Mircea Eliade, Fascism, and Buddhist Politics

Mircea EliadeLast week while we were reading Mircea Eliade, M… asked about Eliade’s involvement with fascism during the period of the Second World War. While this is not necessarily related to his exposition of Buddhism, I thought it might be worthwhile to examine this topic today before returning to our reading.

Beginning in 1927, when Eliade was all of 20 years old, he published a series of articles in which he supported the Legionary Movement, which subsequently became the Iron Guard, based on the ideas of Nae Ionescu. Ionescu was a Romanian philosopher, logician, mathematician, professor, and journalist. His studies on comparative religion, philosophy, and mysticism were influential and also influenced Eliade.  By 1937, Eliade openly supported the Iron Guard, and joined the “Everything for the Country Party,” the political wing of the Iron Guard. In 1938 he was arrested for these associations. He was incarcerated for three weeks, during which he was pressured to sign a “declaration of disassociation” from the Iron Guard, which he refused to do. He was then imprisoned in a concentration camp, from which he was released four months after his initial arrest. During the 1940s Eliade worked in London as a diplomat of the Romanian fascist state. After the war Eliade moved to the United States and became a professor of comparative religions at the University of Chicago, where he spent the rest of his professional career.

The Iron Guard advocated ultra-nationalism, fascism, anti-communism, and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Thus, the anti-semitism of the group drew on traditional Christian anti-semitism. The religiosity of the Iron Guard distinguished it from other fascist movements of the period. Its leader, Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, believed that human life was a sinful, violent political war that would be transcended by the spiritual nation. The Iron Guard was a cult of death, violence, martyrdom, and sacrifice. Codreanu believed that in order to achieve its objective, the Legionnaires would have to accept damnation because of their fanatical and violent actions, which was considered the ultimate sacrifice for the nation. Like other fascist movements, the Iron Guard called for a revolutionary new man and an anti-capitalist communal or national economy. The group was organized in cells (called “nests”) based on the virtues of discipline, work, silence, education, mutual aid, and honour. They also drank and wrote oaths in blood. Politically it was anti-communist, anti-semitic, anti-liberal, and anti-parliamentary. It opposed freemasonry, Freudianism, homosexuality, atheism, Marxism, Bolshevism, and the Spanish civil war.

In the context of the present reading, two questions arise: (1) did Eliade’s early support for the Iron Guard influence his subsequent scholarship, and (2) what are the implications for Buddhism, if any?

With respect to the first question, I see no taint of fascism whatsoever in Eliade’s later scholarly writings, including the present reading, unless one is prepared to consider a comprehensive interest in traditional spirituality itself as fascist, but I would suggest that the latter view is essentially Marxist and secularist. Like Heidegger, Eliade never really addressed his early preoccupations. Given the complete absence of any fascist taint in his later writings,[1] I would like to believe that he matured beyond his youthful involvement with the Iron Guard. With respect to the second question, it is worth noting that the Iron Guard was not Buddhist but Christian. The Tibetan Government in Exile has of course been accused of advocating a return to feudal theocracy by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Even if we were to accept this improbable view, this refers only to the political organization of Buddhism in Tibet, and has no necessary implications for Buddhism as such, considered from a non-nationalist point of view. The Dalai Lama himself has repeatedly declared that he is a Marxist. He actually joined the Chinese Communist Party in the 1950s, and continues to profess personal admiration for Mao, so it is difficult to argue that he is a fascist, although it is certainly possible that some ultra-traditionalist Tibetan groups, not all of which support the Dalai Lama, are. More important is the fundamental question: What are the political implications of the philosophy of the Buddha? Although some might prefer to avoid this topic, the fact is that the Buddha, who was born to rule, did take a political line and this is clearly and explicitly documented in the Pali Canon. I have alluded to this in my ten talks on the Pali Canon that I presented at the Buddha Center last year. Surely this is the proper basis for any discussion of Buddhist politics, so let us look at the sources in greater detail.

In the Great Discourse on Origination (Mahanidana Sutta), the Buddha applies the doctrine of dependent origination to the problem of human violence and civil discord, and blames the root cause of human strife on the “guarding of possessions,” which he says is the root, cause, origin, and condition of evil, unskilled states. Although the Buddha did not explicitly oppose the ownership of private property in civil society, it was explicitly forbidden within the sangha, in which all property was held in common. The monks were only allowed to own a few simple personal possessions, and were not allowed even to touch money or engage in trade.

