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Asoka, the Philosopher Emperor

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By Phiroz Mehta

Extracts from volume 86 of Memoirs and Proceedings of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, 1944

In the days when Gautama Buddha, the Enlightened One, taught in India, these words were spoken by one called Job of the land of Uz:

“Oh that my words were now written! Oh that they were printed in a book! That they were graven with an iron pen and lead in the rock for ever!”

Job xix, 23, 24

And it came to pass some fourteen generations later, that the Beloved of the Gods, one called Asoka, the son of Bindusara the son of Chandragupta, King in India, caused these words to be graven in rock:

“His Majesty King Priyadarsin in the ninth year of his reign conquered the Kalingas. One hundred and fifty thousand persons were thence carried away captive, one hundred thousand were there slain, and many times that number perished.

“Ever since the annexation. of the Kalingas, His Majesty has zealously observed the Law of Righteous Living, has been devoted to that law, and has proclaimed its precepts.

“His Majesty feels remorse on account of the conquest of the Kalingas, because, during the subjugation of a previously unconquered country, slaughter, death, and taking away captive of the people necessarily occur, whereat His Majesty feels profound sorrow and regret.

“There is, however, another reason for His Majesty’s feeling still more regret, inasmuch as in such a country dwell Brahmans and ascetics, men of different sects, and householders, who all practise obedience to elders, obedience to father and mother, obedience to teachers, proper treatment of friends, acquaintances, comrades, relatives, slaves and servants, and who are steadfast to their faith. To all such there befalls violence or slaughter or separation from loved ones.

“Again, even though there are persons who remain physically unhurt, yet violence is inflicted on them through their affections, for ruin falls on their friends, acquaintances, comrades and relatives.

“All this widespread misery, suffered equally by all men, is felt most deeply by His Majesty. For there is no country where Brahmans and ascetics do not exist, except among the Yonas. There is no part of a country where there are people without faith in one or other of the sects.

“The suffering of a hundredth or even a thousandth part of the persons who were slain, led into captivity, or killed in Kalinga would now be a matter of deep regret to His Majesty.

“Although a man should do him an injury, His Majesty holds that it should be forgiven to the extent that it can be patiently borne. Even upon the forest tribes in his dominions, His Majesty has compassion, and seeks to win them over to his way of life and thought. For inasmuch as the might of His Majesty lies in his repentance, so it is said unto these dwellers in the forest: ‘Shun evil doing, that ye may be saved from destruction’. Indeed; for all beings doth His Majesty desire security, self-control, peace of mind and happiness.

“But the supreme conquest, in His Majesty’s opinion, is the conquest of the Law of Righteous Living. And this has oft been won by His Majesty here (in his own dominion) and among all the frontier peoples even to the extent of six hundred yojanas where are the Yona king, Antiochos by name, and beyond that Antiochos, the four kings named Ptolemy, Antigonos, Magas and Alexander; and in the south the Cholas, and the Pandyas, and as far as Tamraparni. Likewise, here in the king’s dominion, and among the Yonas and Kambojas, and Nabhakas and Nabhitis, among the Pitinikas, the Andhras and the Pulindas, men everywhere follow the Law of Righteous Living as proclaimed by His Majesty. Even in those lands where there are no envoys of His Majesty, men will practise, and continue to practise the Law of Righteous Living when they hear the pious proclamation of His Majesty.

“The conquest thus won everywhere produces a feeling of happiness, the happiness of moral conquest by the devotee of the Law. Yet happiness is but a small matter; for His Majesty thinks nothing of much importance save what concerns the next state.

“And for this purpose has this pious edict been written, to wit, that sons and grandsons, as many as they may be, should not seek to make a new conquest by arms. And should such conquest be effected, may they find happiness in patience and forgiveness. And may they remember always that the supreme conquest is won by fulfilling the Law of Righteous Living, the Law which avails both for this world and the next state. And may their happiness lie in the renunciation of all aims other than the aim of Righteous Living which avails both for this world and the next state.”

So runs the Thirteenth Rock Edict.

Who was this man who caused these words to be graven in the rock, and what was the fount of his inspiration?

India in the early third millennium B.C. boasted several fair cities in the Indus valley. It is thought that the builders of this civilisation, parallel with those of Sumeria or Egypt, were Armenoid-Mediterranean peoples, who during that third millennium B.C. were flooded by an immigration from the Iranian plateau and the Pamirs. Meanwhile men elsewhere, in the Asian steppes and in Mesopotamia, had learned to use the horse, and in the second millennium B.C. the Indo-Aryan barbarians from the steppes of Turkestan poured over the Hindu Kush into the fertile prosperous Indus valley. They were warrior horsemen armed with swords, attacking in one wild onrush with loud cries. Disciplined military tactics were unknown to them. They brought their own women, and their cattle, with them, and successfully overran the pre-existing civilisation. Their great gift to India was to be their language, offering a remarkable scope for mental and cultural development.

