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ASHOKA: Parliament and Civics in Ashoka’s Empire

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With This Article An Indian Dark Age of Ignorance Ends……….

ASHOKA: Parliament and Civics in Ashoka’s Empire

From ‘ASHOKA The Great’ By Hon. Dr. S.K. Biswas

(From ASHOKA The Great by Hon. Dr. S.K. Biswas – Part III of a long dissertation dispelling the Indian Dark Age of Ignorance about their own history – first published in Yug-Udbodhan (or ‘Dhamma’) periodical, New Delhi. The article was published in four parts starting in July 1996, p12 and onward. (This periodical has ceased publishing due to the demise of K.P.R. Bandhu, editor). It is re-typed here from the original by Chakradhar Hadke, and readability has been improved by Priyantha Hettige, who also removed Christian terminology, etc., all done to reach a wider readership.)

Part III


It is said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Monarchy does not compromise with benevolence. It is also said that it is arrogance of power and not the generosity of authority that emerges out of monarchy. But Indian Emperor Ashoka the Great, a paramount ruler of all he surveyed, was an exception; the spontaneous benevolence arising in his heart was very more than most. There are some European rulers, famous for their benevolence. These monarchs were influenced by the democratic ideals of Europe and were pressured to benevolence by the ever increasing power of the people, whereas Emperor Ashoka’s benevolence sprang up from the humanity and compassion within himself. So, when those grand regal, powerful personalities of Europe are placed beside a Indian emperor so enlightened with the “Wisdom of the Buddha”, one, namely “Ashoka the Great” and a comparative study is attempted, their good names fade into insignificance along with their benevolence, just as the stars in the night sky fade away with sun-rise.

Buddhists can claim, with some justification that these traits of character and of heart of Ashoka were due to being submerged from an early age in the doctrines of the Gautam, The Buddha

The Virtues of Kindness, High Esteem and Caring:

The power at Ashoka’s elbow was his united, purposeful family, his education and early training and that the cardinal doctrines of Gautam, The Buddha, pervaded the whole society; people could see and understand what he was doing. The emperor won over the hearts of his fellow countrymen of the period and now, with these revelations about his rule, for an eternity to come. This reputation was achieved by implementing, or putting into practice some of the ideals spoken about by Gautam, The Buddha; he made them a reality. What the Buddha preached, the emperor practiced. He made the Buddhist ethos come alive for the people of his empire.

This not only affected the literacy and the domain of knowledge in the society, but it also shaped the culture, religious practice, polity, politics and social interaction of the common people of India (which included a great part of what we call Afghanistan), as a whole.

While on the one side of Buddhism there was the concept of knowledge, the other side of the coin was the virtue of love and belonging. Within the limitations of their environment, people could develop and grow their talents, their personalities and character.

This benign rule encouraged feelings of kind esteem to arise; all people belonged together united, to overcome the problems of daily living. So, this sense of belonging to one group in equality or oneness, emerged out of this kind esteem resulting in a high degree group association and solidarity, an anathema to Brahmin (and Catholic rule). Note that without this feeling of all equal and united, inequality occurs and then a return to equality for all is not welcomed by those more privileged.

There are some fundamental, but commonsensical forces at work here. On the one hand it has been well demonstrated for millennia, that a society of un-equals (e.g. Brahmins or Catholics) never had kind regards or high regards, for others of a lesser standing: you can use them or abuse them. (Ref. the ‘Neo-Cons’ of the USA!)

On the other hand, when thoughts of gentleness, kind esteem for society is held by someone, there are no desires arising to go out and exploit others. Also, it must be pointed out, the co-existence of love and untruth, or deception is not a normal phenomenon; you cannot hold your fellow men in high esteem but also tell lies to them and then send them off to war, perhaps a war fought to suit your own purposes.

Holding up an ideal as an example, the storm of love between lovers does not recognize any caste or status barrier, because of the nature of love, neither is superior or inferior. Lovers care for and protect each other, they respect each other. So, having kind regards for others give rise to the sense of mutual respect and well-being. Out of love can develop self-esteem, individualism, talent and character.

Social Contract Theory of Gautam, TheBuddha:

Buddha declared: “Sabbe Satta sudhi hantu, sabbe hantu chakhe mina”- let all beings be happy and prosperous.

