THE TRANSFORMATION OF AN ANCIENT LEADER
Aśoka: Honour All Religions
by Marcus Braybrooke
“One should listen to and respect the religions of other people.” These words that Aśoka had engraved on rocks across his vast empire more than 2,000 years ago still need to be heard today.
King Aśoka, the third monarch of the Indian Mauryan dynasty, was largely forgotten until early in the 19th century when a large number of edicts, inscribed on rocks and pillars, were discovered. They proclaimed the reforms and policies promulgated by King Pyadasi. Soon afterwards a Pali text was discovered which showed that Aśoka and Pyadasi were different names for the same person.
There is little doubt that Aśoka’s edicts were written in his own words rather than in the stylistic language in which royal edicts or proclamations in the ancient world were usually written in. Their distinctly personal tone gives us a unique glimpse into the personality of this complex and remarkable man. His style is somewhat repetitious. He often referred to his good works, not to boast but to convince the reader of his sincerity.
Aśoka’s grandfather, Chandragupta, (c.322 – 298 BCE), after the collapse of Alexander the Great’s empire, which included India’s Northwestern provinces, created his own vast empire. His son, who was a peace-loving ruler, is said to have had over 100 sons. Not surprisingly there were disputes about the succession. Eventually Aśoka (born in about 304 BCE) established himself as emperor in about 274.
Aśoka at first imitated his grandfather’s expansionist policy. Among his many bloody wars, the one against the neighbouring kingdom of Kalinga (modern Orissa), in about 262, was the most cruel. The “Beloved-of-the-Gods” – as Aśoka referred to himself in one of his edicts – admitted that “One hundred and fifty thousand were deported, one hundred thousand were killed, and many more died (from other causes) … Even those who are not affected (by all this) suffer when they see friends, acquaintances, companions and relatives affected. These misfortunes befall all (as a result of war), and this pains Beloved-of-the-Gods.” He never again fought an aggressive war, although he kept an army to deter invasion.
From War to Peace
Aśoka’s life was changed by the horrors of this campaign. “Directly after the conquest of the Kalingas, the Beloved of the Gods became keen in pursuit of Dharma.” Aśoka, already a nominal Buddhist, now became a very committed one. He told his subjects: “Just as I seek the welfare and happiness of my own children in this world and the next, I seek the same things for all people.” He made sure he was always available. “In the past, state business was not transacted nor were reports delivered to the king at all hours. But now I have given this order, that at any time, whether I am eating, in the women’s quarters, the bed chamber, the chariot, the palanquin, in the park or wherever, reporters are to be posted with instructions to report to me the affairs of the people so that I might attend to these affairs wherever I am.”
Aśoka did much to improve the life of his subjects. He ensured that medical treatment was available for humans and for animals. He provided wells and rest-houses for travellers. Dharma-officials were appointed to encourage virtue and to look after old people and orphans and to ensure that justice was upheld throughout the empire. Aśoka abolished the use of torture and perhaps the death penalty, although judicial beatings were still allowed. Prisoners, on their release, were given some short-term financial help and encouraged to earn ‘merit’ for their future lives.
Besides seeking the uplift of the people by legislation, Aśoka sought to encourage them to live a moral life, especially by his emphasis on ahimsa (non-violence), which is often mentioned in the edicts. Respect for parents, good behaviour towards friends and families, fair treatment of servants, truthfulness, sexual purity, gentleness and contentment were all encouraged. His aim was to create a harmonious society in which people could seek a heavenly rebirth. Aśoka himself set an example at his court. Hunting was abandoned. Instead he went on pilgrimage to Lumbini and Bodh Gaya. The court became entirely vegetarian. Animal sacrifices were stopped. He regarded many festivals and rituals, although harmless, as being of little value. (An English translation of the edicts of Aśoka by Ven. S. Dhammika is available online.)
As in his own life, so also in his Empire, Buddhism had a central place. Aśoka sent teaching monks across India and beyond. He was familiar enough with the sacred texts to recommend some of them to the monastic community. On his pilgrimages, Aśoka erected shrines and memorial pillars. He is said to have opened up the ten original stupas and to have distributed some of the relics to other places in India – thereby helping to popularise the stupa, as a focus of devotion.
Yet while Aśoka was an enthusiastic Buddhist, he was not partisan towards his own religion or intolerant of other religions. He supported Brahmins and Jain ascetics as well as Buddhist monks and nuns. He urged respect for other people’s beliefs and practices. As Rock Edict XII says, “The faiths of others all deserve to be honoured for one reason or another. By honouring them one exalts one’s own faith and at the same time performs a service to the faith of others … If a man extols his own faith and disparages another because of devotion to his own and because he wants to glorify it, he seriously injures his own faith.” This outlook is reflected in the Indian constitution, and Aśoka’s Chakra appears appropriately on the flag of India.
The British historian H.G. Wells has written: “Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history ... the name of Aśoka shines, and shines almost alone, a star.”