The inhabitants of pre-Aryan India appear to have had their own social organisation and a developed religious system. Theirs was an already ancient culture, on which came the impact of the warlike Aryans of the second millennium B.C., bringing with them a religious practice based on nature gods, sky, wind, thunder, etc. The invaders, though they retained their pride of ancestry and military prowess, were overawed in a religious sense by the culture of the conquered peoples. Their own gods sank to a lower level than those of ancient India, among whom Siva is still the most important. The priests of Siva and the Indian pantheon eventually became an exclusive Brahman caste some centuries before the advent of the Buddha. They became the ritual leaders in contrast with the administrators and warriors who constituted the Kshattriya caste.

In the Punjab the lordship of the Kshattriyas was beyond dispute; much of it was grassland on which their herds could live. But in the Ganges basin east of what is now Allahabad they penetrated only in small groups, founding lordships. They tried to keep themselves from officially recognised intermixture with the people of the land and to marry with the sons and daughters of other lords like themselves.

Like the Roman priests of the Dark Ages in Western Europe, the Brahmans sought the friendship of the Kshattriyas; and, while recognising merchants and others as to some extent privileged, as Vaisyas, both despised the common people of the conquered races as Sudras. Thus we have, broadly, the fourfold division of Hindu Society. But the earlier, simple social organisation lost its elasticity and became a more rigid and increasingly complex caste system, i.e. a system in which the main object of each group of persons was to preserve in its original form or purity what was accepted as right and proper in religious worship and customs, in social behaviour and customs, in professional duties or occupations, and in the routine of physical life. Caste is derived from castus, pure; and the term ‘caste system’ was first loosely used by the Portuguese to describe the social organisation of the peoples of India.

There is evidence from the Atharva Veda (III, 4), the Aitareya Brahmana (I, I4), the Taittirya Brahmana (I, 5 and 9), the Ambattha Suttanta of the Buddhists  (I, 113), the Arthasastra of Kautalya (I, I3), and the Mahabharata (Rajadharma Parva, Chapter 67), that several if not all of the earliest Aryan states may have had a republican pattern of government. Elective chieftainship was in vogue. The chief, chosen from among the best warriors, enjoyed kingly estate;  but the people wielded the right to expel him,  and subsequently to recall him if they so desired. This system proving cumbersome and insufficiently effective for the maintenance of security, it gave way to the establishment of an institution of select ladies on the eldest of whom it was the duty of the chief priest to beget a prince. This prince had to live a celibate life and rule the state in accordance with the will of the people’s assembly. But soon these princes were fighting for the right to marry and to found dynasties. In some states the priests gave in and saved their other privileges, while other states experienced civil war, which ended disastrously for the priests. We have hints of this in the Rigveda (X, 124, 8; X, I74); and in the Atharvaveda (VI, 87 and 88), the dependence of the sovereign’s power on the faithfulness of the assembly is emphasised.

But when a millennium had swung past, there existed in Aryavarta great kingdoms with hereditary monarchs whose autocracy was controlled by a select inner Cabinet and by a slightly larger body consisting of the principal Ministers of State; and the powers of these governments, though they could not be constitutionally checked, were effectively limited, often enough, by a vast self-governing democratic society below. Local government in a real sense has been a vital characteristic of living India through millennia.

Such, in brief, was the political and social background offered in that first Aryan millennium by the great kingdoms which had developed all over Northern India to those thinkers who ascended the peaks of Transcendental philosophy and left us the legacy of the Upanishads and of the Samkhya philosophy. It was an age of intellectual glory. Yet it is significant that these profound thinkers first left their everyday world and retreated into forest hermitages before they made their solitary ascent. Despite their high level of civilisation, all was not well in those great kingdoms. And when that age culminated in the spiritual splendour of the enlightenment of Gautama Buddha, the supreme fact which impressed the keenest observer of his age was the overwhelming ubiquity of suffering in man’s life. The Enlightened One ministered unto his fellow men, and his teaching has moulded the destiny of man more profoundly than man cares to admit.

