Friday, 20 March 2015

Enlightenment doesn't mix well with elitism

Though he was a son of the emperor, the young prince Ashoka was far from the line of succession. But he was respectful of the Ministers so, when his father died, they backed him to inherit the throne. He carved his way to there through human flesh, it is said, with some recounting that he killed 99 of his 100 brothers and half brothers, sparing only one.

Indeed, it is said that he rid himself of the legitimate heir by tricking him into a pit of live coals. To deal with any further adversaries, he even set up a torture chamber called the heavenly hell, because of its beautiful exterior hiding horrifying deeds. He waged war, too, extending the empire he now controlled, until it extended across the Indian sub-continent, from the Hindu Kush to Bengal, and down to the extreme south except for some parts of what we now call Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

His final battle was at Kalinga. And as he walked across the battlefield afterwards, he had an epiphany. How could 100,000 have died in this way, and though his orders? 150,000 people be deported? Suddenly, he could bear it no more.

He converted to Buddhism and devoted the rest of his reign to the cultivation of virtue, within himself and for his people. He became one of the most glorious and saintly of rulers the world has ever seen, and Buddhism had its golden period of growth though much of East Asia in consequence of his actions. Sadly, however, his great and good Empire survived only fifty years after his death.

Now much of this is just wonderful legend, written long after his life, by people with an axe to grind, most of them Buddhists. The story of his early bloodthirstiness is particularly questionable, since it suits anyone wanting to prove the depth of a conversion, to stress how sinful and vicious the man converted was beforehand. With no written records of his personal history from the time, we can assume that much of this is little more than embroidery.

However, there are written records of his rule. Because he ordered huge pillars to be set up around his Empire, many containing edicts for wise rule. There were more at one time, but only nineteen still survive intact, with fragments of others.

One of Ashoka's Pillars
What do we find among these edicts?

… the king abstains from (killing) living beings, and other men and those who (are) huntsmen and fishermen of the king have desisted from hunting. And if some (were) intemperate, they have ceased from their intemperance as was in their power; and obedient to their father and mother and to the elders, in opposition to the past also in the future,by so acting on every occasion, they will live better and more happily.

The killing must stop.

It is my desire that there should be uniformity in law and uniformity in sentencing. I even go this far, to grant a three-day stay for those in prison who have been tried and sentenced to death. During this time their relatives can make appeals to have the prisoners' lives spared. If there is none to appeal on their behalf, the prisoners can give gifts in order to make merit for the next world, or observe fasts.

So there had to be due process, and justice had to be tempered by clemency.

Contact (between religions) is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions.

“Piyadasi”, meaning “one who looks with kindness upon everything”, was one of the nicknames of Ashoka.

This was all happening in the third century before our era. And here’s a ruler who recommends not just the negative toleration of indifference for other faiths, but the positive, active toleration of studying them and learning from them.

Too enlightened to last? Indeed it was. And who overthrew this regime? Why, representatives of the Brahmin caste, the wealthiest and most powerful, the elite of Indian society.

A world in which all were treated with respect, regardless of caste, even regardless of faith? Where was the mileage in that, if you held sway over others? Why would you accept the implicit restriction on your power to act according to your will, accountable to no one or your actions?

So they put an end to it.

So it has always been, down the ages. And so it is today. As Thomas Piketty shows in his great book on growing inequality, Capital in the 21st Century , after the great egalitarian trend triggered by two world wars, a huge depression and the Russian Revolution, we have over the last thirty years, witnessed the reaction from wealthy elites. Initially spearheaded by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, this movement has set out to roll back the gains for the ordinary people, while ensuring that the financial elite consolidates its power and extends its wealth.

Just as happened when the gentle Buddhist regime set up by Ashoka was brought to its brutal end.

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