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March 06, 2011

Page: 35/39

Home > 2011 Issues > March 06, 2011


A model for 21st century
Emphasis on ethics propounded by Ashoka and Kautilya

By MD Kini

The polity devised by Chanakya and continued by Ashoka had provided for artha and kama but both based on dharma. Both of them are silent on moksha as it was an individual choice. Here dharma can be interpreted as limit on human desires to enable a harmonious life for all. "There is enough for everybody’s need, but not everybody’s greed" as Mahatma Gandhi put it while Chanakya gave more emphasis on danda (punishment), Ashoka gave more importance to persuasion. Chanakya was a realist whereas Ashoka was an idealist. A right combination of both is the ideal for a just society.

THE sudden collapse of the communist governments of Eastern Europe and USSR like the dominoes at the end of 20th century and the near-collapse of capitalist financial system in the first decade of the 21st century-both based on acquisitive instincts of human beings-have turned the attention of some of the leading intellectuals to take a re-look at the organising principles of societies in the 21st century. There is an earnest search for a new social and economic model and a world order based on more enduring values of life.

Bill Joy, a leading scientist and businessman, said in an article "Why the Future doesn’t need us" in the magazine, Wired, where he called for alternative social goals ‘beyond the culture of perpetual economic growth’ before it is too late. George Sores, the billionaire hedge fund investor observes, "We have global markets but we do not have a global society. And we cannot build a global society without taking into account moral considerations." Theologian Harvey Cox believes that market has now the attributes of a transcendent God- omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. It converts everything into an exchangeable commodity.

It is in this context the book, To Uphold the World: The message of Ashoka & Kautilya for the 21st century by Bruce Rich (Penguin Books Pvt Ltd., pgs. 326; price Rs 495) becomes essential reading for all people who are concerned with the future of the world. Both Ashoka and Kautilya based their rule on dharma (that which upholds both the individual and the society-values such as righteousness, truth, restraint, duty, ethics, non-violence, reverence for life) which was the basic concept of Indian civilisation evolved over a millennia, says the author. "Dharma, literally, upholds the world," he avers.

Bruce Rich is a Senior Attorney and Director of the International Programme at Environmental Defense Fund in USA. He has written on environmental issues in a number of newspapers and magazines, and is the author of the book, Mortgaging the Earth. He is the recipient of the Global 500 Award of the UN Environment Programme and the World Hunger Media Award.

"Ashoka’s transformation from a tough tyrant in the traditional mould into a ceaseless advocate of kindness and benevolence and a public promoter of the social good was not only a decisive moment in Indian history, it was also accompanied by his reasoned reflections that were momentous at his time and remain very relevant to the problem-ridden world of today," says Amartya Sen in his Foreword. His Holiness Dalai Lama writes in his Afterward that Emperor Ashoka anticipated some of the key ideals of democracy with his emphasis on equality and the promotion of people’s welfare as the highest duty.

Rich gives an account of the just society organised by Ashoka on the basis of the statecraft provided by Kautilya since the time of Chandragupta Maurya. He says Ashoka is a unique personality in the world history who implemented the ideas of dharma or dhamma in his vast kingdom which became an ideal for many countries of Asia. These ideals are also found in Christian traditions as well. Rich believes that these ideas and ideals can form the basis of a global society in the 21st century.

The Axial Age
Rich refers to the concept of the Axial Age (age of psychological and spiritual transformation) propounded by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers. During the period between 800 and 200 BC there was a unique worldwide transformation in the major civilisations-China, India, Greece and the near East. It is the time of Confucius and Lao Tsu, the Upanishads and the Buddha, Zarathustra, the Hebrew Old Testament prophets, and the beginnings of Western philosophy (Socrates, Plato and Aristotle).

Governance and politics became the subject of independent analysis - Kautilya in India and Aristotle in Greece. At the end of the period small cities and states were consolidated into large centralised empires in China, Greece (under Alexander) and in India (under Chandragupta Maurya). Jaspers observes that it was the coming of age of humanity. There was a yearning for a peaceful and tranquil world among the peoples of all these countries. In India, Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka provided the basis for it.

The author says that a detailed analysis of the texts of the Ashokan rock edicts and columns reveal a remarkable system of governance and social organisation. Both Ashoka and Kautilya established a harmonious society based on the concept of dharma. It is a society where every individual and every section of the society had a sense of justice and fair-play. Rich observes, "Societies, if they are to survive, need to recognize as an organizing principle and transcendent goal, something that goes beyond the short-term calculations of realpolitik and economic advantage. For Ashoka, this ‘something was Dhamma."

Kautilya’s Polity
Kautilya is not only the world’s first economist, but also ‘The First Great Political Realist’, according to Robert Boeshe, a professor of History of Ideas at Occidental College of California. He has been compared with Thucydides, Sun Tzu and Machiavelli. However, his vision of the welfare of people is incomparable. He held that "in the happiness of the subjects lies the happiness of the king and in what is beneficial to the subjects his own benefit. What is dear to himself is not beneficial to the king, but what is dear to the subjects is beneficial (to him)."