The story of Siddhartha Gautama tells us he was a prince who for twenty-nine years was well guarded from the knowledge of pain, grief, sickness and death, and who, through his royal father’s especial care, was steeped in every conceivable earthly happiness. But the inevitable happened. Siddhartha saw pain, grief, sickness and death. Seized with the overmastering passion to solve the problem of human sorrow, he made the Great Renunciation — of his wife and child whom he loved so well, his princely estate, his worldly happiness — and wandered far and wide, seeking wisdom. Dissatisfied with what the sages of his day had to teach him, he at last looked within himself. Enlightenment dawned on him. With it came that mental serenity, that ineffable peace which he called Nirvana. He wondered for some days whether the wisdom he had won could or could not be given to men and women. Compassion triumphed, and the Buddha taught thereafter for five and forty years all who came to him.

On individual effort and individual realisation he laid the emphasis, rejecting the authority of the priesthood, and the efficacy of ceremonies for individual salvation. He denounced the cruel limitations imposed by the formal observance of some caste rules. He pointed out that whatsoever emphasised the distinctions between one man and another merely increased egoism, and destroyed the growth of true individuality. The desire for asserting this ego, the illusory “I am”, the fleeting external garb mistaken for the true self, was the root cause of suffering, said the Buddha. As long as man made the mistake of regarding this ever-changing illusory manifestation compounded of matter, sense and mind as the stable, permanent reality, an unchanging “I am”, all his desires would be ego-centred, would conflict with the desires of some of those around him and inevitably beget sorrow. Such a man would always be the slave of the childish “I wish; I like; I want”, always at the mercy of his appetites and urges. All desire which was unexamined, undisciplined, unfaithful to the truth of life was the source of sorrow; and the cessation of such desire meant the extinction of sorrow and the beginning of true happiness through pure action. For this, it was necessary to look within.

Self-knowledge, self-discipline and self-control were the keynotes for attaining freedom from all those desires emanating from the ego-centred man. Such freedom meant intellectual and spiritual maturity, the liberation of true individuality. The true individual was fully aware of his interdependence with his environment — he was “in tune with the Infinite”. He alone was wholly human, he alone capable of real love, of pure action, of true practicality. His was wisdom, the pure distillate of experience and knowledge, as contrasted with the burden of mere learning. And the sole dynamic of his whole life was the will as well as the ability to co-operate with “the power that moves all things to good”, to use the Buddha’s own words.

The true individual could enjoy the bliss of Nirvana as his normal state of consciousness. Only the ignorant or the deluded identify Nirvana with annihilation or with nothingness; or again with happiness or rapture as we ordinarily know it or “heaven “as we understand it. We must never forget that the term Nirvana applies to a state of consciousness only. We never “go to Nirvana”. We attain that consciousness here and now — in the eternal now — a state of consciousness wherein the mind maintains absolute serenity while the individual is fully sensitive and fully responsive to the whole of his experience in the immediate present. Here only can man know what pure action, implying his freedom from mere reaction to any stimulus, means. And pure action, in wholeness, maintaining that mental serenity which spells the individual’s sovereignty over self and not-self, over “I” and “my environment”, spells Nirvana. He who has freed himself from ego-centredness can understand this, for he can experience Nirvana for himself.

The Buddha’s doctrine of moral and mental development, and of the liberation of true individuality, is one of constant and strenuous endeavour in the here and the now. It is in truth an action philosophy to the profoundest degree, the very anti-thesis to an escapist philosophy. To look within and face the self is a far more difficult task, and needs far greater courage, patience, steadfastness, endurance and wisdom than facing external life. For the oceans of the everyday world are well charted, whereas the realm of the self is an unknown land which can be explored only in utter loneliness. But it is there that the pearl of wisdom may be found, and the finder wins the prize of Nirvana, man’s eternal quest.

In his all-embracing wisdom the Buddha saw the need of adapting his teaching to suit the capacity for understanding of his people. So he discoursed on the cause of sorrow and on the extinction of sorrow. And he taught the Noble Eightfold Path and how to tread the Middle Way. And he taught something else besides. He proclaimed the universal brotherhood of man, and to fulfil this in practice, he enunciated the principles and taught the methods of democracy. In his Samgha, the meeting was controlled by a specially appointed officer; where necessary a quorum was secured by another appointed officer; the business of the day was introduced in the form of a motion by the proposer, discussed, and the majority vote taken by ballot decided the discussion. Every member was free to speak and entitled to vote. The Buddha was the first great democrat of our race. He exhorted all the peoples to rise to this level. And for more than a thousand years the benign influence of the Buddha’s deep wisdom creatively stimulated Hindustan and gave birth to her two most glorious epochs.

