There is often no rhyme or reason for why the mind wanders down the paths it does. One word, a single phrase of music, a fragrance drifting through the wind, a singular interplay of light and shadow, can trigger a chain of thoughts that often spiral far, far away from where they began. Nobody captured this more notably than Marcel Proust. A taste of his tea-soaked madeleine opened the floodgates to a torrent of memories that ran into thousands of pages and seven volumes in his In Search of Time Lost.
I don't recall what my particular madeleine was, that set off the musing that caused this particular outpouring. It might have been the divine mangoes combined with the hellish heat of Madras, where I was last week, that gently addled my brain; it could have been how my body and mind reacted to large fluctuations in temperature while being dragged across multiple time zones. I do know that I can assure you that it comes nowhere near, not even remotely close to, the length - or quality - of Proust's magnum opus.
King Ashoka, the third emperor of the Maurya Dynasty, lived and ruled during the 3rd century BCE. His kingdom was enormous, encompassing much of present-day India, (lapping at the boundaries of the kingdoms of the far South) , Pakistan and Afghanistan. He has been hailed as one of the greatest kings of all times. H.G Wells, in his Outline of History said about Ashoka:
“Amidst tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousnesses and serenities and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Asoka shines, and shines alone, a star”. 1
Legends and myths have abounded about this great Indian king from the distant past. Tales were told about his exceptional cruelty and ruthless tyranny, which he employed to dispose of his siblings in order to ascend to the throne, and which continued unfettered in the early years of his reign. The culmination of this reign of terror was one of bloodiest battles of all time, in the eastern region of Kalinga. There, the legend continues, he was so appalled by the wanton destruction of life that he renounced his bloodthirsty and brutal ways on the spot, embraced the non-violent and life-affirming Buddhist faith, and spent the remainder of his reign spreading the doctrine of Buddhism through his kingdom and beyond. He is credited for single-handedly expanding the message of Buddha far beyond its original boundaries.
There was very little information and knowledge available to separate fact from fiction. Then, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, a series of inscriptions carved on rocks and pillars were deciphered, and it was agreed that King Ashoka was responsible for these inscriptions. They are a remarkable record not only of the values he held dear and wanted to spread throughout his kingdom, but they also provide an insight into some of the administrative procedures and structures he put in place to spread his message, the judicial principles and systems he believed in, and the major, turning-point event of his reign, the battle of Kalinga. Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first Prime Minister, said:
“Ashoka’s pillars of stone with their inscriptions would speak to me in their magnificent language and tell me of a man, who, though an emperor, was greater than any king … This astonishing ruler, beloved still in India and in many other parts of Asia, devoted himself to the spread of Buddha’s teachings, to righteousness and goodwill, and to public works for the good of the people. He was no passive spectator of events, lost in contemplation and self-improvement. He labored hard at public business and declared he was ready for it.” 2
Ashoka’s rock and pillar inscriptions were scattered far and wide, to the far reaches of his kingdom. His primary aim was to spread the message of Dhamma, which he defined as:
“…little evil, much good, kindness, generosity, truthfulness and purity…” 3
These edicts were dictated to Ashoka’s scribes in his capital city of Pataliputra. They were then carved in important places throughout his kingdom. The edicts use a personal and intimate tone, not formal or stilted, as if the emperor were addressing the people directly. There has been a great deal of debate and dispute in the interpretation of the meaning and intent of these edicts. Historians have argued at great length about exactly what they are about – were they a sincere and heartfelt attempt to spread Buddhism through his kingdom, or were they merely a clever and canny way of consolidating and imposing his power under the cloak of virtue and morality? Were these edicts truly an interpretation of Buddhist doctrine, or were they nothing more than a basic code of moral conduct which would be palatable to any person, regardless of religious inclination? Arguments can be made to support all points of view.
Before any conclusions can be drawn, it is necessary to define what the Buddhist philosophy is about. In addition, it is important to understand the social, religious and political milieu of Ashoka’s era. Then a closer look can be taken at the edicts in order to decide whether or not they can be defined as Buddhist, what contradictions there are within them, and with Buddhist belief, and whether they can really tell us anything about King Ashoka and his reign.
Buddhism is a religion founded in the 5th century BCE by a prince called Siddhartha Gautama. Deeply disturbed by the suffering he witnessed, he abandoned his family and the opulence of his princely life, and wandered about seeking enlightenment about suffering, its causes and how to escape it. Under a pipal tree in Bodh Gaya (in Bihar) he attained Enlightenment and became the Buddha, or the Enlightened One, and spent the rest of his life spreading his message, traveling through what are parts of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh today.
Buddhism is a non-theist religion. Its principal aim is to end suffering, and to this end, it offers the Four Noble Truths, and the Eight-Fold Path. The Four Noble Truths state that:
- There will be suffering and sorrow, or dukkha, in this worldly life.
