Though the Buddha wisely refrained from interfering with the then existing governments, he made the sangha, the community of the monks, an absolutely democratic institution.
By Sanjoo Thangjam
The Buddha appeared at a time when autocracy was prevalent in India. But his teaching was somewhat of a threat to such autocratic government. He did not, however, interfere with the politics and the government of the country; for he was never a meddler in things were interference was useless, but that did not deter him from giving voice to his democratic thoughts and views.
The Buddha’s teaching definitely encourages democratic ideas and institutions. Though the Buddha wisely refrained from interfering with the then existing governments, he made the sangha, the community of the monks, an absolutely democratic institution.
As the Marquess of Zetland, a former Viceroy of India said:
‘ It is probable that the tendency towards self-government evidenced by these various forms of corporate activity received fresh impetus from the Buddhist rejection of the authority of the priesthood and further by its doctrine of equality as exemplified by its repudiation of caste. It is indeed to the Buddhist books that we have to turn for an account of the manner in which the affairs of these early examples of representative self-government institutions were conducted. And it may come as surprise to many to learn that in the assemblies of Buddhists in India two thousand years and more ago are to be found the rudiments of our own parliamentary practice of the present day.
The dignity of the assembly was preserved by the appointment of a special officer – the embryo of “Mr. Speaker” in our House of Commons. A second officer was appointed to see that when necessary a quorum was secured – the prototype of the Parliament Chief Wip, in our own system. A member initiating business did so in the form of a motion which was then open to discussion. In some cases, this was done once only, in others three times, thus anticipating the practice of Parliament in requiring that a Bill be read a third time before it becomes law. If discussion disclosed a difference of opinion the matter was decided by the vote of the majority, the voting being the ballot.’
Characteristic, again, is the Buddha’s method of teaching the Dhamma. The Buddha disapproved of those professed to have ‘secret doctrines’ saying: ‘I have taught the Dhamma, Ananda, without making any distinction between exoteric and esoteric doctrine, for in respect of the Truth, Ananda, the Tathagata has no such things as the “ closed fist” of a teacher, who hides some essential knowledge from the pupil. He declared the Dhamma freely and equally to all. He kept nothing back and never wished freely to extract from his disciples blind and submissive faith in him and his teaching. He insisted on discriminative examination and intelligent inquiry.
Buddhism is free from compulsion and coercion and does not demand of the follower blind faith. At the very outset the sceptic will be pleased to hear of its call for investigation. Buddhism, from beginning to end, is open to all those who have eyes to see and mind to understand.
The Buddha never interfered with another man’s freedom of thought; for freedom of thought is the birthright of every individual. It is wrong to force someone out of the way of life which accords with its outlook and character, spiritual inclination and tendencies. Compulsion is every form is bad. It is coercion of the blackest kind to make a man swallow beliefs for which he has no relish; such forced feeding cannot be good for anybody, anywhere.
The Buddha’s sole intention was to make clear that seeing things as they are is not the result of mere belief in, and fear of, some external power, either human, superhuman or even infra-human. In the understanding of things, belief and fear do not play any role in Buddhist thought. The truth of Dhamma can be grasped only through insight, never through blind faith, or through fear of some known or unknown being. The history of religion reveals that it is fear in man, enmeshed in ignorance, which creates the idea of an omnipotent external agency; and once that idea is created, men move in awe of the child of their own fear and untold harm to themselves, and, at times, to others, too.
Instructing the monks, the Buddha says: ‘Those who have mere faith in me, mere affection in me, they are bound for a good state of existence (but they do not attain the highest, arahatta, final emancipation). Those who are stiving for Dhamma, who are bent on the path, they are bent on the path, they are bound for awakening, for arahatta.
These are clear indication that the Buddha did not want his followers to recognize anything indiscriminately and without reason.
Not only did the Buddha discourage blind belief, and fear of the omnipotent as unsuitable approachh es for understanding the truth, but he also denounced adherence to unprofitable rites and rituals because the mere abandoning of outward things, such as fasting, bathing in rivers, animal sacrifice and similar acts, do not tend to purify a man or woman, do not make a man/woman holy and noble.
We find this dialogue between the Buddha and the Brahmin Sundarika Bharadvaja. Once the Buddha addressing the monks explained in detail how a seeker after deliverance should train himself and further added that a man whose mind is free from taints, whose life of purity is perfected, and the task done, could be called one who bathes inwardly.
Then the Brahmin Sundarika Bharadvaja seated near the Buddha heard these words and asked him:
– Does the Venerable Gautama go to the bathe in the river Bahuka?
– Brahmin,what good is the river Bahuka?
– Indeed, Venerable Gautama, the river Bahuka is believed by many to be holy. Many people have their evil deeds (papa) washed away in the river Bahuka.
Then the Buddha made him understand that bathing in rivers would not cleanse a man of his dirt of evil and instructed him thus:
‘Bathe just here (in the Doctrine and Discipline – Dhamma-vinaya), Brahmin, give security to all beings. If you do not speak falsehood, or kill or steal, if you are confident and are not mean, what does it avail you to go to Gaya. Your well at home is also a Gaya. The Buddha proclaimed a path free from all superstition and cruelty, that is, he made it impossible for his followers to behave in any way detrimental to the welfare of living beings by outlawing all oppression, spoliation and plunder.
(The writer is Imphal based journalist)