Thursday, May 29, 2008

Uneasy is the Head

Yesterday the world’s last Hindu king was unceremoniously dethroned and an institution that stretched back to Vedic times came to an end. King Gayanendra was, by all accounts, the wrong man at the wrong time – aloof, arrogant and more concerned with his business interests than his people. Had his predecessor, the popular Birendra, still been alive the Indian tradition of kingship might have clung on. It lasted in India until 1947 when about 260 Hindu kings were un-deified and then slowly driven into penury by the tax man. I once had tea with the Maharaja of Benares in his crumbling and ill-lit palace. There was plastic on the chairs in a vain and half-hearted attempt to keep the dust off them and we were served slightly stale Britannia biscuits. The maha and long gone out of the raja. Nepal now stands at a fork in the road. It’s going to be either ‘Prachandra, infallible leader of the glorious Nepalese working people and president for life’ or a colorless nonentity ‘His Excellency’ elected for a five year tenure.
The Pali words for king are manujinda, narinda and raja. The Buddha defined royal rulers thus; ‘a king is the chief of men’ (raja mukham manussanam, Sn.568). Different religions have different theories about the origins and nature of kinship. The Bible for example, says that all rulers derive their power from God and thus to obey the king is to obey God (Romans 13,1-2). In Europe this doctrine came to be known as ‘the divine right of kings’. Queen Elizabeth still officially rules ‘by the grace of God’ although in fact she actually rules by the assent of the people who can be nearly as fickle and petulant as God. Confucianism taught a similar idea called ‘the mandate of Heaven.’ According to Hinduism, kings actually were gods. It naturally followed from all this that a king’s legitimacy was not derived from his fitness to rule but from divine assent or approval.
The Buddha had an entirely different and more realistic concept of kings and kingship. In the Agganna Sutta he posited a social contract theory of monarchy. In ancient days, he said, people saw the need for some form of government and so they elected from amongst themselves a person who they thought would be best able to rule them. According to the Hindu myth, the first king of India was Mahasammata, a name which the Buddha reinterpreted in support of his idea to mean ‘elected by the majority’ (D.III,93; Ja.II,352). Thus according to the Buddhist theory, kings derived their legitimacy from general consent, i.e. from the people they ruled. It followed from this that a king retained his right to rule only for so long as his subjects benefited from it. Several stories in the Jataka implicitly suggest that people had a right to overthrow a king who was cruel, unjust or incompetent (Ja.I,326; III,513-14; VI,156).
Such ideas were far too ahead of their time and there is little evidence that they were ever applied. However, the Buddha’s teaching of good governance had some influence in making kings more humane. The best example of this is Asoka who was probably being completely genuine when he said: ‘All subjects are my children. I wish for them what I wish for my own children - their welfare and happiness both in this world and the next.’
While the Tipitaka and later literature always exhort kings to abide by Buddhist values, the general impression they give, almost certainly based on hard experience, is of kings as despotic, arbitrary, self-indulgent and ruthless. ‘Kings are fickle-minded,’ ‘Kings are cruel,’ ‘Like a raging fire, kings are dangerous to be near’ (Ja.IV,432; V,345; VI,419). Some were described as being ‘like dust in the eye, like grit in the soup, like a thorn in the heel’ (Ja.II,240). When King Milinda asked Nagasena if they could have a discussion on the Dhamma the latter said: ‘Sire, I will discuss with you if you do so like a learned person and not like a king.’ Milinda asked what the difference was between these two approaches were and Nagasena replied: ‘When the learned are discussing, beliefs are overturned, theories are unravelled, assertions are refuted, ideas are accepted, points are made and other points are made against them. When kings are discussing they say something and punish anyone who disagrees with it’ (Mil.28-9).
Whether kings were good or bad, they had great power and the Buddha modified some of his teachings so as to avoid coming into conflict with them. In deference to the monarch he said that a person could not join the Sangha until they have fulfilled any obligations they had to the king (Vin.I,39) and that Vinaya rules could be changed if the king required it (Vin.I,137). At the same time he told monks and nuns to steer clear of royal courts so as not to get involved in all their intrigues, jealousies and temptations (A.V, 81).
The three kings who appear most frequently in the Tipitaka are Pasenadi of Kosala, Bimbisara of Magadha and his son and heir Ajatasattu. It was about two years after his enlightenment that the Buddha first met King Pasadeni in Savatthi, the capital of Kosaka (S.I,68). Impressed by his teaching, the king and his chief queen Mallika soon became two of the Buddha’s most dedicated disciples. Many discourses in the Tipitaka record dialogues between the Buddha and the king and nearly all the discourses in one chapter of the Samyutta Nikaya consists of such dialogues (S.I,68-102). Pasenadi’s genuine integration of the Dhamma into his life is nowhere better illustrated than by the fact that his commitment to the Buddha’s teachings did not prevent him from having respect for and being generous towards other religions (S.I,78; Ud.14). According to tradition, Pasadeni had two sons, one of whom, Brahmadatta, became a monk (Th.441-6).
Bimbisara came to the throne at the age of 15 and ruled for 52 years. He had met Prince Siddhattha briefly while he was still a wandering ascetic (Sn.408-9), again in the year after his enlightenment and on several subsequent occasions. Bimbisara donated one of his pleasure parks, the Bamboo Grove, to the Buddha to be used as a monastery (Vin.I,35). Although Buddhist tradition says Bimbisara was a devout Buddhist there is no discourse in the whole of the Tipitaka addressed to him. Like many Indian kings, he probably supported all religions and each claimed him as one of their followers.
While Bimbisara is described by the Buddha as ‘a just and righteous king’ (D.I,86), his son Ajatasattu is depicted in the Tipitaka as ruthless, scheming and unpredictable. He murdered his father to get the throne and supported Devadatta in his machinations against the Buddha (Vin.II,185). He also had territorial ambitions. He provoked a war with Kosala which turned out to be a disaster for him (S.I,82-5) and we read of him fortifying the border town of Pataligama in preparation for invading Vajji (D.II,86). There is also a brief reference to him strengthening the walls of his capital out of suspicion that his neighbours were going to attack him (A.II,182). In time, Ajatasattu came to be haunted by thoughts of his murdered father and sought consolation from the Buddha (D.I,475). Tradition tells us that Ajatasattu ruled for 35 years and was eventually murdered by his son Udayibhadda.
There are only three Buddhist king left, two of them beguine, well loved by their people and secure on their thrones. Do you know who they are? The third one sometimes gives the impression of having one foot on the ground and the other on a banana skin. Given Gayanendra’s experience yesterday, he would want to be careful.
The picture above is of King Mahendra's coronation in 1955