- The cause for this suffering is attachment or desire, samudaya, which is rooted in ignorance.
- This suffering can cease – nirodha or nirvana – by giving up the cravings, attachments and desires which cause it in the first place.
- There is a path, or margam, which anyone can follow. This is the Noble Eight-Fold Path which is the way out of suffering and misery. 4
This takes us to the Noble Eight-Fold Path, which is a prescription for a lifestyle, guaranteed to guide the follower away from the heartbreak of existence. The eight elements of this path are:
- Right understanding
- Right thought
- Right speech
- Right action
- Right livelihood
- Right effort
- Right mindfulness
- Right concentration.
Further directives that flesh out the Eight-Fold path include no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no lying or using harsh and hurtful language, no intoxicants.5
Buddha preached that there was no such thing as a permanent, immovable “self”, or atmam. He did not talk of a creator God and the need to appease such a God. He condemned the notion of caste, and proclaimed that it was a person’s actions that determined his place in society, not what he was born as. He believed in reincarnation, and said that a person could attain nirvana, where he finally broke away from the cycle of suffering and attained enlightenment. He also said that his teachings could not be forced onto anyone.
Buddha’s message, with its censure of the caste system, and its promise of salvation to anyone who followed his teachings, was welcome in an India in which the rigid and strictly hierarchical caste system had a strangle-hold on society. People belonging to the lower castes toiled away in wretched conditions, while the Brahmins (priests), those of the highest caste, often used the power of their position to compel citizens to perform ever-more elaborate rituals and sacrifices, thus ensuring a steady flow of income for themselves.
Matters were largely unchanged when, 200 years later, Ashoka, through a combination of guile and savagery, ascended the throne of the Maurya Empire. Brahmanism, highly ritualistic, still held sway, and the caste structure was as harsh and inflexible as ever.
Ashoka’s was a vast and diverse empire, encompassing jungle and desert, mountains and plains, cities, villages and forest-dwellings. Within his borders were an assortment of cultures and languages, as diverse as the Hellenic influences on the northwestern frontiers and the flourishing Tamil civilization on the southern borders.
In the early years of his reign, Ashoka ruled with an iron hand, crushing revolts in Ujjain and Taxila. The critical event of his life, eight years after his coronation, was the battle at Kalinga (in present-day Orissa, on the east coast of India). The vicious brutality of this battle appears to have shaken up Ashoka and cemented his commitment to a Buddhist way of life, where he eschewed any further violence. As he put it in his famous 13th Rock Edict:
“Beloved-of-the-Gods, 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 died (from other causes). After the Kalingas had been conquered, Beloved-of-the-Gods came to feel a strong inclination towards the Dhamma, a love for the Dhamma and for instruction in Dhamma. Now Beloved-of-the-Gods feels deep remorse for having conquered the Kalingas.
Indeed, Beloved-of-the-Gods is deeply pained by the killing, dying and deportation that take place when an unconquered country is conquered.”
Of low-caste origins, Ashoka probably had no fondness for the Brahmins and their priestly exhortations. He initially embraced Buddhism in a half-hearted manner, as he admitted in the first of his Minor Rock Edicts:
“Beloved-of-the-Gods speaks thus: It is now more than two and a half years since I became a lay-disciple, but until now I have not been very zealous.”
The battle of Kalinga pushed him further along the Buddhist path and within a few years, he was an ardent and complete convert. He then embarked upon the most remarkable part of his reign, where he tried to spread his message of Dhamma into every part of his kingdom. His inscriptions on rocks and pillars are found in over 30 places in India. They are an extraordinary record of his principles and policies, and what he aspired for in his people and empire.
Referring to himself as Beloved-of-the-Gods, Ashoka, in the edicts addressed directly to his citizens, enjoins them to follow the path of Dhamma, which would ensure their welfare and happiness. He asks them to respect their elders, Brahmins and sramanas (ascetics), to show compassion to the poor and distressed, to do no harm to animals and to be truthful and pure in their conduct. His Dhamma was a moral and ethical code for the good of the individual in society.
Nowhere in any of the edicts which are addressed to the common man (which are the majority of them, with the exception of the Minor Rock and Minor Pillar Edicts) is there any mention of the basic tenets of Buddhism – the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eight-Fold Path or Nirvana. There is no discussion of Buddhist philosophy, only a practical application of its moral standards. The moral code (Dhamma) which he expounded matches popular ideas about Buddhist principles, where one is rewarded or punished for one’s actions, both in the present life, as well as in future lives. However, the virtues which he entreats people to adopt, like respecting ones parents and teachers, having mercy for living creatures, speaking the truth and ensuring just treatment for all, are very broad, and can apply across religions without offending anyone. While his Dhamma is loosely based on the Eight-Fold Path of Buddhism, he does not appear to seek conversion to his religion, as he repeatedly assures his people that he will honor all religions.
