Ashoka the Great in the History of Liberty
Religion & Liberty Online

Ashoka the Great in the History of Liberty

Today at Ethika Politika, I review The Ox-Herder and the Good Shepherd: Finding Christ on the Buddha’s Path by Addison Hodges Hart:

Addison Hodges Hart, a retired pastor and university chaplain, offers in The Ox-Herder and the Good Shepherd a wonderful exercise in comparative religion, examining the common ground that can be found in spiritual practice between Christianity and Buddhism. Hart focuses on the ten ox-herding icons of Zen, originating in China by the master Kakuan and accompanied by his verse and prose commentary. Hart, then, adds his own Christian perspective on the spiritual journey depicted and described by Kakuan, highlighting in the end his emphasis that outer acts of compassion require a prior, inner transformation.

One such person who was inspired by an inner, spiritual conversion not only to “outer acts of compassion” but also to build a freer and more virtuous society was the Indian Emperor Ashoka.

Lord Acton writes in his address “The History of Freedom in Antiquity,”

But in all that I have been able to cite from classical literature, three things are wanting: Representative Government, the emancipation of the slaves, and liberty of conscience. There were, it is true, deliberative assemblies, chosen by the people; and confederate cities, of which, both in Asia and in Europe there were so many Leagues, sent their delegates, to sit in federal councils. But government by an elected parliament was, even in theory, a thing unknown. It is congruous with the nature of Polytheism to admit some measure of toleration. And Socrates, when he avowed that he must obey God rather than the Athenians, and the Stoics, when they set the wise man above the [civil] law, were very near giving utterance to the principle. But it was first proclaimed, and established by enactment, not in polytheistic and philosophical Greece, but in India, by Asoka, the earliest of the Buddhist kings, 250 years before the Birth of Christ.

Tantalizingly, this is all that Acton says about Ashoka (=”Asoka”). Who was he? Why does Acton single him out?

Ashoka the Great

Ashoka Maurya, also known as Ashoka the Great, lived from 304-232 BC. He was an emperor of the Maurya dynasty in India from 269-232, and he united nearly all the Indian subcontinent, in part through military conquest. Nevertheless, records he has left — the fourteen “Rock Edicts,” among others — show that early on in his reign he had a profound religious conversion that led to a change of heart.

He writes in the thirteenth Rock Edict:

Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi [confirmed to be another name for Ashoka in 1915], conquered the Kalingas eight years after his coronation.[25] One hundred and fifty thousand were deported, one hundred thousand were killed and many more died (from other causes). After the Kalingas had been conquered, Beloved-of-the-Gods came to feel a strong inclination towards the Dhamma, a love for the Dhamma and for instruction in Dhamma. Now Beloved-of-the-Gods feels deep remorse for having conquered the Kalingas.

The “Dhamma” he refers to is the dharma (or “teaching”) of Buddhism. His inscriptions represent perhaps the oldest hard evidence of Buddhism in the world.

Regarding “Representative Government,” Ashoka writes in his sixth Rock Edict,

In the past, state business was not transacted nor were reports delivered to the king at all hours. But now I have given this order, that at any time, whether I am eating, in the women’s quarters, the bed chamber, the chariot, the palanquin, in the park or wherever, reporters are to be posted with instructions to report to me the affairs of the people so that I might attend to these affairs wherever I am.

He also mentions here a “Council” made up of these “reporters” of “the affairs of the people.” I am not quite sure that qualifies as “Representative Government,” but it does at least seem to be a step in the right direction.

I am yet to confirm “emancipation of the slaves” under his reign, but Ashoka does go out of his way to advocate for respectful treatment of all people, including servants. He writes in his seventh “Pillar Edict,”

Whatever good deeds have been done by me, those the people accept and those they follow. Therefore they have progressed and will continue to progress by being respectful to mother and father, respectful to elders, by courtesy to the aged and proper behavior towards Brahmans [=priests] and ascetics, towards the poor and distressed, and even towards servants and employees.

The impression seems to be that including “servants and employees” was exceptional.

Regarding “liberty of conscience,” we can say that Ashoka unequivocally endorsed freedom of religion. He writes about this in several places as well, including this from his seventh Rock Edict:

Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart.[14] But people have various desires and various passions, and they may practice all of what they should or only a part of it.

With regards to “self-control and purity of heart,” Ashoka repeatedly commends the love and practice of virtue to his subjects in all their relationships. He outlawed human and animal sacrifice and had a special regard for the well-being of all living things in his kingdom.

In the end, we can see that here too, like Addison Hodges Hart’s exploration of the ten Zen ox-herding icons in The Ox-Herder and the Good Shepherd, there is some significant common ground between Buddhism and Christianity on the subject of a free and virtuous society as well, in some historical expressions at least. No doubt Ashoka has been a bit romanticized in the past. It is difficult to tell how great a man really was when he himself is one of the primary sources we have of his greatness. Nevertheless, I would love to see more in-depth research conducted and popularized regarding the history of Eastern religions and liberty in the future, including, of course, Buddhism and the legacy of Ashoka in India and beyond.

You can read many of the edicts of Ashoka the Great and learn more about him here.

And if you have any interest in comparative religion, don’t miss my review of The Ox-Herder and the Good Shepherd at Ethika Politika here.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.