What Can Ancient India Tell Us About Our World?

To Uphold the World: A Call for a New Global Ethic from Ancient India
by Bruce Rich
(Beacon, 2010)

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

I examine the lives and writings of Ashoka and Kautilya as archetypes, metaphors and sources of inspiration for a reflection on what many contemporary thinkers view as the overarching challenge of our age: a global world system and a global economy require a global ethic. Thinkers as diverse as George Soros and Hans Kueng, the great Catholic theologian, all talk about the need for common fundamental values that will apply to a global society. Today we live in a Kautilyan world, but desperately need an Ashokan ethic.

Adam Smith had the same realization. He wrote two books, The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. In the former, which is less read, he writes about the values that uphold society—justice, prudence, beneficence. Smith says that justice is the most important, without it we produce a very unstable and unequal society that will disintegrate. You could say Ashoka in his time was trying to promote justice, prudence and beneficence. Realpolitik and economic efficiency alone cannot hold together any society, let alone a world.

What inspired you to write To Uphold the World? What sparked your interest (person, event, book)?

My professional career as a public interest environmental lawyer has focused on promoting environmental and social standards for international lending. I often visited India, and in one of my trips, I traveled as a tourist to an archaeological site in Orissa state, Dhauli, to view stone inscriptions overlooking the site of a battle that took place in 260 BC.

The inscriptions state that 100,000 were killed and 150,000 carried off. But the battle’s victor expresses tremendous remorse and proclaims that henceforth he will promote a new policy of nonviolence. He says the greatest conquest isn’t over the outside world but over oneself. The inscription sets forth fourteen different ethical edicts that proclaim religious toleration, protection of animal species and forests, establishment of medical centers for humans and animals at home and abroad, and other progressive measures. The emperor’s name was Ashoka, which literally means “without sorrow.” When I saw this I wondered why I had not heard of Ashoka before and why he was so little known in the West. That began my path to write this book.

As I researched Ashoka, I realized I couldn’t understand him without understanding Kautilya, the brains behind the empire founded by his grandfather, Chandragupta. Kautilya is even less known in the West, yet in the 4th century BC wrote the first major work on economics, “Arthasastra,” literally the science of material wealth. He wrote that the underlying principle of society was not morality, or even brute force, but acquisition and management of material wealth. His approach is utilitarian, and at times, ruthless. In the early 1900s, Max Weber, one of the founders of sociology, said “Machiavelli, compared to Kautilya, is an infant.”

Ashoka inherited and expanded the kingdom Kautilya helped to build, but recognized he needed a common civic ethic to hold it together—an ethic of justice, tolerance and nonviolence.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

Yes. First is the tremendous richness of some areas of ancient Indian thought, for example the existence of very well developed philosophical schools of materialism, atheism and skepticism. Second, in the last chapter of the book I discuss what might be attempts to posit a common, universal ethic for today’s world that would be the equivalent of what Ashoka did for his time. This could be the theme of a whole separate book, not just a chapter.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

I think the biggest contemporary misconception is that ancient cultures and philosophy don’t have much to say to us about our contemporary dilemmas. The obsession with the economic, with the new and the short-term in a global culture of the network and the web has led to a collective state of oblivion, to the forgetting of history.

Yet in a general sense, Ashoka and Kautilya struggled in sophisticated ways with the issues that bedevil our world today: What is the role of ethics in the economy and management of the state? To what extent can we practice non-violence in international relations? Is it possible to reconcile a realist approach to politics with ethical values? Ashoka and Kautilya also undertook practical measures which even today have something to teach us. Both advocated the establishment of extensive nature reserves and the protection of many animal species, and Ashoka proclaims the establishment of state medical services for both humans and animals.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

The book is intended for a general, curious public concerned about where our world is going. It is of special interest for those interested in globalization, political science, ancient history, religion, Buddhism, India, and South Asia.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

I found the stories and the [philosophies] of Ashoka and Kautilya fascinating and thought-provoking, and I tried to communicate this to readers. Most of all, I hope that it helps people think a bit more deeply and broadly about where our world is going and how the approach of two of the greatest figures in the history of one of the world’s great cultures can better inform our search for solutions today.

What alternative title would you give the book?

I had discussed two alternative sub-titles, which while conveying something more about the book also were a bit unwieldy: “War, Globalization, and the Ethical Revolution of Ancient India’s Greatest Emperor;” and “The Message of Ashoka and Kautilya for the 21st Century.”

How do you feel about the cover?

It’s splendid. It’s an image of the carved four lion capital of a famous pillar on which are inscribed Ashoka’s edicts. You can still see that particular pillar at Sarnath in northeast India. It’s the site where the Buddha preached his first sermon. In 1947 the newly independent Indian state chose the carved capital of the Sarnath Ashokan pillar as the seal of the newly independent government. You see it everywhere in India, from the back of the one rupee coin to the letterhead of official government correspondence.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

One in particular has evoked a special resonance, Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Travels with Herodotus. As a young foreign correspondent in the 1960s he found no better guide to understanding a globalized humanity than the father of history, Herodotus, who lived 2500 years before. He cites T.S. Eliot who warned of the growing view that life’s problems could be solved in terms of engineering, of “a new kind of provincialism… not of space but of time,” one for which history is merely a scrap heap.

“To project myself from this temporal provincialism,” Kapuscinski concludes, “I set off into Herodotus’ world, the wise experienced Greek as my guide. We wandered together for years.” Our current Web- and media-dominated era is willfully provincial and ignorant, valuing more and more immediacy and the short term, as well as the pretensions, now aging badly, of neo-liberal economics to set universal, simplistic rules for engineering human societies. When I read Kapuscinki’s words I realized that the same hunger for understanding the world that led him to Herodotus, led me to Ashoka and Kautilya.

What’s your next book?

A sequel to the book I wrote on the World Bank in the mid-1990s, Mortgaging the Earth: the World Bank, Environmental Impoverishment, and the Crisis of Development. While the Bank in some ways has changed for the better, in other ways it continues to promote investments and economic policies that harm the environment and the poor.