I can hear the protests about the exercise. On their own, Ashoka and Gandhi would make it to any list of famous proponents of non-violence. But an attempt to connect them, even through comparison, could be summarily dismissed as anachronistic and pointless.
Why compare two men who were separated from each other by over two millennia? Why compare an ancient emperor with a person who, many centuries later, devoted himself to dismantling an empire?
Is it meaningful to compare an individual whose ideas are compressed into a few sets of monologues inscribed on pillars and rocks with one who has left to posterity a copious record of his thoughts and actions, his collected works running into almost a hundred published volumes?
We do not know what Ashoka looked like. Gandhi’s face and figure are well known within India, indeed, all over the world. Ashoka is the only ancient Indian king who speaks in the first person in his inscriptions; yet his biographical details are few.
He lived in the third century BCE. Inscriptions and Sri Lankan texts call him Devanampiya (“beloved of the gods”) and Piyadasi (“of gracious mien”). Four of his inscriptions give the name Asoka (Ashoka is the Sanskritised form), “free from sorrow”. This may have been a name he chose after seeking refuge in the Buddha’s teaching, whose core deals with suffering and its elimination.
Ashoka tells us – and there is no reason to disbelieve him – that the Kalinga war was a life-transforming experience. But, apart from this, we know little about his inner demons and much more about the resolve that emerged from his struggles with them. Ashoka lives on through his inscriptions, but he lives on even more strongly in legend, as a paradigmatic king in the Asian Buddhist world.
In sharp contrast, the factual details of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s life are minutely documented. Apart from the year, month, and date of his birth and death, a great deal is known about what happened in between. Gandhi’s experiments with truth are revealed in his autobiography, diaries, articles, letters, and speeches, as well as through the records maintained by his close associates, admirers, and others with whom he interacted.
He too had his transformative moment, not on the battlefield but when he was thrown out of a train in South Africa. It was one of many personal and political crises that he described meticulously in his own words.
Despite the immense chronological distance and the asymmetry in information, a case can be made for comparing Ashoka and Gandhi, and it does not rest on the desire to say something new and startling.
Their writings (let us consider Ashoka’s inscriptions as his writings, even though he may have dictated them orally), marked by a unique kind of reflection, introspection, honesty, and frankness, allow an exploration of the ways in which two very different men, living in very different times, struggled with the problem of violence.
A comparison reveals many surprising similarities, as well as many striking differences...
Ashoka and Gandhi were political beings who sought to connect the political, social, and moral spheres, asserting the supremacy of the moral.
Both were political and moral activists who at a certain point in their lives, began to consciously, consistently, persistently, and passionately practice and propagate non-violence as an essential basis for a good life.
In Ashoka’s case, this commitment to non-violence emerged primarily, but not exclusively, from a creative, idiosyncratic engagement with Buddhism, and in Gandhi’s case, from a creative, idiosyncratic engagement with a variety of philosophical and religious traditions, including Hinduism, Jainism, Christianity, and Islam.
Both men believed in persuasion and saw their persuasive skills as having a profound social impact. Both adopted a dialogic approach based on communication and direct mass contact. Ashoka set up massive machinery to spread dhamma (goodness, virtue), including a special cadre of dhamma officials whose responsibility was to go around spreading goodness. The emperor himself was involved in a marathon 265-day mass contact dhamma campaign.
Since Gandhi lived in the locomotive era, the extent of his travels and public outreach far exceeded those of Ashoka. And yet he wrote to Kasturba, “One cannot propagate dharma by travelling in trains or cars, nor in bullock carts. That can be done only on foot.” Ashoka would have agreed.
Ashoka and Gandhi believed in the connection between the inner and outer worlds and between the personal and the social.
They led through example, energy, and commitment. Both believed in human imperfection and perfectibility, and the need to live in accordance with a transcendent, higher dharma. They believed in grounding action in ethics and were obsessed with non-violence, truth, and controlling the passions.
Although Ashoka talks about controlling the passions, we do not know about his personal attitude towards sexuality; Gandhi’s obsession with brahmacharya is well known, as are his unorthodox experiments to test his commitment to complete and true celibacy. Ashoka’s dhamma included individual virtues such as self-control, truthfulness, purity of thought, liberality, and gratitude. The idea of duty is central to how he thought of his role as a king and in the code of ethics he propounded to his subjects.
Proper social conduct comprised obedience to mother and father; respect for elders; courtesy and liberality towards Brahmins and renunciants; courtesy to slaves and servants; liberality towards friends, acquaintances, and relatives; moderation in expenditure and possessions; and guarding one’s speech. The appropriate behaviour towards all living beings – humans and animals – included gentleness, compassion, and abstention from injuring and from killing.
Gandhi would have agreed with all of this, especially the emphasis on non-violence, self-control, and frugality as part of the definition of the good. He would have agreed with Ashoka’s view that a life lived according to the dictates of goodness, virtue, and duty was the foundation for happiness in this life and the next.
Ashoka and Gandhi practised non-violence personally and sought to create non-violent societies.
Both had a strong sense of self and mission; they saw themselves as important, innovative figures within the longer-term politico-intellectual tradition. Both engaged with the world in order to change it.
Ashoka and Gandhi’s obsession with ethics was combined with shrewd political pragmatism. Gandhi’s calling off of the Non-cooperation Movement due to the violence at Chauri Chaura displayed a stubborn unwillingness to compromise on the issue of non-violence, but in many other situations, his strong political instincts led him towards pragmatic compromise. In his thirteenth rock edict, where Ashoka gave a strong, reasoned critique of war, he also struck a pragmatic note when he warned the forest tribes that he would not hesitate to use force against them, if required.
There is a similarity in Ashoka and Gandhi’s attitude towards religion.
Both were deeply religious but rejected institutional religious authority. Ashoka’s personal religion included a faith in Buddhism combined with a belief in the gods, heaven and hell, karma, ethics, punya (merit), and papa (demerit). Although Gandhi did not believe in the outer trappings of religion, he was a devout Hindu; at the same time, he had an intense curiosity about other religions.
Ashoka and Gandhi recognised the existence of religious conflict and struggled to foster interaction and harmony between religious communities. Ashoka’s plea for concord (samavaya, similar in meaning to the Hindi word samvad) between the various pasandas (religious sects) was a plea for mutual respect and dialogue, much more than what is conveyed in the bland and rather negative phrase “religious tolerance”.
Religious concord was close to Gandhi’s heart too. Of course the magnitude of religious conflict and violence that he dealt with, especially during the prelude to and aftermath of the Partition, were much more frightening in scale and intensity than anything that Ashoka might have faced or even imagined.
Excerpted with permission from The Fourth Lion: Essays for Gopalkrishna Gandhi, edited by Venu Madhav Govindu and Srinath Raghavan, Aleph Book Company.
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