His boundless love taught: “Mata Jatha niyang puttand aayusa akaputtamanukakhe abampisabbe bhutesu manasambhabayeparimanang”- as the mother gets ready to sacrifice her own life to save the life of her only son, so also, one is to love every being”.

These are high-minded principles. In society each one is to love, respect and care for the other one; everyone should work for the good of the majority and for the happiness of the majority; “Bahujana hitaya Bahujan Sukhaya”, preached Gautam, The Buddha and these ideals were practiced in reality and even transformed into state laws by Emperor Ashoka.

Therefore, when Buddha, preached the theory of kingship, it was mostly with the concept of love and respect for every individual and he propounded the doctrine of “Social Contract Theory”. It was impossible for Gautam, The Buddha, who had kind compassion for all, and who wanted welfare for all, to hold and propagate a theory of divine kingship, which makes the potentates assume absolute powers, on authority deriving from GOD, a generator of arrogance of power, overweening pride, and thereby becoming a machine for exploitation of the weak. This “divine right” – God given right to rule, to kingship, runs contra to the Buddha’s doctrine of the “Social Welfare State.”

People generally believe that the “Social Contract Theory” of kingship was, for the first time in the world, given by the French revolutionary political philosopher, Rousseau during the 18th Century CE. From a historical standpoint it was, however, not correct; it was Gautam, The Buddha who was first to propagate the “Social Contract Theory” more than 2500 years ago. And Emperor Ashoka was the first ruler on the earth who put the theory into practice during the 3rd Century B.C.E. He did this deliberately as a Buddhist policy.

The Buddha’s theory has been recorded elaborately in the “Agnagna Sutta” of the DighaNikaya. Buddha described the process of emergence of private property in society. He could see that, eventually, the unbridled desire to accumulate private property (greed) would gave birth to all kinds of corruption (- unacceptable lust and hate) and criminal problems. Usually, the leader of military conquest, the strong-man, became king and absolute ruler. His children, without such mighty power and authority had to rely on GOD for support. Thus there arose the institution of the “Divine Right of Kings”.

In the Dighanikaya, The Buddha gave us: “Then all the crowd shouted to a Satta (man) ….. then others caught him and spoke; “O satta (man) you have done wrong, don’t do it again”….. and a second time they did this … and a third time they did this, and then the crowd told the Satta (man), “ You have done wrong things ….” Finally, when it was done again, he was caught by the crowd and beaten up. From then on for theft, lies, and other offences against others, etc., condemnation and punishment was prescribed….

Then all the Sattas ‘beings” assembled together and decided there has arisen corruption amongst us.. now let us elect someone who will condemn the corrupt and punish the guilty, praise and reward the praise worthy, who will prescribe every one’s duty and proper function and banish the ones who will be so deserving……… Then all went and approached the most mighty and bright personality of the clan and requested him: “O Satta! You give us the verdict of just and unjust actions, condemn the guilty, and banish the ones who deserve so. We will give you share of our “Shali.” He accepted the offer by declaring, “Be it so.” He became known as “Mahasammata” as he was agreeable to the request of the Mahajans, the people’s request.”

Emperor Ashoka, although a paramount and absolute ruler, shaped his life style as well as his royal office as the embodiment of this theory of social contract. He did not rule his kingdom and his subjects remotely, he was deeply involved. He had secretaries who informed him, and he would act at any time or place. To this effect the Emperor declared and have recorded: “ A long period has elapsed during which in the past business was not carried on or information brought in, at all times.

“So, the arrangement has been made that at all times and all places, whether I am eating or in the ladies apartments, in my bedroom or in my closet, in my carriage or in my palace garden, the official reporters should keep me constantly informed of the people’s business.”

“………. Because I never feel satisfaction in my exertions and dispatch of business. For, work I must for the welfare of all the folk; and of that again, the root is energy and dispatch (speedy) business; for nothing is more essential than the welfare of all the folk. And whatsoever efforts I make they are made that I may attain release from my debt to animate beings, so that while in this world I make some persons happy, they may win heaven in the world beyond. For that purpose have I caused this scripture of the Law to be written in order that it may endure, while my sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons may take action for the welfare of all folk. That, however is difficult save by the utmost exertion.”

