Nonviolent Action and Tolerance: Seeds sown in Ancient India Bear Fruit in Tahrir Square

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The Lion Capital of Asoka, originally erected ...

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What has an Indian Emperor who ruled twenty four centuries ago to do with the uprising in Egypt that overthrew Hosni Mubarak? The answer--an idea whose time has finally come.

Chandragupta Maurya, the first real emperor of a united India, was a ferocious ruler. Yet at the end of his life he embraced the teachings of a sect little known outside India--Jainism. In so doing he renounced all forms of violence for a life of radical harmlessness. His change of faith set the stage for Jainism to become a dominant philosophy in India for a thousand years, permeating Indian life and thought with the doctrine of non-violence.

Chandragupta's grandson, Ashoka, took things further, renouncing violence after experiencing the horrors of war and embracing Buddhism. More than two thousand years ago, he knew that war was obsolete. Using the websites of his day, stone pillars set up at key points around his empire, Ashoka promulgated his doctrine of tolerance, non-violence and  protection of wildlife and the environment across his vast domain, which spread from Iran to southern India. With the Maurya emperors, a great idea was born--a just and peaceful society based on principles of non-violence and tolerance. These ethical teachings came from Buddhism, Jainism and Bhagavad Gita, but it was the genius of the Mauryas to apply these teachings to statecraft.

It was into a society permeated with this rich legacy that Mohandas Gandhi was born. His teachings on non-violent action and satyagraha--soul force--were a modern expression of the ancient teachings of tolerance and non-violence planted, like Ashoka's pillars, in the soil of India.

Gandhi's ideology deeply influenced Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela. Gandhi also influenced a little-known American academic, Gene Sharp, author of From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation. This book was the textbook for the Egyptian Revolution. Protesters chanting, 'Salameh, salameh, peaceful, peaceful," embodied Gandhi's teachings on Soul Force. And along with the non-violence that originated in Jainism and Buddhism, today's protesters bring the tolerance first promulgated by Ashoka. Posters in Egypt show the cross and crescent together, signs in Bahrain say, "Shia and Sunni are one," and  recent tweet from embattled protesters in Iran: @: Before the regime, ALL Persians lived together peacefully, Christians, Muslims + Jews. We will again. .
These echo the ancient Vedic teaching, "Truth is one, the wise call that by many names."

The ideas taught millennia ago by Krishna, Buddha and Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, the ideas first brought into the political arena by Ashoka Maurya, have been passed from hand to hand, from one simple human being to another, until at last they have found their way into the minds and hearts of the world as a whole. With technology much more far-reaching than stone pillars, we as a human family have been able to see and be inspired by Soul Force in action, as the Arab world awakens to claim the freedom and justice many of us take for granted. Truly, an idea whose time has come! 

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    This page contains a single entry by Alakananda Ma published on March 7, 2011 10:18 AM.

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