Buddhism, International Law and K.N. Jayatilleke
In 1967, at the Hague Academy
of International Law, late Prof. K.N. Jayatilleke delivered five
lectures entitled “The Principles of International Law in
Buddhist Doctrine”. The article explores what Prof. Jayatilleke
precisely meant by International Law and Buddhist Doctrine.
Prof. K.N. Jayatilleke
“In the strict sense of the word, there is no Buddhist law; there is
only an influence exercised by Buddhist ethics or changes that have
taken place in customs. No Buddhist authority.... has ever created or
promulgated any law”. (Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, S.V. Law)
and stated that he would maintain on the contrary that the monastic code
consisted of laws in so far as it consisted of enforceable rules of
conduct, precisely stated and codified, there being a set procedures
laid down in the Constitution for trial and conviction in case of
“International Law is a name given to a body of rules and traditions
that has grown since the 16th Century in the Western Europe. An
authority on International Law, L. Oppenheim makes the following
“International Law, in the meaning of the term as used in modern
times, did not exist during the antiquity or the first part of the
Middle Ages. It is in its origin essentially a product of Christian
Civilization and began gradually to grow from the second half of the
The above quotation supports the view that modern International Law
grew in the Christian Civilization, nurtured by Christian ethics. The
term “International Law” was first coined by Jerem Bentham in 1780.
According to the generally accepted definitions of International Law
by the jurists of the West, it is a body of rules which determines the
conducts of civilized states in their mutual dealings. At a certain
period of history, it was a common belief in the West that the States in
the East were uncivilized. Therefore, some Westerners seemed to have
believed that there was nothing in the East which could have been called
There was a number of sovereign states in Asia which had diplomatic
relations with each other and their external affairs were guided by
certain rules based on certain Buddhist principles suited for all times
On evidence such as those of the Asoka edicts, Prof. Jayathilleke
based his argument that Asiatic states had diplomatic relations not only
with sovereign states in Asia, but also with those in Eastern Europe,
the Middle East and North Africa; the Emperor Asoka had diplomatic
relations with five Greek kings and with the rulers of Chola, Sri Lanka
and Pandyan Kindoms.
Prof. Jayathilleke refers to an ambassador from Lanka to Rome of whom
Pliny states that he was in Rome during the reign of the Emperor
The earliest historically recorded mission from Sri Lanka to China
was in the year 395 A.D. during the time of emperor Hsiao-wu. Prof.
Jayathilleke further refers to a triple alliance entered into by Lanka,
Malaysia and the Pandya Kingdom against the Chola aggression during the
By means of such historical evidence, Prof. Jayathilleke tried to
prove that in this part of the world the sovereign states did have their
diplomatic, trade and cultural relations with all the countries of the
world known to them and they had commonly accepted rules and customs to
govern their external relations.
If one were to say, in the face of all this, that the states in Asia,
especially the Buddhist states, did not have an accepted code of rules
for the conduct of their external relations, such a statement would
amount to a display of one’s ignorance of the history of Asian state
It is true that there was no codified international law of the type
that grew in the West, especially after Hugo Grotius (the acknowledge
father of modern International Law, who authored the first treatise of
International law entitled “De Jure Belli ac Pacis” “The Law of Peace
and War”, published in 1625).
Even if such a codified international law was not available in the
East, the fact remains, as Prof. Jayathilleke points out, that there is
enough evidence to establish the fact of Asian Buddhist states having
had Buddhism as a guide in conducting the external relations of their
States. Prof. Jayathilleke maintains that the Buddhist doctrines
relevant to the conduct of external affairs were quite different from
the doctrines of Kautilyan and other forms of Machiavellian
Referring to the Kautilyan and Machiavellian political philosophies,
Prof. Jayathilake makes the following remark. “It is evident in the work
(Machiavelli’s The Prince) that all respect for moral values was
subservient to the ends of power and expediency. The quest for power as
an end in itself and the employment of any means whatsoever to gain
these ends were against the principles of Buddhist ethics. At the same
time the political philosophy of Buddhism developed partly out of a
criticism of the Machiavellian political of realism of the doctrine of
The Buddhist tests have accepted of the political wisdom of the
Arthasastras including the need for efficient administration and
vigilance on the part of the king or the state in regard to both home
and foreign policies.
As to the question of power, there is an essential difference.
According to Arthasastra, the moral values are subservient to power and
according to the Buddhist texts, power is ultimately subservient to the
rule of righteousness. In order to substantiate this point, Prof.
Jayathilleke quotes a line from Mahavastu (A Mahayana Buddhist text):-
“Bala cakram hi nisraya
Dharma Cakram pravartate”
“The wheel of power turns
In dependence on the Wheel of Justice”.
One of the greatest rulers of the world, Asoka, at the beginning of
his reign followed the Arthasastra and this led him to carry on an
aggressive foreign policy (dia-vijaya).
He change this policy to one of “dharma-vijaya” (conquest by
righteousness) Prof. Jayathilleke has given a number of instances where
the rulers in the Buddhist texts were admonished to give up their
aggressive policies and to cultivate friendship and co-operation in the
sphere of foreign affairs.
It is a generally accepted point that any State makes use of
international law and international politics to achieve ends beneficial
To be continued