The Buddha’s Domestic Economy

Editor’s note: This is from Chapter 8 of Nalin Swaris’ book Buddhism, Human Rights and Social Renewal, which I will publish in full soon. It contains a radical reassessment of the Buddha’s teaching and it’s relevance to contemporary thought.


The Buddha’s teaching on domestic economy is a challenging charter for social emancipation compared to the crude will-to-power underlying Brahmin theology and Aristotelian philosophy. Two centuries before Aristotle, the Buddha examined and exposed the emptiness of the theory of innate natures and permanent substances. Just as he gave a new significance to the Wheel of State, so too the Buddha redefined the power of the gahapati. An ariyan, or morally noble gahapati, “having overcome greed and miserliness, rules through generosity and is a ready helpmate to the needy” (Saṁyutta Nikāya V. 351).

The Buddha’s advice to the gahapatis has been preserved in the Sigalovāda Sutta (Dīgha Nikāya 31). It is worth noting that in this discourse, the Buddha calls the rules of conduct he gave gahapatis “Vinaya”, the same term used for the disciplinary rules that he laid down for his mendicant disciple. Though the advice given to householders has not been compiled as a separate book, like the Vinaya for the mendicants, it is fair to say that the Buddha gave his followers one Dhamma and two Vinayas: one for renouncers and one for disciples with economic and political power.

As in the case of the political economy, the Buddha’s views on the domestic economy are given in the form of a pedagogical story. The Buddha encounters a young man who having finished his morning ablutions in the River Ganges, with clothes dripping engage in some ritual observances, as people in India do to this day. The Buddha asks the young man what he is up to. The young man replies that he has just inherited gahapati status after his father’s death and is performing morning rituals as taught by his father, worshipping the Six Quarters of the Cosmos – North, South, East, West, Apex and Base – to invoke the blessings of the powers-that-be for the success of that day’s activities. The young man’s cosmic religiosity, needless to say, is self-centred.

The Buddha, in a remarkable revaluation of the young man’s cosmos, instructs him on worship of the true Six Quarters. His religious consciousness has been conditioned by a sense of awe for mysterious forces of nature. He is blindly following the traditions of his forefathers. The Buddha symbolically adopts him into the kinship of the new nobility. The adopted son is re-educated to look beyond the narrow circle of his kith and kin and become aware of the totality of social relationships in which he lives. The young gahapati is reminded that in real life he is situated at the hub of six interdependent, or conditioned-conditioning, social relationships. The true ‘East’ is the parent-child nexus; the ‘West’, that of husband and Wife; the ‘South’, teacher and pupil; the ‘North’, relations between friends; ‘Apex’, the relationship with the moral guardians of society; ‘Base’, the relations of production, consisting of the gahapati, his wage labourers and domestic slaves. The mutual obligations of friends are enumerated as those between equals. The other relationships are treated as those between juniors and seniors. The juniors have prior obligations to the seniors and only when fulfilled can they expect the seniors to do their duties in return. This seems logical in the cases of children and parents, pupils and teachers and between householders and their moral guides, but surprisingly the Buddha reverses order of seniority when it comes to the husband-wife and employer-employee relationships. The conventional superior’s obligations precede those of the conventional inferior. The old valuation is replaced by the Rule of the Noble: the ariyan gahapati must do his duty by wife and employees first. Only then may he expect them to fulfil their duties to him loyally and conscientiously.

