Featured on the Global Ethics Network
A fierce young hunter throttles a lion using a single wooden rod. Ashoka, the ancient revered ruler of the Maurya Dynasty, possessed a formidable temper from an early age. Legend has it that Ashoka, in a ruthless ploy for power, got rid of the legitimate heir to the throne by tricking him into entering a pit filled with live coals. Other legends hold that Ashoka submitted his ministers to brutal tests of loyalty, ordering 500 of them killed upon failure.
Ashoka proved to be a ruler of great conquest, significantly expanding his empire’s reach during his almost 40 year reign. However, at the apex of the empire’s expansion, Ashoka’s moral foundation was shattered by the very destruction his empire wrought. A brutal defeat of the Kalingua state left the valley beneath Dhauli Hill in Southeastern Asia soaked in blood and littered with the mangled bone and tissue of 100,000 humans.1
It was at this moment that Ashoka uttered his famous lament asking, “What have I done? If this is a victory, what’s a defeat then? Is this a victory or a defeat? Is this justice or injustice? Is it gallantry or a rout? Is it valor to kill innocent children and women? Did I do it to widen the empire and for prosperity or to destroy the other’s kingdom and splendor? One has lost her husband, someone else a father, someone a child, someone an unborn infant.”2
If this is a victory, what’s a defeat then? – Ashoka
Ashoka, struck by an ethical tidal wave, restructured his empire around the humane treatment of all sentient beings. His reformation, aided by Buddhist principles, prompted exceedingly progressive measures such as “provisions for medical treatment of humans and animals.”3 Additionally, he had “wells dug and trees planted along the roads for the benefit of the common people.”3
Ashoka’s story is relevant for its geography alone. The Mauryan Empire, stretching from present-day Afghanistan deep into southern India and east to modern-day Bangladesh, was firmly rooted in Afghanistan. For many, Afghanistan symbolizes the hatred and terrorism that has exacerbated the growing cynicism of the 21st century. This cynicism is especially apparent within the primarily Christian confines of America, where it is the belief of many that peace will not arrive in the Middle East until the return of Christ. This belief, along with the ever-growing carnage, has made many eternally pessimistic towards the region. Ashoka’s ancient ethical revelation offers hope and proof that the Middle East and its people are not inherently violent and hateful.
More broadly speaking, Ashoka’s story is of a far-flung empire of disparate cultures moving towards a guiding ethic centered around compassion and equality. His story is particularly motivating within the context of our global community. A community guided by an international economy primarily thirsty for growth in areas like overall GDP and per capita income. A world community numb to widening income inequality and a shriveling environment. “Progress”, at the expense of our planet and those unable to help themselves, can only be checked by an Ashokan-like change of heart.
1. Jerry Bentley, Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 45.
2. Kamath, Prabhakar. “How Ashoka the Great Gave Brahmins A Song With Which They Conquered India”. Nirmukta.