But the Buddha knew that no true democracy could be brought into being and be maintained except by true democrats. And only true individuals could be democrats, for only true individuals could be truly self-controlled, truly self-responsible, and wisely co-operative, essentials of democracy in action. Hence the moral and religious doctrine of the Buddha for individual salvation is inextricably interwoven into the fabric of a stable, harmonious and creatively active social and political order. Siddhartha Gautama, who climbed the peaks of Buddhahood and was at home in the transcendental consciousness of Nirvana, was also a human son wholly worthy of his royal father.

Some centuries before the Buddha, the sages who left us the legacy of the Upanishads had shown their discontent with the ritualism of the old Indo-Aryans and their predecessors in India as embodied in the Brahmanas and Aranyakas, great explanatory commentaries of the older Vedas. The ancient magico-religious fertility rituals were failing to satisfy thinkers who rose partly out of an aristocratic leisured class, one of the products of the gradual settling down of warrior tribes who had established dominion over vast kingdoms. The teaching of Gautama Buddha was the culmination of the growing concepts of universality and brotherhood; of the necessity of moral discipline and of the paramountcy of Reason, of the unique nature and value of individuality, and of toleration as a guiding principle of human conduct. The age in which this greatest of Hindu reformers flourished was one of rare philosophic splendour — the age of Xenophanes and Parmenides in Elea, of Lao-tze and Confucius in China, of Mahavira in India, of Isaiah in Judah.

During the lifetime of the Buddha, his friend Bimbisara, fifth king of the Sisunaga dynasty, ascended the throne of Magadha in 543 B.C. The last of the Sisunagas married a Sudra woman and founded a Sudra dynasty of the Nandas. Dhanananda was on the throne of Magadha in 326 B.C. when the Macedonian phalanx refused to cross the Beas and Alexander turned back towards the Indus. The commander-in-chief of the Magadha army was a young man, one Chandragupta, who possibly had previous experience of war against the invincible Alexander.

The Greek records of Alexander’s time show India to be a land of several warring kingdoms. But after 325 B.C. Chandragupta, commander-in-chief in Magadha, conceived of the idea of an Indian Empire, of a political unity to be forged by conquest of arms. Assisted by his able statesman-financier, Kautalya, he stamped out all opposition ruthlessly, ascended the throne at the capital, Patliputra (modern Patna), and established the Maurya dynasty. State after state fell before his military prowess and the cunning diplomacy of Kautalya. By 305 B.C. he was master of the highlands above Herat and up to the Hindu Kush. Sind, Kathiawar, Gujrat and Malwa, the provinces of the west also fell under his sway, and Chandragupta Maurya was suzerain over the first empire of India. In the brief space of hardly a score of years, he realised imperial sovereignty over all India from Afghanistan to Assam, from the Himalayas to the Vindhyas. A few years later the Emperor relinquished his throne and retired to the hermitage of a Jain Saint called Bhadrabahu, dying there in 297 B.C. Little did he know that the child Asoka, the grandson whom he is likely to have fondled on his knees when relaxing from the burdens of state, was destined to write the most wonderful page of Indian history.

Bindusara, who succeeded his father, ruled for nearly a quarter of a century. Of him we know little except that he expanded the empire, consolidated it, and fixed its administration on a firm footing. About 286 B.C. he sent Asoka, then eighteen years of age, as Viceroy to Ujjain, and later on, it is reported, to Taxila to quell a rebellion against the maladministration of his elder brother Prince Susima, the Crown Prince. On Bindusara’s death, Asoka seized the throne of Patliputra, the Crown Prince being killed (Divyavadana, Chapter 26); and four years after his accession he was crowned, in 270 B.C.

Asoka, fortunately for himself, inherited a well-organised empire. In extent, it was larger than all modern India, for, though it did not include a small region, about the size of England, in the extreme south, it included all Afghanistan and Baluchistan, and the easternmost strip of modern Iran. It was nearly two million square miles in area, yet so well organised that the royal commands issued from Patliputra were readily obeyed on the shores of the Arabian Sea and of the Bay of Bengal. Asoka’s Inner Cabinet of Four consisted of the Diwan or prime minister, the Purohita or religious adviser, the Senapati or commander-in-chief, and the Yuvraja or heir-apparent. Under these, the Principal Ministers of State included the Treasurer; the Minister of Works (whose responsibilities ranged from the maintenance of public buildings to the rain gauge); the head of the judiciary; the Minister of Correspondence, who issued the royal decrees; the Court Chamberlain; and the Commander of the Body-Guard. (B. Prasad, Theory of Government in Ancient India, p. 124.)

