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Ashoka the Great

Three decades after Alexander's fateful push into the subcontinent, an Indian emperor renounced violence and tried to rule according to the teachings of the Buddha. Even his failures have lessons for us today.

IN 326 BC, eight years after he set out to conquer the world, Alexander reached India. Given to extreme cruelty throughout his long campaign eastward from Macedonia, he showed signs of rapid mental decay as he got closer to the Indian plains. He killed one of his closest commanders with his own hands during a drunken quarrel. When the historian Callisthenes (a nephew of Aristotle) refused to abase himself, Alexander had him imprisoned and probably murdered.

Then one day in northwest India he came across some ascetics, probably followers of the Buddha, who had lived in the country east of the Ganges roughly two centuries previously. According to the Greek historian Arrian, the ascetics beat their feet on the ground as Alexander passed. When asked what this meant, they replied that Alexander, for all his conquests, occupied no more ground than that covered by the soles of his two feet. Like everyone else, he, too, was mortal, "except that you are ambitious and reckless, traversing such a vast span of land, so remote from your home, enduring troubles and inflicting them upon others."

Alexander has attracted the attention of chroniclers from Plutarch to Oliver Stone, who have often praised him as the cosmopolitan bearer of a great civilization. But much less has been written about the much more extraordinary reign of the Indian emperor Ashoka (304-232 BC), who was almost lost to history until amateur British scholars in the 19th century deciphered the imperial edicts he had engraved on rocks and stone and iron pillars across India.

Born only 30 years after Alexander embarked on his improbably successful invasion of Asia, Ashoka was not only the first great ruler to reject the glory of violent conquest, but also the first to apply the teachings of the Buddha to politics and governance. As H.G. Wells put it in his "Short History of the World" (1922), "Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history . . . the name of Ashoka shines, and shines almost alone."

School textbooks in India today describe how Ashoka converted to Buddhism after an especially bloody campaign and proclaimed a state policy based on compassion, nonviolence and tolerance -- Buddhist ideas that would spread across Asia, from China to Indonesia to Japan, in the next two millennia. But Ashoka seems to have been only partly successful in combining Buddhism with statecraft. Buddhists in the centuries since have not always been immune to the corruptions of political power and ideology, and it remains unclear today whether the Dalai Lama's admirable commitment to nonviolence makes him an effective political campaigner for Tibetan independence from Chinese rule.

Nevertheless, as debate over the proper relationship between church and state rages in various places around the globe, the examples of Ashoka and the Dalai Lama, among others, suggest that Buddhism, with its absence of dogma and emphasis on dialogue and nonviolence, offers an ethical basis for both governance and political protest in large pluralistic communities, and that it may be more immune to theocratic zeal than most other major religions. . . .The Buddha himself was no political theorist. Unlike Plato, he seems neither to have given much advice to the major rulers of his time nor to have criticized the political systems they presided over. But his lack of theoretical passion was due to a wider and deeper political experience. In his travels across northern India, the Buddha seems to have known more political forms -- republics, monarchies, and then, just before his death, empire -- than Plato, who was familiar only with the polis. He preferred to address the question of what constitutes the ruler's right to rule, what made the exercise of his power legitimate. Unlike the theorists of ancient India who claimed divine sanction for kingship, the Buddha, who was an agnostic, did not find the ruler's legitimacy in some transcendent realm. The king was originally a human being like any other, who had been exalted by human beings and by his own actions, and who had more duties than rights.

As the many stories about the ideal king and government in the Jataka Tales, a compendium of Buddhist stories, attest, righteousness served as the only proper basis for the ruler's authority. His realm had to be free of oppression and hospitable to all classes of society, townsmen as well as villagers, religious teachers as well as birds and beasts. Another Buddhist text, the Kutudanta Sutra, even outlined a social and economic ethic, which resembles the program for a liberal capitalist welfare state: subsidies of food and seed-corn to farmers, adequate wages and food to people in government services, and investment capital to merchants and tradesmen.

Ashoka was not ideally placed to be a Buddhist Keynesian. His grandfather, Chandragupta Maurya, had like Alexander won his vast empire, which at its height stretched from central India to parts of what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan, through military strength and skill. To wield absolute, centralized power from his capital, Pataliputra (now Patna in the state of Bihar), Chandragupta maintained a large army and built up a ruthlessly efficient bureaucracy and spy network. Peace still eluded his empire by the time Ashoka took over around 269 BC.

Empire constantly demands fresh resources, and generates new enemies, which means more conquests and suppressions. Following this imperative, in the ninth year of his reign, Ashoka attacked the state of Kalinga, now Orissa on the eastern coast of India, possibly looking for a sea route for trade.

It was during the conquest of Kalinga that Ashoka confronted for the first time the human devastation of war. According to the most famous of Ashoka's edicts, some 150,000 people were deported, and 100,000 killed in the successful battles for Kalinga. This edict declared, "When an independent country is conquered . . . those who dwell there . . . all suffer violence, murder, and separation from their loved ones. Even those who are fortunate to have escaped and whose love is undiminished suffer from the misfortunes of their friends, acquaintances, colleagues and relatives."

