THE BUDDHIST EMPEROR*
la the people is really happy that has no history, ancient India must have enjoyed exceptional felicity. In no country were the national records worse kept or the art of the his- torian less cultivated. Until the Mohammedans came with their, Persian historiographers-royal there is not a work that can be called historical in Indian literature; indeed, the one Sanskrit chronicle of the middle ages, Kalhana's Bajataran- Oa, dates only from the twelfth century. What would one not give for an Abul-Fazl to draw the picture of the times of Chandragupta or Asoka with the same elaborate care that was devoted to the reign of Akbar ! But history was beneath the ambition of the Sanskrit Muse, and ancient India remains unstoried save by the legends of the poets. When we say ancient India, it is not really ancient compared with other countries, such as Egypt or Assyria, of which we know far more. Even Greece was in her decadence at the time of Asoka. The Buddhist Emperor's edicts, still preserved on the rocks in various parts of his wide dominions, refer fami- liarly to his " neighbours " luitiochus, Ptolemy, Antigonus, Magas, and Alexander ; and of Antigonus Gonatas and Ptolemy Philadelphus and Antiochus Theos we know a good deal, thanks to the intelligent curiosity of a people who, whether happy or not, undoubtedly had a history. It is indeed to the Greeks we owe the scanty lights that make the vast blanks of Indian antiquity seem the darker by contrast. Practically all we know about the Empire erected by Chandragupta on the fragments of Alexander's most eastern realm comes from Megasthenes, who was sent by Seleuctus about 300 B:C. as his Ambassador to the new Emperor's Court at Pataliputra on the Ganges. This Greek forerunner of Bernier and Sir Thomas Roe, like them, wrote memoirs of his visit to the Indian Court, -and though his original book has not been preserved as a whole, a large part has come down to us in fragments quoted by Arrian, Strabo, Justin, and other writers. Unhappily, there was no Megas- thenes at the Court of Asoka, Chandragupta's grandson, and we lose the inestimable advantage of a Greek view of the most interesting reign—as far as we know—of ancient India. We are thrown back upon two strongly contrasted sources : the one the inscriptions of Asoka himself, the other the traditions of the Buddhist monasteries. The latter source Mr. Vincent Smith contemptuously dismisses as the silly fictions of mendacious monks," unworthy of "serious criticism " ; and although it is seldom safe to assume that even ridiculously exaggerated legends have no basis in fact, there-can be no doubt that the Asoka legends, whether in the Ceylon form related in the liahilvamsa or in the Nepalese version of the Asokeiroackina, are of little or no value.
There remain the inscriptions. Fortunately, Asoka was a great builder of sktipas or holy cupolas commemorative of Buddhist saints or events, and not content with erecting (according to 'the absurd legend) eighty-four thousand of these shrines in three Years, and adorning many of them with sculptures, some of which still exist, he had a peculiar fond- ness for setting up gigantic monolithic pillars—the emblematic and ritual meaning of which had probably been forgotten— and chiselling his edicts and moral reflections on their sides. Every traveller in India knows the two Asoka pillars at Delhi, a,nd the third at Allahabad ; whilst others remain, standing or fallen, in the Champaran district, at Sanchi in Bhopal, and other places. Besides the nine remaining inscribed pillars, on which repetitions of seven edicts are preserved, sixteen other edicts are found engraved on the rocks in various parts from the Yusufzai country and the Panjab to"Kathiawar and even the Bay of BengaL There are • Asolca,ths Buddhist Emperor of India. By Vincent A. Smith, late LC.S. Rulers of India." Oy ford : at the Clarendon Press. Ds. 6e1.1
also a number of minor rock edicts scattered over India from Rajpntana to Bengal and Mysore, and a few supplementary pillar inscriptions,—altogether some thirty-four distinct docu- ments. They are 'written in various forms of Prakrit in the old Brahmi character, the parent of the Deva,new' ari. These
inscriptions, ranging from about 260 to 240 B.C., constitute our sole authentio sources 'for the history of the first Buddhist Emperor, and the great merit of Mr. Vincent Smith's little book is that it is built on this sure foundation. The son of a distinguished Dublin numismatist, he has long made his mark as an Indian arclueologist, and his numerous papers in the transactions of learned Societies have added much to our knowledge of mediteval Indian coins. In the present work —which should have opened the "Rulers of India," but has been delayed in consequence of Professor Rhys Davids's inability, owing to other engagements, to carry out the task he had originally undertaken for Sir W. W. Hunter's series— Mr. -Vincent Smith not only draws as complete an outline of Asoka's life and administration as the materials permit, but prints the whole of these materials—the famous rock and pillar edicts—in translation, for the reader to draw his own conclusions. Whilst modestly disclaiming a critical know- ledge of Pali and Prakrit, -his careful notes, comparing the varying versions of Bahler,Senart, and others, show that he has not undertaken a task beyond his scholarship. The collection of the edicts in a convenient form with full and critical com- ments is the feature of the book that will recommend it to those who wish to judge for themselves what these celebrated documents really imply. We read in them how in the ninth year of his reign the conquest of the kingdom of Kalinga (on the Bay of Bengal) and the suffering involved led the Emperor to reflect on the barbarity of war, and induced him to devote the rest of his reign to promoting the Buddhist Dharma, or "Law of Piety," as Mr. Smith renders it. We read how he became first "a lay disciple without strenuously exerting
myself," and then, after two and a half years, "joined the Order" of Buddhist monks, and laboured ardently for the truth, "that men may strive for growth and not suffer decrease" in virtue :—
"There is no such charity," says another edict, "as the charitable gift of the Law of Piety, no such friendship as the friendship of piety, no such distribution as the distribution of piety, no such kinship as kinship in piety.