Agriculture was the outstanding industry of the land. The practical unit of administration was the village, under its headman (gramani) an official nominee, who dealt with the revenue and supervised farming, advised by the village council of elders (panchayat). The government’s policy was to provide for the even distribution of the agrarian population by systematic plantation of villages in thinly-occupied tracts. For the general improvement of agriculture officials were employed by the government ‘to superintend the rivers, measure the land as is done in Egypt, and inspect the sluices by which water is let out from the main canals into their branches so that everyone may have an equal supply of it’ (Strabo, quoting Megasthenes). But the government water rate, varying from one-third to one-fifth of the produce of the land, was a heavy burden. (Kautilya’s Arthashastra, Book 2, Chapter 24.)

A Gopa was the head of a dozen villages. Over several Gopas came higher officials; and Asoka appointed Rajukas who were responsible for hundreds of thousands of people.

The district officials, who formed the first of three categories of government servants mentioned by Megasthenes, were responsible for irrigation and land measurements, hunting, agriculture, woods and forests, metal-foundries and mines, roads and the distance stones maintained on them.

Chandragupta had organised the management of his capital in six boards of five persons each, and these town officials. formed the second category of government servants. The respective functions of the boards were:

  1. Supervision of factories.
  2. Care of foreigners (control of the inns, charge of the sick and the burial of the dead).
  3. Births and deaths, for purposes of taxation and record.
  4. Trade and commerce, supervising weights and measures and generally controlling the markets.
  5. Inspection of manufactured articles and provision of distinction between new and second-hand goods.
  6. Collection of the 10% tax on sales.

The six municipal boards formed a general council to superintend temples, public works, harbours and prices, and in both town and country there were officials who kept complete registers both of property and the population. (Kautilya, Book 2, Chapter 36.) The superintendent of passports issued these on payment for the use of all persons entering or leaving the country. (Kautilya, Book 2, Chapter 34.)

The organisation of the government machine was wonderful, but no scale of punishments could check corruption. Kautalya observes: ‘Just as with fish moving underwater it cannot possibly be determined whether they are drinking water or not, so it is impossible to detect government servants employed on official duties when helping themselves to money’. (Book 2, Chapter 9.) The third category of officials constituted the War Office. This department also consisted of six boards of five, each being provided with a large secretariat:

  1. Admiralty.
  2. Quartermaster-General.
  3. Infantry.
  4. Cavalry.
  5. Chariots.
  6. Elephants.

Sir George Dunbar, History of India, pp. 38–40

From Alexander’s local domination, conquerors of India, foreign or native, have not actually displaced the rulers they subdued. In all likelihood, the Mauryas loosely imposed their central government upon the tribal system and self-contained, village communities of the land. Asoka himself ruled his empire, a confederation of States, through his four Viceroys at Taxila, Ujjain, Tosali and Suvarnagari. The independent feudalism and oligarchy of various rival states were here replaced by the highly organised bureaucracy of one paramount power supported by a huge standing army — 9,ooo elephants, great strength in chariots, 30,000 cavalry, and 600,000 infantry and buttressed by swarms of secret agents and informers of both sexes.

Over this whole government machine was the sovereign. Kautalya’s enunciation of the principles of foreign policy and the daily time table of the sovereign make the counsels of Machiavelli on statecraft and of Stockmar on royal duties appear almost feeble.

The capital, Patliputra, was organised in four districts, subdivided into wards and controlled by regulations ranging from precautions against fire to the official report on lost property.

What was the position of women in the Mauryan Empire? Both the regular and irregular recognised forms of marriage could be dissolved by mutual consent, or, automatically, by prolonged desertion. A married women owned her dowry and personal adornments as her own private property, which was at her own disposal to a certain extent if she became a widow. Cruelty by either husband or wife was punishable. The honour of women was carefully guarded from the point of view of motherhood. The abduction, hurt or outrage of even a prostitute, her mother or daughter or maidservant was severely punished, and in general, offences against women were dealt with severely. The time was still to come when foreign invasion was to force Hindu Society in self-defence to follow the custom of purdah. The main disability from which women suffered in Mauryan times was that the usual age of marriage had come down to as low as thirteen or twelve. This also meant curtailment of girls’ education, and also a virtual absence of the free choice of a husband. This was a sad contrast to Vedic times, when girls had as good an education as boys — universal education appears to have been prevalent then — and freely chose their own husbands, marrying usually at about seventeen or eighteen, and did not consider it a disgrace to spend a life of spinsterhood!

