It is hard to do good and he who does good, does a difficult thing. And I have done much good.Emperor Ashoka, Fifth Major Rock Edict (Thapar 1995, 252)
But he who neglects my reforms even in part will do wrong, for sin is easy to commit.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, now well into its third year, scientists, journalists, and policymakers have scrambled to identify a “source” animal—to pinpoint how human interaction and contact might have passed on the virus, which has been theorized to have originally had a non-human host, to “Patient Zero” at some point in 2019. Some of the animals that have come under scrutiny were bats and pangolins, and possible connections have also been made with raccoon dogs, foxes, and other mammals. We now know that neither bats nor pangolins were in Wuhan at the time the first incidents of the outbreak were recorded, according to a joint study by Oxford University, China West Normal University, and Hubei University of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
A number of experts in the World Health Organization (WHO), and at universities and laboratories around the world, have tentatively agreed that the epicenter of the virus may have been Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan. Yet the specific chain of events that provided the virus’s “jump” to human beings remains hotly debated in the scientific community. The Oxford-China West-Hubei report suggests that the source is not so much a single animal, but rather the conditions of the wet market itself. Prof. David Macdonald, one of the report’s authors, writes:
With these huge concentrations of diverse species under one roof, while we discovered no evidence supporting original spill-over from candidate bats or pangolins in Wuhan, it would seem but a matter of time before some other unwelcome disease might skip into the human population. Indeed it is estimated that around 70% of all diseases afflicting people originate in animals, think Avian Influenza, HIV, Ebola, etc.(Oxford News Blog)
Yet the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market can perhaps be seen as emblematic of everything that can go wrong when it comes to the global trade in animals and wildlife. Diseases can find themselves in an environment built for trade and consumption, ideal for interspecies and animal-to-human transmission. The market in Wuhan was in the heart of a bustling urban area of some 11 million people, making human contact much more likely. As such, without significant reform and improvement of environmental standards, half of the world’s cities are potential hotspots for future pandemics, with zoonotic diseases likely to spill over into highly populated, biodiverse areas of the world, especially in Asia and Africa.
Perhaps the bigger question we must ask ourselves is how feasible the global trade in animals and wildlife—legal and illicit—really is. There is perhaps nothing more emblematic of humanity’s violent domination of the natural world than the animal trade. We live with this omnipresent commerce conducted around us at every waking moment, but when one stops to think about it, the implications are staggering, even when it comes to our local supermarket or grocery store. Millions upon millions of domesticated animals are bred to be slain, their lives but a commoditized convenience to be roasted, boiled, deep-fried, or poached away. Minks, foxes, and seals are viciously killed because certain parts of their bodies have become lucrative commodities. A similar story has been written for magnificent beings such as sharks and whales and elephants and rhinos. We should shudder at the idea that someone might be after our own heads because our arm was somehow tasty, or our skin was fashionable.
We rightly decry the sale of human beings as commodities, with the transatlantic slave trade and centuries of violence inflicted on enslaved populations being a prominent example. We are justifiably taken aback when we read that the Sogdians of the Tang-era (618–907) Silk Road, commonly celebrated as peaceable, profit-motivated businesspeople, had a dark side, engaging in the sale of young women and girls to Tang buyers. In the 21st century, human trafficking remains at an all-time high, and the reports of people smuggled and sold across continents are always harrowing. We are rightly sensitized to the invaluable subjectivity and right to life and dignity of our fellow human beings, but despite decades of environmental activism and a growing awareness of the sentience and emotions of our non-human sisters and brothers, the ubiquity and power of the animal trade can make it difficult for many of us to imagine an alternative world.
