I recently listened to a story on the radio show Speaking of Faith from NPR. It was an interview with Pankaj Mishra (right), an Indian novelist, essayist, and journalist. Mishra's newest book, An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World, details his travels through southern Asia and his own spiritual journey of self-reform and self-discovery from a Buddhist perspective through a collage of commentary on politics, religion, and history, both ancient and modern. The interview was interesting not so much for Mishra's own views on the state of affairs in south Asia or even his own perspective on the Buddha, but for his rather erudite distillation of how religion shapes politics, especially at the local and personal level. What most fascinated me was his brief discussion of Ashoka, the 3rd century BCE emperor of the Mauryan Empire, and how Ashoka's conversion to Buddhism led to sweeping reform throughout the Indian subcontinent.
Without going into too much detail, and at risk of over-simplification, Ashoka (below) was the emperor of the sprawling Mauryan Empire which in the 3rd century BCE covered most of India and Pakistan as well as parts of Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. Known as a ruthless conqueror with a will towards domination, Ashoka invaded neighboring kingdoms one by one until most of the Indian subcontinent and much of South Asia came under his domination. The final military conquest came in the mid-260s BCE with the utter destruction of the country of Kalinga in east-central India, the pretext of which was Kalinga's supposed granting of asylum to the relative of one of Ashoka's enemies, though modern scholars have suggested that it was access to the Ganges that enticed Ashoka. Whatever the reason, Kalinga was subdued with particular brutality, and the result was the wholesale slaughter of its people, totaling by some estimates over 100,000. Following this event, according to the legendary interpretation of Ashoka, the emperor was eager to survey his new domain, but instead, seeing only burning villages and scattered corpses, was reduced to horror at what he had done. In an Augustine-like sudden conversion, Ashoka adopted Buddhism, then only around 150 years old, and became one of the first major Asian rulers to do so. In keeping with Buddhist teachings, Ashoka made non-violence a state policy that included leniency in the punishment of crimes and prison sentences, the banning of any warfare not necessary for self-defense, the outlawing of harm to animals in any way other than provision of sustenance and a promotion of vegetarianism, among many other changes. For the rest of his more than thirty year reign, Ashoka went from being hated and feared to being revered as one of the greatest rulers the subcontinent had ever seen.
Mishra's point in discussing Ashoka for several minutes in the midst of his lecture on Buddhism and its modern bearings on politics seems to be that Ashoka, though he is a well-known historical figure in India, is not as well-known or well-regarded in global history or in world history as has been manifest in the Western curriculum. Mishra compares Ashoka to his near-contemprary Alexander the Great (Ashoka's grandfather Chandragupta Maurya overthrew Alexander's successors in Central Asia), and asks why he is not given the same scholarly interest of the admittedly greater conqueror. Both men conquered wide swaths of land and presided over enormous empires made of myriad diverse peoples. The major difference, as Mishra points out, is that Ashoka finally quit, whereas Alexander's desire to continue over the horizon was so great, that only the near mutiny of his generals convinced him to turn back. It was the self-control through Ashoka's new-found Buddhism that reigned in his hostility. Mishra blames the 19th century "great men" historiographical theory for promoting the study of figures such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, and Napoleon Bonaparte over figures such as Ashoka. In fact, Napoleon, and later Hitler, studied Alexander intently. It seems the amount of land one conquers is directly proportional to one's later historical relevance, provided that the conquests remain edifying accomplishments following one's death.
It is perhaps odd that the 19th century saw such an interest in the study of these "great men," for although these figures represented to the colonial and imperialist powers who promoted their study a counterpart to the spirit of progress the age embodied, the major intellectual figures of the day were in many ways more concomitant with Buddhist thought than with the modern Western trends, at least according to Mishra. He calls the Buddha a "kindred spirit" with a surprising array of intellectuals ranging from David Hume (left) to Adam Smith. Hume, who like the Buddha, considered the self "ever changing and relative," came to the conclusion that "we are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with inconceivable rapidity... The mind is a kind of theater where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, repass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations...." Permanence is an illusion; change, the only constant. Smith, the founder of modern capitalist theory, meditated heavily on the Buddhist concept that desire is the origin of suffering, and wondered publicly if an economic system based on the desire of the individual could be sustained. He optimistically concluded that educated men would be able to deduce the difference between wants and needs, though practically he realized that the system would fail without self-control (Do you hear that Wall Street?).
