Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Ashoka, and the idea of India

King Piyadasi conquered the Kalingas eight years after his coronation. One hundred and fifty thousand were deported, one hundred thousand were killed and many more times that number perished. After the Kalingas had been conquered, Piyadasi came to feel a strong inclination towards Dharma, a love for Dharma and for instruction in Dharma. Now Piyadasi feels deep remorse for having conquered the Kalingas.

Even those who are not affected suffer when they see friends, acquaintances, companions and relatives affected. These misfortunes befall all as a result of war, and this pains Piyadasi. Now it is conquest by Dharma that he considers to be the best conquest.

I have had this edict written so that my sons and great-grandsons may not consider making new conquests. May all their intense devotion be given to this which has a result in this world and the next. - Rock Edict 13


This trek I’m on is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The first week was tougher than the next two put together. Of the nine passes so far, eight were crossed in those seven days, while lugging a backpack that weighed the equivalent of forty-seven elephants. A rest day was originally sandwiched between the two toughest days - a punishing fifteen-hour day and a scarcely easier thirteen-hour one. But then I was told that if I rearranged my itinerary a bit (read that as “give up the rest day”), I might be able to visit the stupa at Sani.

This stupa is ten kilometres from Padum, the capital of the valley of Zanskar, and it may have been built by Ashoka. I was sceptical (and I was right to be - the stupa was built a few centuries later by Kanishka) but not wanting to kick myself later if this was indeed true, and having no way to check without access to the internet, I went ahead and rescheduled anyway.

Since my introduction to Buddhism here in the high mountains and passes of Ladakh, I have an affection for its pragmatism that I've felt for no other religion. So, given that Ashoka seems to be virtually unknown outside India, it seems appropriate that I dedicate a post to the emperor to whom Buddhism owes its survival.

I must warn you that I’m no historian… and much of Ashoka’s life is unknown even to them. For many centuries, this emperor who has been called “a star that shines almost alone in the columns of history” was dismissed as wistful fantasy. It wasn't until his edicts around the country were discovered and translated in the 19th century that it was established that the king Piyadasi of the edicts was the same cruel Ashoka of Buddhist legend who turned to the ways of the Dharma. And a more complete picture has emerged of the man who is an emblem for India.

The edicts, which are admittedly what Ashoka chose to have the world know of him, and whose translations differ widely, are all we pretty much have. The tone of the edicts is never boastful, though; he mentions several times that he’s had them inscribed on rock so that they'll live long and remind his people and descendants to continue living by Dharma.

This version below of Ashoka’s story is the one I grew up with, and since it’s a great story, it’s something I choose to believe in.


The young emperor arrived in Kalinga, elated at the victory that would complete his empire. His grandfather, Chandragupta Maurya, had created the first great Indian empire, stretching from parts of Persia in the west to Bengal in the east; from the Himalayas in the north to the borders of modern-day Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the south. Within these bounds, only a pesky little democracy on the eastern coast was independent. While the southern states were very distant from the Mauryas’ capital in modern-day Patna, Kalinga was entirely within reach. They were fierce warriors, though: his grandfather had tried to invade them and had been repelled. And now, eight years into Ashoka’s reign, he’d outdone even the great Chandragupta.

Where would he go from here: south to the very tip of the peninsula or west through Persia? Sixty years earlier, a Greek named Alexander had swept eastward into Asia, forming an empire that disintegrated almost as soon as he died, stopping only at the river Beas in India when his soldiers grew weary of the ceaseless fighting. Ashoka was still a young man (he would rule for thirty more years) and a skilled general himself: as a prince born to a lower-ranked queen, he’d often been banished to far-away lands to quell rebellions. Now, ruling over the largest empire in the world, at the command of a fearsome army whose "chariots thundered across the land, their white pennants brilliant in the sunshine,” perhaps he could carve his name into history with unparalleled conquests and be remembered as a Great?

Where this story diverges from a familiar pattern, from the tales of countless kings and nations through history, is that when this cruel and ambitious man set foot upon the land he had just conquered, he couldn’t find it in himself to celebrate. This was someone who’d reputedly killed most of his brothers to become emperor and yet the unprecedented bloodshed that greeted him at Kalinga appalled even him. They'd fought almost to the last man and uncountable bodies littered the burning fields, the river Daya ran red with blood. Instead of an elation that would translate into more conquests, then, he felt remorse.

When a woman asked him what he had achieved by killing her father, her husband and her son, he had no answer, not even to himself. There was nothing to be proud of, no glory to be had. He’d already converted to Buddhism a few years prior, but with Kalinga, almost overnight, he started practising it in earnest. He saw now that more than his fame that comes with territorial conquests, his responsibility was the well-being of the people already entrusted to him; that instead of being feared and respected for his military prowess, he needed to be a father to them.

