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What ancient India’s Buddhist emperor can tell us about our current crisis
The Catholic theologian Hans Küng observed that “a global market economy requires a global ethic.” Yet at the very moment when the need for just such an ethic is more urgent than ever, our national and global systems of governance seem effectively paralyzed in moving toward it.
To reimagine the future, and to describe the elements of a global ethic of care, we can look to what precedents there are for a government that has tried to put such an ethic into practice. Perhaps the most wondrous example takes us to Kandahar, of all places, in southeastern Afghanistan. Following September 11, 2001, Kandahar, capital of the Taliban and Al Qaeda’s terrorist network, symbolized the intolerance, chaos, and violence that threaten to erupt anywhere, with repercussions everywhere, in a tightly interconnected world. In 2010, after nine years of U.S. military intervention, the Taliban reigned in Kandahar stronger than ever.
Yet Kandahar’s history also has something different to tell us. In 1957, Italian archaeologists uncovered an ancient series of rock inscriptions in Greek and Aramaic (Aramaic was the lingua franca of the Persian Empire). In the inscriptions, a great and ancient Indian king, Ashoka, declares state policies built on fundamental values of tolerance, nonviolence, and respect for life. Ashoka’s empire was the greatest empire of its day, stretching from present-day Afghanistan deep into southern India and, in the east, to modern-day Bangladesh. It was a multiethnic, multicultural state and was, for its time and in certain ways, a microcosm of our own globalized world.
To understand the inscriptions at Kandahar and the origin of the values they proclaimed, we must travel to another place in South Asia, a hill in southeastern India that visitors have climbed for over two thousand years. Dhauli, as the hill is called, overlooks a quietly beautiful expanse of bright green rice fields stretching to the horizon. It is hard to imagine a more peaceful place, but in 261 B.C.E., the green fields ran red with the blood of more than a hundred thousand slaughtered by Ashoka’s armies.
Today visitors climb the hill to admire the view and examine the stone edicts Ashoka had inscribed near the top several years after the battle. When the British deciphered the inscriptions in the 19th century, they were astounded to find that they commemorate not a victory but the king’s conversion to a nonviolent ethic for the protection of all living things. The king declares his “debt to all beings,” announces a halt to almost all killing of animals on his part for rituals and food, and proclaims the establishment of hospitals and medical services for both humans and animals. He calls for tolerance for all religious sects, and he sets forth principles of good government. Over the years, he had similar rock and pillar inscriptions erected throughout his empire.
Dhauli was the site of Ashoka’s victory over the kingdom of Kalinga, the last and bloodiest conquest in a series that unified India. While his name means “without sorrow,” in various edicts Ashoka confesses his “profound sorrow and regret” for the slaughter at Dhauli, a remorse which led directly to his embrace of the teachings of the Buddha, or the buddhadharma. Though inspired by Buddhism, Ashoka’s new ethic, which he called dhamma (dhamma meant “dharma” in the vernacular, Sanskritderived language Ashoka spoke), was not strictly Buddhist. It was a secular ethic, which he intended as a code of citizenship and conduct that could be accepted by all the peoples of his empire, the vast majority of whom were not Buddhists.
This secular dharma provided guidance in governance and policy. On 60-foot pillars, some of which can still be seen today in different parts of the subcontinent, Ashoka declares the uniform and equal application of laws. He states that all religious and philosophical sects have an “essential doctrine,” the progress of which he will nurture “through gifts and recognition.” He calls for the establishment of protected natural preserves and, even more remarkable from a modern perspective, issues an edict that amounts to nothing less than a protected-species act, listing all the animals that are to be spared slaughter.
For all of our ingrained notions of progress, we live in an epoch that in important ways demonstrates a lesser respect for life than we find in the Ashokan ethic. The richer the world economy becomes, the more the collective imagination of those who rule seems to atrophy. Ultimately, all common goals collapse into nothing more than efforts to increase production and trade. Even in a time of crisis, when economic fundamentalism appears to be failing on its own terms, there is a collective failure to imagine alternatives.
Ashoka’s great ethical leap rested on paradoxical foundations—the work of an early Indian who wrote that “of the ends of human life, material gain is, verily, the most important.” The author of these words was Kautilya, the chief minister of Ashoka’s grandfather Chandragupta Maurya, who founded the dynasty under which Ashoka would unite India for the first time. Kautilya was the organizing genius behind the autocratic, centralized state that Ashoka inherited and expanded.
One of history’s first and greatest political thinkers, Kautilya wrote the first treatise on political economy, the Arthashastra, which means “science of wealth.” Kautilya saw economic prosperity as both the underpinning and the most important priority of society and the state. For a person of his time and place, this was a revolutionary view of the world. Traditional Indian culture had long established the view, shared by both Hindus and Buddhists, that the pursuit of spiritual good was superior to and superseded the pursuit of material gain. In contrast, Kautilya asserted that “material well-being alone is supreme,” for the benefits of life’s other two main realms—the spiritual and the sensual—“depend on material well-being.”
Kautilya was also an advocate of a ruthless realpolitik. He explicitly advocated espionage, political assassination, and betrayal and duplicity in numerous forms in his long list of tactics to advance the interests of the state. Indeed, shortly after the Arthashastra was rediscovered and translated into Western languages in the early 1900s, the sociologist Max Weber marveled that “in contrast with this document, Machiavelli’s Prince is harmless.” But Kautilya’s realism was technocratic rather than despotic. His overriding concern was to assure the material and political well-being of society and the state, and to that end he also expounded at length on such matters as the minutiae of taxation, irrigation, foreign policy, corruption and its prevention, and sustainable management of natural resources. One imagines he would find himself quite at home today in any high-level international meeting of finance ministers.
According to the Indologist Heinrich Zimmer, the whole historical period of which Ashoka’s reign was the apogee was brought into being by Kautilya. Much of Ashoka’s governance—in fact, the organization of the society he reigned over—was based on the worldview and even the specific recommendations of the Arthashastra. Without abandoning Kautilya’s administrative system, Ashoka attempted to transcend the Kautilyan view of the world through a new social ethic and politics of nonviolence.
Nobel Laureate in economics Amartya Sen has observed that from its origins, economic thought can be divided into two schools: a technocratic “engineering” approach on the one hand, and on the other, one that takes an ethical, moral, and political stance. Kautilya embodies the former school, which asserts that since an economic foundation underlies all other social goals and values, the promotion of economic gain has to be the primary goal of public policy. The latter, ethical approach is represented by such figures as Ashoka, Aristotle, and, to the surprise of many, Adam Smith.
Smith’s writings have been widely distorted and misappropriated, and many cite him as a principle advocate of the free market as the basis of society. Today, Smith’s most famous work is The Wealth of Nations, but his Theory of Moral Sentiments is no less crucial to his thought. In the latter work, he goes to great lengths to emphasize the moral and collective values that are essential for social cohesion, and he attacks those who advocate the primacy of economic utility. Smith emphasizes that three values uphold the social order: justice, prudence, and beneficence. Of these, justice is by far the most important, for “if it is removed, the great, immense fabrick of human society...must in a moment crumble to atoms.”