Monday, June 20, 2022

India’s 2500-Year-Long Tradition of Ahimsa

Did Emperor Asoka’s policy of governing through the pacifist tenets of Buddhism lead to the downfall of the Maurya Empire? In his book Ancient India (Chapter II, “The Maurya Empire''), R C Majumdar writes: “…Asoka must be held primarily responsible for the downfall of the great empire. The empire was founded by the policy of blood and iron and could only be maintained by following the same policy. But by eschewing all wars and abandoning the aggressive imperial policy, Asoka weakened the very foundations of the empire.”

In 273 BC, when Asoka ascended to the throne, the Maurya Empire covered much of the Indian subcontinent: from Afghanistan in the West to Assam in the East, from Kashmir in the North to the Southern part of India, as far as modern-day Karnataka. According to Megasthenes, the ambassador of Seleucus I in the court of the first Maurya emperor, Chandragupta (Asoka’s grandfather), the Maurya army was highly organized and well-armed—it consisted of “600,000 infantry, 30,000 horsemen, 36,000 men with 9,000 elephants, 24,000 men with 8000 chariots, excluding followers and attendants.”

The Kalinga war happened in the ninth year of Asoka’s reign. Kalinga was a powerful and populous state and they fought very hard to defend their kingdom. Asoka himself led his army in the battle; he won after inflicting a terrible massacre on the Kalinga side. The text in his thirteenth rock edict describes the aftermath of the Kalinga war: it says that 100,000 people were killed and 150,000 were captured. The text contains a description (probably in Asoka’s own words) of the pain that he felt by the bloodshed and destruction. He was filled with disgust for every form of violence, and decided to become a Buddhist. 

Asoka became obsessed with preaching the Buddhist philosophy of ahimsa (non-violence). He gave up meat (since Buddhism forbade injury to any creature), and most members of his government and his dynasty did the same. He started using the resources of his empire to propagate Buddhism, and he modeled the policies of his empire on the basis of the tenets of Buddhist philosophy. When a rebellion broke out in his empire’s southern province, instead of sending a powerful military to crush the rebels, Asoka sent a delegation of Buddhist monks. His constant preaching of the virtue of ahimsa weakened the military structure of the Maurya Empire, and led to a decline in the martial spirit of the masses.

India had powerful empires after the Maurya Empire’s fall—the Gupta Empire (early fourth to late sixth centuries AD) was bigger than the Maurya Empire. The Guptas maintained a strong military and were not pacifist or Buddhist. But Buddhist philosophy was popular in the intellectual class. After the Guptas faded, the Northeastern region of the Indian subcontinent, the area where Afghanistan and Pakistan are located, came under the domination of Buddhist rulers. These Buddhists tried to deal with the Islamic invasions, which began in 636 AD, by using their philosophy of ahimsa. Between the ninth and fourteenth centuries, Afghanistan and Pakistan were subjugated by Islam.  

Mahatma Gandhi was not the original proponent of ahimsa in India. The original proponent was Buddha, who preached his Buddhist philosophy in the sixth century BC.

Buddhist philosophy has existed in India for more than 2500 years, and ahimsa has become ingrained in India's culture. In the 1930s, Gandhiji’s call for a nonviolent struggle against British rule resonated powerfully with the people of India; Subhas Chandra Bose’s call for a military campaign to overthrow the British Empire did not evoke the same kind of resonance. Some scholars have suggested that Gandhiji was influenced by Tolstoy’s Christian pacifism. This is not correct. Gandhiji was a pacifist in the ancient Buddhist tradition, which became enshrined in Indian culture during Asoka’s reign.

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