The gahapati should first honour, respect and be faithful to his wife. But the Buddha goes further than what may be expected of a mere good husband. He says that the husband should serve his wife in five ways: he should treat her with honour; not disparage her; not be unfaithful to her; share authority with her; and provide her with adornments befitting her position. Since the gahapati household was a unit of production, “sharing authority” meant more than letting the wife manage housekeeping. This becomes clear when her duties are mentioned. A wife thus ministered to will properly organise the work; treat the workers well; protect the stores; and be diligent and skilful. In this way she reciprocates her husband’s proper treatment. It is difficult to render the emotional nuance of the verb anumkampati, translated here as “reciprocate”. It is something stronger than wifely love. It indicates the feelings of a woman who understands and shares the interests and concerns of her husband, and therefore literally “pulsates together with him”. This is a completely different understanding of a wife’s role from that generally defined as one of service and submission to her master. It must be noted that here the wife is not asked to obey her husband. In fact the word “obedience” is remarkably absent from the Buddha’s moral lexicon. The husband is not asked to command, but to share authority with his wife. When husband and wife fulfil their obligations; properly understood, “the Western quarter is secure, in peace and free from fear”.

The duties of a gahapati towards his employees, as enunciated by the Buddha, amount to the first social charter on workers’ rights. According to the Vinaya of the noble, a gahapati employer should:

1. Allocate work according to workers’ strengths and abilities;
2. Provide just wages;
3. Provide healthcare;
4. Surprise workers with extras; and,
5. Provide leisure and rest.

The ‘unexpected surprises’ would in today’s terms correspond to wage bonuses given over and above obligations. The spirit of this worker-master relationship can be summed up by the well-known socialist norm: “From each according to his/her abilities and to each according to his/her needs.” When the servants and wage labourers are thus ministered to, they work diligently, irrespective of whether the master’s eyes are on them or not. They begin their work on time and leave only after their tasks are finished; be satisfied with their wages, knowing that they are just; and will safeguard the good name of their master. In this way “the Base is secure, in peace and free from fear”. The Buddha envisaged the possibility of creating work conditions in which employers and employees do not see themselves as locked in an antagonistic relationship, one seeking merely to maximise profits and the other to maximise wages. Production can be transformed into a cooperative venture, but employers must take the first step to make this a reality. The perennial relevance of the principles laid down in the Sigalovāda Sutta can be appreciated if compared with those contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Article 23
a. Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
b. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
c. Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

[96] Article 24
Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

The Buddha recognised that creation of wealth is a necessary condition for ensuring social welfare. Wealth has to be created before it can be distributed. In the Sigalovāda Sutta, the Buddha urges entrepreneurs to produce wealth non-injuriously, “just as the bee gathers honey”. His advice on prudent householding (this is what “economics” originally meant) is starkly realistic. Instead of squandering his wealth in wanton living, a wise gahapati divides it into four parts: one-fourth for consumption; two-fourths reinvested; and one-fourth held in reserve.

In his dismissive treatment of the Buddha’s Teaching, Max Weber opinionated: “A rational economic ethic could not develop in this sort of religious order” (216). Weber obviously read the wrong sources. The Buddha’s numerous discourses to rulers and householders show that he was not an estranged world-renouncer indifferent to the wellbeing and happiness of ordinary people. His entire Teaching is based on insight into the conditioned co-arising of phenomena. Poverty and miserable conditions are not the result of divine caprice, unchangeable fate, nor naturally occurring tragedies. They arise under specific and verifiable conditions, which can be identified and eradicated.

Moral demands for people to live virtuous lives, he realised, are platitudes if minimum conditions for wholesome living are absent. This principle was recognised by Buddha in the provisions he made for his mendicant disciples. He did not require them to live miserably, nor to neglect basic personal hygiene. He ruled that his disciples were entitled four basic conditions of life: food (piṇḍapāta); clothing (civara); housing (senāsana) and medicine/healthcare (gilānapaccaya). The provision of these four indispensable life-conditions for renouncers has wider social significance: the recognition that all human beings, irrespective of gender and social status, have a right not merely to life but also to the indispensable needs for the preservation of that life, namely food, clothing, shelter and healthcare. The Buddha’s recognition of these rights in the sixth century BCE has only now been ratified as fundamental and universal in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…

The Buddha’s Teaching on political and economic affairs embraces all sentient life and shows sensitivity to the need for protection of the living environment, The vision he unfolds expresses conviction that we humans can live in a reconciled universe, in harmony with what ignorant people disparagingly dismiss as “external nature”.


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