I came across a good note- ‘Rediscovering Emperor Ashoka’ on the website of ‘Times of India’. You get nearer to your country and its history when you are in foreign land. I don’t know about others but it certainly happens with me. And the article can have heading as one I gave it by replacing ‘Emperor Ashoka’ by ‘India’. And with some tidbits about the heroes of Ashoka’s state (Bihar) appearing here and there in the digital media, the note became more relevant to me. I did my own research. And here is what Amartya Sen has written on Ashoka:
Is it indeed true (as claimed, for example, by Samuel Huntington) that “the West was the West long before it was modern”? The evidence for such claims is far from clear. When civilizations are categorized today, individual liberty is often used as a classificatory device and is seen as a part of the ancient heritage of the Western world, not to be found elsewhere. It is, of course, easy to find the advocacy of particular aspects of individual liberty in Western classical writings. For example, freedom and tolerance both get support from Aristotle (even though only for free men-not women and slaves). However, we can find championing of tolerance and freedom in non-Western authors as well. A good example is the emperor Ashoka in India, who during the third century BC covered the country with inscriptions on stone tablets about good behavior and wise governance, including a demand for basic freedoms for all-indeed he did not exclude women and slaves as Aristotle did; he even insisted that these rights must be enjoyed also by “the forest people” living in pre-agricultural communities distant from Indian cities. Ashoka’s championing of tolerance and freedom may not be at all well known in the contemporary world, but that is not dissimilar to the global unfamiliarity with calendars other than the Gregorian.
There are, to be sure, other Indian classical authors who emphasized discipline and order rather than tolerance and liberty, for example Kautilya in the fourth century BC (in his book Arthashastra-translatable as “Economics”). But Western classical writers such as Plato and Saint Augustine also gave priority to social disciplines. In view of the diversity within each country, it may be sensible, when it comes to liberty and tolerance, to classify Aristotle and Ashoka on one side, and, on the other, Plato, Augustine, and Kautilya.
Unfortunately, Indians, in general, particularly those with English education, start believing something worthwhile achievements of the ancient India only when someone from the western country write about it. Bruce Rich is an environmentalist and left-leaning critic of globalization and is not a historian by profession. He has a book ‘To Uphold The World’: A Call for a New Global Ethic from Ancient India’, which is all about Ashoka. Here is what Rich wants to convey.
Ashoka provides a unique example of a world ruler who tried to put into practice a state, secular ethic of nonviolence and reverence for life, which he also extended to international relations. His edicts, inscribed on rock faces and pillars all over India in the third century BC, declare even today for all to see religious tolerance and equal protection of the laws, and announce the establishment of nature reserves and protected species. His empire at the time was arguably the world’s largest, richest, and most powerful multiethnic state. Its trade and diplomatic links extended over most of what was then the developed world. If we take into account the slowness of land and sea travel 2,300 years ago, administering such a vast area was the equivalent to ruling the entire globe today.
Ashoka’s great ethical leap rested on the most paradoxical of foundations, a centralized government in all likelihood organized and codified by Kautilya, chief minister of Ashoka’s grandfather Chandragupta Maurya. One of history’s greatest political geniuses, Kautilya
wrote the world’s first treatise on political economy, the Arthasastra. The Arthasastra proclaims accumulation of material riches as the chief underpinning of human society, and recommends amoral realpolitik as an effective political approach.
Ashoka is a unique and revolutionary figure in history who not only renounced armed force, but also, in the words of Arnold Toynbee, made “a complete break with his dynasty’s and with every dynasty’s traditional policy.” But Ashoka did not abolish Kautilya’s administrative system; he tried to infuse it with a transcendent ethos of respect for life that encompassed every aspect of everyday activity and was strong enough to hold together one of history’s first multiethnic empires.
Why couldn’t India produce someone like Ashoka and Chanakya for thousands of years? Why should not the present political leaders take some lessons from that era? I wish they get some time to read these books or my blog entry. I have only one question for Nitish, Lalu and Ram Bilash: Did Ashoka or Chanakya talk or think anytime about getting the society divided among caste or communities to win the power? Did not Ashoka give equal weightage for the learned ones of all communities?
Let the winner be the one who develops the state and thereby contributes to the development of the nation.
Let the voters choose the right one who works for a place in the history that will be written tomorrow.
PS: And I am on it. Anand has bought the book of Bruce Rich as e-book on my laptop. ‘To Uphold The World: A Call for a New Global Ethic from Ancient India, starts with Amartya Sen’s introduction. I affirm my advice for readingthe book.