Among the monarchs who ruled mankind, Asoka occupies the highest position of honour.
This credit has neither been disputed nor denied by any historian of any country.
Asoka’s place in history has been determined by three main factors, namely, his unique role as a ruler, his remarkable achievement as a missionary, and for his lasting contribution to human civilisation.
As a Ruler:
It was his humanitarian and paternal administration which made Asoka the noblest of the kings. No ruler thought of himself like Asoka as the father of his subjects, and no king is known to have proclaimed “All men are my children”. This was no theoretical announcement of a high sounding principle. He practiced what he professed, and history has enough of evidences in respect of that.
The prime objective of Asoka was to achieve both material and spiritual welfare of men. He thought of their happiness in this world and the other. As for the material welfare of men, he ordered for liberality and charity towards the needy, for protection of the interests of all sections of people, for protecting people against injuries, for reduction of punishment to criminals, and for the release of old men or fathers of many children from prisons, etc.
In his compassion and liberalism, he made his officers as gentle and as kind as possible.”Just as a person feels confident after making over his child to a clever nurse, saying into himself ‘the clever nurse desires to bring up my offspring’, even so have I appointed the Rajukas for the welfare and happiness of the provincials, in order that they may perform their duties without fear, with confidence, and without perplexity”.
As for the people’s spiritual welfare he did enormous works for their mental elevation to lead a nobler life according to the laws of Dharma. He made it a principle of administration that a set of special officers “shall make themselves acquainted with what gives happiness or pain and exhort the people of the provinces along with the faithful, so that they may gain happiness in this world and in the next”.
As a king, Asoka regarded administration as a sacred duty. He himself wanted to be on duty always and everywhere. As he proclaimed : “At all hours and in all places, whether I am eating or am in the closed apartments, in the inner chamber, in the royal ranches, on horseback or in pleasure orchards, the Reporters may report people’s business to me. People’s business I do at all places” (Rock Edict VI). Such a king as he was, he commanded his officers to be dutiful, sincere and just. Asoka enjoyed no Vihara-Yatra and other pleasures like most monarchs, his sacred duty was his pleasure.
Though an ancient king, his large scale public works resemble the works of a modern welfare state. He constructed inns for pilgrims, and roads for travellers. For the thirsty, he dug wells. For shade, he planted trees. For men and animals, he laid orchards. He thought of minimizing bodily pain of both human being and animals. For that, he established centres of medical treatment of two kinds; one for men and the other for animals. Medicinal plants and herbs were planted extensively. One has to imagine, how vast could have been the nature of such activities in so gigantic a territory as the Maurya Empire. His was a time of hectic activities in the service of men.
A Political ruler though, he made his rule ethical for the conviction that a king was in debt to his people. It was by duty that he wanted to pay off that debt. As he said: “There is no higher duty than the welfare of the whole world. And what little efforts I made, what is it for? In order that I may be free from debt to the creatures, that I may render some happy here and that they may gain heaven in the next world”. Such an example of kingship being rare, Asoka’s place in history became assured as the most ideal among the monarchs.
As a Missionary:
Asoka was no founder of religion. He was no Prophet. But among those who propagated religions, he was the greatest. It was his propagation of Buddhism which paved path for making that religion the largest in the world, with teeming humanity of Asia embracing it in due course.
The greatness of Asoka as a missionary lay in the fact that though a mighty emperor, he never thought of making Buddhism a state religion under compulsion or force. Far from that kind of aim, he adopted the most peaceful method as a missionary to enlighten the people by precepts and practice.
Side by side, he showed sufficient tolerance and enough respect to all other religions and their followers. In this, Asoka differed from several kings who forced their own religion on their subjects. Asoka was no sectarian in his religious thought. Though a Buddhist, his respect for other religions of India was profound. He was never a religious bigot or a fanatic.
Moreover, Asoka as a missionary paid his supreme attention to preach a universal code of moral conduct which was beneficial to all men. As a Buddhist, too he laid emphasis on the ethical side of Buddhism more than its formal aspects. The most remarkable feature of Asoka’s missionary activity was his attempt to spread Buddhism outside India.
More than two hundred years before the birth of Christ his missionary monks entered into Western Asia and Greek territories to preach the tenets of Buddhism. When Christianity took its birth, the Buddhist philosophies were not unknown in that region. Asoka, in one sense, was like a link between the Buddhist and the Christian ethics.
In countries like Ceylon and Burma in those days, virtually there was no religion except primitive superstitions. Asoka as a missionary brought those lands under the influence of Buddhism. In this work, he showed an unusual example of personal sacrifices. He sent his own son Mahendra, who could have been the future emperor of India, as a Buddhist Bhiksliu to Ceylon.
No king in history had done this kind of work. Similarly, forgetting his affection to his daughter as a father, he sent Sanghamitra to Ceylon to spend her life in that island to convert its population to Buddhism. As a missionary, he overcame personal sentiments for the success of the cause.
It may be pointed out that Indian Brahmanism being a non-missionary religion, it remained confined to India with all its deeper philosophies and higher spiritual values. The masses of people in other countries could not know of it and therefore could not accept it as their own. But, Buddhism was a missionary religion.
Asoka’s great attempt to spread it outside resulted in the benefit of the humanity at large. He opened the doors of other countries not only to a mighty religion, but also to a tremendous force of civilisation. Within a few centuries of Asoka’s time, Buddhism was seen as the religion of the teeming humanity of Tibet, China, Japan, the entire South-East Asia, and Ceylon. With Buddhism went out the inner spiritual thoughts of the traditional Hinduism, besides the Indian art, philosophy, and other elements of culture.
