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Thursday, September 24, 2009

'Neath the Bodhi Tree

Artwork by Joan Medina ©2007

An indisputably talented blogger/writer, Selma be her name, posted an entry about the International Day of Peace.

I rather adore Selma. She’s “good people” as I am often wont to say.

And as so often happens when I read her musings, I began pondercating. I took to thinking about peace...

My thoughts turned to Ashoka the Great (Asoka to some):

King Ashoka, the third monarch of the Indian Mauryan Dynasty, has come to be regarded as one of the most exemplary rulers in world history. The British historian, H.G. Wells, wrote this:

"Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history ... the name of Asoka shines, and shines almost alone, a star."

Although Buddhist literature preserved the legend of this ruler -- the story of a cruel and ruthless king who converted to Buddhism and thereafter established a reign of virtue -- definitive historical records of his reign were sorely lacking. Then, in the nineteenth century, there came to light a large number of edicts, in India, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan. These edicts, inscribed on rocks and pillars, proclaimed Ashoka's reforms and policies and offered his advice to his many subjects. These edicts offer us insights into a powerful and capable ruler's attempt to establish an empire on the foundation of righteousness, a reign that makes the moral and spiritual welfare of his subjects its primary concern.

Who was this Ashoka? Why is it that his name is lost in the fog of the past?

Glad you asked.

Ashoka was an Indian emperor of the Maurya Dynasty who ruled almost the entire Indian subcontinent from 269 BC to 232 BC. He came to reign over most of present-day India after a number of military conquests. The empire stretched from present-day Pakistan, Afghanistan in the west, to Bangladesh and the Indian state of Assam in the east, and as far south as northern Kerala and Andhra . Ashoka conquered the kingdom named Kalinga, and therein resides the heart of his unique story...the horror and the grace of his life’s story.

It’s a historical fact that Ashoka conquered the Kalinga. It’s a fact that more than 100,000 Kalinga were brutally slaughtered. As the legend goes, the day after the battle/rampage was over, Ashoka ventured out to roam the city and all he could see were the burnt houses and scattered corpses. This sight made him sick (literally) and he cried out in what remains a famous monologue:

What have I done? Is this a victory? What's a defeat then? Is this is a victory or a defeat? Is this justice or injustice? Is this gallantry or a rout? Is it valor to kill innocent children and women? Did I do it to widen the empire or for prosperity or to destroy the other's kingdom or splendor? Someone has lost her husband, someone a father, someone a child, someone an unborn infant...What's this debris of the corpses? Are these marks of victory or defeat? Are these vultures, crows, eagles the messengers of death or evil? What have I done!

What have I done!?!

And so, distraught Ashoka took to wandering to expiate his demons. He encountered the son of a pepper merchant and revealed his troubled mind. The man told him to sit beneath a bodhi tree, just as Buddha did, and reflect. And so he did.

Oh, yes, he surely did!

His empire came to be the only empire in world history devoted to non-violence and the propagation of the teachings of Buddha.

Ashoka's edicts are scattered in more than thirty places throughout India, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Most of them are written in Brahmi script from which all Indian scripts later developed. Ashoka's edicts have survived the centuries because they are forever engraved on rocks and stone pillars.

His edicts were written in his own words. Ashoka told his subjects that he looked upon them as his children, that their welfare was his main concern. He apologized for the Kalinga war and reassured the people beyond the borders of his empire that he had no expansionist intentions towards them. It was evident that Ashoka embraced Buddhism and that he hoped his subjects would, likewise, adopt his beliefs. It was also clear that Ashoka saw his reforms as a reflection of his duties as a Buddhist. But, even though he was an enthusiastic Buddhist, he was not intolerant. He decided that one of the duties of the State was to protect all religions, to promote and foster harmony between all. He encouraged everyone to practice his or her own religion with the same conviction that he practiced his.

Ashoka did not expound the truths of Buddhism, but informed the people of his reforms and encouraged them to be more generous, kind and moral. In his edicts, he spoke of morality. The morality Ashoka espoused was imbued with the Buddhist values of compassion, moderation, tolerance and respect for all life. He gave up the predatory foreign policy that had characterized the Mauryan empire and replaced it with a policy of peaceful co-existence. He reformed the judicial system to make it fair, less harsh, less open to abuse, and those sentenced to death were given a stay of execution. He opened the coffers of his treasury for public works such as the importation and cultivation of medical herbs, the building of rest houses, the digging of wells at regular intervals along the main roads, and the planting of fruit and shade trees. Ashoka sojourned frequently on inspection tours. He averred the State had a responsibility not just to protect and promote the welfare of its people but also its wildlife. Hunting of certain species of wild animals was banned, forest and wildlife reserves were established and cruelty to domestic and wild animals was prohibited. He established the first animal hospitals in recorded history.

The morality that Ashoka espoused and fostered included respect towards parents, elders, teachers, friends, servants, ascetics and brahmins. He encouraged generosity to the poor, to ascetics, and to friends and relatives. Treating people properly, he suggested, was much more important than performing ceremonies that were supposed to bring good luck. Because it helped promote tolerance and mutual respect, Ashoka desired that people should be well-learned. The qualities of heart that are recommended by Ashoka in the edicts indicate his deep spirituality. They include kindness, self-examination, truthfulness, gratitude, purity of heart, enthusiasm, loyalty, self-control and love.

