Ancient Buddhista sanghas: From dhamma to democracy

Ambedkar drew inspiration from democratic principles of the sanghas

969115636 Preacher of equality: A carving, dated around 3 CE, depicting the enlightenment of the Buddha | Getty Images

THE BUDDHA preached equality of human beings. He knew that a government was necessary to ensure social order and welfare consistent with the dharma. This made Budhhism and democracy compatible. Monasteries followed democratic traditions.

The Buddha, say historians, could have been inspired by the democratic traditions in gana sanghas such as Lichchhavi. The Vinaya Pițaka, the Buddhist rule book that was written after the Buddha’s death, details the discipline to be followed in the monastic community. It describes an election process, the method of voting in it; the constitution of Santhagara (an assembly), the election of the Mahasammata (the great elect), the process of moving a resolution, and what quorum, consent, dissent and referendum means.

The Vinaya Pițaka also describes three voting procedures that still has resonance: a secret ballot that employs voting sticks; whispering one’s preference into another monk’s ear; and open voting through show of hands. It put the presiding officer in charge of detecting unfair practices, such as voting twice or conducting a ballot without ensuring quorum. Disputes regarding interpretation of rules were to be resolved by a committee elected for the purpose, and by a majority vote in the monastic assembly.

B.R. Ambedkar, head of the committee that drafted the Constitution of India, drew inspiration from democratic principles of the Buddhist sanghas. A close look at the Vinaya Pițaka, and its similarities with our modern Constitution becomes clear.