A New Standard in Rulership
In the middle of the saffron, white, and green flag of the Indian Republic is something that looks like a wheel. And in fact, it is a wheel, the Wheel of Asoka, placed there to commemorate and to honor a man who, more than two thousand years ago, was Emperor of India, and who, by common consent, is hailed as one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest, of all those who have ever sat upon a throne.
Asoka ruled over India from 273 to 232 B.C., and it was an India that comprised not only most of what we know as India proper, from the Himalayas to almost as far down in the peninsula as Madras, but also Afghanistan, Baluchistan, Kashmir and Nepal. It may even have extended across the mountains into Chinese Turkestan. In this immense area, with a population running into millions, there were tens of thousands of villages, then as now the foundation of the Indian social structure, and also numerous cities in which all the arts of civilization were carried to a height of perfection, cities filled with busy folk, brave knights and fair ladies, artists and craftsmen of superb skill and ingenuity, and deep thinkers in the mysterious realms of philosophy and religion.
All this at a time when the inhabitants of Britain dressed in skins and painted their bodies with woad, and domestic architecture had not proceeded beyond the stage of shacks and shanties and holes in the ground.
Obviously this civilization had been in existence for a very long time, just how long is only now being properly appreciated. Until only the other day, as it were, it was generally held that the civilization of the Indian peninsula was much younger than that of Egypt or of Mesopotamia, and historians produced attractive pictures of Aryan tribes folk, trekking across the Himalayan passes in their ox-wagons, and settling in the northern plains, sometime in the second millennium before Christ.
But no one would dream of starting with the Aryans to-day. Huge rubbish dumps in the Indus Valley, that were first explored about the middle of the last century, when a British engineer was in search of hardcore to ballast the railway line he was constructing in the Punjab, have been dug into and turned over, and amazing things have come to light. Walls and streets of what must have been large cities, houses and baths, weapons and tools, jewellery and other works of art of high excellence, and evidences of writing and scholarship, year by year the discoveries go on, and it is now abundantly clear that when the Aryans did arrive in India they made their harsh impact on a civilization that was already very advanced and very old. The historians of India now have to allow for a period extending into several thousand years B.C., and the date is in constant process of being pushed ever further back into the mists of time, Asoka, then, was the inheritor of an age-old culture, of a governmental system that was highly developed and immensely ancient. His claim to fame is that he gave what he found a new direction and imparted fresh ideas of a superlative virtue and excellence.
To begin with, he was very much as his predecessors had been. Like his father and grandfather and the rest of the members of the royal line, he feasted with his nobles, dallied in his harem, went hunting, watched displays of music and dancing, drank a lot and generally indulged in the joys of the flesh. So far as we can judge, he maintained the stern but just rule of his ancestors. Then in 261 B.C. he went to war for the first time, possibly being pushed into it by his advisers against his personal inclination. The enemy against whom he marched was a people known as the Kalingas, who inhabited a region in the Ganges plain. They were a powerful folk, and put up a stern resistance, but they were subdued at length. Then Asoka counted the cost. We know what it was, because he himself described it in an Edict which he had inscribed on a rock face, so that all who saw it should read it, and ponder.
“When His Sacred and Gracious Majesty had been consecrated eight years, Kalinga was conquered. From thence a hundred and fifty thousand people were carried away into captivity, a hundred thousand were slain, and many times that number died.” Most conquerors, before his time and since, would not have given the matter another thought; after all, they would have argued, War is War, and woe to the conquered! But not so Asoka. Try as he might, he could not shut his eyes to the horrible scenes of massacre and red ruin he had witnessed, or his ears to the wailing of women and children mourning their dead and their own unhappy fate. And so the inscription does not end with the brief statement of accumulated horrors. It goes on:
“No sooner had he annexed the Kalingas, than His Sacred Majesty felt remorse for having conquered the Kalingas, because the conquest of a country hitherto unconquered involves the slaughter, death, and carrying away captive of the people. And that is a matter of the most profound regret and sorrow to his Sacred Majesty.”
