The article seeks to analyse the relationship between Buddhism and politics within Southeast Asia, and follow its journey throughout history.Buddhism, proclaimed to be one of the oldest religions in the world, and one which preaches morality, civility and peace, arguably more so than any other religion in the world, seems to have found its beginnings within Hinduism.Buddhism was founded as a solution to Brahmanism, the early form of Hinduism, which throughout time had become ‘decadent’. Brahmanism worked on the basis of class division of the ‘varnas’. A hierarchy was put in place by the Brahmins, the religious agents, who deemed themselves as the divine dominant class, and those closest to the Gods.
Next in line was the monarchy, known as the Kshatriyas. Tradesmen and farmers were in the third rung, known as the Vaisyas and the lowliest of caste was that of the Sudras, the working class. This sect of Hinduism preached strict segregation of the castes causing each to stick to his own kind. This greatly impacted the productivity of the productive caste, casing the kings to wage wars against one another to gain the surplus of neighbouring producers.
The peasants were used to paying the Kshatriyas a part of their produce in the form of taxes in return for protection, as were the Brahmins, for protection of the soul.Sudras were however excluded from any such activity as were considered too lowly to participate.None questioned such a practice due to the fact that the varnas were seen as a method of life deemed by the Gods themselves.It was through such practices that Brahmanism slid into a form of decadence to which Buddhism was a reaction.It could be argued that Buddhism actually spread across India in a bid to increase mercantile activity. When Cyrus made the conquest in the north of India, he did so to allow for smooth trading within india. At that time Persia was considered the centre of Asia, as Persians were seen to be the most advanced in trading.
Such foregn occupation was a big blow to Brahmanism however, showed the Vaisyas how to trade more effectively, something that had been infringed upon by their religious boundaries.It is also important to note that many Buddhist monastries had also been established in the cities where the most trade took place, this brought the Vaisya traders into direct contact with the religion.King Asoka furthered the religion more so, though, did not pioneer it as the first Hindu king to convert to it, as is popularly believed.He found that the Buddhist manner of thinking was not only conducive in furthering trade, but was also a better way at conducting state business.Asoka seeked to unit all the smaller kingdoms into one, and required something they could all relate too, thus came the part of Buddhism.The Theravada branch, in particular, was introduced in Cambodia in the 10th Century AD was the one he opted for as it was more observing of the ‘Sangha’, a role he then adopted.This in effect justified the loyalty his people would have towards him and authenticate his reign as king.
His subjects still paid him taxes in return for protection, as they once had to the Kshatriyas and Brahmins in the then ‘decadent’ Brahmin regime.However, as the state religion was one of calm and peace, Asoka’s kingdom was one in which people were more willing to conform, and as his role was one of the Sangha, his status was divinely justified.