A Quest and a Cause

With so many books already written about Ashoka, the third ruler of the Mauryan Empire, why am I writing another? There are two reasons: a personal quest and a sense that earlier works have not treated fully or fairly the development of Ashoka’s character.

The quest started when I was eight years old, on 15 August 1947, India’s Independence Day. My family had an invitation to the flag-changing ceremony, where Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last British viceroy of India and the uncle of Prince Philip, the current Duke of Edinburgh, lowered the Union Jack and Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, raised the Indian flag in its place.

Our seats were near the steps that ascended to the platform with the flagpole, at the epicentre of a crowd of one or two million assembled at the edge of Old Delhi, with Jama Masjid visible in the distance. As I had never been in such a huge crowd before, I remember feeling uneasy, but my mother and sister were excited, and their energy infected me as well, though I did not grasp the full significance of the day.

After the ceremony, as the dignitaries mounted the viceroy’s horse-drawn carriage, the crowd around us became unruly, pressing against the temporary barriers. I remember the anxiety of that moment. Concerned for our safety, my mother somehow persuaded someone to get us (my mother, sister and myself) onto the livery seat of the vice regal carriage. As we rolled through the tumultuous crowds, waving, Mountbatten lifted me to sit between him and his wife. That thrilling ride, as depicted in these photos, remains deeply imprinted on my soul.

Ashok Khanna with Lord Mountbatten

Ashok Khanna with Lord Mountbatten

When we reached the viceroy’s palace, Prime Minister Nehru arranged for a car to take us where we needed to go. While waiting for it to arrive, he chatted with us, asked my name, then patted me on the head and said something like, ‘Now that India is independent, it’s up to young people like you to build it up.’ A throwaway line, but one that had a lasting effect on me. Later, I learnt that Nehru had himself been deeply influenced by Emperor Ashoka. Through Nehru, Ashoka’s vision of compassionate governance flowed into the Indian constitution and even onto its flag, where the Ashoka Chakra, a 24-spoke wheel in navy blue, sits at the centre. India’s national emblem, adopted a few months after my meeting with Nehru, is an adaptation of the Ashokan lion capital at Sarnath, also featuring the wheel.

As I grew older, I held onto the idea of dedicating my work to India’s development. But my first career choice did not fit my temperament. My father was an executive with a prominent British-Indian company; as I had no special career inclination, he steered me toward a university degree in the UK, followed by a professional certification as a chartered accountant. It was a safe, lucrative and prestigious path, but I soon found that I actively disliked the day-to-day work of accounting.

After much turmoil and soul-searching, and attempts at different types of employment in the profession in the UK, Canada and the US, I went back to university in my early thirties. This time, I was determined to find my way back to India. In 1976, armed with graduate business and economics qualifications from Stanford University on top of undergraduate and professional degrees from the UK, I decided I was ready to make my return. By then, I had pretty much completed the coursework for a doctorate and thought to look for an interesting policy question as a topic for my dissertation.

One day, before I left California, on my usual run at dusk through the hills behind Stanford, a visceral flash revealed in stark clarity my core values: non-violence, reverence for all life and acceptance of all ways of life that adhere to those principles. Perhaps it was a powerful ‘runner’s high’, or an insight provoked by the stress of my imminent departure. It might have been considered a spiritual awakening decades ago, though I am more comfortable with the modern psychological term ‘peak experience’. Whatever it was, it was certainly powerful. It lingered for decades and shaped how I viewed the world and my place in it, how I chose to earn a living, and how I behaved with people—even how I heard music and saw colours.

Ashok Khanna with Prime Minister Nehru and Viceroy Lord Mountbatten

Ashok Khanna with Prime Minister Nehru and Viceroy Lord Mountbatten

Epiphanies come unbidden (and often on hills, if legends are to be trusted). What they spawn may take time to evolve. In preparation for the move to India, I had been reading Indian history. After my revelation, I wondered if Emperor Ashoka—the greatest ruler of India—had had a similar experience. I felt I finally understood what he meant by a phrase he used in one of his many edicts, which were inscribed on pillars and rocks throughout his domain: ‘gift of eye’, a kind of insight, a way of looking at the world. And I was struck by how, over a long reign, he sustained a commitment in his edicts to non-violence and tolerance for all religions and living beings, not as a sequestered monk or sadhu (holy man), but in the thick of administering justice and making decisions for an empire all day, every day.

