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Buddhistdoor View: Dharma as a Moral Order for International Relations

At Sarnath, near Benares, I would almost see the Buddha preaching his first sermon, and some of his recorded words would come like a distant echo to me through two thousand five hundred years. Ashoka’s pillars of stone with their inscriptions would speak to me in their magnificent language and tell me of a man who, though an emperor, was greater than any king or emperor.

(Nehru 1946, 52)
Standing Buddha, sculpted in the Mathuran school of ancient Buddhist art. From National Museum, New Delhi

From January to March, the Indian consulate of Hong Kong is hosting a series of lectures as part of its objective to collaborate with Hong Kong-based scholars of Buddhism and Indic studies, and lay the ground for meaningful dialogue with religious communities in the Special Administrative Region (SAR). Called “Prajña,” the series is steered by consul-general Ms. Satwant Khanalia, who is the most recent senior diplomat in the city to engage in what could be called “Buddhist diplomacy.” She has correctly identified a good portion of Hong Kong Buddhists’ influence and prestige to be in the scholarly circles, and as such the three-part seminar series focuses on Sanskrit and Buddhist studies and literature.

The word “prajña” pays homage to the shared concept of transcendent insight in both Buddhism and Hinduism. It was chosen specifically to appeal to Buddhists, and the Indian government and its embassies around the world have long attempted to emphasize the common geographic, cultural, and philosophical origins of Buddhism and Hinduism. The roots of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s Indian Buddhist diplomacy, while perhaps seen by some as cynical, actually enjoy a solid political pedigree, going all the way to his predecessor, the first post-Independence leader, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964).

Jawaharlal Nehru. From

As India’s first PM, Nehru was fundamentally inspired by Ashoka the Great, the Indian monarch about whom Indic Studies translator Patrick Olivelle’s new book, Ashoka: Portrait of a Philosopher King (2024), is all about. British writer William Dalrymple has been glowing in his assessment of Olivelle’s character study, especially in regard to how the Mauyran court might have entertained Hellenistic and Seleucid influence – and in doing so, developed a healthy and vibrant philosophical. In line with keeping the monarchy open to co-existing, competing ideologies, philosophies, and spiritual traditions jostling for political influence at court and in government organs, Ashoka would have used the generic term of “Dharma” to cover the entire spectrum of ideal personal behavior and statecraft.

What was Dharma? Dharma was a moral philosophy, beginning with the individual, that would provide the foundations of a new moral order throughout Ashoka’s Mauryan empire. It could be internalized by not only his own people, but also by leaders and subjects of other kingdoms and empires, and through implementing Dharma in international relations, conflicts would naturally end. This is expounded mainly in Ashoka’s Major Rock Edict XIII, where Ashoka refers to himself as Beloved-of-the-gods (Devanampriya):

After that, now that (the country of) the Kalingyas has been taken, Devanampriya (is devoted) to a zealous study of morality, to the love of morality, and to the instruction (of people) in morality. This is the repentance of Devanampriya on account of his conquest of (the country of) the Kalingyas. . . .

(Hultzsch 1925, 43)

As a result of his remorse for annihilating the Kalinga tribe, he resolved to reframe the age-old imperial imperative of conquest as not being through force, but through morality. This “moral conquest,” through personal example and through showing other states the positive example of the Mauryan empire, was a conquest he could actually be proud of, and he mentions faraway realms like those of the Chodas and Pandyas, and Greek regional rulers Antiochus (Antiyoga), Ptolemy (Tulamaya), Antigonus (Antekina), Magas (Maka), and Alexander (Alikyashudala) taking note of his moral conquests being “won repeatedly by Beloved-of-the-gods.” (Hultzsch 1925, 43)

Likewise here in the king’s territory, among the Greeks (Yonas) . . . everywhere (people) are conforming to Devanampriya’s instruction in morality.

Even those to whom the envoys of Devanampriya do not go, having heard of the duties of morality, the ordinances, (and) the instruction in morality of Devanampriya, are conforming to morality and will conform to (it). . . .

And for the following purpose has this rescript on morality been written, (viz,) in order that the sons (and) great-grandsons (who) may be (born) to me, should not think that a fresh conquest ought to be made; (that), if a conquest does please them, they should take pleasure in mercy and light punishments; and (that) they should regard the conquest by morality as the only (true) conquest.

(Hultzsch 1925, 43)

With the idea of morality being the model for a non-violent imperial expansion, Nehru dreamed of something strikingly similar for the newly independent India, hoping to push an Ashokan vision of enlightenment, tolerance, and peace (Ober 2023, 282–83). But this universal vision was undermined by fundamentally nationalistic projects like the Dalai Lama’s exile to India in 1959, and anti-caste Ambedkarite conversions to Buddhism. The breakdown in relations between Nehru and the “father of the Indian constitution,” Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (1891–1956), was catastrophic.  

“Trapped in his own web,” as scholar Douglas Ober describes it, Nehru failed to see the limitations of his soft power diplomacy, and his Buddhist vision died with India’s humiliating defeat to China, a rival claimant to universal Buddhism, in the Sino-Indian War of 1962.

Painting of Nehru. From

While Nehru’s lofty postcolonial ideal was fatally weakened by clashing, unsavory political realities, and one could say that Modi’s approach since 2015 has been an ongoing attempt to rectify the weaknesses of the Nehruvian approach: firstly, Dr. Ambedkar proved that a religious tradition that could apparently unite Indians could simultaneously divide them, something that he did quite intentionally by making the taking of refuge in the three treasures a political, anti-casteist statement. Furthermore, Modi also identified, with reason, the fundamental contradiction in India and China both being custodians of the Buddhist heritage.

The solution has been, for nearly a decade now, to attempt subsuming Ambedkarite Buddhist interests or as many of its proponents as possible under the institutional eyes of soft power organs, and to position itself as the true cradle of Buddhism, implying that China is not. Whatever one thinks of Modi’s redress of Nehru’s Buddhism, one could argue that if the Indian project is going to be true to Ashoka’s original ideal of “conquest by morality,” by Dharma, it cannot be only a game of nationalist deceit, even with China. It must not completely collapse into a project of cynicism. There needs to be a return to the idealism that Ashoka himself was criticized for, even by Indian historians.

Were conquest by Dharma, and trying to inject Dharma into international relations, just naïve dreams? Some writers have accused Ashoka’s idealism of contributing to the short lifespan of the Mauryan Empire. But perhaps it was because of the abortive imperium of Ashoka’s dominion entirely unrelated to his philosophy (they could have been economic, military, or ecological) that his vision of Dharma as a world order could never be implemented. In this increasingly turbulent world, someone should be courageous enough to try again.


Eugen. Hultzsch. 1925. Inscriptions of Asoka. New Edition by E. Hultzsch. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Jawaharlal Nehru. 1946. The Discovery of India. Calcutta: Signet Press.
Ober, Douglas F. 2023. Dust on the Throne: The Search for Buddhism in Modern India. Redwood: Stanford University Press
Patrick Olivelle. 2024. Ashoka: Portrait of a Philosopher King. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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