Ashoka began massive public works to construct thousands of Buddhist buildings. He built stupas (mounds that house Buddhist relics) and he built viharas (Buddhist monasteries). He built roadhouses for travelers which were free of charge for all. He created edicts against sport hunting and promoted vegetarianism. He initiated the building of universities, irrigation systems, and hospitals.

And he signed peace treaties with many of the neighboring kingdoms even though (given India's resources), he could have conquered them outright.

Today, the Ashoka Chakra, the Wheel of Dharma, is featured on the national flag of India.

* * *

It doesn't matter much to me if one is an emperor or a simple soul.

Methinks it's good to spend some time beneath a bodhi tree.

* * *


Blogger Ponita in Real Life said...

Oh, would that Ashoka could be emperor of the planet now... his wisdom is so needed!

Although, I don't think I could do the vegetarian thing... nope, just couldn't. I am definitely an omnivore through and through.

I have a friend whose grandson is named Bodhi. How cool is that?!

Thu Sep 24, 11:29:00 PM  
Blogger Jonas said...

You made me smile, Ponita.

I, too, refer to myself as an unrepentant omnivore. Still...I revere the creatures that sacrifice their lives that I may live. I dare not forget them or take them for granted.

I refer to a close friend of mine as "Bodhi Grrl". She calls herself a "reluctant Bodhisattva".

Methinks we're both blessed.

Thu Sep 24, 11:45:00 PM  
Blogger Christella said...

Too bad we don't have Ashoka in the UN today. Well done post.

Is the Dharma initiative in the TV Show Lost based on the Wheel of Dharma?

Fri Sep 25, 01:00:00 AM  
Blogger Jonas said...

Yes, Christella, the planet could certainly use another Ashoka the Great, or another Cyrus the Great (don't get me started 'bout THAT amazing Persian King!)

I've never watched the series "Lost". Sorry.

Fri Sep 25, 01:28:00 AM  
Blogger secret agent woman said...

I knew about Ashoka, but not at that level of detail. I have a bodhi leaf in a frame in my room, given to me when I took the precepts. We could sure use more leaders who value the Buddha's teachings.

Fri Sep 25, 03:27:00 PM  
Blogger Selma said...

I have something new to wish for after reading this - a world devoted to non-violence. WOW.

To think that someone who lived so long ago was in many ways more enlightened than we are now makes our governments present attitudes to peace, justice and violence seem inexcusable.

If only Ashoka could return. We need him desperately. Thank you for writing this post, Jonas. It has inspired me a great deal!

Sat Sep 26, 04:44:00 AM  
Blogger Maria said...

You only get a handful of those a century. We could use one about now.

Sat Sep 26, 01:23:00 PM  
Blogger Cheesy said...

Lessons learned but not retained... the woe of humankind~

Sun Sep 27, 02:17:00 AM  
Blogger Jonas said...

I only learned of Ashoka's dynasty a short while ago, while watching the PBS series: The Story of India.

I struggle to break past my Judeo-Christian/Eurocentric education. Funny how we know so little about the entire depth and breadth of human experience through the Ages.

There is so much to learn. So much to admire...

Sun Sep 27, 10:42:00 AM  
Blogger Jay said...

We don't need a leader like that. We need more people like that.

And throwing off the "Judeo-Christian/Eurocentric education" is difficult. My dad was a pastor and I even went to a christian college for a bit. But it can be done.

I need to get a Bodhi leaf!

Sun Sep 27, 12:44:00 PM  
Blogger Jonas said...

Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame) offered a wonderful series on the "Barbarians' Lives" for the History Channel.

Watch it if you get the chance. It's an inimicable re-casting of conventional notions. So much of what we think is true, so much of what we've been taught reflects a singular point of view. The Truth, in truth, is far more complex and FAR more amazing.

I'm 58 and I'm still learning.

Sorry to be so disagreeable, Jay, but we truly DO NEED LEADERS who care about the citizenry.

Sun Sep 27, 07:30:00 PM  
Blogger Mary said...

Really interesting post, Jonas. I have to say I'm with Jay, though of course we need leaders like this. But leaders aren't ever going to take people where they don't want to go or aren't willing to go. As another great Indian leader said, you must be the change you want to see.

Tue Sep 29, 09:55:00 AM  
Blogger Jonas said...

There's no real disagreement. It's up to each of us to strive for righteousness. I had offered a short post about that, here

Sun Oct 04, 11:07:00 AM  
Blogger Phoenix SpringWater Creations said...

Hi Jonas, my name is Joan Medina and the image you have used is my copyrighted artwork. Please credit me underneath the image or remove Buddha and the Bodhi Tree from your blog. Thanks and blessings.

©2007 Joan Medina – All copyrights reserved. Any reproduction of this work, in part or in whole, by any means now known or hereafter invented, including photographic, electronic, or mechanical, is forbidden without permission of the Artist.

Sat Aug 18, 04:03:00 AM  
Blogger Jonas said...

Thank you, Joan Medina, for the compelling art. I added the note you requested. I'm thrilled to acknowledge the artist. Thank you.

Sun Aug 19, 08:07:00 PM  

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