It thus appears that these edicts were not really “Buddhist” teachings at all, but an attempt to spread a common moral code, to develop a point of convergence in the thicket of diversity that was his empire. Ashoka probably saw the practical value of spreading an enlightened moral policy. To this end, he set up a whole parallel administration to promote and monitor the dissemination of his Dhamma. He appointed Dhamma Mahamatras whose task it was to practice and preach Dhamma, make sure that people were following Dhamma the “right way”, ensure the just treatment of prisoners and administer monasteries.
There are some inscriptions where Ashoka makes direct mention of the Buddha, the Sangha (the community of Buddhist monks) and Dhamma, which are regarded as the Three Jewels of Buddhism. These, however are addressed directly to the Sangha. (These are the Minor Rock and Pillar Edicts).
Not only are the majority of Ashoka’s edicts not strictly Buddhist, but they are also sometimes contradictory to the spirit of Buddhism. The first contradiction is in the very name Ashoka adopted for himself, “Beloved-of-the-Gods”. As has been mentioned earlier, Buddhism is a non-theist religion, with no mention of God as creator, maintainer or destroyer of life. By claiming to be the “Beloved of the Gods”, Ashoka was probably trying to appeal to the vast majority of his distinctly God-fearing, Hindu subjects.
Ashoka also goes against the grain of the non-caste-ist nature of Buddhism in making special mention of the Brahmins in several places. For example:
“Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi promotes restraint in the killing and harming of living beings, proper behavior towards relatives, Brahmans and ascetics…” (# 4 of the 14 Rock Edicts)
This is probably a shrewd and calculated move by Ashoka, who did not want to antagonize the all-powerful Brahmin priests. At the same time, he displays his less-than-high regard for the “forest people” and their ways:
“Even the forest people, who live in Beloved-of-the-Gods' domain, are entreated and reasoned with to act properly. They are told that despite his remorse Beloved-of-the-Gods has the power to punish them if necessary, so that they should be ashamed of their wrong and not be killed.” (#13 of the 14 Rock Edicts).
This points to a clear-cut hierarchy in Ashoka’s mind, where he, the supreme source of power and authority addresses his “children” in a paternalistic and patronizing manner, where the Brahmins are to be respected, and where the forest people had better watch out. Ashoka also had a strong and very un-Buddhist sense of “self”. He talks of the need for “self-control” and also of his desire for glory and fame.
“Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, does not consider glory and fame to be of great account unless they are achieved through having my subjects respect Dhamma and practice Dhamma, both now and in the future. For this alone does Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desire glory and fame.” (#10 of the 14 Rock Edicts)
No matter what the source of the glory and fame, no true Buddhist is supposed to seek or desire it.
Ashoka, for all his talk of tolerance, clearly did not brook dissension on the part of his monks and subjects. In his 2nd Minor Pillar Edict, his authoritarianism comes across strongly:
“Beloved-of-the-Gods commands: The Mahamatras at Kosambi (are to be told: Whoever splits the Sangha) which is now united, is not to be admitted into the Sangha. Whoever, whether monk or nun, splits the Sangha is to be made to wear white clothes and to reside somewhere other than in a monastery.”
And for all his talk of non-violence, Ashoka did not rule out the possibility of future military conquests:
“I have had this Dhamma edict written so that my sons and great-grandsons may not consider making new conquests, or that if military conquests are made, that they be done with forbearance and light punishment...(#13 of the 14 Rock Edicts)
Ashoka continued to maintain an army, although there were no further military invasions during his reign.
Ashoka’s edicts give us a good idea of the administrative system he set up to spread his Dhamma. It also gives us an understanding of his judicial system and beliefs. In addition, we are made aware of the boundaries of Ashoka’s empire, and that he had dealings with people well beyond his realm, including the Greek kings of the time. He gives the impression of a man who is devoted to the smooth running of his empire, is in complete control, and is remarkably aware of the goings-on in such a large domain.
Ashoka was a remarkable king. His beliefs and ideals, his administrative system and his radically different views on running an empire are extraordinary. He is one of the greatest political figures of all time. His royal patronage of Buddhism helped to spread it far beyond its original borders, and made it into one of the leading religions in Asia.
- H.G. Wells, The Outline of History. New York: Garden City Books, 1956
- Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India. London: Meridian, 1960
- Pillar Edict II
- "Buddhism." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 17 Oct 2006, 09:13 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 17 Oct 2006
- "Noble Eightfold Path." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 3 Oct 2006, 08:34 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 17 Oct 2006 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Noble_Eightfold_Path&oldid=79210002>.
- Romila Thapar, A History of India, Volume 1. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1990
- Alain Danielou, A Brief History of India. Vermont: Inner Traditions India, 2003
- "Buddhism." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 17 Oct 2006, 09:13 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 17 Oct 2006 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Buddhism&oldid=81964119>.
- "Ashoka." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 16 Oct 2006, 23:34 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 17 Oct 2006 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ashoka&oldid=81887431>.