Asoka: People's King.
The human tendency to abuse power rather than to rule wisely has been discussed by many thinkers. None has zeroed in on this vital issue as deeply as Plato in his work, Republic, where he rejects even democracy as a viable form of government. We have no dispute with Plato in this regard, judging from many present-day democracies. It was Plato's conviction that the person best suited to rule is a philosopher. Plato's philosopher is not a deep thinker of metaphysics but one who is in possession of wisdom -- a man cultivated in the practice of truthfulness in thought, word, and deed.
Is Plato's philosopher ruler a utopian concept confined to the pages of his Republic only? Not really. There emerge the names of two kings -- Janaka and Yudishthira -- as characters of two popular epics of India, who were idolized as being perfect rulers of the ancient past. But they seem less like real people than like characters of a play. Moreover, we have no way to assess how well they ruled.
That is not the case with Asoka the Great, the Indian monarch of the third century B.C., who is portrayed as a perfect representation of the Platonic ideal of a philosopher king. In the words of Dr. H.C. Raychaudhuri, "Asoka is one of the most remarkable personalities in the history of India. He was tireless in his exertions, and unflagging in his zeal -- all directed to the promotion of the spiritual and moral welfare of his people whom he called his children."
Listen to Asoka himself in one of his edicts: "I consider the promotion of the people's welfare my highest duty...No task is more important to me than promoting the well-being of all the people."
Asoka speaks to us, as he spoke almost 2300 years ago to the people of his far-flung empire, through what has come to be known as The Edicts of Asoka. These edicts -- distributed throughout the empire -- are Asoka's inscriptions concerning crucial matters of his time; they are found on rocks, pillars, and caves, many of which still survive. Together they form an enduring autobiography that brings to light a clear picture of Asoka's long reign (36 years), along with his character, philosophy, and activities.
Based on these edicts, there is hardly one in the long line of rulers in the history of the world to match Asoka's benevolence, compassion, truthfulness, dedication and, above all, his intense devotion to the well-being of his subjects. No other ruler, besides Asoka, is known to have loved his subjects as his own children. The Kalinga edict reads: "All men are my children. Just as I seek the welfare and happiness of my own children in this world and the next, I seek the same things for all men."
We might expect Asoka's benevolence to be limited to the borders of his empire, but, in fact, Asoka's benevolence knew no bounds. A different passage of the same edict reads: "Unconquered peoples along the borders of my dominions may wonder what my disposition is toward them. My only wish with respect to them is that they should not fear me, but trust me; that they should expect only happiness from me, not misery...."
What transformed Asoka into the towering personality of Asoka the Great was his one and only military campaign against his neighboring country of Kalinga (modern Orissa) in which as many as 300,000 people are said to have perished. The unspeakable horror and devastation of the Kalinga war moved Asoka's heart beyond measure. Asoka renounced conquest by arms for conquest by Dharma.
He vowed to spend the rest of his life in selfless service of humanity, and he reversed his administrative policies. Rather than a military monarch eliciting fear, he was seen more as a monk spreading the message of peace and goodwill.
Asoka took refuge in the teachings of Buddha by embracing Buddhism as his personal faith. As a preparation he undertook a deep study of the Buddhist scriptures. Asoka became intensely fascinated with the doctrine of Dharma, which is fundamental to both Buddhism and Hinduism. For Asoka, Dharma -- loosely translated as the laws of morality and piety -- is the essence of all religions. Dharma is a code of conduct governing just and righteous living in harmony with all entities -- living and non-living.
Thus convinced of the universality as well as the expediency of Dharma in the context of his newly-conceived mission, Asoka introduced a system of administration that was strictly based on the principles of Dharma. Dharma became the bedrock of Asoka's personal life, the life of the people in the palace, his official community, and the people at large. Naturally, he was bent upon advancing the practice of Dharma among all people, regardless of their religious affiliations.
Asoka set out with religious zeal to instruct his people in Dharma. He accomplished the task through a series of edicts inscribed on rocks and pillars all over the empire. For Asoka, Dharma and human welfare were closely connected. It is written on one of his pillar edicts, "These are my rules: to govern according to Dharma, to administer justice according to Dharma, to advance the people's happiness according to Dharma, and to protect them according to Dharma."
For the effective dissemination of Dharma, Asoka created a special branch of officials charged with the function of spreading Dharma as well as the supervision of its working. He had his officers take periodic tours for the inculcation of Dharma. Asoka also considered it one of his prime duties to visit his people personally. He abandoned his customary royal pleasure tours for moral tours, on which he visited priests, ascetics, and the aged.
Asoka was meticulous in making Dharma concrete in the domain of human relations, which is obvious in several of his edicts. These included respect for parents, teachers, elders, holy men, relatives, servants, poor and the less fortunate, and neighbors. "One should speak the truth," Asoka insisted. He abolished the slaughter of animals, and he appealed to the people to hold compassion towards all living beings. Asoka changed the justice system to prevent unjust imprisonment and torture and created an appeal process before sentencing.
Embarking on a massive welfare enterprise, Asoka introduced numerous measures: digging wells, planting shade trees, building hospitals and water sheds for men and animals, building roads, rest houses, public gardens, and gardens for growing medicinal herbs.
Asoka's greatest strength can be squarely rooted in a single event: his reflection on the consequences of the Kalinga war and the resulting change of his psyche -- renouncing war for Dharma. This change of heart assumes even more significance because it followed victory. The most distinguishing mark of Asoka's career was that he corrected his error -- the bloody war of Kalinga -- by correcting himself in deep remorse and offering his remaining life on the altar of humanity. Asoka remained in power not out of selfish motives but with the sole intent of realizing his mission through the instrumentality of his position.
Asoka had learned that real power does not lie in domination of men but in transformation of their psyche. It was the total transformation of man that Asoka aimed at by means of the application of Dharma. Being steadfast himself in Dharma, Asoka gave up the life of luxury. He was no longer charmed by fame or glory. He encouraged others to do the same. He practiced what he preached, which elevated him to "The Beloved of the Gods."
Asoka never imposed his personal faith on others. One of his rock edicts highlighted the theme of religious tolerance in these words: "The faiths of others all deserve to be honored for one reason or another. By honoring them, one exalts one's own faith and at the same time performs a service to the faith of others."
Upon close examination of his edicts, one comes to the conclusion that Asoka introduced a perfect regime that could have been the envy of even Plato. Despite the fact that we don't have other historical evidence in favour of our claim, there is also no reason to imagine otherwise. The edicts are loud and clear and speak for themselves.
The message of the edicts, as well as the manner of its execution by Asoka, is more relevant today than it was 2300 years ago; because the problems facing humanity are again fundamentally ethical. Commenting on the appalling decline of ethical values among juveniles and also the urgency for their inculcation, Dr. Jacob Kani writes in his editorial: "Acquiring knowledge alone will not make a complete human being. It should be accompanied by acquisition of moral and ethical values...The real solution lies in imparting moral education and inculcating ethical values from childhood." A sharp observation of truth for the modern world.
Asoka was ahead of his time in realizing this fundamental truth, which he also insists through several edicts that his descendents pursue forever. Asoka is indeed the kind of ruler that Plato idealized as his philosopher king. It is a fitting tribute to the memory of Asoka that India adopted the capital of an Asokan column as its national emblem.
Let me conclude with yet another memorable tribute by H.G.Wells: "Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousness and serenities and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Asoka shines, and shines almost alone, a star."
Published by HT Syndication with permission from Indian Currents.
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