Gita Mehta considers the ancient Buddhist king in the context of a nuclear-armed India and finds his legacy never more relevant.
“Asoka, the greatest of kings. . . ,” wrote H. G. Wells in A Short History of the World, “one of the brightest interludes in the troubled history of mankind.”
Not being a historian, I presume to write about an Indian emperor who reigned in the third century B.C.E. only because I am an Indian, and modern India defines her sovereign status by two symbols from Ashoka’s reign—the wheel in the center of our flag and the pillar crowned by four lions stamped on our coins. As children, we were often told by our parents that these 2,300-year-old symbols were not mere deference to antiquity; they were to inspire us to create a country governed by righteousness.
We were also taught they symbolized Ashoka’s conversion to the teachings of the Buddha. Still, it was not patriotism that made us love the story of the Buddha as children. Which child could fail to be fascinated by a queen who dreamed one night that a white elephant had entered her womb, or by a troubled king who consulted diviners for the significance of his queen’s dream only to learn that his unborn son could be the greatest conqueror known to history—but if ever he witnessed suffering he would become the teacher of compassion, the Enlightened One, the Buddha?
Later, we would study history and marvel at an era filled with remarkable conquerors and remarkable teachers. A mere 150 years after the death of the Buddha, a romantic young European conqueror, privileged to have the philosopher Aristotle as his tutor, would embark upon a conquest of India. History would call him Alexander the Great. Five years later, when his general Seleucus came to consolidate his Indian dominions, he would be repulsed by a romantic young Indian conqueror, Chandragupta, privileged to have the philosopher Chanakya as his guide. (Happily, the warlike encounter would end with the Greek general giving his daughter in marriage to the Indian emperor.)
Yet of all the great conquerors and great teachers of that era—Chandragupta and Chanakya, Alexander and Aristotle—it would be Chandragupta’s grandson, Ashoka, who would be memorialized not just as India’s greatest conqueror but also as one of her greatest teachers. And for sheer romance, what can match the story of that conversion from conquest to teaching?
In India, it is often hard to separate history from mythology; and perhaps myth becomes a truer reading of history when it enters a people’s unconscious memory, providing a shared heritage of story to be retold and reinterpreted for each successive generation. In any case, it is a matter of historical record that through a series of brilliant and bloodthirsty military campaigns, Ashoka extended an empire stretching from Afghanistan to Nepal into the south of the subcontinent. He finally met his fiercest resistance in the southeastern republic of Kalinga. In that dreadful war, an inscription relates, every able-bodied male in Kalinga fought against Ashoka. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed, women and children were taken prisoner, and, when the final battle was lost, more than a hundred thousand warriors lay dismembered with their slaughtered horses and elephants, next to a river running red with blood.
Myth, on the other hand, has it that the emperor walked the battleground that night, glorying in his massacre. Suddenly a beggar stepped out of the red water of the river carrying a dripping bundle in his arms.
“Mighty king,” the beggar said, approaching Ashoka and holding up his bundle. “You are able to take so many thousands of lives. Surely you can give back one life—to this dead child?”
Some say the beggar was a Buddhist monk. Some say the beggar was the Buddha himself. All that is certain is that Ashoka never raised his sword again. And to this day the river is called Daya—compassion.
It took the sight of a single corpse for the Buddha to understand human suffering. The inability to give a single child life taught Ashoka the compassion that would place him among history’s most enlightened rulers. At the very pinnacle of his glory as a conqueror Emperor Ashoka embraced the philosophy of ahimsa, nonviolence, declaring, “Instead of the sound of the war drum, the sound of Dharma will be heard.”
Two-and-a half millennia later, the sound of Dharma would once again be heard when Mahatma Gandhi used nonviolence to expel the British from India. In the newly liberated nation, Ashoka’s Dharma Chakra, the Wheel of Law, would be given pride of place in the center of free India’s flag. Ashoka’s pillar crowned with four lions facing the four points of the compass and denoting the peaceful coexistence of Dharma would become free India’s national symbol—a constant reminder to India of what government should be. That vision of governance, drawn from the Buddha’s teachings, was promulgated by promulgated in a series of imperial edicts engraved on rocks and pillars, many still standing where placed them. In his First Pillar Edict, Ashoka stated: “This world and the other are hard to gain without great love of Righteousness, great self-examination, great obedience, great circumspection, great effort. . . . For this is my rule, to govern by Righteousness, to administer by Righteousness, to please my subjects by Righteousness, and to protect them by Righteousness.”
