The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 32 Catching up to 260 BCE: The Visionary Humanism of King Ashoka

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Catching up to 260 BCE: The Visionary Humanism of King Ashoka

Tolerate the beliefs of others so long as they do no harm.

Cherish life in all of its forms.

If you have the ability to help someone, then help them.

They seem like simple principles, don’t they? Ideas that represent the baseline of our natural instincts, so long as fear and indoctrination don’t muddy the moral waters. And yet, how very few of our greatest thinkers or societies have held them. The genius of Greek antiquity that ran on slave power and ceaselessly embroiled itself in war; the violence-worshipping Romans, who tolerated you so long as you surrendered and obeyed; the Christians who no sooner took power than turned Jesus’s vengeful ideas into a two-millennium trail of bloodshed and suppression—all of them perfectly fine with separating lives that mattered from lives that didn’t, and all of them in absolute unity about humankind’s right to dominate all other forms of life on the planet as we see fit.

It’s enough to give a modern body a downright case of the smugs. And well might we take justified pride in the scope of our hard-won modern morality that inches every day towards realizing those three basic principles so long as we keep our glance well away from a few decades of remote antiquity that put us positively to shame: the era of King Ashoka (304-232 BCE). Ashoka

He was the third ruler of the Maurya dynasty that governed most of modern India in the years after Alexander the Great’s final conquest. His grandfather, Chandragupta Maurya, had conquered vast areas of the subcontinent using the ruthless determination he had learned at Alexander’s side, spilling oceans of blood to increase his holdings and to keep them. That was simply the way of things. People existed to fight and to die for their monarch, with little to hope for but the chance at a slightly better life the next time around. And kings didn’t have it much better. To gain power they usually had to dominate and slaughter their siblings, and to hold it required living in elaborate palaces filled with secret corridors and chambers to foil omnipresent assassins. The violence that brought a ruler to the throne threatened at every second to unmake him once the crown was upon his head, and that nervous paranoia crept into how states were run and armies were deployed.

We know little of Ashoka’s youth up until he assumed the kingship circa 269 BCE, but what we do know points to an early life of the typical Indian prince mould. He was not the favored son of his father, the king, and was probably sent off to subdue rebellious murmurings in the university city of Taxila so he wouldn’t cause trouble at home. He most likely lived the duty driven but luxurious existence of a provincial administrator until the day his father died. Then he sprang into action, eliminating his rivals and claiming the throne in a process that lasted several grinding years.

But claiming a throne was not enough.  He needed to prove his might, to prove himself worthy of the heritage of Chandragupta in order to still the tongues that hissed Usurper.

Easy enough, right? All he had to do was conquer a province or two and the glory of military victory would have hushed all criticism. So he did, driving his armies to Kalinga to subdue the area and its people in one mighty strike. The ensuing battle was a complete victory for Ashoka, but beholding the toll of war, the hundreds of thousands of lives snuffed out in a few frenzied hours, Ashoka made a resolution to never again be the bringer of death. A triumph that his ancestors would have boasted about endlessly was, to Ashoka, a source of deep shame. Over the course of his reign he ordered dozens of stone monuments erected throughout his realm that shared his experience of war and his resolution to protect all life.

Those monuments stand still, the only voices we have from Indian antiquity, and what they have to say is astounding. Here, Ashoka spoke directly to his people, admitting his mistakes and explaining how he intended to atone for them. He talked about his conversion to Buddhism, and encouraged others to follow in his footsteps but, and this is a towering sort of but, urged toleration of all religions. Let people believe what they will, he urged, so long as nobody is hurt by it. As he stated in his Twelfth Edict, “Truly, if (a person) extols his own sect and disparages other sects with a view to glorifying his own sect owing merely to his attachment to it, he injures his own sect very severely by acting that way. Therefore, concord is commendable.” More significantly, in the midst of a rigidly stratified Hindu society, he said that all men, regardless of caste, had the same ability to expand their minds as he, their king. Enlightenment and compassion, and the basic dignity they bring, could be the concern of everybody.

