Theoretical Implications of the Aggañña Sutta

Editor’s note: This is from Chapter 6 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.


  1. The Buddha was the first thinker in world history to formulate a theory of contractual power. The Aggañña Sutta is the earliest known discourse on politics where the source of state power is traced to popular consensus. Unlike the Western philosophers of the eighteenth century, the Buddha did not argue that a social contract was necessary because the human species consists essentially of separate and egoistic individuals. The Buddha disclosed that individualism and egoism manifest themselves under specific, historically arisen conditions: the transition from a mobile to a settled way of life after humans had developed techniques for production of their means of subsistence; the breakdown of clan solidarity; and the setting of separate households as the principle unit of ownership and production all changed people’s moral sentiments:
  2. What was once regarded as immoral (the private ownership of the means of production) came to be regarded as moral.

  3. The Buddha rejected Brahmin theory about the divine origin of language, which was the basis for their theory of creation. The Brahmins traced language to the creative Word of God. In Brahmin fantasy all realties originate with a Father-God who begot a Word-Son from his mouth. This Divine Word-Son was the exteriorisation of the invisible mind of God. All perceivable realities are fragmentary reflections of the Divine Mind. Every separate individual is a partial, imperfect and finite incarnation of the Divine Word. To know the hidden meaning of a thing or a person, we must know its true meaning as conceived and uttered by the Word. All words are made up of stable sound elements (akṣaras) that have fixed and immutable meaning, revealed in the Vedas: the Word of God. To understand the meaning and the purpose of everything on earth one must know the Vedas. The Brahmins have been chosen by God to act as custodians and interpreters of the Word; they alone have access to the true meaning determined by God. By tracing the power of their words to God, the Brahmins could claim that their discourse about social order was based on divine revelation.

    Before commencing his genealogical trace of power, the Buddha demolished the Brahmin theory of creation by the Word of God. He provided a historical explanation for the Vedas’ origin: language, like society, is a constructed reality. The meaning attached to a word is a social convention, not a divine creation. The Buddha wielded a two-edged sword in the Aggañña Sutta. He undercut not only the Brahmin theological view of society, but also the very language used to substantiate it. The Buddha further ridiculed the notion that Father-Gods could beget Word-Sons from their mouths. The Brahmins, he said, could cook up such a fantasy only by cultivating amnesia about their real origins. However much they might like to forget it, everyone knows that Brahmin women, like those of other social strata, menstruate, conceive, give birth to, and breast-feed their children. These ‘vulva born’ Brahmins bandying the view that they were conceived in the head of Brahma and born out of his mouth must first come out the nether-mouth of woman before making their silly claims.

    By emphasising real origins and rejecting the meaningless practice of ritual re-birth by male priests, the Buddha revalidated the feminine-maternal order which the Brahmins disqualified as intrinsically impure. Birth from woman does not differentiate; king and pauper alike share the same process. Patriarchal, empirically non-verifiable discourse about a creative Word differentiates and sets people against one another, nature does not. In the beginning there is a matrix, not a patrix. The Buddha exposed the fallacy of divine paternal filiation and returned life and consciousness to their feminine-maternal site of origin.

  4. From the Buddha’s point of view, every just social order must begin by recognising the common species-nature of all human beings. There is no basis for discrimination between human beings before the Law (Dhamma), individually or collectively. This Law is not a social convention or positive legislation enacted by an authority. It is inferred through insight into the conditioned co-genesis of perceived differences. Among humans, these are nominal, not essential. The transformation of perceived differences into substantial differences enables hierarchies of things and beings. Thus, justification of dominance over many by a few can be made to appear ‘natural’. Institutionalised violence can be argued as necessary and, according to ‘reason’, divine and human. From the Buddha’s viewpoint, these are violent reasons masquerading as reasonable violence. He concluded the Aggañña Sutta with this declaration:

    Human beings are not different from one another. They are equal, not unequal. This is in accordance with Dhamma.

    The Buddha’s ascending analysis of power demolishes conventional theories of right. Power does not come down from a divine or mysterious source; it is the crystallisation and concentration of relationships developed in society under specific historical conditions. Neither the decentralisation of power nor ‘empowerment’ of people are necessary, but rather renunciation of power accumulated through gradual appropriation of its circuits, which arose and began to circulate in ever wider circles through society. Oppressive ideologies like Brahminism seek to inscribe dominant-submissive relationships into the consciousness and very bodies of people. The greatest victims of this demonology — that is what this ‘theology’ of power is — are women, śūdras and ‘untouchables’.

  5. The Vāseṭṭha and Aggañña Suttas together provide the basic principles for formulation of a bill of fundamental human rights:
    • All men and women are equal according to a universal law.
    • Rulers, whether by dynastic succession or election, have been elevated to their positions of power through an original contract with the people. Governments not enjoying a free mandate from the people violate the people’s rights and are illegitimate; the people have the right to oust them from power.
    • These truths are in accordance with the Law of Righteousness, to which both rulers and ruled are subject.

The Buddha’s trace of power to an original contract suggests he favoured a polity in which rulers are subject to the same Rule of Law as everyone else. In this he anticipated the constitutional monarchies and republics of modern times. The Buddha saw the social miseries spawned by the absolute monarchies of his day. In his youth he was [69] trained in the art of governance and understood the necessity of containing power within clearly defined legal and moral limits. This is clear from the answer he gave when asked “Who, Master, is the King of Kings?” to which he replied:

The Dhamma alone is the King of Kings (Anguttara Nikāya III. 149)


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