Teachings become world religions through the power of those who embrace them. Without the Roman emperor Constantine’s conversion, Christianity might have remained a cult; and what Constantine was to the Christian church, the Emperor Ashoka was to the teachings of the Buddha. That the world still knows the Buddha’s canon, or that modern India defines herself by his symbols, is due in large part to Ashoka’s passionate and indefatigable spreading of the Buddha’s teachings. Missionaries were dispatched to distant lands—among them, his son as a Buddhist monk, his daughter as the nun who converted Ceylon. Great universities were founded; ambassadors were sent to the kings of Greece, Syria, and Egypt carrying Ashoka’s message of peace, “desiring for all beings . . . security, self-control, calm of mind, and gentleness.”
Though his son and daughter became a monk and a nun, Ashoka’s own genius lay in taking an essentially monastic system and making it into a philosophy of governance, in the process proving himself in his twenty-eight-year reign as, in the words of H.G. Wells, “the greatest of kings . . . . far in advance of his time.”
Perhaps nonviolence freed Ashoka’s revenues and his energies. Perhaps nonviolence itself leads inexorably to right conduct, since it is predicated on doing no harm to any living thing. How else could a ruler living in the time of the Ptolemies seem so far in advance not only of his time but of our own?
For instance, in ancient India Ashoka was already providing what we would today call free health care to his subjects. Throughout his vast empire he established hospitals and dispensaries, as well as hospices for the dying. Patients could make voluntary contributions to these institutions, but no one was forced to pay. Stone inscriptions still bear witness to the generosity of his vision, which extended beyond his own empire—a singular challenge to the greed of present-day drug empires.
“As far as Ceylon, and in the kingdoms of Antiochus the Greek king and the kings who are his neighbors, the Beloved of the Gods has provided medicines for man and beast. Wherever medicinal plants have not been found they have been sent there and planted. Roots and fruits have also been sent where they did not grown and have been planted . . . for I consider my work to be the welfare of the whole world . . . . There is no better deed than to work for the welfare of the whole world and all my efforts are made that I may clear my debt to all beings.”
In ancient India, wild animals were considered the property of the emperor. Ashoka banned animal sacrifices at a time when these were the norm. Then he took the process one step further. In an act of enlightened government—unmatched by even the most progressive modern states—Ashoka established free veterinary hospitals and dispensaries.
But his vision of ahimsa was not confined to animals or human beings. All living things—plants, water, air—were to be respected and protected. The polluting of water sources was banned. The state maintained the empire’s forests. Botanical and herbal gardens were established for the cultivation of medicinal herbs.
“Moreover I have had banyan trees planted on the roads to give shade to man and beast; I have planted mango groves, and I have had ponds dug up and shelters erected along the roads at every eight kilometers. Everywhere I have had wells dug for the benefit of man and beast.”
As for his own kitchens: “Formerly,” Ashoka notes in another edict, “several hundred thousand animals were killed daily for food; but now at the time of writing only three are killed. . . . Even these three animals will not be killed in future.”
Although he did not abolish the death penalty as later Indian kings would do, nonetheless, instead of leading military campaigns and royal hunting parties Ashoka now traveled as a pilgrim in what he called “a journey to Enlightenment.”
Befitting an emperor known as the Beloved of the Gods, it was an imperial progress. Accompanied by thousands of courtiers and his teacher—the Buddhist abbot Upagupta, who was himself accompanied by eighteen thousand members of the Order—Ashoka visited Lumbini, where the Buddha was born; Kapilavastu, where the Buddha renounced the world; Gaya and the tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. Then the mighty procession made its way to Sarnath, the Deer Park in which the Buddha first proclaimed the Dharma, or “turned the Wheel of the Law.” Here Ashoka built the pillar that is the symbol of modern India.
