One of the most interesting dilemmas of kings in Indian history has to do with their reflection over violence. The exploration of ahimsa became a shared ethical heritage of all kings in classical and medieval India. It was in part a late Vedic concept, in good measure a Buddhist emphasis, in part a Jaina practice.
In modern India, as we all know, Mahatma Gandhi repackaged ahimsa in the face of colonial violence. Gandhi’s reinvention of this civilisational inheritance is so pervasive and deep that we automatically respond to violence with calls for non-violence. And so it is from there we arrive at calls for peace and harmony. What makes these calls interesting, however, is the complete absence of remorse.
Rereading Ashoka in our own times is a profound experience. Even in the little fragments handed down to us from the rock edicts, there is enough to tell us something about what consumed the ancients. Ashoka is often remembered for his espousal of non-violence in the aftermath of the Kalinga war. What is often glossed over are Ashoka’s stunning expressions of remorse in his rock edicts. Although widely known to most school children, the edicts in their entirety reflect on dharma, war, and violence.
The most memorable of the edicts for modern audiences is the one where he mentions that nearly one lakh Kalingas died, and many thousands more were taken captive. After the war, Ashoka is overcome by remorse and profound feelings of sorrow because conquest involves slaughter, death and deportation.
Classical Greece, US
Remorse may be a uniquely Indian heritage in the ancient world. In classical Greece, remorse played an important role, too, but for a different reason. According to one recent book on the subject, remorse, though widely noted, was seen as a sign of a fault in the person. To change and to be transformed by remorse was a sign of weakness, particularly among men of higher status. Yet, it was important to express remorse as at moments of reconciliation. Women and slaves were considered susceptible to express remorse, further suggesting that remorse was a sign of weakness. Classical Greeks accused each other of it more so than they admitted remorse. It would seem then, that, political elites in ancient Greece avoided expressions of remorse in the image of Ashoka.
What about remorse in the modern West? The US has decided to pull out of Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of occupation but calls for remorse for the trauma inflicted on Afghani society will barely register. Such a thought will never arise, as the history of this country — from the Indian wars to Vietnam — has shown. The conflict in Vietnam cost the lives of 3 million people and the numbers are equally mind-boggling if one looks at the Korean conflict and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
More importantly, what is the remorse felt by the US’ political leadership? And how does it trickle into the everyday ethical lives of ordinary citizens? The thousands of American veterans of the war in Vietnam certainly feel a sense of remorse, yet, as you go up the layers of political leadership, there is a complete absence of any remorse. It is considered an anathema to express remorse for US’ foreign policy actions. The underlying supremacism and the absence of remorse are there for all to witness.
Absence of remorse in the long history of racial violence is also a continuing sore point in American politics. For decades after the emancipation, free blacks were systematically terrorised by white supremacists. Called lynchings — a public display of racial violence — such violence continued into the 1920s and after. In each instance, the lynchings were directed at African-American demands for equality by racial supremacists and were aided by the larger population. That poison of racial supremacy continues to infect many social and economic institutions in American life. To date, sections of the political class in this country and vast segments of the population resist any remorse over the history of racial violence and, instead view it as contrary to fundamental American principles.
In no modern society did the consensus over supremacy, violence and genocide cohere as effectively as in Nazi Germany. Few Nazis expressed remorse at the end of the Second World War in the trials at Nuremberg and elsewhere. For most Germans, it was simply a matter of doing their duty, and they studiously rejected accusations of anti-semitism. In Nazi Germany, the collaboration between the political class and the larger population was nearly complete and the collective supremacist conscience undergirding the violence of the holocaust is unparalleled to this day. The absence of remorse was perhaps the loudest among ordinary Germans, not to mention their leadership.
Against such a history of the absence of remorse, Ashoka’s expression of remorse stands out. In the edict, he tells us about the sorts of people who were his victims. They “practiced obedience to superiors, parents, and teachers and proper courtesy and firm devotion to friends, acquaintances, companions, relatives, slaves, and servants.” But Ashoka was not simply expressing remorse over the loss of life alone. His concerns were not just over those dead in the Kalinga war; he was equally concerned about the others affected by the loss of their loved ones. Remarkably, he continues: “all suffer from injury, slaughter, and deportation inflicted on their loved ones.”
He delves deeper into the misfortune of those affected by the death. He continues: “Even those who escaped calamity themselves are deeply afflicted by the misfortunes suffered by those friends, acquaintances, companions, and relatives for who they feel an undiminished affection. Thus all men share in the misfortune, and this weighs on King Priyadarsi’s [Ashoka] mind…”
But the scale of the war itself is not the only thing to behold as the reason for this deep reflection. For Ashoka, it was the loss of life, at even minutest scale, that was of utmost concern. That the living bear the loss and are deeply afflicted by the misfortunes of their loved ones carries over to his ultimate cause for remorse. Ashoka tells us: “Therefore, even if the number of people who were killed or who died or who were carried away in the Kalinga war had been only one one-hundredth or one one-thousandth of what it actually was, this would still have weighed on the King’s mind.”
Do we, in India, have the capacity to express remorse or have we entered a world of supremacy?
(The author is Associate Professor, Department of History, San Francisco State University)