The king who dared to apologise

In Olivelle’s book, Mauryan king Asoka stands out as an icon whose legacy must be upheld at a time when violence and aggression seem to be the norm.

Published : Apr 18, 2024 11:00 IST - 8 MINS READ

A depiction from Sanchi, dated 1st century CE, showing Asoka on his chariot, visiting the Nagas at Ramagrama.

A depiction from Sanchi, dated 1st century CE, showing Asoka on his chariot, visiting the Nagas at Ramagrama. | Photo Credit: WikiCommons

As you drive from the airport to the Outer Ring Road or near Race Course Road in New Delhi, it is impossible to miss seeing three large snarling lions—seated back to back, beady-eyed, threatening. Apparently based on the Mauryan emperor Asoka’s pillar capital at Sarnath, the claim for creating a 6.5-metre-long, 9,500-kilogram colossus atop the central foyer of the new Parliament building was that it represented the decolonisation of the capital city.

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What is lost in the noise around the “reclaiming pride” argument that accompanies the equally empty “decolonisation” one is that Asoka’s capital as a symbol was already widely appreciated in post-Independence India. It was adopted on the recommendation of the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, as the state emblem by the Republic of India in 1950. But in the Republic 2.0 of the last decade, the replacing of the benign, regal Sarnath lions with the snarling ones is not a mere continuation from Nehruvian times; it is a fitting expression of the muscular politics and governance that has been unleashed, with political, social, and cultural ramifications for our times.

Ashoka: Portrait of a Philosopher King
By Patrick Olivelle
HarperCollins India
Pages: 400
Price: Rs.799

Patrick Olivelle takes us back to the benign and benevolent lion symbolism by presenting a biography of the man who conceptualised these majestic animals as symbolising power that is reined in, unleashed only in exceptional circumstances—a man he calls a “philosopher king”. The idea of the philosopher king was enunciated by the Greek philosopher Plato in The Republic. Using the dialogue format with his teacher Socrates as his medium for communicating his own views, Plato sought to present the ideal (city-) state in terms of the establishment of justice and the pursuit of happiness.

Cover of Ashoka: Portrait of a Philosopher King by Patrick Olivelle

Cover of Ashoka: Portrait of a Philosopher King by Patrick Olivelle | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

The idea of justice hinged on three other values, namely courage, wisdom, and moderation. For a just city to become a reality, there was a need for a philosopher king, one who would let truth prevail, ensure the happiness of all, and courageously stand up for his beliefs. Was Asoka such a philosopher king, who had realised the “form of the good”, who allowed the sun of knowledge to throw light on those sheltering in the cave of ignorance?

Rock Edict XIII issued by the Beloved of the Gods, King Piyadasi, circa 256 BCE, four years after a horrific battle against Kalinga was fought, when 1,00,000 people were slaughtered and 1,50,000 were deported, affirms this for Olivelle. He writes: “There, he reminisces about the Kalinga war and expresses regret at the loss of life it entailed and the immense suffering it inflicted on the population. This is where Ashoka says publicly, ‘I am sorry,’ holding before him a mirror of self-reflection.”

This is indeed a striking instance in world history, not merely for premodern times but even today, where genocides and wars are justified in every conceivable way. The sorrow expressed by the ruler reflects the harsh “sunlight” he has to come to terms with. The emperor later cautions the atavika (forest people) not to provoke him; if his opponents can be forgiven he will do so, but he did not abjure force if it was necessary. Here, the courageous and wise ruler, one who had to protect his kingdom and the people’s interests, shines through.

This also connects to the visual imagery Asoka favoured: the chakra symbol in his lion capital. Evoking the idea of the chakravartin, or universal kingship, that was falling into place by this time as well as the dhamma-chakka-pavatana, or the wheel of dhamma, that had been turned by the Buddha after his first sermon at Sarnath, Asoka possibly placed the lion capital very deliberately at this holy Buddhist site below the majestic lions in his pillar capital. The philosopher king’s perceptive visual play is disarming.

The four parts of Olivelle’s Ashoka touch upon different concepts related to the ruler: raja (king), upasaka (Buddhist lay follower), dhamma (as a follower), and pasanda (as ecumenist). Much of what we already know quite well is covered in the parts related to the first three concepts; the last presents an interesting dimension to kingship as understood by Asoka.

