Question on power

Can someone please give me an explanation on how good karma can manifest as power and wealth in the future? This is usually explained away by saying that “well there are some rich people who got their wealth in an ethical way” but anyone in high ranks will tell you that power is not something that is given to you, but rather something you have to fight for on a daily basis. I do not say that one can not acquire wealth by leading a moral lifestyle - my question is, how could it be that after a certain point, being moral is less effective than following Machiavelli’s cruel practices?

Take the following example of Ashoka: according to the Suttas, his reign was foretold by the Buddha after a selfless offering of his in a past life. But according to historical sources, Ashoka rose to power by tricking and murdering his opposition, with the help of power hungry ministers. Some sources, although exaggerating, say that he has also killed 99 of his brothers because he saw them as threats to his established power. He also led a war where more than a 100 000 soldiers and civilians have lost their lives. According to the legend, this massacre finally made him feel sorrow and convert to Buddhism. The lovely stories about the wheel turning governance of the kind and great Ashoka start from here, although he would still occasionally execute a few thousand followers of certain sects and burn people and their families alive if they made fun of the Buddha. Ashoka - Wikipedia

Now there are two options here:

  1. either Ashoka’s reign was not foretold in Buddhist scriptures, and the stories could be looked upon as fabrications for propaganda purposes, as a way of legitimizing his power - which means that there is a possibility that other Suttas could also be fabrications for similar purposes AND good karma had nothing to do with him getting to power,
  2. or Ashoka’s reign was indeed foretold, and as a result of his good karma, he was able to kill at least 150 000 people (but probably much more than that) in order to rise to power and keep it. If that’s the case, I would be really interested to know what his opposition’s good karma would have been? Has Bindusara elder son Susima, who was tricked out of poer and killed, only offered half a diamond to the Buddha?

I know this question sounds cynical but I am really struggling with it, and I do not know where to turn to! All the teachings make sense until you put power and wealth into the mix, and I can’t figure out a way to resolve this conflict on my own.

Ajahn Sujato, please if you are reading this, I would really appreciate your answer. I have listened to one of your talks on narcissists a while ago and it has really impacted me how it went against the usual teachings of just “be nice to people until they also become nice” and actually offered a solution.

Thank you!


I hope I’m not spreading misinformation. I’ll be corrected if I am anyways. Hopefully.

When I read discourses to do with the gods, and rebirth as and in their company, I am struck by their ends. They don’t have very good ends, do they? The gods, I mean.

They have luminary beginnings.

I imagine someone very rich, born into profound privilege, doubtless the fruits of great merit.

What they do with that reward is really up to them. Will they live a good life or go down in a blaze? Will they use their wonderful birth for good or ill?


We all have power. To a mosquito we are like Ashoka. How shall we reign?
We all have wealth. Your eyes see much–mine grow dim. How should we spend our time in seeing?
To feel powerless and poor is suffering. It is just wanting more of things that disappear.


Welcome; i for one appreciate what seems to be this honest deep question with which you are engaging. Tagging this @sujato for you.

It seems to me a fortunate incarnation is one in which disillusionment can arise. If one is not poor, it might (in theory) be easier to become disillusioned with existence; if this is as good as it gets, and it still inextricably causes suffering, then one looks to alternatives.

But as we know, even the poor can be disillusioned with existence rather than feed cravings. Especially when the rich are regarded through Dhamma influenced views! And as right view clarifies, the What Ifs of craving perhaps hone in on what matters: morality, wisdom, tranquillity…

The rich are offered the gift of ability to support the Dhamma in this world. Or, going forth; just as we all are. :slight_smile: It is worldly clever, but… may lead to opportunities for many perhaps.

Personally, i feel pity for the rich, whose infections with greed seem often to be quite severe. Or the famous, whose addictions for often harmful attention and relationships seem to have similar affects.

Do you have a link perhaps for Bhante Sujato’s talk you mentioned? It sounds interesting to me, too.

edit: on disillusionment as leading to nibanna: Probably not the best explication in the suttas, but one i read recently.