The Law of Piety consists in these things, to wit, kind treat- ment of slaves and servants, obedience to father and mother, charity to ascetics and Brahmans, respect for the sanctity of life.
Therefore a father, son, brother, master, friend or comrade, nay even a neighbour, ought to say, 'This is meritorious, this ought to be done.'
He who acts thus both gains this world and begets infinite merit in the next world, by means of this very charity of the Law of Piety.
It requires innocuousness, many good deeds, compassion, truth- fulness, purity."
The duty of inculcating this law by example was so strongly felt by Asoka that he devoted himself incessantly to good works, made himself always accessible to his subjects, and admitted them howsoever engaged. "Work I must," he writes, "for the public benefit—and the root of the matter is in exertion and dispatch of business, than which nothing is more efficacious for the general welfare. And for what do I toil? For no other end than this, that I may discharge my debt to animate beings, and that while I make some happy in . this world, they may in the next world gain heaven." "The King is unto them [his subjects] even as a father, and as he cares for himself, so he cares for them, who are as the King's children." The change which came over the Emperor's life on his embracing Buddhism is shown in many ways. In former days, he says, Kings went on tours of pleasure, hunting and amusing themselves; but he prefers to go on "the road leading to true knowledge" and make— Tours of piety, during which are practised the beholding of ascetics and Brahmans largess of gold, the beholding of the country and the people, proclamation and discussion of the Law of Piety." "Instead of the sound of the war-drum, the sound of the drum of piety is heard, while heavenly spectacles of processional cars, elephants, illuminations, and the like are dis- played to the people.' "On the roads trees have been planted, arid wells have been dug for the use of man and beast." "Formerly each day many thousands of living creatures were slain to make curries. At the present moment, when this pions edict is being written, only these three living creatures, namely, two peacocks and one deer-are killed daily, and the deer -not invariably. Even these three creatures shall not be slaughtered in future."
Of, course we have only the Emperor's own ,word for all this, and one -would like to have the evidence of a contern-, norary Megasthenes on the reforms of the Royal monk. But Mr. Vincent Smith, who writes with unenthusiastic impartiality, acquits him of any hypocrisy or bombast, and there is really no ground for doubting the sincerity of these unique edicts. Too much, perhaps, has been made of Asoka's toleration as exhibited in the twelfth rock edict :—
" His Majesty cares not so much for donations or external reverence as that there should be a growth of the essence of the matter in all sects. The growth of this essence of the matter assumes various forms, but the root of it is restraint of speech, to wit, a man must not do reverence to his own sect by disparaging that of another, man for trivial reasons. . . Self-control, therefore, is meritorious, to wit, hearkening to the law of others, and hearkening willingly." "All sects have been reverenced by me with various forms of reverence. Nevertheless personal adherence to a man's 'particular creed seems to me the chief thing," . .
As Mr. Smith points out, toleration was not difficult in a land where no diverse religions existed, when Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Islam had not yet been born, and Hinduism was more a social system than a creed. A Hindu has always enjoyed a wide latitude of belief, "so long as he eats the correct food, marries the proper woman, and so forth," and there is nothing really surprising in Asoka's liberal sentiments. Nor is it true that the Emperor abolished capital punishment, as has been pretended: all he did, as his inscriptions prove, was to allow condemned criminals three days' respite for preparation for death. It will be seen that our author does not exaggerate his subject ; he writes judicially as, a scholar, and does not attempt to wrap any
glamour of . romance about the figure of the ascetic King. Nothing can be.more dry than his treatment, or less imagina- tive than his style. Asoka, indeed,. can well dispense with any rhetorical aids : his character stands lonely and lofty as his own pillars in the dim vista of Indian ages. He is the Constantine—a higher, purer Constantine—of the Buddhist faith, and .1' so far as we can see, the transformation of this local sect into a world-religion is the work of Asoka alone." The monkish legends give the credit to the missionaries; but
in the inscriptions Asoka takes it all to himself. The sincere and ardent adoption of Buddhism by a King whose realm extended from sea to sea, and stretched from the Himalayas and Hindu Kush as far south as Mysore, who ruled a vaster territory iii India than is now directly, governed by the British Raj, gave the sect a position analogous to that which Christianity attained by the conversion of the Roman Emperor. In one respect Asoka was happier than the Christian. We know Constantine's weaknesses only too well from the pages of the chroniclers. Asoka was his own
historian, and his inscriptions tell us only the best of him. Yet had he possessed an Ammianus Marcellinus one may well hazard the belief that the high character of the Buddhist Emperor would not have suffered. Unless his rock inscrip- tions lie incredibly, his fame would endure the closest scrutiny, and the Buddhist King would emerge what he seems now,—a noble disciple of a great teacher.