierarchal social division, the Varna system. “The Brahmin women, the wives of Brahmins, who menstruate and become pregnant and have babies … And yet these womb born Brahmins talk about being born from Brahma’s mouth. These Brahmins tell lies and earn much demerit”[64]. In this text the origin and development of the caste system is critically examined, which was considered by the Buddha as the gravest social problem of the time. Dispelling the legends and myths shrouding the origin of caste differences spun by the Vedic thinkers, the Buddha has explained how the caste structure gradually evolved on the basis of physical and occupational factors in a onetime equal community, which was made hereditary by Vedic thinkers in course of time[65]. By Buddha’s time the egalitarian communal life has disintegrated, the private family and property had been institutionalized and evils like theft had appeared. The community needed to be put in order and state as governing institution had come into existence that needed theorization. Buddha in his teachings, as contained in the 27th Sutta (section) Agganna Sutta of the Digha Nikaya, rejects the divine theory of the ruler being anointed by the God and propounds a Social Contract theory, under which the popular assembly chooses the most competent person among them to maintain the order in the society for which they pay him taxes in the form of a portion of their produce, rice. This social contract theory anticipates the thought experiment involving the interrelated concepts of the state of nature, natural laws and the social contract. This social contract is a two way contract, between the ruler and the people. If the ruler is unable to carry out its duty of maintaining order; protecting people’s person and property and ensuring their wellbeing, the people may withdraw the consent and choose another ruler.

A ruler had to rule with justice and equity ensuring security from within and without. Here it must be stressed that moral responsibility lay not only with the ruler but also with the ruled. Each person in the society had a share of responsibility so that the community could present a united front. A king’s duty could be summarized as protection of the state, elimination of crime, effecting economic stability and ruling in consultation with the leaders of the community. The Pali term ‘Dhammikam Rakkhavaranam Guttim’ means watch, ward and protection righteously.

According to this Sutta protection had to be provided not only to the subjects, army, religious bodies etc. but even to beasts and birds. A king had to rule with justice and equity ensuring security from within and without. Here it must be stressed that moral responsibility lay not only with the ruler but also with the ruled. Each person in the society had a share of responsibility so that the community could present a united front. A ruler’s duty could be “summarized as protection of the state, elimination of crime, effecting economic stability and ruling in consultation with the assembly of notables” [66]

To sum up it may be said that Buddhist theory of State is a kind of democratic theory under which the ruler is popularly elected and could be recalled. This, in Buddha’s time was an advanced form of social contract theory of the origin of the state.


Buddhist theory of the origin of state is contained in the Anugattara Sutta of Didga Nikaya, one of the collections of Buddha’s teachings. It refutes the prevailing Brahmanical divine theory of the origin of state and propounds is a social contract theory. According to this theory the ruler is not anointed by God but is chosen by the people. State is not an eternal or a natural institution but historic that came into existence at a historic time for historical reasons. In the earliest times there was no family and private property and no state. The emergence of state is intimately linked with the emergence of the institution of private property. The state of nature as depicted in Dighanikaya is a pristine state in which people were perfect and lived in happiness and tranquility. It refutes the Brahmanical claim of their class superiority over other classes. The perfection of state of nature lasted for a very long time, after which the pristine purity got corrupted, as there set in evils. People started building shelters and occupying plots of lands for cultivation of paddy for their livelihood. Thus at last the pristine primitive communal life where there were no private families and property, disintegrated. “People gradually entered into a series of agreements among themselves and set up the institutions of family and property.”[67] This led to appearance of evils like theft and other forms of wrong doings, needing punishments to deter others from indulging into similar unsocial acts. For this people assembled to choose as a ruler from among themselves, who “was the best favored, most attractive and most capable”. They also agreed to contribute to him a portion of their paddy. He was supposed to punish those who deserved. The thus elected person had three titles, the Mahasammat, the one chosen by the people; the Khattiya, the lord of the fields and the Raja, who ensures the observation of the Dhamma, the righteous principles of life. The ruler does not have only rights but duties to ensure protection and the well-being of the people.


Digha Nikaya – Nikaya means collection, Digha Nikaya is one of the five collections of Buddha’s teachings.

Dhamma (Dharma) – Buddhist Principles of righteous life

Sangha –  the residential monastery of Buddhist education to the monks and nuns. The non-monarchical, republical states were also called Sangha.

Mahasammatthe great elect, the ruler chosen by popular consent

Mahajanpadas – the 16 big kingdoms that emerged around 6th century BC were known as 16 Maha Janpadas. Janpada meant populated territory.  

Bimbisara   — King of Magadh at the time of Buddha’s birth

Ajatasatru   — Son and successor of Bimbisara and king of Magadh at the time of Buddha’s death.

post-Vedic republics.


Vaishali—  one of the republican states in Buddha’s time, under whose leadership 12 republics had formed a military confederation.

