In almost every global region, religion has influenced the lived experiences of humans to the
extent that it cannot be rightly disassociated from all aspects of life. In particular, religion has had
significant impacts upon the political development of states and kingdoms. Far from only being
spiritually and other-worldly oriented, religion has historically had vested interests in earthly
affairs, while offering guiding principles to political ideology and legitimacy. After retreating from
the life of an aristocrat, it is reported that Prince Siddhartha – the Buddha – continued to enjoy
the patronage and company of kings and princes. Throughout their history, Buddhist vihara
(monasteries) have often been involved in local politics as they became significant landowners.
Buddhism has also offered to South and Southeast Asia states a means of conceiving of kingdoms
and empires through the concept of the mandala. The mandala, a religious diagram that
represents the universe and has been used as an aid to Hindu and Buddhist meditation, was first
adopted by the Arthashastra, a 2nd century B.C. treatise on statecraft, to explain the nature of
Indian polities. This concept was later adopted by Western historians to describe the Southeast
Asian kingdoms in a way to describe their intricate workings without invoking modern notions of
As King Ashoka in India has demonstrated, Buddhism provides much political guidance Asian
kingdoms and empires. This essay will get you to explore the concept of the mandala and how it
has been applied to understand the development of political organization, especially in Southeast
Asia. The broader context of this essay will be the political influences that Buddhism has had on
Asia. The assigned readings will allow you to explore various applications of the Buddhist
mandala as a religious icon and as an organizing idiom to understand Southeast Asian states.
The essay will require you to engage with the following questions:
a) What is a mandala, and what are its origins?
b) In what ways does the mandala explain state formation in Southeast Asia? Using
examples from each of the readings, discuss the various Buddhist ‘mandala states’ that
have arisen throughout Southeast Asian history. Compare and contrast the different
characteristics and experiences to highlight the various ways Buddhism has affected state
c) How do historians today use the notion of a Buddhist mandala to explain and understand
pre-modern Southeast Asian state formation?
d) Is the mandala a useful way to understand and describe the political entities of Southeast
Asia, based upon your reading of the assigned works?