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Political Philosophy of 6th Century BC

The most notable aspect of political philosophy in the age of the Buddha and Mahavira was the completely pragmatic approach to power. Kingship is marked by the absolute and arbitrary exercise of power with no evidence of effective check upon the king's ability to impose his will on the dominion. The king had total control over his people and is depicted as using power in a willful manner rather than in legitimate control. Even the law was not applied consistently but in highly personal and arbitrary way. The literature indicates that in the process of change old institutions had collapsed but had not been replaced by others. The collective power of the people of the earlier society that had been expressed through tribal institutions was no longer feasible in the expanding territorial units. Power was thus become less an instrumental value viewed from the point of view of the community as a whole and instead became an end in itself. This had important consequences for Buddhist social philosophy.

The process of territorial expansion and the consolidation of the early Indian state were operating at two levels in the age of Buddha. The monarchical kingdoms of the Ganga valley especially Kosala and Magadha are each expanding at the expense of their weak neighbors. But at the same time they were locked in a struggle for supremacy among themselves in which Magadha ultimately triumphed. The Ganasamghas were the first to collapse and the smaller ones like the Shakyas and Mallas had already dissolved during the lifetime of Buddha. The collapse of the Ganasamghas became inevitable in the face of the rapid changes taking place in 6th and 5th centuries.