Such concern for the fate of ordinary lives caught up in war was rare in ancient India. The epic "Mahabharata" records a violence that is chillingly impersonal: the deaths of hundreds of thousands of nameless people, all deemed expendable by men pursuing power. But Ashoka could see how war brings about the "participation of all men in suffering." His contrition, as expressed in the edicts, was profound.

"Today, if a hundredth or a thousandth part of those who suffered in Kalinga were to be killed, to die, or to be taken captive, it would be very grievous to [Ashoka] . . . [who] desires safety, self-control, justice, and happiness for all beings . . . [and] considers that the greatest of all victories is the victory of dharma [law]."

In his edicts, Ashoka made imperative the practice of honesty, truthfulness, compassion, mercifulness, and nonviolence in his administration. He claimed to set "no store by fame or glory." As the first pillar edict put it, "This world and the other are hard to gain without great love of righteousness, great self-examination, great obedience, and great circumspection, great effort." He relaxed the severe restrictions on travel and occupation introduced by his grandfather. His edicts advocated concord and courteous dialogue between religions and communities. He planted trees, dug wells, and constructed rest houses for travelers. He told his officials to attend closely to the sufferings and joys of his subjects, particularly the poor.

However, as Romila Thapar, the leading historian of ancient India, has pointed out, Ashoka did not convert immediately to Buddhism after the conquest of Kalinga. Nor did he renounce empire and become a monk, as some Buddhist texts claim. Buddhism, which was still one of many religious and philosophical sects in India, did not even become the official religion. Ashoka came to the Buddha's teachings gradually, over two and half years, as he said in one of his inscriptions, and then he applied them selectively.

While Ashoka's dharma had much in common with the virtuous conduct that the Buddha preached, it was mostly his own invention -- a way of requiring the state to incarnate a higher morality that would appeal equally to, and thus unite, the multi-religious, multicultural subjects of his vast empire. Indeed, Ashoka himself was only partly faithful to Buddhist teachings and couldn't have been otherwise while holding down an empire. He did not abolish capital punishment, or reduce his army, or grant his subject peoples greater autonomy by federalizing his empire. In fact, he instituted a new centralized bureaucracy, dharma-mahamatras ("officers of dharma"), to supervise his Buddhist reforms.

It's unlikely that the Buddha, though himself born to the ruling class, would have approved of an imperial bureaucracy in his name. He preferred small political communities, such as the republic his father occasionally led, in which all members shared the power of decision making. But, in his lifetime, he witnessed the emergence of large impersonal states and saw how they exposed many people to a sense of powerlessness and insecurity. He hoped that the Buddhist sangha, or monastic order, would base itself near urban centers and help give many newly uprooted people there a sense of spiritual community and tradition.

The Buddha's ideals of self-examination, austerity, and compassion look naive and unpersuasive when compared to the dominant political institutions and ideologies of the modern, secular era -- the heavily armed nation-states and hyper-competitive globalized economies committed to the endless growth of human desires. Indeed, Buddhists themselves have often betrayed the Buddha's teachings while straying into the realm of modern realpolitik. In early 20th century Japan and in Sri Lanka in the 1980s and `90s, many Buddhist monks succumbed to the lure of modern nationalism and militarism. At the same time, Mahatma Gandhi, though not himself a Buddhist, gave fresh relevance to the principles of nonviolence and dialogue, and has inspired in our own time such Buddhist campaigners against tyranny as the Dalai Lama, Aung San Su Kyi of Myanmar, and Maha-Ghosananda of Cambodia.

It may be that the Buddha's agnostic and undogmatic worldview accommodates more easily than the revealed religions the plurality of human belief and discourse found in the world. Preoccupied with individual ethics in everyday life, it breeds a suspicion of abstract political projects. Certainly, in exhorting both himself and his subjects to moral discipline and effort, Ashoka proves, in retrospect, to have been much more pragmatic than the sentimental humanitarians of modern times who believe that democracy and freedom can be imposed by force.

Perhaps Ashoka could only be a noble failure in trying to apply the Buddha's ideas to such an essentially un-Buddhistic entity as empire. He himself may have been aware of his. "It is hard to do good," he admitted in one of his edicts. And it was also easy, he knew, to grow blind to the consequences of one's actions. Today, as we witness the great violence and chaos caused by those claiming to be good men fighting evil, Ashoka's self-doubt can only seem salutary.

"One only notices one's good deeds, thinking, `I have done good,"' he observed, "but on the other hand one does not notice one's wicked deeds, thinking `I have done evil,' or `This is indeed a sin.' Now, to be aware of this is something really difficult."

Pankaj Mishra's new book, from which portions of this article are adapted, is "An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). 

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