Never before had there been such a public confession of sorrow by a conqueror on the morrow of his triumph. But more was to come. The inscription continues: “If only a hundredth, or a thousandth, of the people who were slain, done to death, or made captive in Kalinga, were now to suffer the same fate, His Sacred Majesty would find it exceedingly grievous. Should anyone do him wrong in future, he will endeavour to forgive it as far as it can be forgiven. Even upon the forest folk [the most primitive and uncivilized of his subjects] His Sacred Majesty looks kindly, and seeks to make them think aright, for if he did otherwise, repentance would come to His Sacred Majesty. They are bidden to turn from their evil ways and so avoid punishment. For His Sacred Majesty desires that all living creatures shall have security, self-control, peace of mind, and happiness.”
This is the confession that Asoka published to the world, and henceforth he was a changed man. Resolutely he put from him all ideas of military conquest and martial glory. He abandoned his ancestral religion with its bloody sacrifices, and embraced the peaceful faith of The Buddha. He gave up hunting, and boasted that he had reduced the daily allowance of meat in his household to two peacocks and a deer, and he never ate meat again. He did not forbid the killing of animals for food, but he instituted close seasons when animals and fish might not be caught, and gave orders that nothing that was not edible should be killed. He did his best to limit if not to stop altogether the animal sacrifices that drenched the altars of the innumerable gods with innocent blood. In place of the chase, he went on pilgrimage to the principal Buddhist shrines, and caused to be erected there monuments to the founder of the Buddhist religion.
Some of these have come down to us, notably the remains of the pillar that he erected at Sarnath, near Benares, to mark the spot where Buddha preached his first sermon, or (as the Buddhist expression has it) first “turned the Wheel of the Law’. Among the pieces is the splendidly carved capital, composed of four lions placed back to back keeping guard over the “Wheel” of Buddha.
While he did not disband his army or give the Kalingas back their independence, he used his troops henceforth merely as police. He built roads, and planted fruit trees along them to provide shade and refreshment. He dug wells at intervals, established rest-houses, set up hospitals for man and beast. He encouraged the cultivation of medicinal herbs, patronized architects and artists, and constructed vast irrigation works. While remaining a devout Buddhist, he tolerated other faiths. Always he was at the disposal of his people, and he never spared himself in his efforts to serve them.
One of his inscriptions gives a most interesting picture of him at work. “Whether I am at dinner or in the ladies’ apartments, or in my private study, or in the royal mews, or in my carriage or walking in the palace gardens, wherever I may be, I have given orders that any matter of importance shall be reported to me without delay. I am never completely satisfied with my efforts and the way business is despatched. It is the welfare of all people that I must work for, and that means constant effort.
Whatever exertions I may make are all for one end, that I may discharge my debt to all living creatures, and that while I may succeed in making some happy here, they may in the next world attain to heaven.” The great ruler’s moral code is summed up in another of the “Rock Edicts”, as one set of his inscriptions are called. “Thus said His Majesty,” it runs; “Father and mother must be obeyed. Respect for all living creatures must be enforced. Truth must be spoken.
The teacher should be held in reverence by his pupils, and a proper courtesy must be shown to all relations.” Another of the Edicts declares that, “It is an excellent thing to hearken to father and mother; to be generous to friends and acquaintances, relations, priests and ascetics; to keep from killing living creatures…” Another inscription, this time on a stone pillar, declares that, “The Law of Duty [what in Buddhist terms is Dharma] is an excellent thing. And what does it consist of? Many good deeds, compassion, generosity, truthfulness, and purity of life.”