No absolute monarch who ascended the imperial throne on the basis of hereditary right, or as a natural heir to it, in the world, felt while discharging his official duty or doing welfare of his subjects, that he was liquidating some, “debt to animate being (subjects or otherwise)” and realized that attainment of release from the dept comes through tireless services to the animate beings. These, as a natural corollary, come out of the teachings of the “Social Contract Theory.” Ashoka mounted to the throne of the Indian empire not through a democratic election, but by war and the suffering of his subjects. Even with absolute power he recognized the greater goodness and power of The Buddha’s teachings and so became a benevolent ruler.

Embodiment of the Parent:

Ashoka’s mind was filled with the milk of human kindness that a mother posses for her only son as taught by Gautam, The Buddha. He made efforts to care and develop his subjects with personal love and affection. All rulers are obliged to appoint Governors, Viceroys, officers and feudal lords to consolidate, collect revenue and to rule the land and its people under his governance. But Emperor Ashoka was unique, one who engaged provincial governors to look after the subjects as the parents appoint good nurses for the children. He declared this by the imperishable method of writing rock edicts.

“To my Governors set to govern over many hundred thousands of people I have granted them powers, confidently and fearlessly so they may perform their duties, and bestow welfare and happiness upon them.

They will ascertain the causes of happiness or discontent and through the subordinate officials of the Law of Piety will exhort the people of the country so that they may gain in both this world and the next.

My Governors, too, eager to serve me; my Agents, also, acknowledging my will, shall serve me, and they, too, on occasion, will give exhortations so that the Governors will be eager to win me.

For, just as a man having made over his child to a skillful nurse, feels confident and says to himself, “The skillful nurse is eager to care for the happiness of my child,” even so my Governors have been created for the welfare and happiness of the country, with intent that fearlessly, confidently, and quietly they may perform their duties. For the reason I have granted to my Governors independence in the award of honours and penalties.”

The Rule of Law:

The last paragraphs of the Rock Edict No. IV, reveals a starting point regarding the existence of the “Rule of Law” in ancient India. The Hindu society of later age and the Brahminical society of the pre-Gautama period basically had been lawless and without any institutions worth of the name ‘judiciary’. The corrupt rule of the Aryans, made up the rules on the principle of favoring themselves and discriminating against the lower classes. These were called caste-laws; the duty of the Brahmin kings were primarily to observe and maintain this law of “ChaturVarna and Ashrama.” These laws were in practice some sort of ‘divine right to robbery,’ ‘divine right to cheat,’ ‘divine right to loot,’ and ‘divine right to murder, ’ etc. , in those cases committed by the Aryan Devatas. There was nothing criminal for the Brahmins. They enjoyed total immunity from laws. The Laws of Manu, etc., give evidence to this position.

While the French traveler Barnier wrote his famous account, “Travels in the Mughal Empire” in the closing years of the 18th Century he recorded, “There is no one before whom the injured peasant, artisans, or tradesmen can pour out his just complaints, no great Lords of Parliament or judges of local Courts, exists as in France, to restrain the wickedness of those who oppress, and the Kadis, are not invested with sufficient power to redress the wrongs of these unhappy people” (p-225).

But India was not always a lawless country, a country of divine but corrupt Brahmin classes. Indeed, 2300 years ago, from today, the teachings of the Buddha, the pearl without price, enlightened and strengthened the might of the character of the emperor Ashoka to promulgate the laws, impartial and uniform and set up a Judiciary on the basis of “Rule of Law.” He did not care about the consequential, Brahminical reaction, one of conspiracy-prone antagonism. Nothing daunted, the Emperor declared. “Vaybhara Samata Danda Sama” equal punishment for the equal offence, irrespective of the offender’s caste, creed or status, He recorded:

“For as much as it is desirable that there should be uniformity in judicial procedure and uniformity in penalties, for this time forward my rule is this:–

“To condemned men lying in prison under sentence of death a respite of three days is granted by me.” (Edict-IV)

Not just for human being, Ashoka arranged for the happiness and comfort of the beasts and birds too. His ever vigilant paternal eyes looked into the happiness of all being. This could have only been possible because of the magic-call of the Lord Buddha: “Sabba Satta Sukhi Hantu, Sabbe hantu Chakhe Mina”. Let all being be happy, let all be prosperous. That he transformed Buddha’s ideals into practice has been documented into the rock edict, in an autobiographic form: “On the roads, too, I have banyan-trees planted to give shade to man and beast; groves (or “gardens”) of mango-trees. I have planted; at every half league I have wells dug; rest-houses, too, have been created; and numerous watering places have been provided by me here and there for the enjoyment of man and beast.

