Ashoka’s Infrastructure of Goodness
‘Doing good is hard – Even beginning to do good is hard.’
These are the words inscribed over Edicts of Ashoka often cited as the infrastructure of Goodness. Horrified by the cruelty of war, the Mauryan Emperor decided to build these four pillars of goodness. The message does not refrain from one particular language or region but bounds humanity altogether. Ashoka used his expression of morality to stay longer than him and thus erected a place dedicated to wisdom, goodness, and moral principles. The visionary values of this genius emperor might have gone unnoticed without the discovery of the Ashokan edicts in the 19th century.
But before that, do you know about the Mauryan Emperor- Ashoka?
The exact date to which Ashoka was born is not certain in the Indian texts, yet many scholars believe that he might have been born somewhere around the 4th BCE. He was the son of Mauryan emperor Bindusara and his wife Subhadrangi (there is not much information available about Ashoka’s mother.) He was a half-brother to Susima, the heir-apparent, and 99 others.
The throne of the Mauryan Empire was just the beginning of Ashoka’s conquest and continued defeating fellow kingdoms and thus occupying almost the entire Indian Subcontinent in just 8 years of his tenure. He brought 16 states under the Mauryan Empire covering the entire Indian peninsula. It was a time when every Indian ruler wished to be regarded as ‘Chatravartin’- an ideal universal ruler, yet none was able to achieve this extraordinary honor. It was only after Ashoka conquered several regions, he thus was regarded as ‘Chakravartin Ashoka Samrat’.
The quest for power led Ashoka to attack Kalinga in 260 BC. Though it was the homeland of his wife Kaurwaki, Ashoka stormed the kingdom. He invaded the city and slaughtered 100,000 people and forced 150,000 to deport and the rest died of diseases and famine. It was one of the gruesome wars in history where Kalinga fought courageously with the Chakravartin Samrat though eventually lost. Upon his victory, when he stood above the blooded battlefield something completely altered his mind. It was the first time in his life that he had slaughtered masses and realized the tragedy of blood on his hands. He was disgusted at the atrocities he committed and the futility of the war. This was the life-changing moment of Ashoka’s life when he finally embraced Buddhism.
He built a place with his wealth where people lived with morality and the virtues of a good life. He gave up hunting and even refused to eat any type of flesh. Ashoka was now a changed man who marked his journey with non-violence, peace, and mercy. He presumed several social welfare activities where people were often treated with kind gestures. He also well spread Buddhism to neighboring kingdoms. Even his children, Mahindra and Sanghamitta devoted their life to Buddhism and advertised it to miles ahead.
Edicts of Ashoka
In the Khyber Valley of Northern Pakistan, three large boulders can be seen above the hills of the small city of Mansehra. A steep and low brick wall surrounds these boulders to protect the Edicts of the king, each was topped with capitals of lions (facing in four directions), bulls, and horses. It is a compilation of thirty inscriptions on the pillars attributed to Emperor Ashoka. The now transformed Ashoka used his expressions of Dharma on his own Edicts, whose fragments could be traced in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. It is, in fact, the first tangible evidence of Buddism in the world. Ashoka’s edict was composed in 257 BCE.
The messages on these Edicts reach as far as the Mediterranean and many more Buddhist temples were recreated. The Edicts are the living evidence of Ashoka’s tremendous faith in Buddhism. The inscriptions are written in Greek, Aramaic, Brahmi script, and Kharoshthi script. it was a vision to inspire people from different regions, religions, languages, and faiths to encourage their beliefs in goodwill. And these Edicts are further divided into four categories in chronological order.
Minor Rock Edicts: Edicts inscribed at the beginning of Ashoka’s reign; in Prakrit, Greek and Aramaic.
Minor Pillar Edicts: Schism Edict, Queen’s Edict, Rummindei Edict, Nigali Sagar Edict; in Prakrit.
Major Rock Edicts: 14 Edicts (termed 1st to 14th) and 2 separate ones found in Odisha; in Prakrit and Greek.
Major Pillar Edicts: 7 Edicts, inscribed at the end of Ashoka’s reign; in Prakrit.
The Major Rock Edicts and Major Pillar Edicts are very much political and moral in nature as they describe Ashoka’s virtues about non-violence, Dharma, and the future impact them. While in Minor Rock Edicts are the first and initial edicts written in Greek and Aramaic languages. The Rock inscribed- “two and a half years after becoming a secular Buddhist” written eight years after the war of Kalinga.
The moral prospects of the Edicts include doing good deeds, respect for others, generosity, and purity. The Religious precepts are based on Buddhism, belief in a next world, religious exchange, and social and animal welfare. Through these inscriptions, Ashoka visioned to continue the posterity for generations to come, as inscribed in the fourth pillar- ‘until the end of the world’.
His vision did outlast the Mauryan Empire and established Ashoka as the first pan-Asian influence of Buddhism after Siddhattha Gotama. Kings from Sri Lanka, China, and Taiwan also contributed to forwarding the legacy by trying to emulate him. In India itself, the virtues won when days before Indian Independence Jawaharlal Nehru proposed to adopt the Ashokan emblem replacing the wheel of a chariot for the new flag of Independent India.
While many rocks have eroded with time, the messages by Ashoka could still be found on the rocks across India. He was not the ruler only concerned for spiritual and Philanthropic attributes but also efficiently managed his ethical concerns as well. The center of Ashoka’s ethical project is a concern to value lives and cherish them with kindness. The war of Kalinga made him realize the atrocities of the world and thus he decided to build a world where there could be space for generosity, human and animal welfare, respect, and freedom of will.
The Edicts of Ashoka reflect more the desire of the ruler than actual events.