Chanakya vs. Buddhism on Architecture and Power

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Architecture is power representation in ways many may not realise. Chanakya’s economic belief is the essence of all his propositions, and architecture too, which is – all freedom emanate from economic freedom. Whereas, Buddhist ideas have evolved far beyond the Buddha, and long after his death. Buddhist architecture has evolved over the years due to society, traditions, and multiple interpretations by different Buddhist kingdoms and leaders. He unlike Chanakya, never proposed architectural ideas.

What role does architecture play in power, state, and representation?

All representation of power, is available to us through the architecture we are surrounded by, and choose to be a part of. It is not about artistic design, but the representation of a structure, which then designs the invisible seat of power. A people are more likely to accept this invisible seat of power, which is accompanied by control of a land.

However, it is this belief in itself that helps keep control of the land. Believing in the physical and invisible walls of architecture set up by state, ensure control of the land. Whereas this sense of control, is merely the garb used to cover up the need to induce fear.

What does Chanakya say?

For Chanakya (also known as Kautilya/Vishnugupta) the king (now head of state) being the central seat of power must also be placed in the centre of the architecture of a land. For him, the king must be at the centre of the land’s architecture, for the reasons of power, security, and representation of what is central to the community. We must note here that for Chanakya, all power is a result of economic power. Since the king, is always meant to be the highest paid, and holds much greater power than money can buy. His influence, actions, and words have the greatest impact, for which he must be centrally placed.

The king’s chief spiritual guru (Acharya), officiating priest (Ritvik), head priest (Purohit), chief of defence (Senapati), crown prince (Yuvaraja), and councillors (Amatya) all come second in line. They all must be equally paid, he says. Here, we can observe how security, and spirituality of the kingdom comes at the same level of importance. The king is therefore an embodiment of all power. Chanakya’s architecture is so detailed that it even outlined the thickness and number of moats required.

Further economic divisions are outlined by Chanakya, as he says tax exempt communities should live separate from tax paying communities. Artists should live in a community of artists and travel for work. This allows for the arts to flourish, by being surrounded by like-minded people. This case of divisive housing would also apply to different ranks of the defence (and yet do in many countries, including India), where higher-ranking officials live in a different set of stylised homes. It represents economic division – what Chanakya perceived as necessary for stability in power.

What does Buddhist architecture say?

Here we observe two groups of people – monks/nuns, and lay people. If you dedicate your life to follow Buddhist scripture, and to one day walk the path of nirvana, then you would live in seclusion from the rest of the society. Mostly in a nunnery/monastery, it may be atop a hill or anywhere. The key was to keep celibate, meditating, students of nirvana in a different housing as compared to lay people, that lived accepting the samsaric world. It was a simple division based on the life one pursues, based on philosophical ideas that one accepts.

The monks/nuns accepted and pursued a different truth, and thus lived separate in a sangha (community) of their own. Whereas, if you accepted samsaric ideas of attachments, working for food, and more, as a layperson you would be housed differently. The central seat of power would thus hold a key space for philosophy. The king and chief monk thus are at the equal status of power. Since their lives’ key purpose is to serve the people, and their beliefs, philosophy must hold equal power.

This is visible in Tibet and Bhutan. Tibet’s Dalai Lama is the head of the monastic body, and always worked alongside the king (now head of state). Je Khenpo, (Chief Abbot of the Central Monastic Body of Bhutan) stands at the same level of power, when compared to the King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk. Hence, Bhutan’s Central Government building (in Thimpu) has two sections; one for the head monk, and one for the government office.

What does this mean?

Chanakya perceived the centre of power to be economic power, and thus placed every other high rank below the king. Buddhist architecture perceives the centre of power, to be philosophy and economics, and thus places the head of state alongside the spiritual Guru. The  king being head of economic resources and power, focuses merely on growth. Here, the idea of development gets left out, which the spiritual teacher fulfills, by understanding (spiritual and traditional) development of the people.

This may not be possible in secular and overly diverse countries such as India. However, it questions how putting too much power in the too little hands of one person can often go wrong. Many populations may not be ready to have one philosophical Guru. However, our leadership could hold a more significant role in soft power, and development, as opposed to be merely driven by growth.

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