He renounced the path of violence - there would be no more wars for territory - and set about establishing a moral kingdom based on the wheel of dharma. He seemed to genuinely care that his subjects not just be good citizens but also good people. King Piyadasi does not esteem glory and fame as of great value unless they are achieved through having my subjects respect Dharma and practice Dharma, both now and in the future… such as duty to parents, generosity to friends, acquaintances, relatives, Brahmins and ascetics, protection of children; liberality is good, not harming living creatures is good, and abstinence from prodigality and slander are good.

He set down laws protecting forests and animals and banned hunting for pleasure. In my domain, no living beings are to be slaughtered or offered in sacrifice. In many edicts, he mentions that his policies are to benefit both humans and animals. (There is even a theory that so much of present-day India is vegetarian owing to him.) A fairer, kinder justice system was introduced; leniency towards prisoners and mandatory stays of execution for the condemned (allowing them time to appeal) became state policy. If the officers think, "This one has a family to support," "That one has been bewitched," "This one is old," then they work for the release of such prisoners. He constructed medical facilities for humans and animals, not just in his empire but also neighbouring states.

He made it known that his duties took precedence over his personal life - not only did he frequently go on inspection tours (and expect his officers to do the same), he could also be interrupted no matter what he was doing. I consider it best to meet with people personally. In hard work and dispatch of business alone, I find no satisfaction. But I consider the welfare of all to be my duty, and the root of this is exertion and the prompt dispatch of business. There is no better work than promoting the welfare of all the people and whatever efforts I am making is to repay the debt I owe to all beings to assure their happiness in this life, and attain heaven in the next.

He attributed his change for the better to Buddhism and, for him, his responsibility to improve lives did not end at his borders. Where Ashoka might earlier have sent armies to crush his neighbours, he now established peaceful relations with all of them, sending emissaries to spread the word of the Buddha far and wide - he sent his daughter and son to Sri Lanka, monks to Burma and the Mediterranean - and so, when Buddhism was wiped out in India in later centuries, it survived in other lands.

But despite how important it was to him, Buddhism was never the state religion - everyone was free to practise any faith they chose. King Piyadasi honours all forms of religious faith, whether professed by ascetics or householders. The root of his encouragement is this: reverence for one's own faith, and no reviling of that of others. Let the reverence be shown in such a manner as is suited to differences of belief; as when it is done in that manner, it augments our own faith, and benefits that of others. Whoever acts otherwise injures his own religion. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. He who honours his own religion and reviles that of others, this, his conduct, cannot be right.

He extended this freedom to non-believers, too: King Piyadasi desires that all unbelievers may everywhere dwell unmolested, as they also wish for moral restraint and purity of disposition. When modern India talks of unity in diversity and liberty of thought and expression, perhaps this is part of what we mean: he is anxious that every diversity of opinion, and every diversity of passion, may shine forth blended into one system.

Then there's the endearing earnestness of his messages. Instead of oozing arrogance as might be expected of the most powerful man in the known world, he comes across as someone who is just trying to do his duties as best as he can. He went against the grain of his times. He saw that true greatness lay not in the extent of his empire but in the hearts of his people and in their everyday deeds. The advancement of Dharma amongst men has been achieved through two means, laws and persuasion. But of these two, laws have been less effective and persuasion more so.


And so an essentially Buddhist symbol - the Ashoka Chakra - is at the centre of the national flag of the secular Republic of India. I don’t know the reasons for its adoption but the thing I like the most about it is that every time the jingoistic wave it in nationalistic pride, they’re admitting to being at odds with everything that the flag and the wheel at its heart represents. Much like the Buddhist prayer flags atop the high passes that scatter good wishes in all directions, they’re vigorously waving messages of love, peace, gracefulness, humility and the like towards the “others” - whilst having none of these virtues themselves.

His sculpture at Sarnath, of the four lions, is also the emblem of our democracy: it adorns every currency note, every passport - it's our way of saying that we're still his subjects, that we come from the land of Ashoka. They aren’t just arcane symbols that meant something only to our founders. In a country veering towards Hindu nationalism and away from the socialism of our founders, where they themselves are no longer as revered as they once were, India’s great Buddhist Emperor is as much a hero now as he was at his “rediscovery.”

Why, even in communist Kerala, with its disdain for kings and excesses, whose borders lay beyond the Mauryan Empire, we're proud to have him as our emperor for eternity. Bone-weary trekkers from these parts - unfit and unskilled, trudging over the highest mountains on earth, children of an age of mindless consumption - will still gladly take pains to send their respects 2300 years into the past.

Even for those who're not religious or nationalistic in any way, his is still a story they want to believe in and celebrate. Because his edicts represent an ideal of a society they'd like to live in and of a people who deserve to survive. Granted, given our present trajectory, the only edicts that will likely remember us to the future is a dead, radioactive planet covered in plastic… but then again, if he could change vastly for the better, then maybe so can we.

Greetings from the hidden kingdom, from beyond your northern frontiers, Emperor Ashoka Maurya! You are still remembered.