In the Code of Manu, Book III, 55 and 57, we read:

  1. Honour to the faithful woman Be by loving husband paid, By her father, by her brother, If they seek their virtue’s meed.
  1. And where women grieve and languish Perish men of fated race, But in homes where they are honoured Prosper men in worth and grace. 

Taxation was very heavy and ingeniously comprehensive. But the cost of the elaborate system of government and of the maintenance of a highly-trained formidable standing army was also enormous. Moreover, no such expedients as national debts or long term government loans were in vogue then. Apart from the exactions of tax-collectors, the life of the peoples was quiet and fairly happy. The emperor and his court lived a life of magnificence and splendour. Hunting and gladiatorial shows, and long pleasure tours with a splendid retinue were the royal. amusements. Wine, women and song all played their respectable parts in the lives of the three great Mauryan Emperors — respectable because moderate, as proved by the fact that their abilities as administrators and as generals suffered no impairment.

In an empire stretching from Afghanistan to Mysore, news from either extremity would probably take six months to reach the government centred at Patliputra. The imperial authority over this mighty sub-continent, and the system of administration, were efficiently maintained. This is a sober historical fact of a period when the means of transport and communication were incredibly slow by modern standards. What was the secret of success? Mainly this: India of the Mauryan age was not a land of impenetrable jungles, but well developed agriculturally, with numerous arts and crafts, a brisk trade, convenient roads and trade routes, and highly industrious. Combined with these physical conditions was the administrative wisdom of the Mauryas. Their system of government gave effect to an extensive decentralisation, and to the utmost latitude to the operations of local government. Innumerable autonomous centres coped with the requirements of their own districts. This highly successful machinery of government was not an innovation by Chandragupta but a legacy from ancient times. Asoka clearly distinguishes his innovations from his inheritances. (See Rock Edict, III, VI, VIII, K.R.E. II, P.E. IV and V.) When we realise the correct significance of this, we obtain a just estimate of the extent to which the autocracy of the monarch was balanced by the democracy of the people. And the loveliest element of this relationship between monarch and people is that, in general, the social and economic life of the masses, the humanness of the existence of the populace, was untouched by the wars of neighbouring kings, the setting up and pulling down of dynasties, and the rise and fall of empires.

So we can visualise Asoka Maurya, in the beginning of his reign, ruling strictly and well, living a life as befitted a secular monarch. He was a man, a reasonably good man, in his thirties, with a family. He was an emperor, a powerful and great emperor, ruling over a subcontinent. The Hindustan of his day was the Great Power of his day. As an emperor alone, posterity could have accorded him an honoured place among the great. But spiritual grace was to descend on him and lift him to the sublime height of a successful Philosopher Emperor, hardly equalled in the annals of history, if we take into account not only the magnitude but also the quality of his achievement. First, however, he had to pass through the portal of sorrow. And this is how it happened. Five years after his coronation he was converted to Buddhism as a lay disciple. There followed about two and a half years of indifferent devotion to the new faith. It was now about 262 B.C., some twelve years since he first ascended the throne. And then came war; to extend his kingdom, it is said. Bloody was the battle fought by the Kalingas with desperate valour in defence of their freedom. The military might of the emperor triumphed. There could never have been any doubt of that issue. But none dreamed of the moral transformation that would take place in the strict, able, pre-eminently successful imperial monarch, at the age of forty-two, in his full maturity, at the zenith of power, least likely to be swayed by sentimentality or other weakness. And yet this was the man who was so smitten to the depths on seeing the suffering of his fellow men, his human brethren, that he abjured war as an instrument of imperial policy. He espoused the cause of human security, happiness and well-being, not only for the peoples of his own vast domains but for all the peoples he could reach. He devoted himself strenuously to the Law of Righteous Living, to the fulfilment of the teachings of the Lord of Wisdom and Compassion. He neglected none of his kingly duties. Indeed, he applied himself more strenuously than ever for their better fulfilment. He organised his mighty empire with its vast resources for the practical realisation of these ideals. Let us illustrate his story from his autobiography, inscribed on rock and pillar. And let us note at the outset that with the characteristic humility and simplicity of the truly great, he calls himself king only, not emperor; to characterise his devotion he calls himself “favoured by the gods”; and to express his genuine affection for all human beings he speaks of himself as “one who regards all with kindness”. Asoka, therefore, styles himself: “Devanampiye Priyadarsin Raja”.

In the second Kalinga Edict he emphasises the paternal principle of government:

“All men are my children; and, just as I desire for my children that they may enjoy every kind of prosperity and happiness … so also do I desire the same for all men.”