In the sutta entitled, On the Knowledge of Beginnings (Agganna Sutta), the Buddha also opposed the institution of caste, stating that dark and bright qualities are scattered indiscriminately amongst the four castes. Consequently, anyone of any caste was permitted to join the sangha. Similarly, the Buddha freely admitted women to the sangha and spoke to them as equals and instructed them on an equal basis with men, without making any distinction between men and women with respect to their spiritual potential. He explicitly stated that the women in the sangha had attained all levels of spiritual development. Similarly, the Buddha rejects any notion of racial purity or superiority.

In the Great Forty (Mahacattarisakka Sutta), the Buddha proscribed wrong livelihood, including scheming, talking, hinting, belittling, and pursuing gain with gain. Elsewhere he also proscribed dealing in arms, beings, meat, intoxicants, and poisons. In modern terms this would include fraud, usury (i.e., making money from money rather than socially productive work), the business of munitions, slavery, prostitution, slaughterhouses and butchers, and the selling of alcohol and narcotics, except in the context of medicine.

Throughout the suttas the Buddha recommends the cultivation of compassion and generosity toward all beings, including animals. Clearly this must include the realm of civil society and politics.

The Buddha also praises rulers who abandon their wealth and redistribute it freely to the people. We must remember that in the time of the Buddha, many societies were absolute dictatorships, who were oppressing the people with heavy taxation, punitive laws, and waging wars on each other. The Buddha’s own people, the Shakyans, were massacred by one of these states. On the other hand, the Buddha praised the Vajjian republic, which made decisions by means of large public assemblies and majority rule, and he organized the sangha on the same basis. He declared that after his death the sangha was to have no leader and decisions were to be based on consensus based on the dharma.

Today there are a number of political philosophies in the world vying for power, some of which control states, and some of which do not. The main ones seem to be fascism and nationalism (especially Syria and the religious fascism of Islamism), capitalism (the United States and its allies), communism (China and a few others), and social democracy. Nor are Buddhist countries immune. Based on the foregoing, two things are clear: fascism may have certain superficial affinities with both communism and Buddhism in respect to some of its goals, but the Buddha clearly rejected fascist tactics and many of its beliefs as well. Unfortunately, there certainly are Buddhist fascists, just as there are eco-fascists. My first Buddhist teacher was a Sri Lankan religious racist who supported the genocide of the Tamils and wanted to expunge everything Indian from his interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings. However, this cannot be held against the Buddha any more than Christian fascism can be held against Christ. For the same reason, the Buddha would, I think, reject both communism and capitalism, both essentially totalitarian ideologies. I have heard a Buddhist teacher at the Buddha Center argue for libertarianism, but libertarianism is also incompatible with the Buddha’s fundamental attitudes towards money, usury, business, trade, and property (anarcho-syndicalism, however, is similar to the Buddhist political line, which is also known as libertarian socialism). I would suggest that liberal social democracy is the closest mainstream ideology today to Buddhism.[2]

The relevance of a 2,500-year-old spiritual philosophy to contemporary politics is a remarkable testament to the universal and enduring validity of the Buddhadharma. Elsewhere I have summarized the ways in which Buddhism anticipated contemporary science. Here I summarize the political principles and associated movements that appear to follow from Buddhism:

  • Common property
  • The classless society
  • Women’s rights
  • Racial equality
  • Demilitarization
  • Abolition of slavery
  • Vegetarianism (although the Buddha allowed the consumption of meat, he forbade Buddhists from killing or trading in meat)
  • Temperance
  • Anti-usury (which today we call “finance capitalism”)
  • Social redistribution of wealth (universal guaranteed income)
  • Social welfare (health care)
  • Environmentalism
  • Animal rights
  • Moderate poverty (anti-consumerism)
  • Participatory democracy

These 15 principles should constitute the cornerstones of a Buddhist socialism of the future. If such measures could be adopted by Asoka, the first Buddhist king, including public works (wells and rest-houses for travellers), medical aid for humans and animals, foreign aid, help for old people and orphans, equal judicial standards, the abolition of torture and capital punishment, and short-term financial help for prisoners (Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism, 2nd ed. (2013), p. 101), in the third century BCE, how much more could our society accomplish in this 21st century, with access to knowledge, resources, and wealth unimagined in Asoka’s time, yet all we hear today from our governments is the cant of poverty.


1. See, for example, Elaine Fisher, “Fascist Scholars, Fascist Scholarship: The Quest for Ur-Fascism and the Study of Religion.”

 2. According to the World Happiness Index, the countries in the world with the highest happiness rating are also social democracies. See https://www.commondreams.org/further/2009/05/11-4.