Ashoka the Great

Leadership and Humility combined

Before St Paul and his life-changing experience on the road to Damascus, there was the great Ashoka, emperor of the Indian Mauryan Empire and his sudden conversion to Buddhism.

H.G. Wells wrote of Ashoka in his book The Outline of History:

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 Ashoka shines, and shines, almost alone, a star

The story starts at about 300 BC. Alexander the Great had retreated from India and left a power vacuum into which stepped Chandragupta, the first emperor of the Indian Mauryan Empire and Ashoka’s grandfather. Chandragupta became the undisputed ruler of northern India and, for the first time in Indian history, gave the area a degree of political unity.

The empire stretched from Afghanistan to the north, to Bangladesh in the east and covered nearly all of modern day India.

In or about 268 BC, Ashoka succeeded his father Bindusara as the third emperor of the Indian Mauryan Empire.

In 263 BC, Ashoka waged a particularly savage and destructive war in east India that resulted in 100,000 deaths and 150,000 deportations. Reflecting on the loss of life, Ashoka was overcome and converted to Buddhism. From that moment on, Ashoka renounced violence and preached peace and harmony both at home and abroad.

Of course, this is another story from Neil MacGregor’s wonderful book “A History of the World in 100 Objects”. The object pictured above was prepared by Ashoka’s court. It is the top of a pillar, one of many made and distributed throughout Ashoka’s empire that carried messages for all to read or have read to them. Some of Ashoka’s pillars were adorned with lions. It’s not unlike a modern day billboard advertising the emperor’s message. This pillar read:

I consider how I may bring happiness to the people, not only to relatives of mine or residents of my capital city, but also to those who are far removed from me. I act in the same manner with respect to all. I am concerned similarly with all classes. Moreover, I have honoured all religious sects with various offerings. But I consider it my principal duty to visit the people personally.

These edicts were written, not in Sanskrit, but in the local dialect. As a leader, Ashoka embraced Dharma. This path guides the follower through a life of selflessness, piety, duty, good conduct and decency. Dharma is applied in many religions, including Sikhism, Jainism and of course Hinduism –but Ashoka’s idea of Dharma was filtered through the Buddhist faith.

Ashoka’s empire was characterised by religious freedom, conquest of self, the need for all citizens and leaders to listen to others and to debate ideas, human rights for all, both men and women, and an importance given to education and health, all ideas that remain central in Buddhist thinking.

There’s still today a kingdom in the Indian sub-continent that is run on Buddhist principles –the small Kingdom of Bhutan, sandwiched between northern India and China.

Listen to this.

Throughout my reign I will never rule you as a king. I will protect you as a parent, care for you as a brother and serve you as a son.

That could well have been written by the emperor Ashoka but it was an excerpt from the coronation speech, in 2008, of the 27-year-old fifth king of Bhutan. His father, the fourth king, lived and continues to live in a small log cabin. There is no ostentation to the monarchy. He is probably the only example of an absolute monarch who has voluntarily persuaded his people to take away his powers and has instituted elective democracy. The fourth king also introduced the phrase ‘gross national happiness’ –to be a contrast to the concept of ‘gross national product’. The fifth king has very much followed the Buddhist precepts of monarchy.

Gandhi was an admirer of Ashoka as was Nehru, and Ashoka’s message even finds its way on to the modern currency –on all Indian banknotes we see Gandhi facing the four lions of Ashoka’s pillar.