Unknown said...

could it be King Bhumipol of Thailand and Emperor Akihito of Japan?
The third one I am not sure....

Robert said...

Excellent article! Great work!

Another king is the king of Bhutan. I'm not sure if that's the third one, or the one with one foot on a bananna peel, but I think Bhutan has had some issues recently.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

The three last Buddhist kings are Bhumibol (bhumi= earth, pala = protector) of Thailand, Jigme Singye Wangchuk of Bhutan and Naradom Sihamoni of Cambodia.

Robert said...

I'm curious about the following:

"Several stories in the Jataka implicitly suggest that people had a right to overthrow a king who was cruel, unjust or incompetent (Ja.I,326; III,513-14; VI,156)."

Unfortunately I don't have access to the texts referenced. (Actually I might, I have 2 of the PTS jataka volumes waiting for me at the library.)

Do the stories necessarily imply a "right" or do this or do they simply suggest that revolts are what end up happening in this case regardless of any theories of right to govern? It seems like the Tipitaka (and therefore probably the Buddha) didn't really speak in terms of "rights" the way we usually do today, but more in terms of describing reality and the cause-and-effect therein. It seems like the reality is that kings ultimately can't be kings if everyone just stops listening to them. No god will come to strike people down for not listening to them. (Also check out what I wrote here.)

Shravasti Dhammika said...

The idea of ‘rights’ in the sense that we use the word today is a very recent (18th cent) and a very particular European concept, so you are quite ‘right’ in raising the question of whether the Buddha (or whoever composed the Jatakas) said people have a ‘right’ to overthrow unjust governments. He did not. I was couching the Jataka’s idea in modern terms. The Jatakas imply that it is understandable, okay, not impious, to do so, it is only to be expected that it will happen. Nonetheless, even this was not a common notion in the pre-modern world. It didn’t matter who was ruling or who was revolting, divine justification was used. Charles I used it to justify his autocracy and Cromwell used it to justify cutting Charles’ head off. The Jatakas present the issue in purely practical and non-religious terms – if it is not to your advantage, if it is to your detriment, get rid of it.