Asoka’s religion had divided the society in four castes. While Brahmans, the priests, amassed wealth by performing rituals, and the ruling class engaged in wars and oppression, the lower castes were denied access to education and lived an impoverished life. Asoka saw through it.
In Asoka I discovered a leader who ranks with Lincoln and FD Roosevelt–though he lived in different times, and on a different continent. Every great leader responds to problems specific to his time, country, and circumstances; but he also has some timeless qualities. What are those qualities?
Aristotle said a great leader must have moral character so people can trust him, and follow him. He has a vision, a goal, and a plan that he follows with passion and energy. He is a man of action.
Asoka found his religion to be divisive and war-mongering. He saw the gap between moral values and religious values (dogmas and rituals). Dogmas and rituals are created by priests to control the masses. He understood that human beings seek power, but power cannot be built around morals. Remarkably, his Dhamma is all about moral rules; significantly, it is consistent with the core teachings of all religions. Asoka respected, and asked people to respect all religions. Far ahead of his times, he created a secular state based on ethical values. He saw that Buddhism was grounded in moral rules; it was the perfect vehicle for social and religious reform. Buddhism had no caste system; it held that all human beings are equal. Asoka wanted Buddhism to humanize the masses–by purging their hatred and callousness to people of “other” religions.
Asoka asked questions that no ruler had asked before: 1. Can wars give happiness? 2. Don’t religions create obstacles in the path of happiness? 3. Don’t the governments exist to provide happiness to people? The realization that body ills and sickness can cause misery, prompted him to provide universal healthcare. What he did was nothing short of revolution. And it was a revolution led by a King!
He made yet another discovery–that all life, including animals, craves happiness. This led him to champion animal rights and vegetarianism. His reign was one of uninterrupted security and peace.