“Among the tens of thousands of names of monarchs accumulated in the files of history, the name Emperor Ashoka shines almost alone, like a star.”
~ H.G. Wells
Emperor Ashoka is one of the most revolutionary humans in history, yet you may never have heard of him. He was an Indian ruler from c. 268 to 232 BCE, regarded as the first to unify nearly the entire Indian subcontinent, from the Bay of Bengal to Afghanistan.
In the beginning, Emperor Ashoka was a prince with bad skin, who kept a harem of 500 women. So sensitive was he about his complexion that he actually had a torture chamber built that he called “hell on earth”, reserved for any of them that dared comment on the state of his skin. This earned him the nickname, “Ashoka The Cruel”.
To extend his empire, he attacked the land of Kalinga, where hundreds of thousands were killed and captured. It was in the aftermath of this conquest, walking through the body-strewn streets and witnessing the suffering of the bereaved that he was overcome with the horror of war, and struck with a great sorrow and regret for his deeds. What he didn’t realize at the time, was that he had hit upon one of the most dangerous ideas in history: non-violence.
Following this epiphany, the great emperor went on a pilgrimage seeking a teacher. He met a Buddhist monk who instructed him to sit beneath the Bodhi tree where Gautama Buddha had attained enlightenment. And in time, he conceived an idea for a political order that had never before been seen: rule by reason and morality. We can speculate that this idea was so threatening to warrior culture that he was erased from history, forgotten only until very recently.
Emperor Ashoka’s edicts would seem progressive even by modern standards: all humans are one family; men and women are equal; animals are entitled to humane treatment. These were enforced by police who protected all living things, and he sent embassies to Greece, Macedonia, Syria and Babylon for world peace. Emperor Ashoka built roads, dug wells, preached religious tolerance, built rest houses for common people, prohibited animal sacrifice, and built Buddhist monasteries. His son and daughter were sent to Sri Lanka to spread Buddhist teachings.
The esoteric literature credits him as the founder of the Nine Unknown Men, a legendary secret society said to guard ancient and powerful knowledge.
Here are some quotes and tenets from the Buddhist ruler who banned slavery and animal cruelty, and implemented gender equality.
“Every religion has the wholesome core of love, compassion and good will. The outer shell differs, but give importance to the inner essence and there will be no quarrel. Don’t condemn anything, give importance to the essence of every religion and there will be real peace and harmony.”
“To do good is difficult. One who does good first does something hard to do. I have done many good deeds, and, if my sons, grandsons and their descendants up to the end of the world act in like manner, they too will do much good. But whoever amongst them neglects this, they will do evil. Truly, it is easy to do evil.”
“People see only their good deeds saying, ‘I have done this good deed.’ But they do not see their evil deeds saying, ‘I have done this evil deed’ or ‘This is called evil.’ But this (tendency) is difficult to see. One should think like this: ‘It is these things that lead to evil, to violence, to cruelty, anger, pride and jealousy. Let me not ruin myself with these things.’ And further, one should think: ‘This leads to happiness in this world and the next.'”
“No society can prosper if it aims at making things easier— instead it should aim at making people stronger.”
“May the partisans of all doctrines in all countries unite and live in a common fellowship. For all alike profess mastery to be attained over oneself and purity of the heart.”
“Let all listen, and be willing to listen to the doctrines professed by others.”
“It is forbidden to decry other sects; the true believer gives honor to whatever in them is worthy of honor.”
“When an unconquered country is conquered, people are killed… That the beloved of the Gods finds very pitiful and grievous. … If anyone does him wrong, it will be forgiven as far as it can be forgiven… The beloved of the Gods considers that the greatest of all victories is the victory of righteousness.”
“I have enforced the law against killing certain animals and many others, but the greatest progress of righteousness among men comes from the exhortation in favor of non-injury to life and abstention from killing living beings.”
“All men are my children. What I desire for my own children, and I desire their welfare and happiness both in this world and the next, that I desire for all men. You do not understand to what extent I desire this, and if some of you do understand, you do not understand the full extent of my desire.”
How can we explain Emperor Ashoka’s transformation from monster to miracle? What brings on such extraordinary states of grace? Ashoka’s ideas of the equality of all living things must have seemed insane to his contemporaries, but they would surface again and again over the centuries.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that Ashoka was only re-discovered in the 20th century, another era of revolutionary change. His ‘wheel of law‘ became the symbol to free India from British rule. Emperor Ashoka, having experienced both opposing points on the wheel of duality in one short incarnation, causing great suffering and destruction, as well as tremendous healing and virtue, was, it seems, quite far ahead of his time.