My history hero: Nihal Arthanayake chooses Ashoka the Great (c304–c232 BC)

BBC radio presenter Nihal Arthanayake chooses Ashoka the Great as his history hero

A bust of Ashoka the Great

Ashoka the Great: in profile

Ashoka the Great was an Indian emperor of the Maurya Dynasty who ruled over most of the Indian subcontinent from c268–c232 BC. Considered one of India’s greatest emperors, he also promoted the spread of Buddhism across ancient Asia. The Ashoka Chakra (the “wheel of righteousness”) appears on the flag of modern India.

Advertisement

When did you first hear about Ashoka?

I was brought up a Buddhist so I’ve been aware of Emperor Ashoka ever since I was a child. He is the reason my family are Buddhists – his children were responsible for spreading the Buddhist doctrine in Sri Lanka, where my family originate.

What kind of man was he?

Ashoka changed throughout his life, like so many of us. He started out as a cruel, vicious ruler intent on power, but the remorse he felt after waging a destructive war in what is now eastern India led to him adopting Buddhism. So he made this astonishing transition from being a brutal military leader to an extraordinary, wise human being.

What made him a hero?

First, the fact that he was able to do something that so many modern leaders aren’t able to do: admit he was wrong and change his mind. Second, he believed in peace and tolerance, in sorting out problems through discourse, and he built hospitals for both humans and animals. He also realised that trade routes across India needed inns, wells and shade for those who used them. In short, he cared, but he wasn’t hippy-dippy about it; he was practical rather than dogmatic.

What was Ashoka’s finest hour?

One of his finest hours was to realise that if he was to get the Buddhist message out there, it would have to be in the various languages of the region. He was an incredible visionary in that respect.

Is there anything that you don’t particularly admire about him?

It goes without saying that I don’t admire the slaughtering associated with his earlier adult life – I’d be a psychopath if I did! The other big failing of his life was his succession planning: his empire went into decline upon his death and much of what he achieved was destroyed.

Can you see any parallels between Ashoka’s life and your own?

Like him, I’m a Buddhist and eat very little meat. Again like him, I’d also like to consider myself a pretty tolerant person, regardless of the occasional Twitter spats I sometimes find myself embroiled in.

Do you think that history teaching is too Eurocentric?

Yes. Too often the impression is given that the entire history of progress is western, which is a false narrative. Given the size of the Indian population in the UK, and the high profile of many British-Asians, I think it is important for Ashoka’s story to be given prominence.

Nihal Arthanayake presents the afternoon show on BBC Radio 5 Live. Twitter and Instagram @TherealNihal. He was talking to York Membery

LISTEN In Radio 4’s Great Lives, guests choose inspirational figures

Advertisement

This article was first published in the September 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine