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.

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