I spent about six months in India, my longest visit since I had left in 1957 to attend college in England. After finding my feet, I interviewed for jobs at public enterprises and academic institutions. I was following the path of Prakash Tandon, an eminent manager and scholar whom I had met a few times, and who had served as a mentor at a distance. I met Prakash in California when he was a visiting professor at Berkeley, and then again on visits to India, while he was the chairman of India’s State Trading Corporation and later of Punjab National Bank (he had earlier been the chairman of Hindustan Lever, a prominent multinational company focused on consumer goods). He contributed to the development of professional management in India, both in the private and public sectors, and became a writer. His path in life made sense to me—engage with the world to do something meaningful and then reflect on it in writing. I wanted to follow that trail, as well as I could.

Unfortunately, I was not successful in finding a place for myself. I was rebuffed as a foreigner returning to take scarce jobs away from locals, regardless of my international qualifications. One academic actually yelled at me in anger when I said I was looking for work in his institute. Discouraged, I came back to the US and was lucky to find a position at New York University’s Graduate School of Business as a professor. This job came as a boon, because my father had died unexpectedly just before I left India. As the probate process for his will was expected to take about two years, I had to help support my mother, who was not savvy about legal or financial matters. The breaks between semesters allowed me to travel to India to assist her. On one of those trips, I honed in on a research topic about India’s trade policy for my doctoral dissertation.

As it turned out, my dissertation dovetailed with a substantial research project at the World Bank. That project provided me with additional data and resources that helped me to complete my doctorate at last. Soon afterward, I moved to the World Bank in Washington, D.C., to work on industry, trade and finance policies in developing countries. Having failed to contribute to India’s development, I was glad to have the chance to do so for other nations. I was also still very much in the thrall of my epiphany, trying to find a way to express those values in my work.

Not naïve about how bureaucracies work, I did my best to concentrate on the substance of my assignments and ignore the maneuvering within the Bank and client country governments. I agreed with the general thrust of the Bank’s policies, based as they were on extensive research, though they did have a measure of ideological bias and a tendency to apply the same solution to all client countries. Nevertheless, I found I had enough wiggle room to tailor aspects of these recommendations to each country’s circumstances. It’s not easy to customise policy to suit a country’s capability and cultural diversity; more attention to this would have raised our effectiveness.

My first significant assignment was to manage policy analyses, and loans based on them, to Kenya. I met and worked with Kenyan officials and politicians for about three years. Although it came as no surprise that several were diverting government funds into their private coffers, it was still jarring. One official frankly said that if others had the opportunity, they would take advantage of it too. The luxurious lifestyle of these officials, with their Mercedes cars and their huge houses in tony suburbs and their private tea gardens, a far cry from the extreme poverty of the vast majority of the population for whose well-being they were responsible, was deeply troubling. The difference between their approach to governance and my understanding of Ashoka was like night and day. Still, despite the dissonance, and like many of my colleagues, I felt that our work contributed to developing the country, making the lives of poor people better, faster. I accepted that rationalization to make my position palatable.

Unexpectedly, a few years later, I got to work on reforming India’s financial system for about three years. Thrilled, I took this as an opportunity to fulfil the responsibility that Prime Minister Nehru had charged me with on Independence Day. As I knew a few people who had returned to India as senior advisors to the government, I felt hopeful that I would not encounter the poor governance that I’d seen in Kenya.

But India turned out to be my worst assignment while on staff at the World Bank. Being of Indian origin, I was expected to understand colloquial language and gestures that I was no longer familiar with; perhaps my lack of understanding gave the false impression of a haughty, foreign-educated attitude. Indian officials, meanwhile, did everything possible not to have their policy errors and corruption exposed and addressed. The result of our team’s analytical work was sensitive, as it brought to light an enormous failure of earlier Indian policies. The level of governance in the government-owned banks was abysmal. They were corrupt, inefficient and insolvent, and needed to be bailed out at the taxpayer’s expense. Instead of contributing to India’s development, they were a millstone, slowing it down. The World Bank’s suggested reforms would have highlighted these failures; to avoid facing up to them, Indian officials attempted to compromise me personally. They threatened to lobby against me at the Bank, tried to bribe me with a prestigious job in India, and even made efforts to entrap me into making statements that would adversely affect my standing with my bosses.