Remarkably, for all his proselytizing, Ashoka hated bigotry. Today, religious bigots in India argue that secularism is a Western graft on India, a claim clearly refuted in Ashoka’s Twelfth Rock Edict: “Whoever honors his own sect and disparages another man’s, whether from blind loyalty or with the intention of showing his own sect in a favorable light, does his own sect the greatest possible harm. Concord is best, with each hearing and respecting the other’s teachings.”
Peaceful coexistence, religious tolerance, social welfare, ecological responsibility, education, impartial justice, respect for all living things—is it possible that these were practiced over such a huge land mass occupied by so many millions of people two and a half millennia ago? And if they were possible then, why can’t they be practiced now? The question is still asked in modern India.
Sunderlal Bahuguna, the man known to contemporary Indians as the Mahatma of the Forests, often reminds the world of Ashoka’s protection of plants and trees as he continues his lifelong battle against the deforestation of India. Wildlife experts quote Ashokan edicts on the guardianship of animals in their attempts to stop the killing of endangered species. The emperor’s solicitude for his subjects’ health, his herb gardens and botanical pharmacies, are repeatedly recalled by the medical establishment.
Ashoka’s name is invoked by millions of low-caste Indians who have embraced Buddhism in their demands for social justice and education. His principles of peaceful coexistence have been used by India’s government to name peace pacts with neighboring states, and they have been used by India’s citizens to halt sectarian killings between people of differing faiths.
Ashoka’s belief that all beneficial medical knowledge should be exchanged freely for the benefit of the world is invoked by such great Indian environmentalists as Vandana Shiva in the fight to halt the piracy of India’s ancient medical knowledge, native Indian trees and plants, even India’s traditional food sources by the patent-seekers of bio-technology.
And what of the Dharma Chakra of nonviolence blazoned on India’s flag, the doctrine enshrined in Ashoka’s edict that “the greatest progress of Righteousness among men comes from abstention from killing living beings”? What of ahimsa in the year of India’s nuclear tests? That, too, is not yet forgotten. Indeed, this past May, when the Government chose a festival day on which to detonate its nuclear devices, there was a poignant demonstration by a group of Indian citizens.
The demonstrators were not Buddhists. They were not Hindus. They were turbaned Sikhs, sitting in front of an Indian flag with its Dharma Chakra, holding placards driving home a point missed by news coverage of the tests. They asked a single question:
Atomic Explosions on the Birthday of the Buddha?
Gita Mehta is a writer and documentary filmmaker. Her latest book is Snakes and Ladders: Glimpses of Modern India.
Image 1: At Sarnath, between two and three hundred years after Shakyamuni Buddha first turned the Wheel of Dharma, the Emperor Ashoka erected a pillar. The four lions at its crown, representing the "lion's roar of the dharma" (shakyasimha) in the cardinal directions, were adopted by modern India as the national coat of arms. At the lions' base in the Wheel of Dharma, reproduced at the center of the Indian flag. Image courtesy of Archeological Survey of India.
Image 2: Lauriya-Nandagarh in the North Indian state of Bihar is one of many sites across the Indian subcontinent at which Ashoka's edicts have been discovered. On the fifty-foot column are inscribed injunctions concerning the prohibition of animal slaughter, the establishment of hospitals and gardens, the appointment of special Ministers of Morals, and a statement of purpose: "There is verily no duty which is more important to me than promoting the welfare of all men." Image courtesy of Archeological Survey of India.
Image 3: A stepping-stone in a house near the South Indian excavation site of Amaravati turned out to be a fragment of an ancient pillar. The inscription indicates that the ruin's Great Stupa had probably been erected by Ashoka in the middle of the third century B.C.E.: the letters are Brahmi, a now-obsolete script of his time, and the language is the vernacular, Prakrit, favored by the king over the more literary Sanskrit as a means to get his message to the people. Image courtesy of Indian Museum, Calcutta.
Image 4: Ashoka's empire stretched from what is now Nepal west to Afghanistan, where this bilingual rock edict was discovered. The bottom script is Aramaic, a language of law and commerce in the Persian Empire that ruled the area until its defeat by Alexander the Great late in the fourth century B.C.E.; the top script is Greek, which then supplanted Aramaic as the official language until the region changed hands again. The rock thus memorializes one of the earliest encounters between Buddhism and the West. Image courtesy of Indian Museum, Calcutta.