The Arthshastra of Kautilya contains fourteen books. The five books deal with domestic, economic, social and legal policies and the others discuss the foreign policies. In the Arthashastra, the science of wealth, Kautilya states that wealth is the basis of everything-kingdom, its army, order in society and even dharma. The book is also concerned with sustainable management of natural resources including plants and animals and social welfare measures. Kautilya’s development agenda two millennia ago reminds the author the policies of the World Bank in the decades of 1970s and 1980s-rural development, agriculture, land settlement, irrigation and infrastructure.

Kautilya identified corruption as the main threat to the state. He wrote that it is difficult to detect corrupt officials in the administration - it is like finding whether the fish drinks water of the river. Therefore he set up an elaborate financial scrutiny and accountability for all officials. He also suggested that a king should collect taxes from people like a bee which collects honey without hurting the flowers.

The King, according to Kautilya, "should maintain children, aged persons in distress when they are helpless, as also the woman who has borne no child..." Women have property rights within marriage and maintenance after divorce. However, divorce has to be by mutual consent. Impartial judges, consumer protection, occupational safety, labour law, finance, accounting and corruption and many other issues are explained in details in Arthshastra. There is punishment for killing animals and abusing disabled. Kautilya has elaborated on a welfare state in his book and later, built one during the reign of Chandragupta Maurya. In a chapter, Wealth Above All, the author has devoted 50 pages for Kautilya’s welfare state.

The author also tells us that there was a class of indentured servants or serfs in Kautlya’s world who could be called slaves. But their working conditions and rights were regulated. And the author adds that these slaves had more freedom than that existed in contemporaneous Greek society and even in USA till the Civil War. He also quotes Megasthenes who says that ‘all Indians are free and not one of them is a slave.’

Ashoka’s Dhamma
" Among the tens of thousands names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousnesses and serenities and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Ashoka shines, and shines almost alone, a star," says the famous writer, HG Wells.

Violence and destruction during the Kalinga war changed King Ashoka into a compassionate ruler. He became a follower of Buddha and his dhamma. His Second Pillar Edict explains dhamma as ‘having few faults and many good deeds, mercy, charity, truthfulness and purity.’ His Sixth Pillar Edict says that dhamma is ‘the welfare and happiness of the world’ and he ‘honour(s) all sects and various kinds of reverence.’

His Fifth Pillar Edict is like the most modern environmental protection law and is remarkable for the age-a list of animals to be protected from slaughter which include tortoise, bats, ant, ducks, geese, swans doves, deer, rhinoceroses etc. This Edict also states ‘an animal should not be fed with another animal’. This reminds the author the Mad Cow Disease which ravaged cattle in many countries in the West recently. The Edict also says that ‘forests must not be set on fire either wantonly or for the destruction of life’.

Ashoka’s edicts indicate his intention to transform society through moral, social and administrative means. He announced his policies to his subjects through these edicts - respect for all living beings, compassion for the less fortunate, transparency in government, establishment of officials for social welfare. His creed can be summed up as "reverence for life". He believed that dhamma can be advanced through persuasion rather than through legislation.

Ashoka attempted to transform statecraft and governance from the Kautilyan emphasis on danda (force) to persuasion on the premise that human nature is basically good. However, it has been found that a large number of edicts on governance have similarities with that of Arthashastra.

A global ethic for a global society
Indian sages had envisaged goals of man to be four-fold-Dharma (rules of social and individual life), Artha (means of sustaining life), Kama (desires of life) and Moksha (liberation from the cycle of life and death). These purusharthas (goals of life) not merely meet the physical needs of man (artha and kama) but social (dharma) and spiritual needs (moksha) as well. The sages have taken a holistic view of life and every aspect of life has been taken into account.

The polity devised by Chanakya and continued by Ashoka had provided for artha and kama but both based on dharma. Both of them are silent on moksha as it was an individual choice. Here dharma can be interpreted as limit on human desires to enable a harmonious life for all. "There is enough for everybody’s need, but not everybody’s greed" as Mahatma Gandhi put it while Chanakya gave more emphasis on danda (punishment), Ashoka gave more importance to persuasion. Chanakya was a realist whereas Ashoka was an idealist. A right combination of both is the ideal for a just society.

In the concluding chapter, To Uphold the World, the author has discussed many efforts made by the Western leaders and thinkers to evolve a global ethic for the global society in the recent decades. He mentions the four principles endorsed by an Inter-Action Council of former heads of state and prime ministers chaired by the former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in the report In Search of Global Ethical Standards issued in 1996.

Bruce Rich poses a very pertinent question to all of us to ponder. He says, "What kind of global ethic can we envisage to hold together a global society? And in what would such an ethic be grounded when, in the words of George Soros, ‘no external authority remains undisputed ....the only possible source is internal’. Can we envisage the equivalent of a Dhamma for the 21st century, one which, unlike Ashoka’s, would emerge from a bottom-up process of global self-organisation, rather than through clumsy top-down impositions?"

Bruce Rich’s book is a fascinating account of the rule Ashoka and Kautilya, and its relevance to the present century. "Reverence for life" has been theme of Indian civilisation as it finds God everywhere and everything, and that reverence holds the key to peace and prosperity in the world.

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