Yet those who lived in older times could, perhaps, have never imagined a world in which societies, at least in theory, could accept that people are born equal and deserve commonly held rights and protections. The Indian emperor Ashoka the Great (c. 304–232 BCE) was in this sense an innovator when it came to the place of non-human beings in his Mauryan Empire (321–185 BCE). While in ancient India we have little material, epigraphic, and textual evidence of a systematic animal trade, we do know that animal sacrifices and the consumption of animals more broadly were extremely popular. Ashoka did not exclusively practice Buddhism, because Indian (and more broadly Asian) monarchs reigned over a plurality of religious interests and institutions, and their legitimacy demanded the patronage of as many as possible. This included non-Buddhist Brahmin traditions, which remained dominant even during the heyday of Buddhist expansion in India and Central Asia.
Ashoka, popularly known as one of India’s first Buddhism-inspired kings, is said to have been against animal sacrifice, despite the immense popularity of the practice. His famous rock edicts speak of an entirely new way of thinking about sentient beings when it came to their consumption and exploitation: in other words, they would be subject to neither. In his First Major Rock Edict, Ashoka proclaimed:
Here, no living thing having been killed, is to be sacrificed . . . Formerly, in the kitchens of the Beloved of the Gods, the king Piyadassi, many hundreds of thousands of living animals were killed daily for meat. But now . . . only three animals are killed, two peacocks and a deer, and the deer not invariably. Even these three animals will not be killed in future.(Thapar 1995, 250)
Aside from an apparent promotion of vegetarianism in the First Major Rock Edict and a distaste for animal sacrifice and activities that might involve harming animals, such as hunting, pleasure tours, or festivals in the Eighth Major Rock Edict, (Thapar 1995, 253) Ashoka’s Fifth Pillar Edict outlines an entire plan for outlawing the exploitation of specific species. (Thapar 1995, 264) Some clauses, such as not feeding an animal with another animal, seem to indicate a concern for hygiene, and indeed, the spread of diseases and contamination. The edict is nuanced in how it understands the utility of animals and the natural world of the time, but all of Ashoka’s instructions are geared toward realizing an ideal where utility itself is holistically considered rather than upheld as the sole culturally conditioned priority.
Critics of Ashoka argue that his ideal for a new Indian polity based around the Dharma did not outlast his dynasty, and indeed, Brahmin priorities, including animal sacrifice, made a comeback after the Mauryan Empire’s collapse. Ashoka’s new society and empire decayed and ultimately failed not because of his own mismanagement. It demanded successors of similar character and mettle, who possessed that balancing act of tolerating plurality and maintaining continuity, while upholding independence and enacting bold reform, to which his descendants were simply not inclined to aspire.
Ashoka seems to have been aware of the scale of his ambition, and the fragility of it all. Having been immersed in royal politics and court life in all of its treachery and plotting, he was mindful of how easy it was to revert to old paradigms and assumptions. He sprinkled a mixture of encouragements, observations, and warnings throughout his various edicts, as if foreseeing that this might not last.
Today, we find ourselves in a similar situation with our apparently omnipresent, omnipotent trade in animals. While Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market has long since been shut down, and many wet markets across China and Asia are now subject to much more rigorous regulation, we do not seem to have moved any closer to the transformative thinking required to reduce human encroachment on the natural world or to balance our lopsided relationship with our animal counterparts, which is nothing less than mass exploitation and violence.
Yet so many objectives can feel impossible until they are suddenly attained. Our progress can feel like it’s taking forever until one day we wake up, and it is over. For now, we are still some distance away from realizing Ashoka’s vision, which sounds just as ambitious in 2022 as it must have sounded in the third century BCE. From a hopeful perspective, perhaps this simply means that time is on the side of those who seek an eventual end to the commercial trade in sentient beings as we know it, and that it may yet be replaced by something more compassionate and ecologically sustainable.
Romila Thapar. 1997. Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
The wet market sources of Covid-19: bats and pangolins have an alibi (Oxford News Blog)
Animal sales from Wuhan wet markets immediately prior to the COVID-19 pandemic (Scientific Reports)
Scientists predict 4,000 new animal viruses by 2070 (Open Access Government)
Illegal Wildlife Trade (World Wildlife Foundation)
Who Were The Sogdians, and Why Do They Matter? (The Smithsonian)
The Lancet Commission on lessons for the future from the COVID-19 pandemic (The Lancet)