Modern lessons from the ancient King Ashoka

Ashoka, the famous Mauryan emperor, ruled a major part of the Indian sub-continent in the third century before the Common Era. His conquests were only rivalled much later by those of the imperial Mughals and the British Indian Empire. However, the nature of his rule, as reflected in the orders issued by him, surviving as Ashoka’s Edicts all over India, paint him as an unusually humane ruler who strived for peace and equality amongst his subjects. Though Ashoka’s earlier trysts with power were full of violence and hatred against his opponents, his later trajectory of self-reformation from a blood-thirsty tyrant to a compassionate ruler is studded with inspiration for modern Indians. Certain new age truths find resonance in Ashoka’s life defying the double score of centuries lying between him and us.


The first truth emerging from Ashoka’s tale is the ability to transform one’s self from bad to good, and good to better, by self-introspection. Had Ashoka not introspected on his past doings, he would have never thought of reforming his nature. The introspection included meditating on his faults and mending his ways with drastic changes in his reaction to the same circumstances. Thus, while he earlier preached war, the reformed Ashoka believed in peaceful communication.

Effective communication

The second major learning from Ashoka’s life is the use of latest communication tools to express one’s thoughts, forcefully and effectively, an idea which would certainly appeal to a generation hooked to social media. Ashoka’s Edicts were etched not only in Brahmi, the chief script of his empire, but also in Aramaic (an ancient Persian script), in Greek and in Kharosthi, the local script of North-West India. By translating his message of peace in these many scripts and languages, Ashoka managed to reach out to as many people as possible not only from his own empire but also the foreign emissaries of Greek and Persian Empires.

Foreign policy

One cannot dismiss Ashoka’s smart use of foreign policy to ensure peace on borders as he named five contemporary Greek rulers with whom he maintained contact after his conquest of Kalinga. Ashoka seems to be the first Indian ruler to make such international treaties to ensure peace through negotiation. Ashoka’s peaceful relations with neighbours were most certainly an inspiration for India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, also the country’s first External Affairs Minister, in formulating peaceful ties based on negotiation with our neighbouring countries.

Conservation of wildlife

Ashoka’s policy of protection of animals from unwanted sacrifices began the movement towards making vegetarianism an integral part of Indian life as the major precepts of Buddhist (originally Jain) thought found their way into mainstream lifestyles. Seen from the viewpoint of animal rights, Ashoka’s policy makes eminent sense both in its appeal for compassionate treatment of domesticated animals and conservation of wildlife in the world.

Equal law

Another striking feature of Ashoka’s four-decade long rule was the setting up of one of the first welfare states in the ancient world with equal laws and punishments for all its subjects. The emperor took an almost paternal interest in the welfare of his populace, spending state funds on developing/improving water reservoirs (Junagadh’s Girnar city had a dam built by Ashoka’s grandfather, Chandragupta Maurya, which was expanded with additions of canals through Ashoka’s ‘Yavana’ Greek governor), highways lined with shade trees, frequent wells, orchards and public guest houses for travellers.

A tolerant leader

Last but not least, Ashoka stands out as a beacon of tolerance to other ‘faiths’ or divergent views in a period where heterodox faiths like Buddhism, Jainism and an extinct faith, Ajivikas, rose to claim new followers. His sage advice of tolerance comes out in an edict where he proclaims, “All sects deserve reverence for one reason or another. By thus acting, a man not only exalts his own sect but also does service to the sects of other people and humanity in general.” In an echo of the current debate on Free Speech and tolerance, he further states, “The Beloved of Gods (Devanampiya) considers the control of one’s speech, so as to not extol one’s sect or disparage another on unsuitable (social) occasions, to be the basis of concord in the society. Concord is to be commended so that men may hear one another’s principles.” It is thus with good reason that the Indian Republic chose Ashoka’s Lion Capital at Sarnath as its state emblem to reflect the same harmony achieved by this great ruler in the remotest period of Indian History and effect a continuity with his humane policies towards the people of the modern Indian nation.

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