Good men through the ages

Indian elephant

I’m finally filling in my gaps in world history, starting with a book about India. I’ve always loved India–the colors, the architecture, the music, the dance. No surprise that Indian history is just as beautiful.

I was especially struck by the story of Ashoka, a 3rd century BC king. After a dissolute youth and a period of ruthless and violent conquest, Ashoka suddenly repented and tried to rebuild his life–and his entire society–around a strict moral law. I can only imagine that his new subjects–the ones who survived his earlier massacres–were less enthusiastic about his conversion. Yeah right! Now he decides to be non-violent!

But it seems to have been a real conversion! Ashoka set up dozens of carved edicts, abolishing the death penalty, urging care for the environment, developing highways, and even trying to enforce religious tolerance. I find this so touchingly familiar. Tell me you’ve never gone through this stage: Guys, look at this cool thing I just found out about! I’m going to change my whole life, right now, and you should too! I’m not going to stop talking about it until you do! Ashoka even sent a kind of missionary to the east and the west, he was so excited about his new ideas.

Ashoka edict

As you can imagine, things didn’t go very well for him. I was expecting him to get assassinated pretty soon, but he seems to have made it to old age. His moral reform, of course, didn’t last any longer than he did. But by his own account he never gave up: “I am never fully satisfied with the end product of all my work, my exertions and the conclusion of my business…but work I must for the public good.” He also makes this heartbreaking admission in one of his edicts: “now I realize how hard it is to persuade people to do good.”

That’s the problem, isn’t it? It’s an old, old story, trying to make heaven on earth. Ashoka wasn’t the first to try to do it through political means, and he wasn’t the last. It’s never gonna work, but it sure is tempting.

Good men through the ages

trying to find the sun…

Five year plans and new deals wrapped in golden chains.

And I wonder, still I wonder, who’ll stop the rain?

“Who’ll Stop the Rain,” Creedence Clearwater Revival

elephant picture: source

sculpture of Ashoka’s edicts being carved, at the Parliament Museum in New Delhi: source

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