He wants the newly-subdued Kalingas “to grasp the truth that ‘the king is to us as a father; he loves us even as he loves himself; we are to the king even as his children’”. Asoka goes further, and wants his agents to feel a similar personal relationship towards their people. Pillar Edict IV says:

“As a man would make over his child to a skilful nurse and, feeling confident, says to himself, ‘the skilful nurse is eager to care for the child’, even so my Governors have been created for the welfare and happiness of the country”.

Rock Edict VI says:

“A long period has elapsed during which in the past administrative business or information was not attended to at all hours. So by me the arrangement has been made that at all times, when I am eating, or in the harem, or in the bedroom, or in my ranches, or even in the place of religious instruction, or in my pleasure-grounds, everywhere the reporting officials should make known to me the people’s affairs. In all places I shall attend to public business.”

What untiring energy Asoka must have possessed! What emphasis on a king’s obligations to his people! What a conception of imperial responsibilities and duties, and an ideal of public service!

Hear, further, what he declares in the same edict:

“I never feel satisfaction in my exertions and dispatch of business. For work I must for the welfare of all the folk; and of that, again, the root is energy and the dispatch of business; for nothing is more essential than the welfare of all the folk.”

The religious teaching of Brahmanism insisted on the discharge of three debts owed by man; to religion; to learning; and to the ancestors (by perpetuating the race). Asoka added a fourth:

“And whatsoever efforts I make, they are made that I may obtain release from my debt to my fellow human beings.” (R.E. IV.)

To his Governors, when neglectful of duty or indifferent to his injunctions, he addresses a vigorous and dignified protest:

“With certain natural dispositions success (in administration) is impossible, to wit, envy, lack of sustained efforts, harshness, haste, want of application, indolence and lassitude. You must desire that such dispositions be not yours. At the root of the whole matter lie steadiness, and patience. He who is tired in administration will not rise up; but one must needs move, advance, go on. There will be special officers to remind you of your obligations to the king and of his instructions. Fulfilment of these bears great fruit, non-fulfilment brings great calamity. By those who fail, neither heaven nor royal favour can be won. By fulfilling my instructions, you will gain heaven and also pay your debt to me.” (K.E. I.)

He sums up the policy of his empire in a single sentence in the Thirteenth Rock Edict:

“The supreme conquest, in His Majesty’s opinion, is the conquest of the Law of Righteous Living.”

Asoka believes in, preaches, and fulfils in practice the ideal of Right served by Might. To the limits of his vast empire, and beyond to Egypt and Greece, went the king’s message of freedom, of peace on earth and good will to man. The war drum was silenced; instead, the clarion call to a nobler life was heard by all. For five and twenty years India enjoyed a brotherhood of nations, a golden age of peace and freedom.

And for the personal comfort and cheer and health of the people, and also as a free gift for neighbouring states outside the empire, the Second Rock Edict says:

“Everywhere within the dominion of His Majesty the King, likewise among the frontier peoples such as the Cholas, Pandyas, the Satiyaputras, the Keralaputras, what is known as Tamraparni, the Greek king Antiochos — everywhere have been instituted by His Gracious Majesty two kinds of medical treatment, medical treatment of man and medical treatment of beast. Medicinal herbs also, those wholesome for man and wholesome for beast, have been caused to be imported and to be planted everywhere wherever they did not exist. On the roads, wells also have been caused to be dug and trees caused to be planted for the enjoyment of man and beast.”

Asoka well understood that the greatness of an empire as well as his people’s happiness rested upon the basis of individual character, and that the root of character was moral development. The royal devotee and member of the Buddha’s great order of monks preached morality and the rules of practical religion with a zeal and piety singularly free from bigotry and sanctimoniousness. Simplicity, toleration, universal applicability, sound psychology, common sense and the clean flame of truth characterise his moral precepts for his peoples.

Says the Third Rock Edict:

“Commendable is the service of father and mother; commendable is liberality to friends, acquaintances, relatives, Brahmans and Sramanas; commendable is abstention from the slaughter of living creatures, commendable also is it not to spend or hoard too much”. And the Fourth Rock Edict: “This is the highest work, viz., preaching of the Law of Righteous Living”. And the Fifth: “The good deed is difficult of performance. He who is the first performer of a good deed achieves something difficult of performance … Sin must be trodden down.”

Here is the Tenth Rock Edict:

“His Gracious Majesty the King does not regard glory or fame as bringing much gain, except that whatever fame or glory he desires it would be only for this, that the people might in the present and in the future practise obedience to the Law and conform to the observances of the Law. And what little His Majesty exerts himself is in order that all may be free from bondage. And this is bondage, viz., sin. This is indeed difficult of achievement by the lowly or high in rank, except by strenuous preliminary effort, renouncing all. But among these two, it is the more difficult of achievement by the person of superior rank.”

