How Buddhists Invented Democracy
How Buddhists Invented Democracy

OK, Buddhists may not have invented democracy. History professors argue that the Athenians invented democracy ca. 500 BCE. However, as democratic government was getting underway in Athens, the First Buddhist Council convened in India. The Council, which met about 480 BCE, give or take, was an exercise in democracy.

According to tradition, the Council consisted of 500 of the historical Buddha’s disciples, who met after the Buddha’s death to discuss how to preserve his teachings. The assembly listened to the monk Upali recite the rules of the monastic orders and the monk Ananda recite the Buddha’s sermons. The assembly came to agreement that the recitations accurately reflected the teachings of the Buddha, and so they were preserved as the Vinaya-pitaka and Sutta-pitaka of the Pali Canon.

Historians, who often are no fun at all, argue that there is little corroboration that the Council took place, and if it did it was probably a smaller gathering than what is described in tradition. Even so, the Pali Canon, which reached final form before the Common Era, contains other descriptions of people making public decisions through assemblies, moots and parliaments.

Historian Steve Muhlberger argues that early Buddhist literature contains rich evidence that democratic governments flourished in India during the time of the Greek democracies and the Roman republic. So, while Buddhists may not have invented democracy, there is a tradition of democracy strongly rooted in the earliest days of Buddhism.