The Story of Ashoka, the King Who Gave Up Conquest (or Embracing Possibility in an Age of Hopelessness)

Paris / 11.13.2015
Beirut / 11.12.2015
Gaza / July 2014
Abu Ghraib / 2003
Gujarat / February 2002
New York /9.11.2001
Sri Lanka / July 1983
[Fill in place and date of your choice]

We tell stories—we are what our stories make of us.

We have a right to the oil under distant desert sands because we are a modern and industrious people—that is a story.

Terrorism is necessary to fight the empire—another story.

We have the right to kill those who abuse our religion—a story.

No place for idealism in governing. Ruling and exercising power requires making hard and unsentimental choices—the most insidious of stories, a story meant to make us helpless, disorient us morally. A story that has given us drone strikes and torture and extraordinary rendition.

I remember other stories.

As the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe often said, the special work of the storyteller is to keep the stories we care about from disappearing. So here is a story I want to keep from disappearing.

Once upon a time there was a king who gave up conquest, committed himself to nonviolence, and embraced wholeheartedly the welfare of his subjects. That king’s name was Ashoka and he ruled from 268 to 232 BCE in that part of the world we now call India.

Early in his life, Ashoka was a bloodthirsty conqueror. In 260 BCE, this warrior king fought a ferocious battle to subdue stubborn Kalinga. Ashoka won. Kalinga was subdued. But the morning after his victory, as Ashoka picked his way through the rotting and crow-pecked bodies littering the battlefield, the great king was brought low by grief. Shocked at the devastation wrought by his violent quest to expand his empire, Ashoka resolved to give up conquest and to devote himself to rule through ahimsa, or nonviolence. He resolved to choose compassion and the welfare of his people over the vainglorious expansion of his empire. This new resolve of the king you can still find etched as edicts on rocks scattered across what was once his vast empire.

Ashoka ruled for nearly forty years. His name means “one without grief.”

This is a story about the happy union of the ideal and the possible. This is the story I choose to remember today.

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