In what ways was Ashoka the great inspired by Buddhism and the Arthashastra?

By Sunil Kumar

Ashoka formed a strong empire and like other kings and emperors of the time intrinsically believed in the intrinsic powers of royalty.

His religious world-view was tempered by Buddhism to the extent that he is supposed to have felt genuine remorse after the Kalinga war; and some sources claim that he was already a Buddhist before the struggle. The only visible proof of Ashoka’s change are the edicts in various parts of the subcontinent from Gujarat to Orissa right upto Gandhara(Afghanistan now).

The Lion capital of Ashoka

Visit The Lion capital of Ashoka (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The Buddha And Vajrapani, Gandhara 2nd Century

Visit The Buddha And Vajrapani, Gandhara 2nd Century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to historians; the inscriptions show his efforts to develop the Buddhist dharma throughout his kingdom. Although Buddhism and the Gautama Buddha are mentioned, the edicts focus on social and moral precepts rather than specific religious practices or the philosophical dimension of Buddhism.These were located in public places and were meant for people to read. Also he sent embassies to spread the Dhamma from present-day Greece, Egypt and Syria to Sri Lanka and Suvarnabhoomi(supposed to be Burma/Thailand).

Coming to the Arthashastra it has two sections, the first dealing with the governance of the kingdom (tantra, “home affairs,” so to speak), and the second dealing with foreign relations (avapa, “external affairs”).

There’s a prefatory table of contents, and a concluding self-reflexive statement showing that the Arthashastra itself is a well-constructed text, ideal as a handbook for the ruler of a well-governed kingdom

All aspects of what we might think of as policy, planning, infrastructure, strategy, security, war, treaties, alliances, law and order, trade, taxation, revenue, property, fortifications, treasury, and defense are covered in a systematic fashion.

Regarding the Arthashastra; Ashoka must certainly have been aware of and according to sources; even met Kautilya(Chanakya) his grandfather’s guru as a young man. However the wise Brahmin advocated limited governance and non-interference in people’s affairs. However; Ashoka’s thinking is more paternalistic. In his edicts; he repeatedly refers to his subjects as children and officials were like nannies. Dhamma Mahamantras were supposed to monitor what people ate on different times in the month.

Source: Why India needs to no longer be an Ashokan republic, but a Chanakyan one

Chanakya was therefore more inclined to a libertarian state; and Ashoka a more interventionist one. The Arthashastra; Chanakya’s system of thought also advocated the use of different kinds of spies across the empire. These were fraudulent disciples, ascetics, religious leaders and retired soldiers. The pragmatic realism of the Arthashastra was followed by Ashoka only in the sense of having an established spy network. For the rest; Ashoka’s thinking seems to have been more influenced by his own regal needs and Buddhist thought.

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