At first glance, it may seem startling to compare Lincoln with Asoka. They have nothing in common–different times, different countries (continents!), different race (white v yellow) different power structure (royalty v democracy). Yet when you dive deeper, the similarities are so striking that one cannot help wondering how they escaped through all these centuries in the first place. Let us take Lincoln first. Born in poverty, self-educated ( he had schooling of only a year or two), worked mostly as a carpenter in his early youth and yet, as he became a lawyer, his ambition began to show through and he ended up as a presidential candidate and then won the race. Incredible achievement! Yet what came after that was so great that no President has surpassed him yet. It was his moral compass, his generous character, his unbending principles, his nature to workout differences that made him the man he became. “Generosity for all and malice for none” defines him best. He became a great leader because he put his country first and went to war to unite it. But he also tirelessly worked to free the slaves. He succeeded in both–as a unifier and a humanist.
Now let’s turn to King Asoka. Born a prince in Hindu religion, in the Maurya dynasty which was the first to set up an Empire in India, he was not meant for the rigors of a Buddhist life. He had the Vedic education fit for a prince. His upbringing and his ambition led him to kill the inept prince who was the apparent successor under the rule of primogeniture. Now a king, he followed his religion and the ancient tradition of war and won a glorious war. It was then that his core character–kindness for all and love for his country emerged. He realized the folly and the cruelty of war, the misery it inflicted on the masses, and he woke up. Now he saw his religion in its nakedness. He was horrified. But he could not just give up his religion. Religion was the core of every existence in his times. He looked around and discovered Buddhism–not so much a religion as a humanist way of life that cared for all human beings, that had compassion for all life, and that eschewed bloodshed. He embraced Buddhism. But that was not enough for Asoka as it would have been for any other king. A man of great integrity, a man who could not deceive his people, he gave Buddhism his all. He stopped eating meat, he stopped violence in his dealings with enemies. He wanted to unite his country with a faith that cared for all and not just for Brahmins and Kshatriyas. Instinctively he knew that people have to be happy if his kingdom has to last. This required great courage and foresight that only a great leader can have. And that is the reason why Asoka is a legend in India, just as Lincoln is in America.