Deeply disappointed, I resigned from the World Bank when it became clear that our work had hit the wall of the government’s unwillingness to recognise the problem and proceed with much-needed reforms. Minuscule reforms have since been implemented, but it has come to light recently that India’s public banking system is just as rotten as it was in 1990, except with larger losses. A recent speech the current Chief of India’s Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council gave at a seminar at Stanford University revealed that the lame excuses given for the slow pace of reform are the same as those used decades ago. If I could, I would like to tell Prime Minister Nehru that I tried to contribute to India’s development, and to apologise for having been so ineffective.

Working on development remained the best way to express my values, and the flexible travel allowed me to meet family responsibilities that spread from D.C. to New Delhi. Although I was no longer on staff at the World Bank, I continued as a consultant to do the same kind of policy analysis for it and one of its sister organizations, the Asian Development Bank, in a variety of countries in Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa and South America. Poor governance was pervasive, with the result that efforts to alleviate poverty or provide basic services were stymied.

Ashoka’s visionary inscriptions came to mind time and again. More than two millennia ago, he had attempted to provide compassionate and effective governance. His efforts inspired many rulers in Buddhist Asia to emulate him. Reviving his story, I often thought, could provide an example for contemporary governments to follow.

I began to research Ashoka’s life and works and, whenever possible, I visited sites related to him or the rulers he inspired. Sarnath and Sanchi, in India, and Lumbini, in Nepal, were particularly moving. Although these sites are dedicated to Buddha, Ashoka’s presence can be felt in the pillars and inscriptions, perhaps most of all in the magnificent lion capital on the pillar at Sarnath. The monuments in Polonnaruwa, in Sri Lanka, Shewdagon Paya, in Myanmar, That Luang, in Laos, Bayon, in Cambodia, Ayutthaya, in Thailand, and Borobudur, in Indonesia, made a deep impression on me, as well.

As my research continued, the second motivation for this book began to develop. When I reflected on the many books I’d read, I concluded that Ashoka as a person, rather than as a ruler, had not been understood well. Other than his inscriptions, there is virtually no remaining evidence of his personal life. Historians have used legends written centuries after his death to present him as a two-dimensional stock figure: a cruel emperor with a torture chamber, who put to death ministers who disobeyed him and concubines who avoided him. But after his first and only war, eight years into his reign, he is thought to have converted to Buddhism, and become enlightened.

There are two main legends that tell his story, both written by Buddhists centuries after his reign. The Asokavadana, the legend of Ashoka, written in Sanskrit in the second century CE, is the main text of the Northern Buddhist Tradition prevalent in North West India and, in translation, in Central Asia, China, Korea, Japan and Tibet. The Mahavamsa, the great chronicle, written in Pali in the fifth century CE, is the main text of the Southern Buddhist Tradition, prevalent in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, and other parts of South East Asia. Through much of history since Ashoka’s time, he has been known only through these collected legends, which may contain elements of historical truth mixed with a great deal of fictionalised detail, as legends about renowned historical figures usually do. The purpose of the collections was not to provide historical accounts, but to celebrate Ashoka as a great and mighty Buddhist king, who had experienced a remarkable religious conversion and thereafter exemplified the ideals of the communities that created the two epics. (They also display a suspicion of secular rulers in their pre-conversion narratives). They seem most reliable when they conform to Ashoka’s edicts’ promotion of a civil dhamma—a set of ethical principles of social behaviour and governance based on Buddhist philosophical foundations.

From age forty-two to about fifty-seven, he composed nearly thirty inscriptions addressing non-violence, tolerance of all religions, and governing with compassion. Based on one legend, some historians suggest he continued to be a cruel ruler during this period, killing thousands who followed his mother’s and grandfather’s religions. They paint him as a person with a split personality—preaching tolerance and non-violence while killing people who subscribed to religions other than Buddhism. These interpretations, though, are too simplistic. Instead, we should interpret the legends by asking how they fit with the clear views indicated in Ashoka’s edicts, the only real evidence of his life and rule.

Any portrait of Ashoka requires a degree of imagination. Much of his life has been lost to time. But I believe that reading the edicts and the legends together, alongside recent contemporary research, can give us the fullest picture possible of who he was. Thus, in this book, I will attempt to draw a balanced picture of a ruler who sought to create a compassionate civilisation in which all citizens were treated equally and could thrive, and whose influence has been pervasive in Asia ever since.