Who initiated Ashoka and Buddhism

Book presentation - an author from Zug on the trail of a great ruler

A Zug author on the trail of a great ruler

Heinz Greter's novel is about the incredible transformation of the Indian King Ashoka.

The story of family feuds up to murder, of love, war and life crisis could come from a Bollywood film. But it is about the great King Ashoka, ruler of the Indian dynasty of the Maurya, who lived in the heart of early Buddhism around 2300 years ago. After cruel years, a traumatic event led him to fundamentally change his life.

In the west we know Alexander the Great, who came to India shortly before his day. But little is known in the West of Ashoka (304–232 BC), who lived there only a few years later. But the Zug author and art historian Heinz Greter came across Ashoka over 30 years ago on his travels to India, which are reminiscent of many Eastern murals in his apartment: “Through Buddhism. There is an Ashoka hotel chain in Asia. But I already knew who he was back then, because he is still famous in Asia. " After his books on Buddhism and the Chinese monk Xuanzang, Heinz Greter, who also meditates frequently, has now written the philosophical novel Ashoka after years of research. Thanks to Heinz Greter, the historical figure is now also alive and tangible for the West.

Mental trauma as an opportunity

As the exciting novel shows, Ashoka was one of the grandsons of Chandragupta Maurya, who built the first great empire on the Indian subcontinent, including an efficient administration. At a young age, Ashoka has to fight for the throne and does not even shrink from murder. In order to enlarge his empire, he conquered some surrounding areas with extreme hardship and strategic warfare, most recently the neighboring Kalinga in eastern India. But the horrors of this war, which he witnessed on the front line on the battlefield, trigger a traumatic horror in him, the result is a severe psychological crisis. This leads to his radical rethinking.

He gets spiritual advice from a monk and begins to meditate, which - as Heinz Greter knows - was already an old tradition in India at that time. Although Brahmin, he immersed himself in the teachings of Buddha Gautama, who lived in the 5th century BC Lived and had many followers at that time. Buddha stood up against the suffering in the world and condemned the caste system, because for him all people were equal. Ashoka joined Buddhism and subsequently determined absolute non-violence as the basis of his imperial policy. In addition, he launched a generally binding “cosmic” ethic and issued over a dozen edicts. In it he admonishes his subjects to refrain from using force and he forbids - despite resistance - the bloody animal sacrifices. The combination of ethical and moral approaches in his politics was unique in ancient India: it secured the great empire many years of peace. Heinz Greter portrays Ashoka as an ambivalent as well as fascinating person. From then on, he forbade warfare and advocates peacebuilding and social welfare.

Tolerance of other religions

The philosophical novel about Ashoka is linked to cultural customs, wisdom, images, as well as historical data and literature references. So the reader, who has never been to India, can get a good picture of the Indian protagonist and of the little-known culture. "I was interested in what kind of person it is who can change so abruptly from a previously cruel to a non-violent ruler," says Heinz Greter (77). He also rates Ashoka's great tolerance towards other religions as extraordinary, and the fact that he is continuing the state policy initiated by his grandfather with the help of his closest adviser and friend. Greter found that the administration textbook, which comprised many hundreds of pages, was formulated very progressively for the time.

In the entertaining story, in which love also plays a role in addition to the raison d'être, everyone will ask themselves: How much is historically documented and how much is fiction? Heinz Greter smiles and explains: “Everything that is documented is fictional, such as the stations in his life, the edicts on the rocks and pillars or the large stupas invented by Ashoka and even individual conversations. I have embellished such details. " And the Zug native has already paid a visit to many of the places described in the book. "I was even in the little town where Ashoka met his first wife."

Little known in the West for a long time

As Heinz Greter noted, Ashoka's work had no impact on the West. But for some rulers of Asia he has become a model. "Today he still lives on in the legends." It took a long time in the West to know something about ancient Indian history, because the reports in the Vedas are written in Sanskrit or other languages. When it was possible to decipher the ancient texts on rocks, pillars or in caves around 200 years ago, the texts of King Ashoka's edicts could finally be translated. In any case, it is a great stroke of luck for the novel that the author, as an art historian, has followed in the footsteps of his fascinating protagonist over many years of intensive research. Because he knows: Ashoka lived.

Heinz Greter, Ashoka, Zocher & Peter Verlag Zurich, 248 pages, ISBN 978-3-907159-22-4