Good and bad polytheists (part 7): Chanakya and Ashoka


arthshastra-350-x-225_041515115802[1]This Indian sage was a Brahmin (priestly teacher) who flourished in the latter part of the 4th century BCE. Several traditions attribute different events to his life, but it is universally agreed that he was, first, the counsellor of Chandragupta Maurya, the man who became the first emperor of India, and secondly, the author of the Arthashastra, a book on government, law, and kingship that the emperor followed. It is said that Chandragupta was born only a peasant, or according to another source, in the middle class of warriors, but Chanakya inspired him to raise an army and conquer his neighbors. Considering the bad effects of imperialism, condemned here in previous writings, this action might seem unjust and impious, hardly qualifying Chanakya as an example of a good polytheist. In reality, however, imperialism was (unfortunately, we must say) the best direction to take during that time, and Chanakya, as a priest, would have understood the case. Alexander III (commonly called Alexander the Great) had died a few years before in 323 BCE, and his failed attempt to conquer India was now repeated by his generals and governors. Seleucus Nicator was already emperor over a vast territory in the west by 312 BCE, and was threatening to add India, already partly controlled by governors left by Alexander, to his dominions. There is no positive evidence that Chanakya hated the invading Macedonians, but he must have been concerned about the fate of the Indian peoples if they were to become subjects to foreign powers and cultures, and therefore advocated an Indian empire as a response. And indeed, it was not too long before Chandragupta, after he had conquered some eastern territories and assassinated two governors of Alexander in India, clashed with Seleucus in 305 BCE. The subsequent war lasted for a short time, and because Chandragupta had a powerful and well-trained army, it ended on good terms, where Seleucus agreed to marry his daughter to him, in return for several hundred elephants, useful for Seleucus’ ambitions in the west.

Chanakya’s piety and wisdom can be observed further in his book Arthashastra. It is interesting here to note how Aristotle, the tutor of Alexander, compares with Chanakya, the tutor of Chandragupta. Aristotle, much like Chanakya, was a man of great learning who wrote excellently on many subjects. However, Aristotle was (like all Greek philosophers) not concerned with traditional religion and customs; he even describes, like Plato, a higher intellectual God above the usual Pantheon, a position akin to monotheism. Chanakya on the other hand, acknowledges the Vedas (holy texts) as one of the four branches of knowledge, and that it is the Vedas that establish the Dharma and Adharma (ethics and laws). Futhermore, the Arthashastra states that one of the four ways that a just and powerful king ought to rule is by Sanstha, or customary law, which accompanies the Dharma, or established law. A third proof of the regard shown to religion is that a king, besides a council, ought to have a spiritual guide well versed in the Vedas. There are many other points and references in the Arthashastra that show the author to have been well-meaning and wise, i.e. the importance of protecting natural resources, the necessity of justice and integrity in government, the education of a king, the concern for the welfare of the common people, the conduct that ought to be pursued in war, etc. Being guided by a wholesome respect for religion, the Arthashastra promotes what is reasonable and good at a difficult and troublesome period in India.



800px-Ashoka's_visit_to_the_Ramagrama_stupa_Sanchi_Stupa_1_Southern_gateway[1]This is the third emperor of Mauryan India, the grandson of Chandragupta. His father Bindusara reigned in a time of peace with the Seleucid empire to the west, and he sought to maintain his empire, rather than expand it. He seems to have had disagreement with some of his ministers, which is why, when he was on his deathbed, they did not support his choice for succession, i.e. his eldest son Suisma. Suisma’s mother was noble, unlike Ashoka’s, even though both sons were appointed governors of provinces by their father. Upon his death in 273 BCE, the ministers of the realm sided with Ashoka, and a civil war broke out. Ashoka won the war; Suisma was murdered by being tricked into entering a pit full of hot coals, and all his brothers (sources say 99 of them) were killed except one, his uterine brother (from the same mother). Thus, envy, ambition, and cruelty combined to crown the new emperor. As Ashoka followed a new corrupt minister by the name of Rudhagupta, the old text of the Arthashastra, with all its good and wise principles, was forgotten. Buddhists state in ancient texts that he was so wicked he constructed a chamber for torture called Ashoka’s Hell; although this may be an exaggeration to praise his later change after converting to Buddhism, the truth remains that he was commonly known as Ashoka the fierce or cruel. In 262 BCE, about ten years into his reign, he waged a bloody war against Kalinga, an independent kingdom on the east coast of India. The Kalingans unexpectedly resisted fiercely, and Ashoka, as could be imagined, was merciless in response: It is reported that more than 100,000 people died and 150,000 were deported.