Vivaṭṭa kappa — opening up of the universe

Samvaṭṭa kappa — closing down of the universe

Raja — the title of the ruler when he ensures the observation of Dhamma

Khattiya – the title of ruler when he acts as the lord of the fields

[1] The life of the Buddha, www.buddhist-pilgrimage.com/life-of-buddha.html  

[2] Ibid

[3]  Sanghas are the most fundamental institutions of Buddhism. Monks and nuns, trained in them, are considered to be responsible for the preservation and dissemination of the Buddha’s teaching and the guidance of Buddhist lay people.

[4] In epistemological and psychological senses, moksha refers to freedom from ignorance: self-realization, self-actualization and self-knowledge.

[5]  Other Nikyas are– Majjhima Nikāya, Samyutta Nikāya, and Khuddaka Nikāya,


[6] RS Sharma, The Aspects of Political Ideas and Institutions in Ancient India, Motilal  Banarasidas, Delhi, 1991, p. 63.

[7] Ibid p. 65

[8] Frederic Engels, Origin of family, private Property and State

[9] Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Discourse on Inequality

[10]RS Sharma, op.cit.  Pp. 64-65.

[11] Ancient Buddhist texts like the Anguttara Nikaya  make frequent reference to sixteen great kingdoms and republics which had evolved and flourished in a belt stretching from Gandhara in the northwest to Anga in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent and included parts of the trans-Vindhyan region prior to the rise of Buddhism in India.

[12] RS Sharma, op.cit.

[13] Pramod Ranjan  (ed) Mahishasur: A Peoples’ Hero, The Marginalized,  Vardha, 2016

[14] KP Jayaswal

[15] Kautilya, Arthshastra

[16] Rahul Sankrityayan, Singh Senapati

[17] BR Ambedkar, Buddha and his Dhamma, Book I, section 13

[18] Rahul Sankrityayan

[19] The life of the Buddha, www.buddhist-pilgrimage.com/life-of-buddha.html  

[20] A. Appadurai, Political Thinking in India through Ages, Khanna Publishers, New Delhi, 1992 p. 1

[21] RS Sharma, op.cit. p. 63

[22] Appadorai, 0p.cit. p. 6

[23] TW Rhys Davids, “Dialogues of Buddha” part III, in Sacred Books of Buddhism, London 1921, p. 86

[24]  ibid

[25] RS Sharma, op.cit. p. 49

[26] Rousseau, Discourse on Inequalities…

[27] Morgan, Ancient Society, p.20

[28] Ibid p. 27

[29] Sacred Books of Buddhism p. 87

[30] Kautilya, Arthasastra, VIII 2

[31] RS Sharma, op.cit. pp. 50-51

[32] Appadorai, op.cit. p. 2

[33] The Life of Buddha pp.5-6, Sacred Books of Buddhism, IV p. 87

[34] Quoted in Lucio Colletti, From Rousseau to Lenin

[35] Appadorai, p. 3

[36] Ibid p.4

[37] Ibid p. 3

[38] Childs, Man makes himself, referred to in RS Sharma, op.cit. p. 49

[39] Rousseau, op.cit.

[40] RS Sharma, op.cit. p. 64

[41] Ibid

[42] Appadorai, op.cit. p. 4

[43] Ibid

[44] Ibid

[45] RS Sharma, op.cit. p. 65

[46] The Jataka stories are related to the former births of Buddha, probably narrated by some later Buddhist teachers and monks to illustrate Buddha’s doctrines by appropriate examples. Appadorai, op.cit. p. 11

[47] Sacred Books of Buddhism, op.cit. III, p. 88

[48] RS Sharma, op.cit. p. 67

[49] In Hobbes’s Social Contract the Sovereign is nor party to the contract and has no contractual obligation. Ish Mishra, Thomas Hobbes, Countercurrents.

[50] B. G. Gokhale,” The Concept of Disorder in Early Buddhist Political Thought,” Sri Lanka Journal of Buddhist Studies, Vol. I, 1987, pp. 172-73

[51] Plato, Republic, Book II, quoted in Ebenstein, , Great Political Thinkers,  OUP, New Delhi, 1960, p. 221

[52] Plato, Laws, referred to in RS Sharma, op.cit. p.76.

[53] Ambedkar, Buddha and His Dhamma

[54] Appadorai p.6

[55] Ibid p. 9

[56] Ibid p. 2

[57] The Buddhist religion that essentially meant righteousness.

[58] Op.cit

[59] Ibid p.9

[60] Note

[61] Kautilya, op.cit

[62] www.lankalibrary.com

[63] Appadorai, op.cit. p. 7

[64] Mathew J. Moore , Political Theory in Cannonical Buddhism, p. 9, http://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1026&context=poli_fac

[65] http://dlib.pdn.ac.lk/bitstream/123456789/3071/1/Rev.Pandith%20Kamburupitiye%20Ariyasena%201981.pdf

[66] Sita Arunthavanathan, Buddhist political thinking, http://www.lankalibrary.com/Bud/politics.htm

[67] RS Sharma, op.cit. p. 65

Ish N. Mishra  is a retired professor



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