A small matter, however, is that so-called enjoyment. With various blessing has mankind been blessed by former kings, as by me also; however, with the intent that men may conform to the Law of Piety, has it been done even as I thought.”

Secularism: Most Ancient

Emperor Ashoka’s boundless compassion and grace became transcendent in society. Like Lord Buddha, he also brought members of different religious sets and creeds, clans and races under has protective umbrella of kindness and compassion. Buddha was the deliverer of the suffering humanity, the helpless, sad-stained beings. He was against the Brahmin discriminators who coerced and exploited human beings in an unspeakable, demonist manner. He declared the majority of the population, Sudras or Untouchables, as fully equal to all. Despite that, he allowed all the arrogant earthly gods whosoever, to beg for his compassion, favor, mercy and grace. So also Ashoka embraced all irrespective of caste or creed. He declared in one of his edicts:

“My Censors or “High Officers” of the Law of Piety, too are employed on the manifold objectives of the Royal Favor affecting both ascetics and householders, and are likewise employed among all denominations. They are employed on Buddhist business, too, as well as among the Brahmins and Jains. Similarly, they are employed among the miscellaneous sects of Jains, too.”

There were five main religious sects at the time of Emperor Ashoka, those were: Buddhists, Ajivikas, Nirgranthis, Brahmins and Jains. There were also some other minor sects. Ashoka the great though himself a Buddhist, never treated the other sects with disfavor from the official angle. The principal of secularism was pronounced by a state head, for the first time in the world when Ashoka declared:

“His Sacred and Gracious Majesty the King does reverence to men of all sects, whether ascetics or householders … the keystone of it is restraint of speech, to wit, a man must not do reverence to his own sect and disparage that of another without good reason. Depreciation should be for specific reasons only, because the sects of other people all deserve reverence for one reason or the other.

By thus acting a man exalts his own sects, and at the same time does service to the sects of other people. By acting contrariwise a man hurts his own sects, and does disservice to the sects of other people…”

Parliamentary Democracy:

Emperor Ashoka had a regal personality: stern and alert like a father, while his heart was soft with the tender feelings of a mother. Ashoka behaved like a very practical man as he implemented the cardinal philosophy of the Buddha.

Gautam, the Buddha did not enter into the speculative philosophy of metaphysics. Buddha declared that there was no God. He led all humanity to the path of self realization, reasoning and rationality in the search for what was good and true and what was not. “Atta deepa bhava” (You are the architect of your own destiny) was his call. A person will suffer or be happy according to his own thoughts words and deeds – Buddhist Kamma. Since there was no chance of getting an extra bonus from intervention by any supernatural power like God to achieve a target, human power had to exert and excel on its own merit. Therefore, Emperor Ashoka declared, “A great virtue is to be always active.” Knowledge, experience and training and the practice of virtue on this mundane earth, were the teachings of Law of Piety that Ashoka preached. Ashoka the Great, thus, stands as the father of individualism. The point of equilibrium of individualism and State authority is the basic point of social-justice and democratic life of human beings. Ashoka even appointed a team, a Council of Ministers with specific portfolios and power. He seems to have brought into practice a system of parliamentary democracy under the patronage of the Emperor – very likely mostly his brothers who had been his army generals! As in the case of Great Britain, the parliamentary form of democracy runs along with the institution of kingship intact (But needs the Monarch’s approval for any deployment of troops!). As Dr. Ambedkar spoke: “A study of the Buddhist Bhikkhu Sangha reveals that not only were there Parliamentary sessions —for Sangha meetings were nothing but a Parliament – but the Sangha meetings employed all the rules of parliamentary procedure known in modern times. They had rules regarding Motions, Resolutions, forming a Quorum, Whips to ensure voting, Voting by Ballot and Counting of Votes, Censure Motion, Regularization, Resolutions, Judicature, etc. Although these rules of Parliamentary procedure were applied by the Buddha to the meetings of the Sangha, he must have borrowed them from the rules of political assemblies functioning in the country in his time.”

Emperor Ashoka employed these parliamentary procedures his machinery of government, too. In this context it is interesting to note that whatever principles available in the preamble of the Constitution of modern India were current procedures in the government of Emperor Ashoka, the Great.

(To be continued ………. In next part IV….)

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