Buddha's teachings and its economic impact

by Prof. Manik Lal Shrestha, Gorkhapatra, Nov 4, 2007

Kathmandu, Nepal -- Buddha's thoughts and teachings are often described as philosophical dialectical thoughts, pacifist religion and stoic teachings.

Fredreich Engels, the co-author of "The Communist Manifesto" called Buddha "one among the earliest dialecticians in human history." All the descriptions are about the philosophical or religious aspect of Buddha's teachings.

The economic aspect of Buddha's teachings, particularly the economic impact of Buddha's teachings in the society of his time and a bit later are significant.


Buddha was the first among the ancient thinkers of South Asia who believed in the advantage of collective ownership of property.

He even believed that origin of private ownership was degradation and dishonest. He explained in clear words, "At first human beings owned property collectively and worked collectively in farm land to produce rice. Later they divided farmland and tilled them separately giving rise to individual ownership. Then some greedy persons stole or encroached on other people's share of land. To stop such evil practice, people chose a king and entrusted to him the task of preserving peace and order, specially the task of protecting individual's property from infringement by others". (Aggannya-Sitta (Dighami Kaya 27).

This teaching of the development of early human society by Buddha reflects his belief that private ownership has its origin in dishonesty, vice and a decadence of social morality. Not only that, private ownership originates from vice, but it also begets evil, because private ownership compelled human beings to be put the under the authority of a king and voluntarily accept bondage. Buddha also explained that in the beginning men entrusted the king the task of protecting people from the risk of "robbing of their land and property ", but later, in course of time the kings themselves robbed the property of the people.

About private property, Buddha spoke in explicit words that private ownership is the source of "cheating, imbalance (weighing), cheating in measuring, bribery, ingratitude, conspiracy, assault, slaughter, slavery, robbery, looting and murder". Buddha not only spoke of the advantage of collective ownership, but also applied it in his Sangha (brotherhood of monks).

He allowed the monks to own privately only certain personal belongings (limited to 8 items of 6 kings), namely 3 chivar (monk's robes), 1 thread and needle, 1 astava, 1 waist bond, and 8 water-filter. When his stepmother, nun Prajapati wished to present the Buddha Chivar women by herself, Buddha asked her not to offer it to an individual, but to the Sangha,(Dakkhina Wibhange Sitta, Majjhim Nikaya 142).

But this "economic communism" or Buddha's experiment of socialist ownership failed, because he applied it only in his Sangha (i.e among the monks only) and not in the whole society, because he did not try to restructure or transform the society to apply his concept of collective ownership and also because he advocated common ownership only in men"s personal belongings and not in the means of production.

Further, Buddha's failure to transform the society along with his views was attributable to the faith that the Buddha (624-544 B.C.) lived at the age of "transition from slave society to feudal society" and at a highly stagnant society in South Asia, in which the seeds of his advanced ideas could not germinate. Buddha's highly enlightened views influenced many, individual thinkers, but could not change the economic relationship of society of his time.

In spite of all these shortcomings Buddha's teachings had a great impact on the thinking of the society of his time and also in some sections of society even to this day. The Sangha (the brotherhood of monks) in Buddhism (of all schools) advocate common ownership of property in the Sangha, according to which the members of the Sangha (or monks) work to earn, not for themselves, but for the Sangha.

For laymen, Buddhism stressed on earning money "for maintaining life, not for amassing wealth." To people of propertied class, Buddhism appealed to use wealth for the benefit and welfare of the community. During Buddha's days, his teachings greatly contributed to lessen the harshness of feudal exploitation, although not to abolish it.

Buddha preached and even personally urged the rich to help the poor, and, thus, contributed to some extent to narrow the gap between the haves and have-nots. In his lifetime, Buddha's ideas had an impact on the economic attitude of the society in the area he and his disciples worked (i.e. areas of South Nepal and North India), where many wealthy people were inclined to offer liberally for charity. His teachings also curbed "to a considerable extent unscrupulous behaviours of earning wealth through immoral means.

Buddha's teachings influenced rulers of some kingdoms and republics of his time and of some centuries after his days and they enthusiastically took measures to ameliorate the sufferings of the poor. King Ashok, the ruler of the vast territory of North India tried to implement the "principles of a welfare state" by protecting "the aged, the infirm, the widows and the orphans".

Buddha's teachings inspired and influenced the policies of some later rulers like King Shongtsong-gempo and. King Munetsongpo and King Shiv Singh Malla of a principality of Nepal (of late 16th century), who tried to become a protector of the poor and the disabled. To this day Shiv Singh Malla has become a legend in Nepal, where the patronizing policy of state and the state for welfare of people are called happy days of Simsim Raja.


Special mention may be made of King Munetsongpo (846-847) of Tibet, who as soon as he ascended the throne in 846 tried to impose "equal distribution of wealth" among all his subjects, the poverty-stricken people of Tibet. Declaring that he was implementing the teachings of Buddha, he seized the property of all and redistributed it equally among all his subjects. After same time it was found the lazy and prodigal people spent lavishly and became paupers again, while the industrious and frugal people became well-off.

Over-enthusiastic to improve equality, he again seized the wealth of all and redistributed it equally among all. After he repeated the process three times in one year, he earned hatred of many. He was an important and irrational "enthusiastic leveler," but his example shows the enormous impact of Buddha's ideas on economic thinking and behaviour of people.

This happened at a time about 1400 years after Buddha's days, at a time when Buddhist missionaries of Nepal and India were propagating Buddhas message in Tibet and many other places of Asia.