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Learn from King Asoka.

Dear friends,
I just wanted to share my second essay with you.


The Great Emperor Asoka, His Outlook on Dharma, and How He Governed his Country

Emperor Asoka was born ca 274-234 B.C in the Maurya Dynasty, although the lack of historical records makes it difficult for anyone to reconstruct his career and the events that took place throughout his rule. Today, most of his life story... and journey are inferred from Edicts that were built in many places throughout India to remind the people of his vision for his country. Many of the Edicts give a glimpse into his life, ideas, and way of governing his country. Some of Asoka’s edicts would not work in today’s context, such as in Rock Edict I which prohibits the killing of animals in the capital city, however, there are others that are still applicable today, like Pillar Edict VI, which promotes the welfare of the populace and religious freedom.
Emperor Asoka combined his wisdom with a practical approach in a number of ways to fulfill his vision. He constructed a framework for combining power with morality, and based on this he administered justice. Furthermore, his world outlook was very different from other neighboring kingdoms, because his dream for his country and people was to promote welfare and happiness rather than only material possessions, prestige, and pleasure. Emperor Asoka was more interested in advocating morality, respect, and contentment than simply encouraging people to cultivate more wealth, power, and fame.
In the 21st century, the world and its people have changed dramatically compared to the time of Asoka. Some of his visions, such as those found in Rock Edict 1, would be impractical in today’s societal context. This Edict states, “No living creature shall be slaughtered here (at Patalipura, Asoka’s capital city), no festive gathering shall be held. King Priyadarsi sees a great many evils in festive gathering” (55). In a country like the United States, the political system is very different from the time of Asoka, so clearly Rock Edict I could not be practically implemented in this modern context. There are certain ethical approaches in other Edicts such as those found in Pillar Edict VI, however, which are relevant today, such as concern for the welfare and happiness of the people, and also respect for all religions.
During the rule of Asoka, he as the king possessed considerable power and wealth, which were important instruments for him to be able to put his vision into practice. He was the only figure that could make changes to the existing laws and the way the administration functioned. In America, there are three branches of government, and most decisions have to come through the interaction of this collective. It is difficult for the president to lead a complex society like America with all the competing interests at play. Moreover, in the United States, there are many different religions, and although some may agree that not killing animals in a certain location, as instructed in Rock Edict 1, is a positive suggestion, there are other religious beliefs which may view such a proposition as offensive rather than admirable. For instance, for Muslims, killing animals is a component of the religious practice of the Ramadan festival. Due to the variety of views with respect to the killing of animals, it seems implausible that any policy analogous to Rock Edict 1 could ever come into law in such a democracy, as it may also be viewed as an imposition limiting the freedom of individuals. Therefore, it would not be practical to introduce such a regulation in the United States.
As Emperor Asoka wrote in Pillar Edict VI, “Twelve years after my coronation I ordered edicts on Dharma to be inscribed for the welfare and happiness of the people… Moreover, I have honored all religious sects with various offerings. But I consider it my principal duty to visit [the people] personally,” and Rock Edict VIII states, “He visits priests and ascetics and makes gifts to them; he visits the aged and gives them money” (36-37). These edicts record actions of Emperor Asoka that show concern for the welfare for the poor and elderly, and also for the general happiness and religious freedom of his people. These edicts may be seen as analogous to modern-day policies ensuring religious freedom, and the implementation of a welfare system and social security to benefit the poor and elderly people of a nation. These two edicts of Asoka speak to the need to address the inequality inherent in societies. The problem of societal inequality is as relevant today as in the time of Asoka.
Although not all of Asoka’s edicts correspond to policies relevant to a place like contemporary America, such as Rock Edict I, Bhutan is an example of a society where a similar version of Asoka’s vision of a Buddhist society is successfully implemented even today. Bhutan is a small Himalayan Buddhist nation that shares most of the same values that Emperor Asoka promoted in his Edicts. For example, similar in spirit to Asoka’s Rock Edict I, the slaughter of animals is banned in the whole of Bhutan. The goal of Bhutanese governing policies is not just to obtain wealth and power, but primarily to promote the welfare of all citizens, as promoted in Asoka’s Pillar Edict VI and Rock Edict VIII. Indeed, Bhutan’s gross national index is not based on Gross Domestic Product, but Gross National Happiness. Like Asoka, the 4th king and his government actively promote values and ethics to their citizens, guided by Buddhist principles. There are several advantages to the Bhutanese approach. First, the king is highly respected by the people, and there is a general perception that whatever the king implements has in mind the good of the people and country. It seems that the Bhutanese people are willing to follow the approach that the government and king advise. Therefore, the Bhutanese welfare system combined with Buddhist values works efficiently in Bhutan today.
Even though Bhutan has a small population, there are many ethnic groups such as the Bhutia, Tibetans, Nepalese, and native Bhutanese. The majority of the population is Buddhist, but there are also Christians, Hindus, and followers of local religions. When we look around today, most of the problems around the world come from wrong interpretations of others’ beliefs. Bhutan benefits from the guiding Buddhist ideal of not discriminating against others’ religions or schools of thought, and emphasis is placed on respecting the beliefs of individuals rather than being critical of others. Today, in Bhutan there are remarkably few violent incidents related to sectarian or religious disputes. In some ways the sentiments expressed Pillar Edict VI and Rock Edict VIII related to public welfare and religious tolerance are more effectively implemented in Bhutan than in Western democracies due to the monarchy’s ability to directly execute policies. At least in Bhutan, centuries old Buddhist ethics and values are working effectively, and there is no sign of serious discontent with its style of governing, because many people of Bhutan have embraced a number of Buddhist values like those promoted by Asoka.
Emperor Asoka was one of the most successful Buddhist rulers in history. Some of his values, such as the banning of killing of animals in certain locations, may not be relevant today in places like the United States because of the diversity of cultural perspectives and religions as well as due to having a democratic political system. There are other Edicts, however, such as those concerning the respect of other religions, the welfare of every citizen, and the promotion of happiness, which remain relevant today for all societies. Bhutan provides an example in the modern world which most closely follows the vision of Asoka’s ideal Buddhist society. When reading the Edicts of Asoka, one learns that he was no ordinary ruler, but was an individual with a grand vision. Through following Buddhist values, he understood that power, prestige, and wealth do not guarantee long-term happiness either for himself or his people.
Work Cited
Nikam, Narayanrao Appurao, and Richard P. McKeon, eds. Edicts of Asoka. Vol. 2. University of Chicago Press, 1978.