Democratization of the intellect, religious toleration—these were already unprecedented leaps in social thinking, but Ashoka wasn’t nearly done yet. He extended his compassion and protection to the animals that other religions had consigned to the charnel house. Time and again he pleaded for people to put the sanctity of life above the passing dictates of their taste buds and gore-drenched sacrificial rites. The idea of thousands of living beings made to suffer and then painfully die to quench human appetites revolted him as much as the memory of Kalinga, and his edicts sing with the attempt to make other people aware of the casual and needless brutality of the dinner table. Two thousand two hundred years later, and we’re still waiting for an elected official to even approximate that level of honest decency about our irresponsible use of our fellow terrestrial inhabitants. When a presidential candidate says, “Listen guys, this meat thing. It’s inefficient, unnecessary, unhealthful, and beneath our dignity as a species. Be better,” then maybe we can feel ourselves at Ashoka’s level, but somehow I don’t see that happening for a while.

Edicts are one thing, administration is another, and Ashoka was equally skilled in it. He created a corps of civil service agents, the Dharma-mahamatras, who scoured the Indian countryside, essentially looking for wrongs to right. If a man was arrested, they made sure his family had enough money to live on. They gave legal assistance to help the elderly free themselves from jail. They distributed resources to new mothers, and were specifically tasked to lend aid to the destitute and downtrodden, wherever they might be found. They were Ashoka’s first daring enterprise in creating a social security net by government decree, thereby drafting an utterly new vision of a society that protected each and every one of its own as a matter of course and duty.

He could have rounded out his conquests by taking the rest of Southern India, but he didn’t. Instead, he sought what can only be called a moral conquest of the subcontinent, sending out diplomats and missionaries to explain what Ashoka was trying to do with his empire. He sent his own children to Sri Lanka to spread his message of universal compassion, and Sri Lanka in return preserved his memory in epic form as one of the nation’s great moral heroes.

Unfortunately, just as we don’t know much about his early years, we know little of his late. There are myths and legends, but for some reason the last decades of his reign feature none of the stone edicts that inform us of his early years as king. Did he stay true to the promise and inspiration of his early years? Did he devolve into a conservative mystic, no longer concerned with making his people the best and happiest in the world? We have exactly no way of knowing. We know there were Maurya rulers after Ashoka, and that they kept to his broad Buddhism, but whether they maintained the corps of mahamatras, or actively pushed for a better treatment of animals on the sub-continent, we simply don’t know. In 185 BCE, a coup displaced the Mauryas, paving the way for the oppression of Buddhism and the re-establishment of Hinduism as the state’s only acceptable religious practice.

Really, it’s amazing that any part of Ashoka’s reforms lasted that long. In the midst of a world culture that worshipped violence, consigned the lower strata of society to toil and oblivion, liked its justice vengeful, and could not care less about anything that wasn’t human, Ashoka constructed a fragile phantom of a state that accepted all thoughts and cherished all people and all life. He made a government that spent more time thinking about how to serve the downtrodden than about how to enhance its own wealth and power. He talked and reasoned to his subjects, told them stories, and knew that seeking their understanding was better than demanding their submission. Two centuries before Christ, and twenty centuries before John Stuart Mill, he dreamt of the people-centered state.

In the words of Gonzo the Great, I hope we get back there some day.

Further Reading

There was a new Ashoka biography published just this year by Nayanjot Lahiri, Ashoka in Ancient India. Lahiri not only knows everything there is to know about Ashoka’s edicts, but will tell you (in great length, whether it’s particularly relevant or not) everything that archaeology has managed to find out about every place near which an edict has been found. He has an entire chapter detailing the street layout of Taxila, someplace that Ashoka might have visited once. It’s all very interesting, but I’d say Ashoka makes up maybe 40 percent of the actual book. If you can find it, I’d say Romila Thapar’s classic Ashoka and the Decline of the Mauryas (1961) is a better first book on the subject.