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What are the Social and Political Ideals of the Teaching of Buddhism?

As a teaching aiming at the experience of Enlightenment, Buddhism has no direct concern with the collective life of man on the social and political level. It does not tell its followers how many wives they may have or what form of government they should support.

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At the same time, as the existence of the monastic order indicates, external conditions are not altogether irrelevant to the development of the wholesome mental attitudes on which the experience of Enlightenment depends.

A minimum of social and political teachings is, therefore, scattered here and there throughout the Tripitaka. That, notwith­standing the example of Asoka, they were never taken up and systematically developed in India is perhaps due to the predominantly philosophical and other-worldly tendency of the Indian Buddhist mind.

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Matters of everyday social ethics apart, the social teachings of Buddhism concentrate upon two vitally important issues: caste and means of livelihood. The Buddha rejected the system of hereditary caste. A man’s position in society, he maintained, is determined not by birth (jati) but by worth, by con­duct (charana), and by character (charitra) rather than by descent. Brahmani- cal pretensions to hereditary holiness were therefore dismissed with ridicule, and membership of the Buddhist community, whether as monks or lay de­votees, was thrown open to all who took refuge in the Three Jewels and were prepared to observe the sila appropriate to their vocation.

Means of livelihood (ajiva) are of two kinds, right (samyak) and wrong. The Buddha re­fused to concede that a man’s life could be compartmentalized, with his pro­fessional conduct governed by one set of standards and his private life by another, or that the former constituted a neutral field to which ethical con­siderations need not apply.

He went so far, indeed, as to prohibit essentially unethical occupations, such as those of the butcher, the dealer in poisons, and the weapon-maker, and to make Right Means of Livelihood (samyak-ajiva) the fifth member of the Aryan Eightfold Path.

In the sphere of politics Buddhism holds that the government should pro­mote the welfare of the people (not excluding animals) by all possible means. Religion is to be made the basis of national life. In particular, morality is to be encouraged and the Sangha supported.

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This simple but sublime ideal finds picturesque embodiment in the figure of the Chakravarti-raja or Dharmaraja (the latter representing, perhaps, the most distinctly Buddhist phase of the conception) as described, for example, in the Mahasudassana Suttanta* His­torically speaking, it receives spUKdid exemplification in the person of Asoka, who in his Thirteenth Rock Edict renounces war and proclaims the ideal of dharma-vijaya or victory through righteousness, as wel: as being cultivated with varying degrees of success by some later rulers, both Indian and non- Indian, who strove to emulate the most illustrious of the Mauryas.

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