Ashoka: Lessons for Modern Rulers

For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love, this is an old rule. The world does not know that we must all come to an end here;–but those who know it, their quarrels cease at once.
~Buddha, The Dhammapada, chapter 1 verses 5-6.


Ashoka The Great is remembered for two things. The savage nature of the wars he waged to build one of the ancient world's largest empires and the epiphany all that killing created in his life and his new empire. In Sanskrit, his name means "without sorrow." 

Ashoka was a third century B.C.E. Indian, grandson of the founder of the Maurya Dynasty. Though his father and grandfather built a great empire, it was Ashoka who finally conquered the adversaries they could not and unified most of the Indian subcontinent (including modern day India and Pakistan), parts of Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka.

While not the first to deploy elephant cavalry in battle, Ashoka was perhaps the first ever to mass such a large elephant force. His infantry may have counted 600,000 and his horse cavalry 30,000. His final adversary was democratic state of Kalinga.

While the Kalingans were brilliant tactically, they simply were no match for the sheer power of Ashoka's forces. The battle itself is said to have cost over 100,000 Kalingan lives and 10,000 on Ashoka's. When the battle was over, another 200,000 people were forced to flee Ashoka's plundering army. Another 100,000 died in that process. 

I'm telling you these gory details because what happened next is practically unprecedented in history. It's said, Ashoka personally toured the conquered capital city. Everywhere he looked he saw destruction. Burnt houses and decaying bodies were everywhere. According to tradition, he turned to one of his generals and asked, "What have I done?"

At the zenith of his power, he became Buddhist and resolved never to war again. He made Buddhism the official religion of his empire and sought to practice his kingship according to 10 precepts laid out by Buddha for rulers.

  1. Be liberal and avoid selfishness
  2. Maintain a high moral character
  3. Be prepared to sacrifice one's own pleasure for the well-being of the subjects,
  4. Be honest and maintain absolute integrity
  5. Be kind and gentle
  6. Lead a simple life for the subjects to emulate
  7. Be free from hatred of any kind
  8. Exercise non-violence
  9. Practice patience
  10. Respect public opinion to promote peace and harmony.

Further, he spread his famous 14 Edicts representing his government's policies on how life should be conducted in the empire. They covered government guarantees of religious tolerance, how people should treat each other in their interactions, a commitment to peace and non-harm, and regular teaching of the Buddha's message of peace throughout the empire and beyond. Buddhist monks made it as far as Egypt and the Mediterranean. 

The Edicts were posted on pillars throughout the empire. They were the first introduction for Alexander's armies not only Ashoka but to the Buddha.

The key premise here is a man of war and savagery recognized his error and spent the rest of his life trying create an empire based upon peace, compassion, and tolerance. Where in our modern world will you find such an example?  Where are their leaders choosing these laudable goals over war, the chess game of dominance, and chest-beating nationalism. 

Many had to die for Ashoka to find his awakening, but at least awaken he did. His empire and rulership remain a model for how governments should treat their people and how we the people should treat one another. His empire was proof that such things can be established, even in our imperfect world.

Ray Davis
for 6 Sense Media