Saturday, June 23, 2012

Ashoka's Non-violence: Political Philosophy or Philosophical Politics?

The Great Mauryan Empire extended from Kandhar to Bengal and from Kashmir to Karnataka with an exception of Kalinga. Emperor Ashoka waged deadly war against Kalinga and annexed it. But seeing the damage done to life and property due to war, Ashoka was engulfed by grief and repentance. He turned to non-violence and spread the message of non-violence to the remotest corners of his kingdom.

Was this adoption of non-violence a political necessity for him or was it a real change of heart? Perhaps only Ashoka could answer it or perhaps he would not like to answer it. We can only speculate based on our humble understanding of politics and history. May be Gramsci could be of some help for us in analyzing this, though we will bent his notion of hegemony to suit our needs.

Gramsci considered that State is a tool by which Hegemon creates hegemony i.e. legitimizes his rule and exerts control. So was non-violence used as a tool for creating hegemony by Ashoka among his subjects? Adoption of non-violence as the highest virtue by their king, attracted the subjects to this notion. They started believing in the greatness of their ruler who became 'repentant' for a wrong, who wanted to establish rule of 'peace and non-violence' now, who would wage no more wars, who would give up all acts of cruelty and who is the messenger of peace and the beloved of Gods i.e. 'Devānāmpriya'. His message of peace and non-violence was spread to remotest corners of his vast empire by engraving on rocks and pillars. And what King believes in, people also believe in. His messages created sympathy and respect for him across his empire and beyond.

By this one masterstroke Ashoka forestalled the very possibility of any rebellion in such a vast and diverse empire. Subjugated kings, princes, aristocrats, bureaucrats, commanders and all others were imbibed by the virtue of non-violence and non-aggression. His supposed virtuosity also established peace on his borders. Point to be noted here is that after seeing great destruction at Kalinga and adopting Buddha's path of non-violence, Ashoka didn't relinquish the throne of Kalinga, which an ideal person would have done had he been so much moved by the violence and bloodshed. He assimilated Kalinga in his kingdom, rather.

Non-violence strengthened the foundations of his highly centralized empire which he could now rule with much ease. I am, therefore, tempted to believe that non-violence served as a great political philosophy for Ashoka. It seems more politics than philosophy !!

- Raja Banthia, On this 24th day of June, in the 2012th year of our Lord !!!

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