The whole of the Twelfth Edict, too long to quote here, preaches complete religious toleration. And it must be remembered that for twenty-five centuries Brahmanism, Buddhism, and Jainism, with their various sects, and a multitude of philosophies, flourished side by side.

Of the Seven Pillar Edicts here is an extract from the First:

“Both this world and the next are difficult of fulfilment except by utmost love of the Law of Righteous Living, utmost self-examination, utmost obedience, utmost dread (of sin) and utmost enthusiasm.”

And the second:

“Good is the Law. It includes freedom from self-indulgence, abundance of good deeds, kindness, liberality, truthfulness and purity.”

It is the Thirteenth Rock Edict, quoted in full in the beginning, which expresses the majesty of soul of this man Asoka more than any other of his inscriptions. We shall understand the secret of Asoka’s greatness if we take it in conjunction with the following extract from the First Minor Edict:

“For more than two years and a half that I had been a lay disciple, I had not exerted myself well. But a year-indeed for more than a year that I visited the Samgha, I exerted myself greatly.”

“I exerted myself greatly “says the king. Exerted himself in what? In following the teachings of the Enlightened One, Gautama Buddha.

It was the life and teaching of the Buddha which inspired Asoka the Great to become Asoka the Righteous. In that crucial period of more than a year, during his physical and intellectual maturity, he exerted himself greatly. The king of the mightiest empire of his day was likely to choose his words carefully. He uses the word “greatly”. We can imagine with what seriousness and assiduity he must have striven. And we must applaud the common sense with which he dealt with the masses. The masses need a king, and a queen. Never was Asoka without a queen, the indispensable complement to the king. The masses could not rise to the heights of Nirvana; yet they need some transcendental symbol to draw the best out of them. So Asoka instituted religious processions which gladdened the people’s hearts and made them feel nearer the gods. The masses could never go through strenuous physical, mental and spiritual training and development, as the wholehearted devotee did. So Asoka exhorted them ceaselessly both by precept and by his own superb example to live up to their highest vision as far as they possibly could. And the basis for this was a simple morality, rooted in sheer common sense and sound psychology.

Asoka did not place the ascetic ideal before the masses. Love of family and home was his basis for them for righteous living. Asoka well understood that man is broad-based on the animal; and so hunger and sex should have normal fulfilment in order that his people may be healthy and sociable, and not frustrated and anti-social. But he also understood that true worldly happiness lay only in such fulfilment of the organic urges as was tempered, purified and exalted by moral discipline and spiritual idealism.

And the people prospered in the reign of good King Asoka, and were happy, and knew peace for a whole generation as rarely before, if ever. Asoka knew that the peaceful reign of Right could endure only if served by Might-physical and moral Might. And some forty-two years after his accession, the mightiest, the noblest, and maybe the most lovable monarch of India, the foremost peacemaker of the world, passed to his eternal rest.

Within fifty years of the death of the Beloved of the Gods India was once more a jangle of warring nations. For alas! it is not permitted to one individual to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth for all time, unless all others freely co-operate. Since such individuals were wanting, India again experienced sorrow. But that is of the essence of man’s being — he can choose heaven or hell. In the later Mauryan age, as in all ages, as in our own times, man betrays the highest in him.

Asoka died. But the memory of, his unparalleled example lived in the hearts of men. His name was ever on their lips from generation to generation, and the Buddhist records perpetuated some of his achievement. From the Volga to the Pacific Coast, from the steppes of Central Asia to the southernmost edge of the great Indian peninsula, and Ceylon, he was held in reverence. But when fifteen centuries had passed and the Mussulman conqueror reigned in India, Buddhism was exiled from the land of its birth, and the memory of Asoka had sunk into oblivion*. And then, you from these British islands, our youngest and in some ways our best-beloved cousins, from the remote west of Jambudvipa, the Old World, came in your youthful strength and overwhelmed us in the clash of battle. Yet, how lovely is the drama of destiny! “The power that moves all things to good” decreed that your Warren Hastings, your William Jones and Colebrook, your Cunningham and John Marshall, your sons whose greatness lay in careful, painstaking scholarship, should restore to us our beloved, immortal Asoka and his beautiful deeds.

So, the King lives! He shines again like the central star of a great galaxy of kings!

* This was written in 1944.

R.E. = Rock Edict.
K.R.E. = Kalinga Rock Edict.
P.E. = Pillar Edict.


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