Axial Period

“The Master said, ‘If the ruler himself is upright, all will go well even though he does not give orders. But if he himself is not upright, even though he gives orders they will not be obeyed.’†(The Analects of Confucius. xiii, 6)

“The Master said, ‘If only someone would make use of me, even for a single year, I could do a great deal; and in three years I could finish the work.’†(The Analects of Confucius. xiii, 10)

The Axial Period was a time of philosophical transformation that identified mankind to be both the primary source of human misfortune and unhappiness, and the only means to a solution. The philosophies of Confucius, Buddha, Zarathustra and Heraklitus assumed the capacity of human nature to recognize within itself and beyond itself an ethical (internal) standard of truth and virtue, and the desire to act upon that standard in the service of a community. However, of these philosophies, only the thought of Confucius contained any practical political intention or expectation, and Confucius himself was never given the opportunity to advise or influence, directly, the political culture of the China of his time. Others though, like Cleisthenes in Athens and Asoka in India, did attempt political applications of these essentially non-political philosophies. Constrained to the usual 500words, evaluate whether or not you would consider the Mauryan Empire, as ruled by Asoka, a representation, at least to some extent, of Confucius’ political expectations for his vision of Axial Period ideology “ Note: your commentary will need to be informed by the œAll Men Are My Children selection from this week’s ˜Readings’ section of the ˜Course Materials’.

ASOKA MAURYA œA II Men Are My Chi/clrcu [ 10!)]

The picture of Mauryan administration as deScribed above is

one of a vast conglomeration of power manipulated by the dominant

will of an emperor served by a large standing army and a

fairly numerous bureaucracy. Such an administration could have

arisen only in answer to certain specific needs of the times. We

have referred earlier to the breakdown of tribal society and the

emergence of regional societies in its place. These regional societies

were still rather heterogeneous in their ethnic, economic.

and social composition. To this heterogeneity was added the internationalism

and cosmopolitanism of the Mauryas, which, if it

made the diversity more interesting, also made it more complex

and created new problems. With the breakdown of the traditional

systems of social control the problem of administrative organization

assumed new dimensions. New economic activity

threw up new social classes, whose wealth was both bcneficial and

challenging to society and social order. There was also a decline

in the moral norms guiding social conduct.52 The growth of numerous

sectarian theories created possibilities of religious feuds

that could seriously disturb the peace of the realm. The tribal

assemblies were effete, and the organs of autonomous urban control

had yet to develop. This was an age of movement over areas

and classes. In such an age of transition, when the traditional

organs of control failed to exercise real power, it was natural that

control would pass into the hands of the king and his bureaucrats.

The king had not only to be the ruler but also the peacemaker,

the prosecutor, and the judge. The new society needed

not only a new centralized administration but also a uniform or

homogeneous ethos. The Asokan attempt was to find solutions to

the problem of achieving an equilibrium for the new and sometimes

conflicting political and social forces, and it was in this that

the Asokan administration assumed a new character.

The first two Mauryas had developed the essential structure of

Mauryan administration, which closely resembled the theoretical

injunctions of the Arthashastra. The observations of the Greeks

reveal the organizational complexity and skill of this structure.

Asoka inherited it and for the first ten years or so used it for the

consolidation of his empire. After the Kalinga war there was a

gradual change in his personal philosophy, and certain administrath’c

dlanges wcre IIcccssary to implcmcllt this changing view

of the state ami the purpose of life. The country, (˜or him, now

appeared to be a vast family over which he, the pater familias,

prcsided. As the head of this extraordinarily complex and large

family consisting of groups (nikayas) at various levels of civilization

and social development, hc had to devise a policy of toleration

aIIII unity. 111lleed,Asoka seemed to be constal1lly pn:occupied

with the concept of unity, or samavtl)’a, 33 as hc called it.

Politics for him was ncither purely power (danda) and glory (11ishvarya)

nor just an instrument of law and order; its purpose had to

be somcthing highcr, which is called dharma. Now it is true that

in the traditional scheme of idcals of life, as formulated and institutionalized

in later works, dharma figures as the first of the four

values, but it is one of four. For Asoka dharma meant everything,

the highest value and perhaps the only value I This was a result of

the Buddhist influence on his life, and it was this distinctively

Buddhist legacy that he desired to enshrine through his own

statecraft. He viewed life, all life, as one and indivisible and constantly

revealed his preoccupation with the welfare of both men

and animals. For the less privileged sections of society he felt a

special concern and constantly exhorted his subjects to be kind

and sympathetic to the servants and slaves. His thinking was allinclusive,

comprehending within its scope not only diversity of

social classes, but also variations in the manifestations of life, human

and animal. Discriminating intelligence (pradnya) and

compassion for all beings (karuna) were the major foundations of

his philosophy of life. He strove ceaselessly to realize these ideals

in practice and hopcd to live in the best Buddhist tradition of a

counterpart of the Being of Infinite Compassion, the Bodhisattva,

so well-known in Buddhist literature and philosophy.


Asoka had set before himself the aim of making his administration

so morally elevating for his subjects that the distinction between

gods and men would more or less disappcar, and the vcry

gods would descend from thcir hcavens to this world to rub

shoulders with mere men. In his characteristic enthusiasm Asoka

claimed that this great aim had now been realized.