Buddhism Buddhism and Kingship
Lewis Doney
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0281


Kingship has been an important and contested element of realpolitik and rhetoric since the beginnings of Buddhism. Siddhārtha Gautama (fl. c. fifth century BCE) is said to have been born a prince augured to either conquer or renounce the world, who chose the latter path. Those who follow the Buddha’s example in “going forth” (Skt. niṣkrāmati) from the world, join the monastic sangha and are then (theoretically) subject only to monastic law (Skt. vinaya) rather than state jurisdiction or its tax obligation. Yet, this “going forth” takes place within a society on which the sangha is largely dependent for donations, in return for which householders gain religious merit (Skt. puṇya). This means that social support, from householders up to kings or emperors, is often negotiated within Buddhism, whether symbolically or in practice. This situation created a rich diversity of approaches to kings (whether seen as positive protectors of the dharma, negative causes of Buddhist decline, or a mixture of the two) that often expanded into ideal types, reached cosmic proportions, and affected real sangha-ruler relations (even to such extremes as Buddhist literature sanctioning either royal deification or regicide). Rulers down the millennia donated land to the sangha, and the important role of building stupas, temples, and monasteries (less often, nunneries) in the countries where Buddhism spread often announced Buddhism as a (if not the) state religion and a (re)new(ed) part of the landscape. Royal patronage was behind many countries’ voluminous Buddhist canons, containing foundational conceptions of kingship, and the scriptoria and repositories necessary for their survival. The status of state religion cuts both ways though, and monarchs were often legitimized by Buddhism or controlled it, at times even persecuted it. Some rulers were ordained as monks or nuns, either after abdicating or during their reigns, while certain monastics ruled regions or countries—further blurring the boundaries between the world and “going forth” from it. Buddhist kingship ideals also influenced modern states and either merged or conflicted with other societal or international values. This often led to a bureaucratic or ideological distancing of the state from Buddhist kingship metaphors, unless embracing them served national identity. This entry is divided into sub-entries on Early Buddhism, then “Southern” (toward the Theravāda), “Eastern” (mostly Mahayana) and “Northern” (predominantly tantric) Buddhist countries. Yet, traditions can persist (unacknowledged) within later, more popular movements, and geographic typologies collapse at various meeting points and times in Buddhist Asia.

General Overviews

Works in this category can be split into two subcategories. On one side are those covering real-world relations between the Buddhist church and kingdoms or states that may be majority Buddhist or non-Buddhist. On the other are works identifying ideals of Buddhist kingship, themselves sometimes drawn from the lives of mostly male real-world royalty, emperors, or rulers, that are generally applicable to countries into which Buddhism spread. First, in Bechert and Gombrich 1984 an array of experts survey the variety of the sangha’s changing relations with local, regional, and state powers over its long history. Modern church-state relations in selected Asian countries were first surveyed in Schecter 1967 but, more recently, Harris 1999 and Berkwitz 2006 invited different experts to bring such descriptions almost up to the present day. Second, theories and models of kingship are widespread in Buddhism, even being put in the mouth of the Buddha in Pali texts. Gokhale 1966 identified two of the major strands that developed out of these as that of mahāsammata (“the great elected one”) or the protector king, and that of the cakravartin (“wheel-turning monarch”) or dharmarāja (“king upholding virtue/religion(s)/Buddhism”). Steavu and Rambelli 2014 focuses on the mahāsammata ideal and its outworkings in East Asia especially. Tambiah 1977 places less emphasis on this (under the name King Mahathammata) than on discussing the cakravartin (Pali cakkavatti) paradigm and its influence in Southeast Asia. Strong 2014 shows the enduring influence of Emperor Aśoka (c. 304–232 BCE) and Jory 2016 (cited under Southeast Asia) the legendary self-sacrificing Prince Vessantara (a pre-incarnation of the Buddha), while Nattier 1991 identifies another, negative image of kings causing the decline of Buddhist values and the eventual future extinguishing or end of the dharma. I have not gone into bibliographic detail on how particular deities embody kingship, except for Holt 1992 (cited under Sri Lanka), Sørensen 1994 and Halkias 2017 (both cited under Tibet and Bhutan) on Avalokiteśvara and Shim 2013 (cited under Eastern Buddhism) on the Four Heavenly Kings. On Indic “Hindu” gods like Visnu who are also important within Buddhism, see the separate Oxford Bibliographies Online in Buddhism article “Kingship.”

  • Bechert, Heinz, and Richard Gombrich. The World of Buddhism: Buddhist Monks and Nuns in Society and Culture. New York: Facts on File, 1984.

    Scholars of different regions in Buddhist Asia contribute to this approachable edited volume that focuses on historical sangha-state relations.

  • Berkwitz, Stephen C., ed. Buddhism in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2006.

    Offers updated perspectives on, and more contemporary foci within, Buddhist Asia. Chapter 1, “The History of Buddhism in Retrospect” (pp. 1–44), uniquely works backwards in time to gradually ground discussions of modern-day relations between Buddhism and local and larger powers in their historical dynamics.

  • Gokhale, Balkrishna G. “Early Buddhist Kingship.” The Journal of Asian Studies 26.1 (1966): 15–22.

    DOI: 10.2307/2051828

    Seminal, if short, study of early Buddhist texts’ negotiations with state conceptions, moving from real-world monarchy to more ideal forms of kingship. Another essay on a similar topic is Balkishna G. Gokhale, “The Early Buddhist View of the State.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 89.4 (1969): 731–738.

  • Harris, Ian C., ed. Buddhism and Politics in Twentieth-Century Asia. London: Pinter, 1999.

    Edited volume on modern Buddhism’s standing regarding many of the states of Buddhist Asia, intended as an update to Schecter 1967. It begins with a chapter by the editor (pp. 1–25) giving textual and historical background, while also containing descriptions of Buddhism and politics in Communist Mongolia and China that are not covered in the other chapters of the volume.

  • Nattier, Jan. Once upon a Future Time: Studies in a Buddhist Prophecy of Decline. Fremont, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1991.

    Trans-regional textual study of the important “end of the dharma” narrative that holds a king partly responsible for hastening Buddhism’s demise.

  • Schecter, Jerrold L. The New Face of Buddha: Buddhism and Political Power in Southeast Asia. New York: Coward-McCann, 1967.

    Pioneering but now outdated scholarly-cum-journalistic report on modern church-state relations in various countries of the Buddhist world. The first 1967 edition, published by John Weatherhill, has a different subtitle: “The Fusion of Religion and Politics in Contemporary Buddhism.”

  • Steavu, Dominic, and Fabio Rambelli. “The Vicissitudes of the Mahāsammata in East Asia: The Buddhist Origin Myth of Kingship and Traces of a Republican Imagination.” The Medieval History Journal 17 (2014): 207–227.

    The authors outline key East Asian forms of indigenous kingship and their transformation, especially under the influence of the mahāsammata ideal.

  • Strong, John S. The Legend of King Aśoka: A Study and Translation of the Aśokāvadāna. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.

    English translation of the Aśokāvadāna version of the life-story of Emperor Aśoka, originally published in 1983. Its introductory chapters compare the Aśoka of the edicts with his later depiction as a cakravartin and almost a bodhisattva, and link the ideals of Buddhahood to those of Buddhist kingship.

  • Tambiah, Stanley J. World Conqueror and World Renouncer: A Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand against a Historical Background. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

    Highly influential, if contentious, theoretical work that argues for Buddhist kingship as counterbalancing the power of Brahmanism and as a complementary, worldly authority of dominion to the moral authority of the Buddha and his sangha, covering early and later texts. For a further, similar study of South and Southeast Asia, see Stanley J. Tambiah, The Buddhist Conception of Universal King and Its Manifestations in South and Southeast Asia. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: University of Malaya, 1987.

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