It is for such reasons that Asoka’s place in history has been established as the foremost among the missionaries who dedicated their life to civilise men. As a missionary, Asoka has been compared with the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great who was a patron of Christianity as Asoka was of Buddhism. But there was a great difference between the two.
Constantine championed the cause of Christianity when that religion was spreading out as a sweeping force. On the other hand, Asoka championed Buddhism when it was too weak inside India and was confined to a sect, to make it a world religion. Constantine preached Christianity more for political reasons, while Asoka preached Buddhism more for moral reasons. While the former was intolerant towards other faiths, Asoka was tolerant to all.
Asoka is also compared with Charlemagne on this account. But Charlemagne made Christianity a state religion of his conquered territories because of his royal power. Asoka, on the other hand, never tried to make Buddhism a state religion. He preached Buddhism, but did not impose it on others in his capacity as a king.
Perhaps more appropriately, some Western historians have compared Asoka to St. Paul who took up the cause of Christianity when it was confined to a very small number of people. The universal message of Jesus Christ, meant for humanity, was not understood by people.
Jesus was crucified by being misunderstood, and his immediate followers faced enemies everywhere. It was Paul who carried the meaning of Christianity far and wide, while suffering untold hardship. It was for him that Christianity touched the heart of innumerable men to become a great religion. In a similar way, Asoka carried the message of Buddha to millions and opened path for Buddhism to become a world religion.
Asoka’s Contributions to Civilisation:
Asoka was a king. His political empire, like all other empires of history, vanished in course of time. His conquest, like that of other kings, became a temporary achievement. But, unlike most kings, he left permanent legacies to influence the future. His contributions to civilisation were of lasting value.
By renouncing violence after the Kalinga War, he became the first great pacifist in world history among the rulers of men. His policy of pacifism remains like a permanent lesson for all times to come. He exposed the futility of conquest by force and advocated the need for the conquest by Law. Two thousand three hundred years after him, the world leaders of twentieth century are trying to work out what Asoka did for peace and human brotherhood in his days.
His attempts at the growth of cosmopolitanism and humanitarianism were the first examples of that kind in history. The different people in different lands could not think in terms of larger humanity though their mutual trust and understanding. The peace missions of Asoka to various other kings were the first experiments in that effort.
The spread of Buddhism which he took up was like a mission of civilising others. It was not a religion which he wanted to export, but an all-round consciousness for self-elevation. Buddhism was responsible for the mental and spiritual awakening of the Eastern humanity in a more definite sense. It also became a vehicle of culture and promoted wide-scale efforts in art, philosophy and literature.
According to historian D.R. Bhandarkar:”This much, however, is certain that the world has considerably gained by the missionary activity of this Indian monarch and while to the Farther East Buddhism has given not only her religion and philosophy but also other important features of the Hindu civilization. It has exercised great influence not only on the Jewish sects of the Therapeutae and Essenes but also on Christianity of the early period as well as of the Middle Ages”. While Asoka’s political empire proved momentary, his religion cultural empire has survived through ages. More people remember him today than they remember any other king of history.
To determine the place of Asoka in world history, the famous historian Herbert George wells compared him with three of the other great monarchs, namely Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte. What did Alexandar create, he asked, and answered: “As his power increased, his arrogance and violence grew with it. He drank hard and murdered ruthlessly. After a protracted drinking bout in Babylon, a sudden fever came on him and he died at the age of thirty three. Almost immediately, his empire began to break up”.
Regarding Julius Caesar, H.G. Wells pointed out that at the height of his power when he could have done much good to the world, he was feasting and frolicking in Egypt with that siren, Cleopatra, when he was fifty four. About Napoleon, H.G. Wells was equally critical. When, after the French Revolution, the old order of things was dead or dying. Napoleon came to power. But when he could have done enough, he lost the opportunity and did nothing. His contribution to human race was practically nil.
Compared to them, Asoka emerges as a man of vision for the promotion of the physical happiness and moral elevation of mankind. He put his vision into reality. When the Mauryan Empire was at its height, Asoka seized the opportunity and dedicated his energies as well as the resources of the empire to realise the good of men.
With such comparison, H.G. Wells concluded saying: “Amid the tens and the thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousness’s and serenities and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Asoka shines and shines almost alone-a star. From the Volga to Japan his name is still honoured. China, Tibet and even India, though it has left his doctrine, preserve the tradition of his greatness. More living men cherish his memory today than have ever heard the names of Constantine or Charlemagne”.
The place of Asoka in Indian history, apart from his place in world history, is endearing indeed. So long after him the new India has adopted the policy of Asoka in her international relations. That India effectively preserves ‘the tradition of his greatness’ can be known from the national flag of free India, having as its symbol the wheel of Asoka. A few days before India’s independence when the Constituent Assembly prepared the national flag, it resolved to accept the wheel or the Asokan Chakra as it appeared on the abacus of the Sarnath pillar of Asoka. Explaining its significance to the people, Mahatma Gandhi wrote:
“Some will recall through the Wheel the name of that Prince of Peace, Asoka, the founder of an empire who ultimately gave up the pomp and the circumstances of power to become the undisputed emperor of the hearts of men and became the representative of all the then known faiths. We would call it a legitimate interpretation of the wheel to seek in it the Wheel or Law ascribed to that living store of mercy and love”.
To Gandhi, the Asoka Disc is ‘the ever moving Wheel of the Divine Law of Love’.
Thus is ascertained Asoka’s place in world history, and in the history of India.