How an Ancient Indian Emperor Created an Infrastructure of Goodness

July 12, 2020

Being good is hard. How an ancient Indian emperor, horrified by the cruelty of war, created an infrastructure of goodness

In the Khyber valley of Northern Pakistan, three large boulders sit atop a hill commanding a beautiful prospect of the city of Mansehra. A low brick wall surrounds these boulders; a simple roof, mounted on four brick pillars, protects the rock faces from wind and rain. This structure preserves for posterity the words inscribed there: ‘Doing good is hard – Even beginning to do good is hard.’

The words are those of Ashoka Maurya, an Indian emperor who, from 268 to 234 BCE, ruled one of the largest and most cosmopolitan empires in South Asia. These words come from the opening lines of the fifth of 14 of Ashoka’s so-called ‘major rock edicts’, a remarkable anthology of texts, circa 257 BCE, in which Ashoka announced a visionary ethical project. Though the rock faces have eroded in Mansehra and the inscriptions there are now almost illegible,

Ashoka’s message can be found on rock across the Indian subcontinent – all along the frontiers of his empire, from Pakistan to South India.

The message was no more restricted to a particular language than it was to a single place. Anthologised and inscribed across his vast empire onto freestanding boulders, dressed stone slabs and, beginning in 243 BCE, on monumental stone pillars, Ashoka’s ethical message was refined and rendered in a number of Indian vernaculars, as well as Greek and Aramaic. It was a vision intended to inspire people of different religions, from different regions, and across generations.

‘This Inscription on Ethics has been written in stone so that it might endure long and that my descendants might act in conformity with it,’ Ashoka says at the end of the fifth edict. In the fourth, he speaks of his ethical project progressing ‘until the end of the world’, though one year later in the next edict he offers a sobering qualification; the project can succeed only as long as it is taken up and continued – ‘if my sons, grandsons and, after those, my posterity follow my example until the end of the world’.

As it turns out, Ashoka’s influence did outlast the shortlived Mauryan empire. Along with Siddhattha Gotama, the Buddha, whose religion Ashoka did much to establish as a global phenomenon, Ashoka was one of the first pan-Asian influences. King Devanampiya Tissa of Sri Lanka (c247-207 BCE) wanted to emulate him, as did Emperor Wu of China (502-549 CE); Empress Wu Zetian (623/625-705 CE) even wanted to outdo him.

And on 22 July 1947, days before India achieved formal independence from Great Britain, Jawaharlal Nehru, soon to be the country’s first prime minister, proposed to the Constituent Assembly of India that the independent nation adopt an Ashokan emblem – the wheel of a chariot – for its new flag.

In doing so, Nehru proposed to replace the iconic cotton-spinning wheel associated with Mahatma Gandhi. The spinning wheel had graced the flag under which the Indian National Congress fought for freedom. And as it rolled through Indian history, the wheel had picked up many symbolic meanings. Gandhi’s spinning wheel, for example, could be read as a symbol of self-reliance, economic self-sufficiency, truth and self-assertion freed from violence. It was also a symbol of solidarity with the common man, as the farmers’ leader Panjabrao Deshmukh reminded the Constituent Assembly.

Designed as the crowning ornament for a pillar rising anywhere between 40 to 50 feet above the ground, Ashoka’s wheel, no less symbolic of truth, was nevertheless a symbol conceived on a grander scale.

At issue in Nehru’s choice of a symbolic alignment of modern India with the trappings of Ashoka’s empire was the identity and the purpose of the state. The wheel of a chariot might stand for the concept of political power as dominion or for the power and influence of truth, as invoked in Buddhist symbolism of the Buddha’s first sermon which set into motion the metaphorical wheel of true doctrine.

The Buddha renounced political power as inconsistent with the virtues he sought. Ashoka, as Nehru saw, did not. Ashoka’s wheel stood for an empire dedicated to peace.

Nehru urged the members of the Constituent Assembly to remember Ashoka’s empire as India’s ‘international period’: a time when the country took on a cosmopolitan role on the world stage, influencing her neighbours through culture and not war. Ashoka puts it memorably when he says, in the fourth edict, that with his reign ‘the sound of the drums of war has been replaced by the sound of Ethics’.

This, along with the following from the 13th edict, captures the tenor of Ashoka’s ethical experiments best: ‘Victory through Morality is the best Victory.’ The conquest that mattered to Ashoka is self-conquest; power, expressed as control over one’s self-regarding attitudes and emotions, is now to be channelled into moral concern for others.

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