A story follows that Ashoka, while celebrating his victory by inspecting the conquered territory, was so overwhelmed by grief at the sight of so many corpses and destruction that he converted to Buddhism. It is debated whether he was already a Buddhist by that time, but this is a secondary detail if we compare it with his policies after the war as a Buddhist; although commonly represented as an emperor transformed from evil to good, his selfish ambition only shifted its colors. In the first place, there is a kind of contradiction in his conversion to Buddhism: His edicts call him a “servant of the Gods”, but as a Buddhist, he was properly a follower of Buddha, a man who had left the Hindu religion and established his own practices that did not give any due regard to the Gods. The title “servant of the Gods” is therefore merely for a political purpose at best and is hypocritical at worst. Secondly, even though Ashoka advocated toleration of all religions, he commanded missionaries to preach his own religion, Buddhism, throughout India and even beyond (as far as Greece). A third point that could be questioned is, why did Ashoka prefer the teachings of Buddha to those of Chanakya, a Brahmin who had aided his grandfather and had written a book that strengthened India? He had an opportunity to honor his grandfather’s memory, and still practice Ahimsa (non-violence, preached by Buddhists) since it was advocated by Chanakya too, but his ambition to establish his own accomplishments rather than attach himself to his father or grandfather; it is also clear that the Buddhists did not like Chandragupta, as appears from their negative account of his life. Furthermore, as proof of Ashoka’s arrogance and cruelty, even after conversion, an ancient historical text records that Ashoka arrested a man from the sect of Ajivikas who drew a picture of Buddha bowing down to a Jain saint, Nirgrantha. All the 18,000 Ajivikas in the province were subsequently executed, and after another drawing was found, Ashoka placed a bounty on the head of every follower of Nirgrantha. Even if these stories are exaggerated, there must be some truth to them. Every Mauryan emperor after Ashoka followed and favored Buddhism above traditional polytheism, and so when Pushyamitra Shunga seized power in 185 BCE, fifty years after Ashoka’s death, establishing the Shunga empire, he rose to persecute the Buddhists, seemingly in return for their former insolence and undeserved supremacy.

5 thoughts on “Good and bad polytheists (part 7): Chanakya and Ashoka

  1. K

    This might be a bit long, so I apologize in advance. I am actually a fan of Chanakya as well. I read a translation of Arthashastra years ago. It has a lot of practical advice as far as rulers go, and retains an ethical core even with all the realpolitik in it. It is probably the manual for Indian ideas of kingship, since it is a lot more concise than Manusmrti and other texts that address some of the same issues.

    I have noticed that you don’t seem to like Buddhism. I suspect it is because it has a founder that is commonly identified with it. You might be interested to know that Gautama(the Buddha) in several texts encourages keeping up with what you call traditional religion. When asked about things that make a country prosper, he mentions keeping up the usual holy days, festivals, shrines and so on. The main religious practice he did speak out against was animal sacrifice.

    Buddhism’s early competition was from other renunciant groups(Ajivikas, Jains, all sorts of brahmin renunciants) sects, not “popular religion”. Gautama never once claimed to be founding anything new, rather, he claimed to be uncovering something lost. Gautama’s opponents never seemed to address him as some kind of “heretic”. Buddhism under the Mauryas and later on, whether in India or in China, Tibet, Japan, Vietnam, Burma, etc., has always integrated itself into polytheistic cultures because it has a polytheistic framework in the first place.

    Incidentally, Chandragupta himself is said to be a Jain, but contemporary sources on him or any of the early Mauryas are rather lacking. India in general is kind of historically difficult. The only ones we have much idea of beliefs or ideology from are Ashoka and after, mostly from inscriptions. Written sources are usually late. Even much later on, a thousand years after the Mauryas, it is difficult to tell what many rulers in India believed or supported because they often patronized several different sects and were generally tolerant compared to other parts of the world. Inscriptions calling a king “beloved of the gods” or “servant of the gods” were standard royal epithets. Buddhist and Jain rulers had no problem linking royal authority to the gods because they believed in the same deities anyway. The archetypical image of a king was typically Indra. Buddhist rulers in Southeast Asia were considered incarnate god-kings kind of like Egyptian pharaohs were.

