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Episode 32 - Pillar of Ashoka

Pillar of Ashoka (238 BC) erected in Uttar Pradesh, India

In 1947 on her 21st birthday, the future Queen Elizabeth II made a heartfelt speech dedicating her adult life to the service of her people. She did it in a BBC radio broadcast from South Africa:

"There is a motto which has been born by many of my ancestors; a noble motto: 'I serve'. Those words were an inspiration to many bygone heirs to the throne, when they made their knightly dedication as they came to manhood."

As she went on to point out in her speech, none of her forebears could have spoken so directly to their subjects. She and other rulers now have a huge range of mediums for their messages, but without any of these modern communication tools, how do rulers reach out and speak to their people, and tell them of their commitment to their welfare? Two thousand years ago, the Indian Emperor Ashoka the Great carved his messages in stone.

"He is associated with the unity of India as one of the first emperors ruling all over the land... the entire land." (Amartya Sen)

"It really puts at its heart the welfare, the happiness and the harmony of the people." (Michael Rutland)

This week I'm looking at the great powers of Europe and Asia around two thousand years ago, and the leaders whose legacies are still with us in the world today. The objects pose perennial questions. What is the right way for a leader to rule? How should rulers construct their image and project their power? How does a ruler actually change the way the people think? Today's leader, Ashoka the Great, took on a vast empire and through the strength of his ideas began a tradition which leads directly to the ideals of Gandhi, and still flourishes today - a tradition of pluralistic, humane, non-violent statecraft. And it's those ideas that are carried, literally, by the object for this programme.

I'm with the object now - it's a fragment of stone, sandstone to be exact, and it's about the size of a large curved brick - not much to look at all, but it opens up the story of one of the great figures of world history. On the stone are two lines of text, inscribed in round spindly-looking letters - appropriately first described as "pin-man script" - and these two lines are the remains of a much larger, longer text that was originally carved on a great circular column, about 30 feet high (9m) and 3 feet (1m) in diameter.

Ashoka had pillars like this put up across the whole of his empire. They're great feats of architecture, and they would stand either alone by the side of the highways or in the city centres - much as public sculpture does in our city squares today. These pillars are different from the classical columns that most of us in Europe are familiar with: they've got no base, and they're crowned with a capital in the shape of lotus petals. And on top of the most famous of all Ashoka's pillars are the four lions facing outward - the lions that are still one of the emblems of India today. The pillar that our fragment comes from was originally erected in Meerut, a city just north of Delhi, and that pillar was destroyed in an explosion in the early eighteenth century at the palace of a Mughal ruler. But many pillars have survived, and they range across Ashoka's empire, which covered the great bulk of the sub-continent.

These pillars were in fact a sort of public address system: their purpose was to carry, carved on them, proclamations or edicts from Ashoka, which could then be promulgated all over India and beyond. We now know that there are seven major edicts that were carved on pillars, and our fragment is from what's known as the "sixth pillar edict"; it declares the Emperor Ashoka's benevolent policy towards every sect and every class in his empire:

"I consider how I may bring happiness to the people, not only to relatives of mine or residents of my capital city, but also to those who are far removed from me. I act in the same manner with respect to all. I am concerned similarly with all classes. Moreover, I have honoured all religious sects with various offerings. But I consider it my principal duty to visit the people personally."

I presume that there must have been somebody to read these words out to the mostly unlettered citizens, and I think they would probably have been received with pleasure and considerable relief, for Ashoka had not always been so concerned for their welfare. He'd started out not as a gentle, generous philosopher but as a ruthless and brutal youth, following in the military footsteps of his grandfather. His name was Chandragupta, and he'd risen to the throne following a military campaign that created a huge empire - reaching from Kandahar in modern Afghanistan in the west to Bangladesh in the east, and including the great majority of modern India. It was the largest empire in Indian history.

In 268 BC Ashoka took his place on the throne - but not without considerable struggle. Buddhist writings tell us that he killed "99 of his brothers" - presumably metaphorical as well as actual brothers - in order to obtain the kingship, and the same writings create a legend of Ashoka's pre-Buddhist days, filled with self-indulgent frivolity and cruelty. When he became emperor he set out to complete the occupation of the whole subcontinent, and attacked the independent state of Kalinga - modern-day Orissa on the east coast. It was a savage, brutal assault and one which seems afterwards to have thrown Ashoka into a state of terrible remorse. He changed his whole way of life, embracing the defining concept of 'Dharma', a virtuous path that guides the follower through a life of selflessness and piety, duty, good conduct and decency. Dharma is applied in many religions, including Sikhism, Jainism and of course Hinduism - but Ashoka's idea of Dharma was filtered through the Buddhist faith. He described his remorse and announced his conversion to his people through a rock edict:

"The Kalinga country was conquered by the King, Beloved of the Gods, in the eighth year of his reign. 150,000 persons were carried away captive, 100,000 were slain, and many times that number died. Immediately after the Kalingas had been conquered, the King became intensely devoted to the study of Dharma...