Asoka’s ecumenism

The term pasanda denoted, according to Olivelle, specific religious groups, marking the diversity of recognised faiths during Mauryan times. Beyond these, Asoka somewhat unhappily referred to local and regional religious groups as well. The evocation of dhamma in Asokan edicts appears to draw the different organised faiths under the umbrella of a single ethical frame, while retaining their specific beliefs and practices. For Olivelle, Asoka’s ecumenism lay in his drawing the pasandas into dialogue with one another and helping individuals rise above their situations.

For instance, in Rock Edict XII, Asoka “pays homage to all pasandas, to those who have gone forth and to those staying at home, with gifts and various acts of homage”. He promoted the increase of the “essential core” of the pasandas through guarded speech—towards one’s own religion and that of others. For the latter, his advice was not to denigrate another faith and, if necessary, to do so mildly since ultimately such acts damage one’s own faith. He even advocated paying homage to the other.

Interestingly, the brahmana and sramana were included among the pasanda, implying that it was not just ascetics and monastics but also the “stay-at-home” (grhastha) religious people/adherents who were addressed; they were all being yoked by his redefined dhamma, with the dhamma-mahamatta (officials) directing their activities as in Rock Edicts IV and VII.

A detail from a pillar in Lauriya Araraj, Bihar, which bears six of Asoka’s edicts.

A detail from a pillar in Lauriya Araraj, Bihar, which bears six of Asoka’s edicts. | Photo Credit: WikiCommons

When we compare this equation of brahmanas with other pasandas to the claim of brahmana exceptionalism, especially in post-Asokan times, it seems that the ideological imprint of caste-based society with identities based on birth, although well known, was still being contested or not fully accepted. Asoka at least made no bones about the fact that all pasandas had to respect their own faiths and each other, and that included the brahmanas. The idea of samavaya—living and dialoguing with one another—is reinforced institutionally by having officials for the purpose as they were for looking after the interests of women or farms, and so on.

But did the pasandas not have a sense of themselves, their identity, their exclusivity? Apastamba, the author of one of the early brahmanical Dharmasutras (following Gautama and Baudhayana), was the first to frontally address the issue flagged by Asoka: what is the true dharma? (He is also the first to present a detailed description of the catur-asrama system, which may simply be understood as four modes of religious life within the brahmanical tradition.)

Given that this work is considered as contemporaneous with Asoka, the fact is that Apastamba presents dharmas in the plural as something that is customary as well as rooted in the Vedas, and decries false and hypocritical views and faiths. The only true knowers of dharma and its opposite—adharma—were the elderly religious Aryas, or brahmanas. But even Apastamba could not counter the hegemonic Asokan dhamma without assimilating from the latter. And so he advocates speaking the truth, sharing, gentleness, refraining from anger, greed, malice, and so on.

Olivelle argues convincingly that this was the legacy of Asoka’s ecumenism, where dhamma was not sectarian but a universal ethic. Was this a civil religion? Despite acknowledging that this may be anachronistic, Olivelle goes with the flow and argues that rather than see Asoka’s evocation of dhamma cynically, as a mere political project, there was something that went beyond immediate gains, even immediate convictions such as his own Buddhist leanings.

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Although there is much that has already been said about Asoka, Olivelle has still brought in such fascinating dimensions. I was particularly impressed by the broad context he presents, although some of it is conjectural, and uses the tools of the historian to connect the dots: the Greek connection, the diversity of the royal household, and the exposure of Asoka and other royal members to the regional variance, politically and culturally. Possibly more can be said about this iconic figure called Asoka and his legacy. But Olivelle’s Asoka stands out as an icon to be proud of, a benevolent wielder of power to learn from, and one whose legacy must be upheld in a time when violence and aggression seem to be the norm.

“Was Asoka’s dhamma lost to history partly because of the Brahmanical celebration of legendary figures like Yudhishthira and Rama as ideal kings and partly owing to the decline of Buddhism?”

Was Asoka’s dhamma lost to history partly because of the Brahmanical celebration of legendary figures like Yudhishthira and Rama as ideal kings and partly owing to the decline of Buddhism? This lament of Olivelle is real, and yet is it not true of every great ruler and dynasty? Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias evocatively draws our attention to the decay of power, glory, and time. Fortunately for us, in modern times, Asoka’s ecumenism was revived with the deciphering of the Brahmi script by the British colonial officer James Prinsep, and prevailed thanks to Nehru’s engaged understanding of Asoka’s legacy for the newly emerging independent state, based on the vision of the national movement that people across class, faiths, caste, and gender would have an equal place in the “India that is Bharat”. Until recent times... 

R. Mahalakshmi is Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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