The War of Kalinga and Modern Religious Conscience

In around 260 BC, King Ashoka of the Mauryan Empire invaded the Republic of Kalinga, now in modern day Orissa, engaging in a bloody battle that within a short period of time caused such massive destruction that it appalled the chronicles of time. It was the first and the only battle that Ashoka is said to have fought, following which he encountered a profound change of heart and gave up violence. The conquest did make Ashoka an absolute monarch over a great part of the Indian sub-continent; the change of heart, however, stripped him of any desire for further military conquests. The massive loss of life and suffering caused by this war weighed heavily on the mind of the King and plunged him into deep remorse. On the 13th of his 14 Major Rock Edicts, he inscribes:
On conquering Kalinga the Beloved of the Gods felt remorse, for, when an independent country is conquered, the slaughter, death and deportation of the people is extremely grievous to the Beloved of the Gods and weighs heavily on his mind... Even those who are fortunate to have escaped, and whose love is undiminished, suffer from the misfortunes of their friends, acquaintances, colleagues and relatives...

This inscription of dhamma has been engraved so that any sons or great-grandsons that I may have should not think of gaining new conquests, and in whatever victories they may gain should be satisfied with patience and light punishment. They should only consider conquest by dhamma to be a true conquest, and delight in dhamma should be their whole delight, for this is of value in both this world and the next. [as quoted by John Keay, India: A History, 92-93]
"Herein lies the greatness of Ashoka," writes R.K. Mookerji, "... at least no victorious monarch in the history of the world is known to have ever given expression to anything like it" [Ibid]. The conversion was total and it unleashed a rare time in the history of India known as the Golden Age of Indian history.

Though seemingly deriving several principles of statecraft from Kautilya's Arthasastra, Akbar resorted to the ideology of dhamma as derived from Buddhism to make the foundation of his rule. Ashoka's remorse had a ready remedy in the already existing Buddhist dhamma, with which he did have contacts from his previous stay at Avanti and his marriage to Devi (Vidisha-mahadevi), a Buddhist. The remorse was decisive, but even more important was the availability of the religion of non-violence in the form of Buddhism, and Buddhist chroniclers waste no efforts trying to depict the pre-Buddhist Ashoka as a monstrously demonic ruler, whose evil mind had to go through Kalinga to experience the decisive change. It is recorded that some 100,000 people were slain and 150,000 deported during the Kalinga War. The subjugated Kalingans were treated in accordance to the principles of Arthasastra: "having acquired new territory the conqueror shall substitute his virtues for the enemy's vices and where the enemy was good, he shall be twice as good. He shall follow policies that are pleasing and beneficial by acting according to his dharma and by granting favours and exemptions, giving gifts and bestowing honours." [Keay, 92]

The presence of a non-violent religious conscience was strongly felt throughout the Golden reign of Ashoka. It's absence was horrifically sensed in the modern fascist regimes rooted in the dehumanizing roots of Darwinism. Darwinism accomplished the reduction of man to a mere biological being. Spirituality was stripped of any significance. Two powerful ideologies, viz. Fascism and Marxism, that plunged the world into horrific crimes against humanity ensued from its principles. These philosophies stood strongly opposed against virtues of the religious conscience. In his book The Antichrist, Nietzsche blatantly expressed the logical political ethics of Darwinian ideology, ideas that went into shaping the fascist regimes of the 1930s. Not surprisingly, influenced by the Darwinian principles of natural selection, struggle for existence, and survival of the fittest, his doctrine of will to power stood ferociously opposed to the virtues of love and compassion. He wrote:
What is good?--Whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself, in man.
What is evil?--Whatever springs from weakness.
What is happiness?--The feeling that power increases--that resistance is overcome.
Not contentment, but more power; not peace at any price, but war; not virtue, but efficiency (virtue in the Renaissance sense, virtue, virtue free of moral acid).
The weak and the botched shall perish: first principle of our charity. And one should help them to it.
What is more harmful than any vice?--Practical sympathy for the botched and the weak...

I call an animal, a species, an individual corrupt, when it loses its instincts, when it chooses, when it prefers, what is injurious to it. A history of the "higher feelings," the "ideals of humanity"--and it is possible that I'll have to write it--would almost explain why man is so degenerate. Life itself appears to me as an instinct for growth, for survival, for the accumulation of forces, for power: whenever the will to power fails there is disaster. My contention is that all the highest values of humanity have been emptied of this will--that the values of decadence, of nihilism, now prevail under the holiest names...