Buddhism, as Ashoka realized, could be envisioned as a reformist movement within oneself. In the 19th century context, this presents a paradox of thought. On the one hand, the perceived greatness of the Western world was built on desire in the form of progress -- scientific, political, religious, philosophical -- and the rest of the world was being pulled up by it bootstraps as, to paraphrase Kipling, the white man endured this burden. The history of the West from the Crusades through the Age of Imperialism, according to Mishra, may be viewed as a result of this desire in the communal, civilizational, and cultural sense, and the resulting suffering that comes from uncontrolled desire demonstrated itself in the destructive power of World Wars I and II. Scientific and social progress is a "good" thing, which can go very badly when used for misanthropic purposes. On the other hand, Buddhism necessitates only a reform of the self, as opposed to the major collectivist Utopian movements in the West, from Fascism and Marxism to even capitalism and democracy. All ostensibly require control not over the self but over the other.
So, what can we learn from Ashoka? Mishra centralizes him in the context of politico-religious history and asks what it means to be on the "winning" side of history. Surely, Ashoka would be considered a "winner," but is he more valued historically because of his conquests or because of his self-reform? The wielding of power has gotten us far, if progress is indeed the propeller of history, but violence always begets more violence. If desire is necessary for progress, Mishra's argument seems to imply that suffering is also an inevitable by-product. In studying history for nearly a decade, I've grown particularly wary of any generalizations, but one thing I've found that is difficult to argue against is that there is rarely a war that does not lead to more violence, and non-violent movements, when they are not violently crushed in their infancy, often achieve political and social goals if given the chance. And Mishra reminds us that the disposition towards violence exists or has existed in all cultures and that treating one form of violoence as endemic to one particular culture or ideology (Islamic terrorism, Western militarism, authoritarian despotism) misses the point in that it views violence from the perspective of the perpetrators and not the victims. The lesson to be gleaned from the life of Ashoka is that true reform, what has often been attempted from the top down in the form of communism and fascism, must proceed from the bottom up to be truly effective. Non-violent movements, organized civil disobedience, democracy itself is a process that works best when it develops locally, and it must be localized in the individual before it may spread. Unlike other systems of government, democracy cannot be imposed -- we must learn this before we attempt to introduce much of the world to its ideals. Reinhold Niebuhr, (above) whom our current president counts as an intellectual influence and who is perhaps among Mishra's "kindred spirits" with the Buddha, was an early recognizer that the ills of the world cannot be solved simply by "converting" the world to democracy and capitalism, that this was a failure of imagination, and that political and economic proselytization was not the answer. It is no surprise that 19th century historians an politicians looked to figures like Alexander the Great as models because they represented the great progress that Western leaders of the period wished to emulate. Let is return to the implication that desire is necessary for progress. If desire truly is the beginning of suffering, must progress always be coupled with it? Because suffering is a reality, it is one thing, regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof ,that we must confront in this world. I want to end with an extended quote from Mishra's work, during his visitation of a madrassa in Pakistan, that in part illustrates the difficulties in interpreting suffering in the world: where it comes from, how we might deal with it, and why violence as a solution will only create more problems if we allow it to become our primary weapon of change. Progress, in the sense of self-reform as a Ashoka so championed, seems to be a viable option for our uncertain future.
I hadn't expected to be moved by the casual sight in one madrassa of six young men sleeping on tattered sheets on the floor. I hadn't thought I would be saddened at the human waste they represented--the young men whose ancestors built one of the greatest civilizations in the world, and who now lived in dysfunctional societies under governments beholden to, or in fear of, America, and who had nothing to look forward to except possibly the short career of suicide bomber. The other kind of future once laid out for them had failed. This was the future in which everyone in the world would wear a tie, work in an office or factory, drive a car, practise birth control, raise a nuclear family, and pay taxes. There were not nearly enough secular schools to educate these young men in the ways of the modern world--and few jobs awaited those who had been educated.... But the fantasy of modernity, held up by their state, and supported by the international political and economic system, had been powerful enough to expel and uproot them from their native villages. This had also been the fate of their fathers and countless others like [them]. But the journey from the old to the new world had become harder over the years for most people. Now, this journey seemed never-ending, and it seemed to consume more and more people as it lengthened: hundreds of millions of stupefied and powerless individuals, lured by the promise of equality and justice into a world they had no means of understanding, whose already strained and partially available resources they were expected to exploit in order to hoist themselves to the level of affluence enjoyed by a small minority of middle-class people around the world.... Having lost the protection of the old moral order, their particular bonds and forms of authority, they hoped to stave off chaos and degeneration by joining such authoritarian movements as Hindu nationalism and radical Islam, by surrendering their dreams to demagogues like Bin Laden.