At a time when many democracies around the world are under threat, a discourse the Buddha gave before his great passing may provide inspiration for a response.

I first came across a reference to this discourse, the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, in a copy of A. L. Basham’s The Wonder That Was India, a dog-eared copy of which I picked up at the Daryaganj book market in Old Delhi. It read as follows:

The Buddha himself, though a friend of kings, seems to have had a deep affection for the old republican organization, and in a remarkable passage he is said to have warned the Vrijjis shortly before his death that their security depended on maintaining their traditions and holding regular and well-attended folk-moots.

The Vrijjis (Skt.; Pali, Vajjis) were a confederation of republican tribal states and one of the principal sixteen major nations in North India during the time of the Buddha. We know that the Buddha himself was born in a republican tribe, the Shakyas, where his father, Suddhodana, held for a term of twelve years the title of raja, which appears to have been an elected presidency or chairmanship of sorts and not a hereditary kingship.

The Mahaparinirvana Sutra (Pali, Mahaparinibbana Sutta) a part of the Digha Nikaya, the collection of the Buddha’s long discourses, was in fact his last discourse before his passing. We are told at the outset that King Ajatashatru of Magadha was planning to wage war on the Vrijjis and intended to annihilate them. He sent his minister Vessakara to meet the Buddha in Rajgir at Vulture Peak, where the Buddha often taught. Ajatashatru was a ruthless, ambitious ruler who had murdered his own father, King Bimbisara, but had, strangely enough, absolute faith in the Buddha’s wisdom and integrity. He wanted honest feedback on his military plans and instructed his minister to tell the Buddha of his intention to wage war on the Vrijjis, adding: “Whatever the Blessed One should answer you, keep it well in mind and inform me; for Tathagatas [‘ones who are thus gone’] do not speak falsely.”

The Buddha’s questions are a litmus test for the health of a nation and are worth asking again today.

After paying homage to the Buddha, Vessakara informs him of King Ajatashatru’s plans. There are two different accounts of how the Buddha answers: In one, the Buddha does not respond directly to the minister but turns to the Venerable Ananda, his disciple, cousin, and principal attendant, and asks him seven questions. After Ananda replies affirmatively to each one, the Buddha comments, “So long as this is the case, Ananda, the growth of the Vrijjis is to be expected, not their decline.” In another account, the Buddha presents to Vessakara “seven principles for a nation’s welfare.” At the end of the discourse, the minister concludes: “No harm, indeed, can be done to the Vrijjis in battle by Magadha’s king, Ajatashatru, except through treachery or discord.”

In either telling, the Buddha lays out seven qualities that lead to a republic’s prosperity. The Buddha’s questions are thus a litmus test for the health of a nation and are worth asking again today.

Here I have laid out the Buddha’s seven questions and have attempted to show how they might be applied to our times.

1. Did the Vrijjis hold frequent and regular assemblies, and were these meetings well attended? In present-day terms, do we have a functioning parliament (or Congress) with regular and well-attended sessions? We might even say that the Buddha was calling here for public participation, which right now, for Americans at least, would mean to get out and vote.

2. Did the Vrijjis assemble and disperse from these assemblies peacefully, and did they conduct affairs in concord? In contemporary political language are we reasonably “nonpartisan” in our politics? Do we allow free participation, discussion, and criticism, without suppressing opposition?

3. Did the Vrijjis proceed in accordance with their ancient constitution and not enact new laws or abolish existing ones? I think the Buddha was asking not whether the Vrijjis never enacted new laws or never abolished existing ones, but whether they were careful about such things and did not amend their constitution frequently or capriciously.

4. Did the Vrijjis respect and honor their elders and think it worthwhile to heed their advice? In our time we might ask whether we listen to senior statesmen, experts, scholars, historians, and—in the context of our current health crisis—even “medical experts.”

5. Did the Vrijjis refrain from abducting women and maidens of good families and from detaining them? Clearly the Buddha was saying that women should not be abused and should be treated with respect. His condemnation of aggression against women does bear repeating in our MeToo era. In another discourse, the Sigalaka Sutta (DN 31), the Buddha tells a householder not to disparage his wife but to honor her and “give her authority…”(trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi), in other words, treat her as an equal.

6. Did the Vrijjis show respect and veneration toward their shrines? In a modern secular nation, the equivalent of such shrines might be public institutions such as museums, libraries, universities, and scientific foundations that demonstrate our confidence in our society and the endurance of our nation.

7. Do the Vrijjis make proper provisions for the safety and welfare of arhats, so that arhats may feel welcome to the Vrijjian land? An arhat was an enlightened person, or even simply someone advanced along the path, possibly including even non-Buddhists. Jains had their own arhats. If the Buddha were speaking in our time, he would probably be saying that we should welcome scholars, scientists, and religious leaders from other countries, perhaps in the way the United States welcomed Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein before World War II.

A 3rd-century relief from Gandhara (now Pakistan) depicting the Buddha’s death | Photo courtesy The Met / Gift of Florence and Herbert Irving, 2015

It might be noted that nowhere in his discourse did the Buddha advise the Vrijjis to follow the path of nonviolence and not resist Ajatashatru’s planned invasion. The Buddha understood that the Vrijjis had to fight to preserve their freedom. He also believed that the first effective line of defense for a republic was in the vigilant and scrupulous maintenance of its democratic customs and institutions.

Seventeen years after the Buddha’s passing, the Vrijjian confederation fell prey to “treachery and discord” instigated by agents (including a prostitute and a fake astrologer spreading disinformation) planted by the minister Vessakara.

Somewhere around 468 BCE, the principal clan of the Vrijji confederation was defeated by Ajatashatru’s powerful army. In Buddhist accounts Ajatashatru himself was brutally murdered by his own son, Udayabhadra, some eight years later.

While the Buddha’s advice for political well-being may be cogent and apt, another lesson from the Mahaparinirvana Sutra—in fact, his last words—appears to supersede it: “Bhikkhus, I exhort you: All compounded things must come to an end. Strive on, untiringly, for your own liberation.”

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