In Our Time: Ashoka

Ashoka was the ruler of a vast empire in the 4th Century BC which included nearly all of India. He is known today from both archaeological evidence (a series of pillars & rocks inscribed with his edicts) and textual evidence (later Buddhist histories). The three experts who discussed him on In Our Time were Jessica Frazier (University of Kent and the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies), Naomi Appleton (University of Edinburgh) and Richard Gombrich (Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies and University of Oxford).

Shortly before Ashoka’s time northern India in the Ganges valley was populated by a set of smallish but relatively sophisticated states. The experts made a comparison with pre-Socratic Greece or with the state of affairs in China at the time. The dynasty of which Ashoka is the third ruler changed this – they started to conquer the other nearby states and Ashoka himself greatly expanded the empire.

Not much is known for sure about Ashoka’s life. Both sorts of available evidence have obvious flaws & biases. The Buddhist histories are written significantly after Ashoka’s death, and follow a clear conversion narrative – so the early years are portrayed as Very Bad so that he can then convert and live the rest of his life as a Very Good Buddhist. Both bits of that narrative are obviously suspect and were likely exaggerated for effect. Gombrich was particularly keen to dismiss any evidence arising from this (he came across as somewhat of an Ashoka fanboy to be honest). Frazier and Appleton were more open to using these texts whilst being aware of their pitfalls as sources. The other evidence is the pillars and rocks with his edicts carved on them, and Gombrich was very keen to hold these up as Ashoka’s own words which were therefore innately trustworthy – I thought it more likely they were also biased as they were intended at the time as a propaganda tool.

His early life was probably quite violent – it seems that although he was of the ruling dynasty he wasn’t the designated heir, and he may have committed murder in order to take the throne. He then embarks on a series of military campaigns to consolidate the empire he has “inherited” and to expand it. By the time this phase of his career finishes he rules from Afghanistan to nearly the southern tip of India, an incredibly vast empire. And then he has some sort of epiphany, a road to Damascus moment. The edicts say that this was a response to the slaughter at one of his last battles at Kalinga where many many civilians were killed. The Buddhist histories say that he met a Buddhist monk and this monk taught him a better way to live. Regardless of what it was (the cynic in me wonders if he’d just run out of expansion room), after this he stopped fighting wars and concentrated on ruling his empire both peacefully and justly.

Having become a Buddhist and renounced violence he ruled for another 40 years. The edicts set out a moral code and say how Ashoka is going to rule. The very fact of their existence is testimony to one of the things that Ashoka did for India – he introduced writing to the region. This means that although these were set up throughout his empire the ordinary people and even the higher status people wouldn’t be able to read them. So there were also literate officials posted to the same place so that they could read them out and explain them to people. They set out the ways that people should behave, based in large part on Buddhist ethics & morality (although he didn’t follow any of the contemporary Buddhist texts exactly). There was an emphasis on the welfare of the people, and they promoted the idea that everyone should do good deeds now in order to benefit themselves in both this world and the next. Interestingly although he preached respect for all religions the edicts were also fairly anti-Brahmin (the forerunners of Hinduism) and against the caste system.

In the wrapping up stage of the programme the three experts discussed whether the edicts were a sincere representation of Ashoka’s plans, beliefs etc or whether they were a cynical piece of propaganda. All three thought it was sincere, but pointed out that this is a very modern Western way of framing the discussion. We tend to set those two things as a pair of opposed opposites, sincere vs. pragmatic, but at the time there would be no paradox in both sincerely believing in Buddhist ethics and also erecting the edicts as a pragmatic political act.

They finished by discussing Ashoka’s legacy. He was instrumental in making Buddhism a worldwide religion, spreading it outside its Indian birthplace throughout his empire and beyond. And in places like Sri Lanka he is remembered for this, and for bringing writing to these areas. However in India his legacy is slight, and is primarily through being rediscovered in the modern era when the edicts were translated. Gombrich discussed how as Hinduism rose to prominence in India Ashoka’s reign and empire were minimised & forgotten in histories of the country – due to his being Buddhist and to his anti-Brahmin, anti-caste stance. His legacy is most clearly seen as being the source of the ideas against which Hindu ideas about kingship and society were reacting.