Not content with preaching righteousness to “my people”, Asoka strove to extend the sphere of Buddhism in the world outside the region in north-eastern India in which it had had its rise. From what may be gathered from his inscriptions, it would seem that he sent missions to the Greek kingdoms in western Asia and to Egypt and the lands beyond. But of much greater importance was the one that he despatched to the island of Ceylon in about 251 B.C. It was headed by a prince named Mahinda, who was Asoka’s son or perhaps a younger brother; and Mahinda’s sister, the Princess Sanghamitra, accompanied him and seconded all his efforts.
The missionaries were welcomed by King Tissa, who embraced the Buddhist teaching and followed Asoka’s example in establishing Buddhism as the national faith. Mahinda took with him a great deal more than a lofty ethical teaching, for it is claimed that he taught the people of Ceylon the arts of stone carving and of irrigation that had been so successfully practised in India. From that day to this, Buddhism has been the dominant religion in Ceylon, and the tomb of the gentle missionary-prince is a much-visited shrine not far from the ruins of the ancient sacred city of Anuradhapura.
Towards the end of his long reign, things seem to have started to go wrong with Asoka and his vast empire. According to some of the ancient traditions, he began to lose grip of affairs, and instead of attending to business of state devoted all his time to religious exercises, and wasted the resources of the country in indiscriminate charity dispensed to monks and monasteries. It is even alleged that he abdicated the throne and became a monk himself, not just for a time as is the way in present-day Burma, for instance, but for good. According to other accounts, however, which would seem to be better substantiated, he retained his position and all his regal dignities to the end of his life.
But it may be true enough, that his people were inclined to grumble at his discouragement of so many things that they had enjoyed in days gone by, and would like to enjoy again. A new generation had grown up that had not experienced the agony and the shock of the Kalinga campaign. His officers may well have got tired of the peace and have deplored his unwillingness to go to war with his neighbours even when a pretext might be found.
He had also antagonized the priests and the whole Brahmin caste by the obvious partiality he showed for their Buddhist rivals and by his continued opposition to animal sacrifices. And of course, notwithstanding his essential greatness, he had his personal defects. He was inclined to be pompous; he was so absolutely convinced that he knew what was right for his people, far better than they could know it themselves, that his critics were always ignorant and misguided. It would have been surprising if, as he grew old, he had not shown some resentment of the opposition that was forthcoming to what he believed, with all his heart and mind and soul, to be the Way of Buddha.
Most of what we know about the great emperor is derived from the inscriptions that he had made, on rock faces, stone pillars, and on the walls of certain caves. A number of these have been preserved, and together they constitute what is surely the most remarkable set of inscriptions in the world. We might perhaps be inclined to discount them somewhat but for the fact that they are so transparently honest. Here are no vainglorious inscriptions such as the monarchs of Assyria and Egypt set up on the scenes of their conquests. Here are no boastings of his treasures, his wealth and pomp and power.
Not these things he ordered his sculptors to inscribe on the enduring stone, but a record of his compassion, his tender consideration, and, most remarkable, his remorse.
The turning-point in Asoka’s career, wrote Vincent Smith in his Oxford History of India, was the Kalinga war, which “thus became one of the decisive events in the history of the world. The miseries of the campaign, the sufferings of the prisoners, and the wailings for the dead were soon forgotten by the vanquished, as they have been forgotten by other conquered nations after thousands of wars; but the effect which they produced upon the conscience of the victor is still traceable in the world of the twentieth century.”
Asoka set a new standard in rulership; and although historians are still captivated by the Alexander’s and Napoleons they cannot obliterate the memory of that great and good Indian emperor who was shamed, and said so, by the vulgar conquests of the sword. It is altogether appropriate and understandable, therefore, that the founders of the great peace-loving democracy of India should have incorporated in their insignia something that is a symbol not only of Asoka but of the Faith that he made the center of his life.
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). “Asoka” . Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Ashoka at Curlie
- BBC Radio 4: Sunil Khilnani, Incarnations: Ashoka.
- BBC Radio 4: Melvyn Bragg with Richard Gombrich et al., In Our Time, Ashoka the Great.