Pity stands in opposition to all the tonic passions that augment the energy of the feeling of aliveness: it is a depressant. A man loses power when he pities. Through pity that drain upon strength which suffering works is multiplied a thousandfold....
Shortly after writing this book, Nietzsche suffered nervous breakdown and ended in an asylum where he soon died. But, his megalomaniac philosophy became the fuel of Fascism and Nazism. Both Mussolini and Hitler were influenced by Nietzsche’s vision of the Superman, the Overman (in Thus Spake Zarathustra), which they further interpreted along their socio-historical experiences. The fascist ideas did spread to as far as Japan and the century saw one of the most brutal and violent histories of all time plunging the world into a global Kalinga of World War II. The difference: "Supermen" didn't have the means of remorse this time. They either committed suicide or were executed by those that defeated them and saved the world from self-destruction. There are instances of crimes against humanity that send a shiver along our spine. The concentration camps of Hitler and the Nanking massacre to mention two. Though opposed to fascism, Communism also viewed man with the anti-spiritual spectacles of naturalism that dehumanized the individual, but with a Hegelian tint to its philosophy of history. Pity was substituted with brutality, where the enemy was not just destroyed, but his humanhood was stripped off. Man, in the age of technology, with advanced weapons, was back to barbarianism. The religious conscience was annihilated.

Among those who did speak of a religious conscience but perpetrated crimes against humanity, their violence was sanctioned by their religious authority, sectarian view of humanity (that dehumanized other people groups), quest for political supremacy, racism, and/or a history of hatred, revenge, and anger.

In the Indian soil, sadly, as Romila Thapar noted, "the ideology of dhamma died with the death of the emperor [in 231 BC]" [Keay, 99]. After Ashoka, there was none like Ashoka. The modern period was a period of petty kingdoms warring against each other, of numerous social evils like child marriage, sati, casteism, temple prostitution, female infanticide, etc. The East India Company that came into India did put an end to the petty kingdom wars by assuming control over most of the land, however, it didn't interfere with the local customs. It was missionaries like William Carey and reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy who first began to take a stand against the social crimes sanctioned by religion and community. Consequently, the British administration imposed a ban over several of these.

From this time forth till the Independence of the nation, three major influences could be felt throughout the land: British Evangelicalism, Italian and German Fascism, and Russian Communism. While people like Gandhi and Tagore were influenced by British Evangelicalism, Golwalkar and Hedgewar (RSS) were influenced by Fascism, and Bhagat Singh was influenced by Communism (though these influences had a unique blend with the Indian socio-historical experience). The non-violent and peaceful protest methods that Gandhi upheld had an immense impact on the conscience of the nation. Certainly, as Bertrand Russell noted (and his statement hangs emblazoned in Mahatma Gandhi's home in Ahmedabad), "It is doubtful that the method of Mahatma Gandhi would have succeeded except that he was appealing to the conscience of a Christianized people." One wonders if Gandhi's methods would have had any success in Hitler's Germany or in the Ottoman Empire. In addition, we do understand the importance of a military to defend the nation.

However, it is the quality of the religious spirit that fosters a sense of humaneness even at times of war. It teaches one the principle of treating ones neighbour as one would have treated oneself. "Love your neighbour as yourself," said Jesus and, in addition, "whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them" - the Golden Rule of ethics. The Divine Spirit of Grace works within the human heart against the animal instincts of unrestrained passion for power and pleasure. One can either succumb to the base forces and enter a world of meaningless void and striving with the wind, or submit to Divine Grace and become a beloved of God, Devampriya (a title of Ashoka). Leaders can either destroy or build the nation. History tells us who built and who destroyed. Let us dare to follow the truth!

John Keay, India: A History, Harper Perennial, 2004
Kalinga War
Kalinga War
Social Darwinism
John Allen Tucker, Tokugawa Intellectual History and Prewar Ideology.
Fascism in Japan
Causes of World War II
Crimes against Humanity
The Nanking Massacre
Communism and Crimes against Humanity
Fascism in India
To everyone an answer: Essays in honor of Norman L. Geisler

© Domenic Marbaniang, Saturday, 26 November 2010


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