'Neath the Bodhi Tree
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.
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