    Jainism and early Buddhism were very similar, down to their specific terms for themselves and central ideas and concepts. There was no such thing as Hinduism as we know it back then. Even today, Hinduism is a term for varied groups that share some common ideas and traits. Hinduism today shows a lot of influence from the time period of these Shramana movements. The Shramana movements took a lot of ideas and terminology from the Vedas(especially the Upanishads). I have seen in several posts that you approve of the Vedas, opposing them to the Avesta and Buddhism. What do you mean by Vedas? The Samhita parts of the Rig, Sama, and Yajur Vedas? Is the Atharva Veda acceptable? The Vedas include many layers, one of which is the Upanishads, that teach various types of monism and panentheism. Are these acceptable? Are the ritual texts and mythological/allegorical texts in the Brahmanas acceptable?

    It is hard in some cases to tell Buddhist ruins and monuments in that time from anything else. Same deities, same symbols, similar structures, and the fact that most people had similar practices whether Buddhist or Jain or Hindu something else. Jains and Buddhists worshipped yakshas, apsaras, house deities, local deities, sacred trees, sacred springs, and the same Vedic deities as everyone else. The earliest physical signs of some cults in India(statues and such) are from Buddhist sites in India, with many images of the goddesses Sri and Sarasvati found around Mauryan era Buddhist sites.

    I have my own issues with Buddhism, after studying it for a long time. My reasons would be hard to explain in a short way right now. But as a sort of counter or threat to polytheism as such, Buddhism is not. I think your main problem with it, aside from having a founder, would be that it puts worship of gods below concern for moral conduct, and that it teaches a doctrine seeking enlightenment to gain freedom from rebirth and the world rather than focusing entirely on cultic worship.

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    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      Thank you for the comment. Thoughts are always welcome, the longer, the more generous. Furthermore, you seem to be very well-informed on the topic, far more than I am. Let me try to explain my views.

      1- It is problematic that the biography and teachings of Buddha were written 400 years after his death (sometime during the Maurya Empire). There are conflicting reports and probably some deliberate variation, considering how much the sect grew and diversified by the Mauryan Empire.

      2- From my observations and brief readings, I have found that Indian philosophy and theology are quite complicated and dense, much like the Chinese and unlike the Greek. There are so many schools, even within the same sect, and it is hard to judge them all on the same level or with common reasoning. That Buddhism competed with other “renunciant sects” rather than Hinduism, shows how early the discourse was established and how quickly the schools diversified. There even seems to be a difference between Buddha’s teachings and what is later called Buddhism.

      3- Perhaps Buddha did advocate following tradition, although it is known that he left traditional Hinduism. Gautama’s claim, however, that he invented nothing new is a common strategy employed by philosophers to justify their teachings. It is not difficult to see how much Buddhism differs from Hinduism, in spite of their shared purpose of attaining Nirvana.

      4- You mention that Buddhism arose from a framework of polytheism and continued to exist in it, at least for a certain period. This is also true of Judaism and Christianity, to some degree. My objection to Buddhism though, is that (exactly like Judaism and Christianity) it was a form of universalism (with a cult of an individual) that attempted to assimilate all other sects, whenever and however it could. I don’t say there was a conspiracy, but there certainly was zeal towards attaining hegemony. The emphasis was always on Buddha, not Hindu Gods, on his teachings, not the Vedas or ancestral tradition. If Buddhists actually worshipped Vedic Gods (as you mention), that must have been during the early and budding period of Buddhism only. I can guess this is the case, because nowadays Buddhists have very little business with Vedic Gods, if anything. It is also significant that Buddhists were persecuted by the first Shungan Emperor, and that no Buddhists live in India today.

