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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 33 New Delhi August 4, 2018

Ashoka — The Great Marvel of History

Tuesday 7 August 2018, by Ashok Celly


Ashoka is probably the greatest marvel of Indian history. For what can be more marvellous than the transformation of a cruel, bloodthirsty prince, who would stop at nothing including the killing of his brothers to capture the throne, into an enlightened and compassionate emperor? Yet this is what happened post-Kalinga. Surely, Buddhism, which was still a living force, must have been an important factor in his transformation but that does not take away anything from his greatness.

And what impresses one most about the emperor is the total commitment to his people. Imagine a hard-hearted prince, interested in nothing else except grabbing power, declaring a few years later: “...The reporters hence may appear before me for reporting the affairs of the people at any time and place, whether I am engaged in eating or am in harem or in the bedchamber or on a promenade or in a carriage or on the march.” An emperor more accessible than the most democratic leader! How wonderful!

I suppose it was his commitment to his people that motivated him to establish the first welfare state in history, not just Indian history. Also, the welfare state that he established was one in the most comprehensive sense of the term, for it was concerned not only with the welfare of human beings alone but also that of animals as well. Ashoka’s concern for the sick manifests itself in the setting up of hospitals, and for the relief and comfort of the travel-weavy wells and shade trees along the roads were provided. What is of course most remarkable is his empathy for the animals—one can clearly see the impact of Buddhism here—which resulted in reforms like “the abolition of animal sacrifices, animal fights and hunting etc.” (Charles Allen)

No less significant is the fact that Ashoka abandoned violence as an instrument of governance. He was a pioneer of the politics of non-violence. Only two individuals, and both Indian, in history have employed non-violence in political life—Ashoka and Mahatma Gandhi. While Gandhi used it to drive out the British, Ashoka employed it in his day-to-day dealings with his subjects which is in many ways a tougher job. Also Ashoka can be seen as the very antithesis of Kautilya. While Kautilya is the exponent of realpolitik, Ashoka’s politics envisages man as a moral being capable of rising above his baser instincts. It would be worthwhile quoting here the eminent historian Nayanjot Lahiri who has recently published an award-winning book on Ashoka, “ replacing subjugation with compassion as the most fundamental principle of monarchy, it (the upheaval caused by Kalinga) introduced the earlier glimmerings of a rule of law in which ordinary folk and the citizenery, rather than only the powerful elites and royalty were consequential.”

Rock Edict XII is probably the most significant statement of Ashoka’s intellectual credo. It is best to begin with the emperor’s own words known commonly as a plea for “restraint in speech”.

“...Whoever praises his own religion, due to excessive devotion, and condemns others with the thought ‘Let me glorify my own religion’ only harms his own religion. Therefore, contact between religions is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others.”

Restraint in speech is not just a matter of form, of good manners. It is the very sine qua non of civilised coexistence. It can be legitimately seen as pragmatic application of the Buddhist middle path to corporate life. It calls upon the citizens to eschew excessive praise of their own religion as also severe criticism of one’s neighbour’s. This can only come about by listening to others and respecting their doctrines. So the Buddhist-Ashokan philosophy of moderation is not such a mild or tame affair. It makes a case for respect for each other’s way of life and hence is an implicit rejection of extremism. It could well have been the inspiration for the Panch Sheel of Jawaharlal Nehru who, as is well known, was a great admirer of Ashoka.

The message embodied in Rock Edict XII seems to have great relevance to contemporary India. In a country where a substantial section of the majority community is high on ‘my-religion-is-the-best’ sentiment elbowing out all human feelings and leaving little space for other communities, Ashoka’s ‘restraint in speech’ message could serve as the right medicine.

Finally, Ashoka’s conviction that a ruler must accept the diversity of his subjects’ beliefs speaks volumes for his empathy and political wisdom. The emperor must have made his own ‘discovery of India’—the discovery that India is a land inhabited by people belonging to different religions. For even in Ashoka’s times we had Hindus, Jains and Buddhists living together. Ashoka recognised and respected this diversity as any sane and enlightened ruler would. Otherswise there was bound to be conflict and social disharmony. Sunil Khilnani makes a very valid point when he says in his essay on “Ashoka” (Incarnations, Penguin, 2016), “...Although Ashoka was a follower of he Buddha, under his own dhamma he pledged to protect all his subjects, whatever their religious beliefs. (Italics mine—A.C.) It was a remarkable early statement of the distinction between the private faith of a leader and the responsibilities of public office.” If only India’s present-day rulers could imbibe some of the Ashokan spirit!

The author retired as a Reader in English from Rajdhani College, University of Delhi. He is now a free-lancer.

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