Monday, October 24, 2011

Aśoka, Buddhist Emperor of India

The Indian emperor Aśoka (304-232 BCE) ruled the Mauryan Empire on the Indian subcontinent from c. 270-232 BCE. In addition to his appreciation of the need for religious toleration and heterodoxy, Ásoka “laid down what are perhaps the oldest rules for conducting debates and disputations, with the opponents being ‘duly honoured in every way and on all occasions,’” indeed, Amartya Sen suggests we view these as “a kind of ancient version of the nineteenth-century ‘Robert’s Rules of Order’” (Sen: xii-xiii and 16). His edicts gave shape to an understanding of the Dharma of Buddhism, meaning for him “a moral polity of active social concern, religious tolerance, ecological awareness, the observance of common ethical precepts, and the renunciation of war [the sound of drums becomes the sound of spiritual understanding, morality, and mind training—dharma—not war]:”

“In Pillar Edict VII, for example, he orders banyan trees and mango groves to be planted, resthouses to be built, and wells to be dug every half-mile along the roads. In Rock Edict I, he establishes an end to the killing and consumption of most animals in the royal kitchens. In Rock Edict II, he orders the provision of medical facilities for men and beasts. In Rock Edict III, he enjoins obedience to mother and father, generosity toward priests and ascetics, and frugality in spending. In Rock Edict V, he commissions officers to work for the welfare and happiness of the poor and aged. In Rock Edict VI, he declares his intention constantly to promote the welfare of all beings so as to pay off his debt to living creatures and to work for their happiness in this world and the next. And in Rock Edict XII, he honors men of all faiths.” (Strong: 4)

The “provision of medical facilities” finds Aśoka a “pioneer in creating hospitals for public use,” one of the Edicts stating these were also established “in the Hellenistic kingdoms—a claim that may sound implausible but has been plausibly defended on the basis of available evidence by Thomas McEvilley”* (Sen: 82-83).

Also among his edicts was the prohibition of animal sacrifice in votive offerings. In conjunction with Rock Edict II, medicinal herbs were distributed and planted, as were roots and fruits wherever they were lacking. And Rock Edict I effectively abolished hunting and fishing in the royal household.

Raghavan Iyer discusses the significance of Rock Edict XII:

“In India…the Emperor Aśoka in 250 BC was not only the first-known sovereign to exalt the virtues of tolerance and civility but also the first to enact religious toleration. Hinduism, which was sometimes messianic but never missionary until recent times, had been confronted by Buddhist religion, which was missionary but not messianic. Aśoka’s Twelfth Major Rock Edict was an earnest and thoughtful plea for toleration among the various sects of the day. Toleration was not passive sufferance but an active search for dialogue and concord, based upon the conviction that in the honoring of other sects lies the welfare and honor of one’s own. An individual or a group is enhanced by the display of active tolerance and genuine fellow feeling. Concord was regarded as universally meritorious and it was required that all sects should learn and benefit from each other.” (Iyer: 67)

With regard to the proposition that “all sects should learn and benefit from each other,” Aśoka employed a Jain-like approach to the rational and ethical assessment of religious beliefs and practices, refusing to endorse or dismiss a religious worldview in toto, preferring rather to examine its particular parts or facets, in the manner described here by the contemporary philosopher Hilary Putnam: “‘Is our own way of life right or wrong?’is a silly question, although it isn’t silly to ask if this or that particular feature of our way of life is right or wrong, and ‘Is our view of the world right or wrong?’ is a silly question, although it isn’t silly to ask if this or that particular belief is right or wrong.” And although he was a convert to Buddhism, Aśoka did not make Buddhism the official religion of the empire.

Aśoka’s concern with criminal justice led to the establishment of a “Ministry of Dhamma,” “through which he sought to prevent wrongful imprisonment and punishment, to free prisoners when appropriate, and to aid prisoners’ families if they were in need” (Harvey: 116).

While there was nothing novel in the regular circulation of imperial commands, “in his determination to achieve the maximum publicity for the new policy, and to ensure that its implementation would continue long after his own time, Aśoka caused many of his edicts to be inscribed on stone columns and on rocks at all the principal centers of his realm. No doubt he used more ephemeral media as well, but to us he has bequeathed his ideas in lasting form, many of his inscriptions remaining in their original places or in museums” (Warder: 237). Aśoka’s edicts were in stark contrast to the largely amoral maxims of political power found in Kautilya’s Arthaśāstra (‘Science of Wealth,’ i.e., politics and economics), the latter’s reflections on power and conceptions of raison d’état not dissimilar to those of Machiavelli and Hobbes in Western political philosophy.

* See McEvilley’s important book, The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, 2002.

References & Further Reading
  • Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values, and Issues. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Hirakawa, Akira (Paul Groner, trans.). A History of Indian Buddhism: From Śākyamuni to Early Mahāyāna. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.
  • Iyer, Raghavan. Parapolitics: Toward the City of Man. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
  • Nikam, N.A. and Richard P. McKeon, ed. and trans. The Edicts of Aśoka. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1959.
  • Sen, Amartya. The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.
  • Strong, John S. The Legend of King Aśoka: A Study and Translation of the Aśokāvadāna. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.
  • Thapar, Romila. Aśoka and the Decline of the Mauryas. New York: Oxford University Press, revised ed., 1998.
  • Warder, A.K. Indian Buddhism. Delhi: Motilal Barnarsidass, 3rd ed., 2000.


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