      5- You sum up my objections to Buddhism very well at the end. However, I will add that I don’t believe Buddhism threatened Hindu polytheism, but I think it caused considerable divergence from it gradually by shifting the emphasis from ancient texts and tradition to individual teachings. The Vedas are a very ancient and large body of texts that I have yet to delve into and understand, and it seems that most schools and sects use some part of it for their own theology, much like the Greek philosophers who used Homer. The problem is, the larger the text, the greater the variation and interpretation. There are sects in Hinduism today, and I believe it is unfortunate that that traditional religion has adopted theology to compete with other schools, just like the Greek and Roman polytheists adopted Neoplatonism in late antiquity to compete with Christianity, Gnosticism, and Mithraism.

      In general, I would say, I support collective tradition above individualism, original tradition above innovation, and regional tradition above universalism. This may not be the best ways to examine and judge Indian traditions, and I have much more to learn. Thank you again for the thoughtful comments.


  2. K

    I do have a lot of experience when it comes to India. I have read more books on the broad subject of Indian subjects (religion, history, language) than I can remember the number of. Some very good online blogs, most by Hindus, have also helped. I have also known quite a few Indians, and have discussed these issues with them before. Buddhism in its East Asian forms is also something I know well, particularly the Japanese forms. I am going to cite a lot of stuff here. If you want more sources, chapter and verse, or more information to help clarify, I can give them.

    My interest in India is because of one of my goals. India preserves many aspects of the old Indo-European traditions that I am trying to bring back to the surface. I am extremely interested in comparative mythology and religion, mainly because I want to understand what my Indo-European ancestors thought. I have tried to understand their mindset as best I can. I have a ton of books and articles gathered on Ireland, Gaul, Brittany, Anglo-Saxons, Slavs, Balts, Scandinavians(and other Germanics), Iranians, Hellenes, Latins, and so on. After a while, the family resemblance does become apparent. Some are closer than others. I suspect that the most Indo-European and archaic form in Europe was found among the Baltic peoples.

    After 10 years of trying hard to grasp Buddhism, I concluded that the problem with it is this; the language used to express the teaching was vague, and it was beginning to be set down into differing textual traditions, as far as we know, 400-500 years after Gautama. The oldest Buddhist texts we actually have samples of are in Gandhari language, found in Pakistan. The extant textual traditions are in Pali, Sanskrit, and Chinese, for the oldest we have available in full. Many early Buddhist texts were actually written as commentaries or as explanations of the older layer of verse and discourse that set out the teachings. The word “dhamma/dharma” alone is used in so many ways in these explanatory texts(Abidharma) that it becomes difficult to understand the usage each time.

    The rather vague use of language, and Gautama’s seeming refusal to go into “speculation”, as he put it, quickly led to nihilistic interpretations of the teaching because of terms used like shunya(empty) and anatta(not atman). My take on the “original teachings” is that they were a simplified version of what was already in the Vedas, meant for renunciants. My main issue with what became of the teachings is that some Buddhist sects denied the existence of a “self(not the best translation)” because of how they applied the term anatta. Atman is the word usually translated as self; it is actually cognate with Greek ἀτμός , and think of similar terms like spiritus from Latin. Anyone that bothers to look can see how illogical this is just from Buddhism’s own teachings, no matter which sources you look at. Basically, the core teaching of Buddhism(knowing atman, like in the Vedas) was lost, in favor of various types of obscurantist nihilism. Westerners attracted to Buddhism flock to it based on the idea that it is a form of therapy, or atheistic humanism with some religious trappings. I personally want nothing to do with that.

    My other problem with Buddhism is that it is simply impractical for a whole society to be Buddhist. As a renunciate lineage, it is not suitable for the normal business of society, or a state. Buddhism has actually tried to solve this problem, but it comes out that most people cannot keep the Buddhist vows. Even the 5 vows of laypeople can’t be maintained in certain aspects(like no violence or killing) by people that defend the society or keep it going with violence. Buddhism has often even condemned hunting, which has made it hard for people that need to hunt to keep that vow. Not all renunciate traditions in India have been completely nonviolent, and even Buddhism makes more exceptions on that issue than the Ajivikas or Jains ever did. The Vedic Munis, Vratas, and Kesins, and their later versions in the middle ages, were not entirely nonviolent. Some even had martial arts as part of their training.

