Why the world should know about Ashoka .
This blog is intended for those in the West, who know nothing about the man who founded the religion we know as Buddhism, established the world’s first international university, disapproved of the caste system, and ,millennia before others, believed in the protection of wildlife .
The language of Brahmi died out and that was one of the reasons that Ashoka (Asoka) was forgotten for over 1000 years. In Sculpting the Elephant, for her PhD thesis, Ramma choses the topic of how he was rediscovered . She wanted him to be better known in the cause of ‘good governance.’
Ashoka began as a warlord typical of his time (304BC- 232BC) and became more ‘corrupt’ as he extended his territory and his power. It was the sacrifice of human life to attain victory at the battle for Kalinga which changed his attitude. His remorse over the suffering caused was genuine and he took instruction from followers of the Buddha. Although he continued to rule in a secular manner, for the rest of his forty year reign, he tried to govern with Buddhist ethics.
Ashoka promoted his new vision through rock edicts: his words carved on stone. There was no paper and the usual means of communication was by word of mouth which could easily be distorted – relevant in these times of fake news! Because the population was illiterate, he sent his emissaries all over India to read the rock edicts to the people. Here is one of them. Rock Edict V111.
‘Thus of all the people who were slain, done to death, or carried away captive in Kalinga, if the hundredth or the thousandth part were to suffer again the same fate, it would now be matter of regret to King Asoka. Moreover, should any one do him wrong, that, too, must be borne with by his majesty, if it can possibly be borne with…For King Asoka desires that all animate things should have security, self-control, peace of mind and joyousness.
He renounced violence and desired that his government be informed by Dhamma which can be interpreted as righteousness. He did not rule out self-defence but in this edict he urges his descendants to value Dhamma over conquest. As a warlord, his prison in Pataliputra was a vile place and the converted Ashoka turned his attention to reform. He ordered that prisoners be unfettered and had regular amnesties, after which many of the ex- prisoners were employed in his palace. He abolished the death penalty and created a kind of welfare state and even recommended the protection of wild animals.
The inspirational thing for me is that he was able to change.
It would be fantastic if the current government of India could be inspired by him. He advised against praising your own religion or denigrating a neighbour’s beliefs. He disapproved of the caste system and preferred practical action to rituals. What I most love about the teachings of the Buddha, Ashoka, Jesus and the Dalai Lama is their emphasis on compassion. After Ashoka died, fanatical Brahmin rulers began the obliteration of his ideas and the memory of him.
Ashoka founded the world’s first international university at Nalanda. It spread over nine kilometres and had a huge library and 10,000 students. Circa 1193, Mohammed Bakhtiya invaded North India and not only did he burn it down but he destroyed all the books and murdered all the custodians of that knowledge. Just one monk was travelling with one book survived.
If only all world leaders can, like him, change and strive for tolerance and compassion and not hatred and discrimination.
I wrote this feature for the Madras Courier but it could have been written by Ramma.
Nalanda – The worlds first international university – once 9 km long.