"The Beloved of the Gods, conqueror of the Kalingas, is moved to remorse now. For he has felt profound sorrow and regret because of the conquest of a people previously unconquered involves slaughter, death and deportation."

From now on, Ashoka sets out to redeem himself - to reach out to his people. And to do so, he writes his edicts not in Sanskrit, the official language of the state, but in local dialect - depending where they're placed - and in everyday speech as spoken by the people.

With his conversion Ashoka renounced war as an instrument of state policy, and adopted human benevolence as the solution to the world's problems. But while he was inspired by the teachings of Buddha - and his son was in fact the first Buddhist missionary to Sri Lanka - he didn't impose Buddhism on his empire. Ashoka's state was in a very particular sense a secular one. Here's Nobel prize-winning Indian economist, Amartya Sen:

"Now secularism, that's a very big thing... The state has to keep a distance from all religion. Buddhism doesn't become an official religion, excepting it's the emperor's religion. But all other religions have to be tolerated and viewed with respect. So secularism in the Indian form - not 'no religion in government matters', but 'no favouritism of any religion over any other'."

Religious freedom, conquest of self, the need for all citizens and leaders to listen to others and to debate ideas, human rights for all - men and women - the importance given to education and health: these are all ideas which are still central in Buddhist thinking. There's still today a kingdom in the Indian sub-continent that is run on Buddhist principles - the small kingdom of Bhutan - sandwiched between northern India and China. Michael Rutland is a Bhutanese citizen and the official envoy to Britain from this Buddhist monarchy. He also tutored the former king, and we asked him how Ashoka's ideas might play out in a modern Buddhist state. He began by offering us a quote:

" ...'Throughout my reign I will never rule you as a king. I will protect you as a parent, care for you as a brother and serve you as a son. As the king of a Buddhist nation, my duty is not only to ensure your happiness today, but to create the fertile ground from which you may gain the fruits of spiritual pursuit and attain good karma.' Now I wonder if you can guess who wrote that? It could well have been written by the Emperor Ashoka. But it wasn't. It was actually an excerpt from the coronation speech, two years ago, of the 27-year-old fifth king of Bhutan.

"The fourth king, the king that I had the great privilege to teach, he lived and continues to live, in a small log cabin. There is no ostentation to the monarchy. He is probably the only example of an absolute monarch who has voluntarily persuaded his people to take away his powers and he has instituted elective democracy. The fourth king also introduced the phrase 'gross national happiness' - it arose to be a contrast to the concept of 'gross national product'. Again, as Ashoka would have felt, the happiness and contentment of the people was more important than conquering other lands. Let's put that into today's terminology of gross national product. And the fifth king has followed very much the Buddhist precepts of monarchy."

Ashoka's political and moral philosophy - as he expressed it in his imperial inscriptions - initiated a tradition of religious tolerance, non-violent debate and a commitment to the idea of happiness which have animated Indian political philosophy ever since. But - and it's a big but - his benevolent empire scarcely outlived him. And that leaves us with the uncomfortable question of whether such high ideals can survive the realities of political power. Nevertheless, this was a ruler who really did change the way that his subjects and their successors thought. Ghandi was an admirer, as was Nehru, and Ashoka even today finds his way on to the currency - on all the Indian banknotes we see Gandhi facing the four lions of Ashoka's pillar. The architects of Indian independence had him often in their mind. Here's Amartya Sen again:

"So that's one part - the duty of the ruler to do good to the world and to his subjects - that's the point that H. G. Wells picks up in locating Ashoka as a big figure in the history of the world. But the one that the Indians particularly emphasised at the time of independence is his secularism and democracy in Ashokan thought. But he is a big figure also in China, in Japan, in Korea, in Thailand, in Sri Lanka, and so he is also in that sense a pan-Asian figure."

In the next programme we are dealing with another inscription and another ruler closely linked with a religious system, but in this case the religion is now dead and the ruler is no longer of any consequence - indeed he never really was. But the inscription is one of the most famous objects in the British Museum - and possibly in the world - because it's written on the Rosetta Stone.

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