    Buddhism is not bad in itself, but it only embraces a small subset of people, rather than having room for different roles and people. This is because it was originally for a particular role in Indian society, not for everyone. There is no evidence for a large Buddhist establishment before Ashoka, probably because he turned it into one. He certainly institutionalized it, and he even defrocked hundreds of Buddhist monks who had views that disagreed with the orthodoxy he and his council set out. Buddhists in Sri Lanka and Thailand like this, because he is claimed to be a patron of their lineage. Others don’t like him for the same reason, since they were the ones declared unorthodox by him.

    In his time, Gautama the Buddha was often called Shakyamuni. Shakya was his clan, an Indo-Aryan Kshatriya kin group from what is now Nepal. Muni is a Sanskrit word, attested in the Rig Veda, referring to a certain type of renunciant or sage. Other types of people similar in some ways to the munis were kesins and vratas, in that they were considered in some ways to be outside the pale of normal society with its 3 castes. Vrata means ‘those who took a vow” and kesin referred to long hair. Both seemed to be attached to particular rites and rules they followed. Munis and Kesins in the Rig Veda are associated with each other and with the deity Rudra, who was associated with, among other things, all those outside of normal society for the Vedic Aryans. What they referred to in earlier times, it is hard to say. They sound like ecstatics, in the same vein as later worshippers of Rudra/Shiva(which we have much evidence of and still exist) or even Dionysus worshippers. Megasthenes in his Indica notes worshippers of Dionysus as being very prominent in India.

    Where does Gautama fit into this? He was by all accounts considered to be a wise man and renunciate outside of normal society, called a muni. What his particular tradition was is hard to tell. He was not a Brahmin, who were supposed to be educated in the Vedic corpus. His Sakya clan did not seem to like or respect Brahmins either. There is a lot of evidence of conflict between Kshatriyas and Brahmins. For that matter, Brahmins as a class may not have existed in the earliest times among the Vedic Aryans as they later did. Brahmin used to refer to a particular type of role a priest assumed in a Vedic ritual. It later became a catch-all for the entire priestly caste, but not all Brahmins had the same role. They were typically priests, scholars, advisors to kings, doctors, ritualists, landowners, messengers, and the like.

    In Gautama’s time, not every polity or group accepted the roles and privileges that Brahmins claimed. Gautama was not very happy with the increasingly elaborate rituals that only Brahmins could officiate, for a price. And of course, the animal sacrifice issue. It is true that Vedic religion was more householder based in times before, with most rituals being carried out by a husband and wife. Priests of various sorts mainly needed to be at the big rituals, but in Gautama’s time, it almost seems to me as if home based religion had broken down and Brahmins were claiming dominance in all religious matters. Traditionally, anyone of the three main castes could be initiated into Vedic learning(outsiders and Sudras excluded, of course).

    Gautama indicates many times that a good deal of Brahmins of his day had fallen out of their old role, and had become greedy and corrupt. He definitely did reject Brahmin claims of a superior birth to other castes(several texts have this dialogue). He even criticized them for caste mixing(comparing them to how animals mate) and mixing with other non-Aryan peoples while at the same time claiming a purer heritage than other castes. He then defends Kshatriyas by saying that, of all who value lineage, none competes with them. Gautama does not come off as anti-caste to me, because he often refers to it as a given. He is often claimed(including by Marxists like Ambedkar) to have been some kind of social revolutionary, but there is little to support that. His social attitudes were pretty normal for the time. He assumed either oligarchic city states or monarchy as a norm, assumed caste distinctions, and most often addressed himself to Kshatriyas and Brahmins(no mentions of outcastes, tribals, Sudras, or the like).

    The Kesin hymn of the Rig Veda

    Rudra Hymns

    An article I had saved on Buddha and Brahmins

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      Thank you very much once again, my friend. Your information is not only useful for me, but also for anyone seeking to learn Indian traditions deeply. I tried to send you a note by your email ( that was listed in the notification I had received about your comment, but it failed to deliver. I’d be glad to carry on our discussion about this topic and several others.


  3. K

    I have not checked here in a while. Sorry for the delay. I created that mail 15 years ago or so. Maybe it no longer works. I just use it to enter when something asks for an e-mail now.

    This mail here will work. I use it occasionally for correspondence. I think my comments get too long. Comments should not be blog post length. If you want to talk more about the subject, I can be more clear. I have not really done it justice.

    Liked by 1 person


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