I am continuing in January a series of blogs on human rights that I began in December: “Towards Human Rights.” The purpose of this blog series is to make the case for the implementation and acceptance of human rights as a global values system. It is based on my Human Rights: Towards a Universal Values System?
“…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
Towards Human Rights as a Global Values System, part 18
By Dr. Denise R. Ames
A History and Philosophy of Human Rights: Maurya Empire of Ancient India
The Maurya Empire (321 to 185 BCE) was an extensive and powerful empire in ancient India. This empire established unmatched principles of civil rights in the 3rd century BCE under one of its most famous rulers, Ashoka the Great (ruled from 272 to 231 BCE).
Ashoka in his youth was rude and disobedient but also very smart and he possessed outstanding warrior skills. He excelled at deadly sword fighting and, according to legend, he killed a lion with only a wooden rod. Ashoka’s grandfather was a Mauryan emperor, and Ashoka, because of his keen intellect, was his grandfather’s favorite.
His grandfather willingly gave up the glory of ruling to follow a simple life, in keeping with the nonviolent tradition of India. Although the grandfather threw away his sword, Ashoka seized the sword and kept it, in spite of his grandfather’s warnings that violence was not the right way. Ashoka turned into a fearsome warrior and a heartless general. He was known as “the cruel one” because of his constant wars and brutal slaughters.
But Ashoka had a change of heart. After witnessing the horrifying deaths and untold suffering of 110,000 people during his conquest of Kalinga (northern India) in 265 BCE,
which he himself had directed, he felt great sorrow for what he had done. As a result, he made a dramatic change in his life and rejected violence and adopted Buddhism. From then on he came to be known as “the pious Ashoka.”
During his rule, he pursued a policy of ahimsa (nonviolence in Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language) and the protection of human rights. His chief concern was the happiness and well-being of his subjects, whom he treated equally regardless of their
religion, politics, or social class. This collection of beliefs is called the Edicts of Ashoka, a set of 33 writings on pillars, boulders, and cave walls scattered throughout northern India.
The edicts spell out social and moral principles that today we would call human rights. For example, he immediately stopped the unnecessary slaughter or injury to animals, such as sport hunting and branding. He also showed mercy to those imprisoned. He offered common citizens free education at universities and built free hospitals for both humans and animals. Ashoka defined the main principles of nonviolence as tolerance of all groups and opinions, obedience to parents, respect for teachers and priests, generosity towards all, and humane treatment of servants. Ashoka is known as an emperor for all ages.
About the Author:
Dr. Denise R. Ames is a long-time educator, grade 7-university, author of seven books, and president of an educational non-profit, Center for Global Awareness, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. CGA provides books, resources, and services with a holistic, global- focused, and perspective-taking approach for their three programs: Global Awareness for Educators, books and resources for educators and students grade 9-university; Gather, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a self-organizing study and conversation program for adults focusing on seeing different perspectives of pressing global issues; and their most recent program Turn, Transformative Understanding and Reflection Network, which encourages lifelong and transformative learning to help us arrive at a place of personal and global well-being using a seven “path” approach.
For more information about the topic of human rights see Dr. Ames’ book Human Rights: Towards a Global Values System,$17.95, 225 pgs. Also available on Amazon.