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.

In Our Time: Hindu Ideas of Creation

In the In Our Time episode that we listened to on Sunday Jessica Frazier (University of Kent and University of Oxford), Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad (Lancaster University) and Gavin Flood (University of Oxford) discussed the ideas about the creation of the universe that are present in the Hindu religion. One thing that they brought up fairly early in the programme is that there isn’t An Answer that everyone must believe. In the earlier texts that survive there’s a pervading sense that this is a mystery and the writers are speculating about the possible answers. Frazier quoted a hymn that asks the question what was before the creation happened, which says that maybe the god in the highest heaven knows, but maybe he does not.

In the Hindu stories about creation the world/universe is not created ex nihilo, nor is it necessarily a one off event. Flood talked about the ideas about recurrence – which include metaphors like the cycle is god breathing out (emanating the universe) and in, or god waking and sleeping. There are two sorts of stories – in one sort the divine emmanates the world from it’s own divine self, and in another sort the world is created from an egg of the stuff that was there previously. These can be quite complex – for instance one has the divine being producing from himself another being with whom he has children. These children then go on to create the world from themselves – this reminded me of Egyptian cosmology, and they also talked in the programme about similarities with the Gnostic tradition of the demiurge who is created by the divine being then creates the material world. The other sort of story with the creation from pre-existing material gives rise an idea of the divine as craftsman or architect.

These early texts are generally not much concerned with how the world is made or created – there are these stories but much more space is devoted to how society is and should be organised, and rituals and so on. As I said in the first paragraph they told us that the mystery of it was part of the point for the early thinkers. But one thing these stories were useful for in the context of the rest of the texts was setting out that the nature and hierarchies of society were divinely ordained in the original creation. For instance one of the stories has the different castes being made from different parts of the divine being’s body – like the warriors from his strong arms, and so on. So the castes of society are all the necessary parts of the body of society.

I think they said these early texts were from around 3000 years ago, and obviously over time the Hindu thinking about creation has changed. Around 2000 years ago they said that Hindu scholars began to approach the idea from a more philosophical direction. Rather than being happy with a central mystery and speculation they began to think about how it might’ve worked and why the divine would create the world anyway. I think this is where one of the experts told us that one of the ideas for why the divine created the world is that it was to incarnate in the world and enjoy all the pleasures it had to offer. Which is an interesting counterpoint to Christianity where the incarnation of God as Jesus is fundamentally about the suffering of the world.

Later yet, around 1000 years ago, the stories about creation began to take on a more theological cast – the stories began to be about named gods, and more specific in detail. This is where Brahman, Vishnu and Shiva come in as the actors in the creation stories. However there is still (and still remains) no sense that there is One True Answer to how the world was created. Ram-Prasad told us that different families have different traditions for which gods and stories they give prominence to. There is also no sense that the stories are literal truth, so there’s not any conflict between Hindu religious belief and modern physics – the creation stories were always metaphors and speculation.

One other thing Bragg brought up (but Flood shot down quite quickly) was that some of these metaphorical stories can be perceived as matching up quite well with modern scientific ideas about the beginning of the universe. But as Flood said, it’s important not to get carried away with oneself about a coincidence.

(I found this rather hard to write up for some reason, hopefully I haven’t mangled it too much in trying to make it coherent!)

In Our Time: The Upanishads

The Upanishads are some of the sacred texts of Hinduism, originally transmitted orally from father to son in the priest families they were written down in the 6th Century AD. They consist of a series of dialogues about the nature of the universe and the nature of knowledge. And I’d not even heard of them before listening to the In Our Time episode about them. The experts on the programme were Jessica Frazier (University of Kent and University of Oxford), Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad (Lancaster University) and Simon Brodbeck (University of Cardiff).

They started by putting the texts in context – the oral versions date from about 700BC and are the last part of the Vedas, which are the rituals performed by Hindu priests. The Vedas are part of the ancient concept of religion as control of the world – these rituals are spoken in the right way at the right time, with the right ceremonies, and then the gods and world will become ordered in the way you desire. The Upanishads were developed during a time when the tribal societies of the Indian subcontinent were starting to coalesce into kingdoms, with larger urban centres, and are concerned with the meanings and knowledge behind the rituals. They’re presented mostly as a series of dialogues between pupil and teacher (with the roles of teacher & pupil being taken by various different people – sometimes father & son, sometimes husband & wife, sometimes King and sage (in either role)). I’m not quite clear on why they started to be written down, perhaps it was just a more general transition from oral to written culture? But even after they were first written down they were still for the priestly class, not for general consumption. Over time commentaries on them were written by religious leaders, and closer to modern times they were translated first into Persian and then into Western languages & became more widely known.

There was an interesting division between the experts. Brodbeck seemed to concentrate on how the texts were about knowledge and about how to transmit and to learn that knowledge. And the other two were more interested in what the texts had to say about the Hindu beliefs about the nature of the universe. Interestingly they were saying that the Hindus were not interested so much in “who created the world” like many other religions, but more in what came before there was a world and before there was a creator – this is the concept of Brahman (I think) which is the universal cosmic power & is described using many different analogies in the Upanishads. They also discussed the desire for immortality reflected in what the Upanishads said, and how this is different from the Western concepts of immortality. In our culture immortality is about the continuation of the personality – either living forever or dying and going to an eternal afterlife as yourself. But in the Hindu religion it can be about the immortality of one’s lineage – one’s children are one’s immortality, they carry on the line. Or it can be about the immortality of the Atman (which again is described with many analogies in the Upanishads but roughly translates as the self). And this isn’t your personality, if the Atman is reincarnated the new life isn’t related to the old one & doesn’t remember it or anything, even tho it’s the same immortal Atman. And a goal is to die finally and become part of the Brahman, in an immortal existence that has no more personality or suffering like there is in the world.