I appreciate your answers, but none of them actually tackles the problem I have stated here.

The question isn’t about if it’s easier to cause more harm if someone was born with more influence. Of course it is. But saying that less wealth is preferable for this reason is mostly just ego: just because someone is poor or weak it does not make them a good, harmless person - just because someone does not have the opportunity to do much harm or afraid of the consequences, it does not mean they aren’t wicked deep inside. Even people with nothing can hurt, exploit, sabotage and betray others.

Ashoka rose and stayed in power through violence and used Buddhism as a means to legitimize his power. How can this be a result of good karma?

Saying that despite his evil deeds, he was still a wheel turning monarch, would contradict other Suttas, since the Buddha would never do any harm to spread the teachings, and according to my understanding of the Cakkavatti-Sῑhanāda Sutta, wheel turning monarchs only exist in times when people live by the precepts, so these emperors can lead by example only.

@Erose I think this was the video on narcissism but I’m not 100% sure: YouTube

Ahhh i think i understand better what you want explained; it seems by “power” you mean something more related to dominance or influence or force or entitlement or authority; clearly, i struggle to understand your question! I cannot answer you, the word does not have that context for me, but maybe if you define “power” people can better respond to your questions.

:slight_smile: Thank you for the link, and for starting this conversation.

1 Like

I suppose you can look at something like Asoka’s reign as being “good karma” because he was alive to ultimately hear the teachings of the Buddha. However, if we are to truly believe in the supernatural elements of Buddhism or any other religion, I suppose you would also have to say that Asoka’s rebirth would not/should not have been a pleasant one until he atoned for his misdeeds.

You can apply this same argument to the whole “why do evil/bad people succeed where others fail” argument. Why do we see people, who are really not pleasant or who do not do good deeds for others, sitting in their homes as billionaires or as heads of state? Meanwhile truly good people suffer in poverty, etc. Answer - who knows?

1 Like

Having visited Varanasi and not found much Buddhism on the street in that holy city, I would actually question the assertion of “good” karma. I also cannot find any reference to Ashoka in the Pali Canon other than as a reference to a tree. Where is it said that Ashoka is a Chakravarti? Monuments attributing such a relationship aren’t really a sutta.

“Good” and “bad” karma are subjective assessments. Karma is not a reward or punishment for good or bad deeds. Karma is simply the result of an action that brings a reaction. If you stand a meter from a wall and throw a rubber ball against the wall at eye level, it is going to bounce back and hit you in the face. That is neither “good” nor “bad.” It is simply karma.

By the way, there will be pain from the ball hitting you in the face. The pain is not suffering. Suffering is the attachment to the aversion to the pain brought about by the karma of engaging in an act (throwing the rubber ball against the wall) that though karma comes back and hits you in the face. Don’t want a ball to hit you in the face? Then don’t throw it against a wall at eye level a meter away.


From my perspective this is the crucial point - effective in generating what?

It is all about the outcome one is aiming for. If the objective is to be free from suffering - ultimate liberation from samsara, then following the Noble 8fold path is the most effective way to get there.

If the objective is to live a life of comfortable sense pleasures, then other actions will be more effective.

If one wants power and wealth etc, then Machiavellian methods may be the most effective.

So the actions are determined by desires… The conditions into which one is born, is only a contributing factor.


I don’t think this is true though. Being moral is superior to any form of cruelty. I believe that is the point of Asoka’s story-- he followed the “ways of the world” and achieved victory, by defeating his enemies brutally. Once he did that he was filled with regret, saw the error in his ways and became a world turning monarch.

Since we all have been murderers in our previous lives so there is nothing unique about that, even probably despots or tyrants on some level, this story demonstrates the power to change and make the best use of our kamma, whatever it may be. That’s why to me Asoka is seen as a good example despite the fact he did a lot of bad before doing a lot of good.


Good and bad karma has always been understood as having a mechanism beyond the merely causes and consequences model in this life if rebirth is in the picture, as well.