The Lesson of “Ashokacare”

My acquaintance with Ashoka, the ancient Indian ruler who was converted to Buddhism more than 2,000 years ago, goes back to the distant past when I, a Soviet citizen at that time, read a samizdat (underground) essay which compared China’s first emperor of Qin with Ashoka. While emperor, he unified China and started to build the Great Wall.

Despite his clear achievements, the emperor was hated by his subjects, due to his unspeakable cruelty. At the same time, Ashoka was loved by his subjects, as the essay holds, because of his humanism. Ashoka demonstrated that a leader could rule by kindness. The implication for Soviet readers, used to reading between the lines, was clear: there is an alternative to a Stalinist/Maoist ruler who rules by terror. This leader could be truly loved by his subjects if he was humane and addressed the real needs of his people.

Still, it was not the only message, and I realized this during my recent trip to the Indian National Museum in New Delhi. I noted Ashoka’s decree on the stone with an English translation. According to decree, all of his subjects should enjoy free medical services. It was a remarkable promise for a leader who not only lived centuries before Christ, but and who had no direct relations with Greco-Roman civilization of the West, where the idea of the sanctity of human life and well-being was presumably born.

Whether Ashoka’s job was easy is unknown: there are no sources, at least not to my knowledge. Still, one could assume that local doctors were outraged by the idea of fixed payments for their services and, one could assume, they argued that fixed payment for services would lead to a mass exodus from the profession, and the outraged doctors would starve themselves in an act of defiance. Drug producers could have noted that the King’s plan would damage research and no new drugs would emerge. Consequently, people deserving good medical service, those who, of course, belonged to the upper castes, would die.

They could also approach the king’s ministers and concubines with generous “gifts” and encourage them to convince the king that free medical care would destroy the king’s finances. They would also have noted to the king that free medical care is absolutely foreign to Hinduism, the very foundation of Indian society for centuries, and which holds as “self-evident truth” that all people are born unequal and, at best, could enjoy “the unalienable right” to a better reincarnation in the next life.

Still, Ashoka was not just a humane Buddhist, but also a man with a strong will, and possibly told himself, “yes we can,” and did not change the law. It indicates that the person in charge of the state could achieve a lot and really help the average Indian, or average American or whatever nationality he/she might be, if he thought, not about the interests of lobbyists and other special-interest groups, whatever they are or were, but the interests of the vast majority. And for these reasons, the lesson of “Ashokacare” is as important today as it was valid more than 2,000 years ago.

Dmitry Shlapentokh is Associated Professor in the Department of History, Indiana University-South Bend. He is the author of several books and more than 100 articles, the newest of which is titled Global Russia: Eurasianism, Putin and the New Right (Tauris, 2013, forthcoming). Dr. Shlapentokh holds master’s degrees from Moscow State University (Russia) and Michigan State University and a Ph.D. in Russian/European history from the University of Chicago. He taught and had research appointments at Harvard University’s Russian Research Center and Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.