Photo by Eugen Hultzsch on Wikimedia Commons

A Shining Star of Kingship: Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd Century BCE

Patrick Olivelle

Few kings or emperors—or even people in power today—have been sufficiently self-aware and self-reflective to express regret or remorse for anything they may have done. When the king does it, it cannot be wrong, seems to have been the mantra. Ashoka, who ruled over much of the Indian subcontinent during the middle of the third century BCE, was a different sort of ruler. He acknowledged the common propensity: “One sees only what is good, thinking: ‘I have done this good thing.’ One does not see as well what is bad, thinking: ‘I have done this bad thing.’” Ashoka was also a person who had the inner strength to be able to say: “I am sorry.” The context of his apology was his conquest of the country of Kalinga in the northeast of India, a war that resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of people. Ashoka expressed remorse at the bloodshed and hoped that his sons and grandsons would renounce war. He became devoted to the ethical principle of non-injury, ahimsa.

Ashoka was also unique in being a philosopher king who developed his own moral philosophy. Based on his own interpretation of the term dharma, Ashoka promulgated a new moral code which could be adopted by all the subjects of his empire. He envisaged dharma as a moral glue that would unite the diverse population of his vast empire. Dharma-morality involved developing proper relationships to those who come into regular contact with someone. These included parents, elders, relatives, friends, religious professionals (Ashoka uses the shorthand sramana-brahmana), servants, slaves, and non-human animals. These relationships took the form of obedience, gift giving, proper regard, compassion, and non-injury (ahimsa). To spread his moral philosophy across his vast empire, Ashoka coopted his entire imperial bureaucracy. It was possibly the largest mass education program of ancient times.

Toward this end, Ashoka also began writing letters and edicts to his subjects and bureaucrats. He had some of them engraved on stones and pillars. Written in a script commonly called Brahmi, they constitute the oldest written documents from ancient India. All later Indian scripts, including those of modern India, are derived from this ancient Ashokan script. What Ashoka says in his writings is even more significant than the script in which it is written. In Rock Edict IV, for example, he reflects on the success of his dharma messaging, using his preferred name Piyadasi:

But now, due to the practice of dharma by the Beloved of Gods, King Piyadasi…the kinds of things that did not exist for many hundreds of years, today these same things have increased through the instruction in dharma provided by the Beloved of Gods, King Piyadasi.

He provided a succinct description of that instruction:

Not slaughtering living beings, not injuring creatures, proper regard towards relatives, proper regard towards Sramanas and Brahmins, obedience to mother and father, and obedience to the elderly.1

Ashoka lived in a religiously pluralistic world. His moral philosophy was thus conceived as a kind of religion that transcended other religions existing within his empire. You could, in other words, be a Buddhist and still subscribe to Ashoka’s dharma-centered moral religion.

Ashoka, however, was also interested in established religions, which he called Pasandas. He considered each Pasanda to be dedicated to dharma in its own particular way. Inter-Pasanda disputes and acrimony were commonplace, and Ashoka sought to eliminate or, at the very least, minimize these disputes. I have called this effort of harmony and cooperation among the Pasandas Ashoka’s ecumenical project. Avoiding conflicts and living in harmony were the minimum. Ashoka thought that the Pasandas should do more, much more. He asked them to hold meetings at which members of different Pasandas could gather to exchange ideas and to listen to each other. He thought that would be the only way each Pasanda could become learned. No single Pasanda would have a monopoly on truth, on dharma. Here is Ashoka in his own words:

…not paying homage to one’s own Pasanda and not denigrating the Pasandas of others when there is no occasion, and even when there is an occasion, doing so mildly. Homage, on the other hand, should indeed be paid to the Pasandas of others in one form or another. Acting in this manner, one certainly enhances one’s own Pasanda and also helps the Pasanda of the other. When someone acts in a way different from that, one hurts one’s own Pasanda and also harms the Pasanda of the other. For, should someone pay homage to his own Pasanda and denigrate the Pasanda of another wholly out of devotion to his own Pasanda, thinking, that is, ‘I’ll make my Pasanda illustrious’—by so doing he damages his own Pasanda even more certainly.2

H.G. Wells may have engaged in a bit of hyperbole, but there is much truth in his assessment of the uniqueness of Ashoka among the kings of the past:

Amidst the 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 Aśoka shines, and shines almost alone, a star.3

1. Emperor Ashoka. Rock Edict IV.

2. Emperor Ashoka. Rock Edict XII.

3. Wells, H.G. The Outline of History: Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind. Revised edition. London: Cassell, 1951, p. 402.

Patrick Olivelle is professor emeritus in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Texas. His recent publications include Yājñavalkya: A Treatise on Dharma and Hindu Law: A New History of Dharmaśāstra. He lives in Austin, TX.

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