Filed in History

To Uphold the World

What ancient India’s Buddhist emperor can tell us about our current crisisBruce Rich

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One could argue that The Theory of Moral Sentiments is a better basis for understanding the challenges of economic globalization than the technical works of numerous contemporary economists. Indeed, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told the Financial Times in 2009 that it is the one book he always carries with him when he travels, noting, “Adam Smith wrote that, in a society, if all the wealth is concentrated and owned by only a small number of people, [the society] will not be stable.”

One might view Ashoka’s dhamma as a practical code for promoting Adam Smith’s three foundational social values. Ashoka’s edicts emphasize such key ideals of justice as a fair, just, and efficient legal system; protections for the poor, the aged, and prisoners; and, as noted, religious tolerance. The edicts also call for restraint, frugality, and abstention from violent action—in other words, prudence. By promoting charity, establishing public hospitals and public works, and instituting programs of benefit to humans and nonhumans, Ashoka made beneficence toward all life a matter of policy.

Many historians believe that Ashoka may also have seen his dhamma as a practical solution to the challenge of holding together an empire comprising a multitude of principalities and cultures. The Kautilyan, technocratic analysis of the management of wealth and power was useful in building the economy and the state but alone was insufficient to inspire unity or longterm loyalty. Dhamma provided a common civic ideology, based on a secular reinterpretation of the shared transcendent values of the time.

Those who study Ashoka’s edicts come away with the conclusion that they embodied something new and unprecedented. But for us today, they provide a most powerful precedent. Ashoka spoke not just to his own subjects; he speaks to us and to our world.

If one were to venture a defining characteristic of Ashoka’s dhamma, it could be summarized in Albert Schweitzer’s term “reverence for life.” For Schweitzer, “the great fault of all ethics hitherto has been that they believed themselves to have to deal only with the relations of man to man. In reality, however, the question is what is his attitude to the world and all life that comes within his reach. A man is ethical only when life, as such, is sacred to him, that of plants and animals as well as that of his fellow man.” For Ashoka, the attitude of which Schweitzer speaks was rooted in Buddhism’s ethic of compassion for all sentient beings.

Although some of Ashoka’s innovations lasted for many centuries (for example, his establishment of state-supported hospitals for humans and animals), his grand vision of a vast and inclusive polity based on reverence for life and nonviolence did not last beyond his reign. Ashoka attempted to institute his project through a cumbersome, top-down structure of governance. While this was the only possible way at the time to bring rule to the whole of the subcontinent, it also probably made eventual failure inevitable.

Today, there are many who, like Hans Küng, see the increasingly urgent need for a global ethic that can hold together a planetary society. But how are such common core values to be recognized and practiced? How can they be translated into political measures at the national and international level? Can we, in other words, envisage a dhamma for the 21st century, one that, unlike Ashoka’s, would develop from a bottom-up process of global self-organization rather than be imposed from the top down?

Are there any more pressing questions we face than these?

The urgency of the matter is well expressed by former Czech president Václav Havel, who writes, “If democracy is not only to survive but to expand must rediscover and renew... its respect for that nonmaterial order, which is not only above us but also in us and among us, and which is the only possible and reliable source of man’s respect for himself, for others, for the order of nature, for the order of humanity and thus for secular authority as well.” The “reduction of life to the pursuit of immediate material gain without regard for its general consequences,” in Havel’s words, has exacerbated—and is an underlying cause of—what he sees as the fundamental problem of our time: “lack of accountability to and responsibility for the world.”

Although we have yet to find a satisfactory articulation of a global ethic, we can find signs of it struggling to emerge. To give but one example, one of the most remarkable developments of the past 25 years has been the bottom-up proliferation around the world of literally millions of nongovernmental, civil-society groups. These groups, according to U.C. Berkeley sociologist Manuel Castells, have been spawned in reaction to the one-sided excesses of economic globalization. Some seek new, common grounds of meaning and spirituality, often in projects of social and environmental justice; others are based on the defense of identity as defined by history and locality. The need for a grounding ethic also poses dangers, since some of these movements go beyond the defense of identity to the denial of the other through religious fundamentalism or ethnic hostility. This suggests that an ethic that does not embrace the universal will plunge our world into still more chaos.

Havel writes that a common ground for transcendent values in our age begins with finding “a new and genuinely universal articulation of that global human that connects us with the mythologies and religions of all cultures and opens for us a way to understand their values.” The celebrated 19thcentury British historian Arnold Toynbee recognized a similar need—and opportunity. He pointed out that the non-Western cultures of the world have realized that Western culture and history have become a part of the culture and history of every other society on earth. We now have to realize that the West cannot escape the past of non-Western cultures becoming a part of its own cultural future. The future, he wrote, will neither be Western nor non-Western; rather, it will inherit elements of all cultures. This calls to mind one more reason why Ashoka’s grand experiment is so timely today. His realm spanned East and West at the time of what was an incipient economic linking together—indeed a kind of globalization—of the civilizations of most of the ancient world.

Unlike Ashoka’s time, or indeed all times past, today’s global system offers unprecedented practical means—through the Internet, new technologies, and the proliferation of global networks of social movements—for a grassroots, self-organizing politics grounded in reverence for life, nonviolence, tolerance, inclusion, benevolence, self-control, and justice. Such a politics would be a worldwide political project that restates for the 21st century the values of the “essential doctrine” that is the core of Ashoka’s dhamma.

The vision thus stated sounds wildly utopian, but we have Ashoka to remind us that long ago a great leader of the world’s most powerful empire dared to put into practice just such a vision. To achieve such a transformation, we will need Kautilyan realism as well as Ashokan idealism. But the project has been slumbering in human history for a long time. In the words of the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, written when the 20th century was still young, “Ashoka’s thought had been standing on the wayside for all these ages longing to find a refuge in the mind of every man.” This moment may now be arriving.

Bruce Rich has worked as senior counsel with major national environmental organizations to promote environmental and social standards for international development. His professional focus on finance and ethics, as well as numerous visits to South Asia, inspired the book from which this article is in part adapted:
To Uphold the World: A Call for a New Global Ethic from Ancient India, with a foreword by Amartya Sen and an afterword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama (Beacon Press, 2010).

Image 1: Emperor Ashoka, Emperor in the Mauyran Dynasty in India, by Indian School, Private Collection/Dinodia/The Bridgeman Art Library
Image 2: Ashokan pillar at Vaishali in Bihar, India

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