Tag Archive | hinduism

VegHist Ep 15: Liberation. Veganism, hippies, and the animal rights movement. With Sam Calvert and Maneka Gandhi; at London, Cambridge, and Bangalore

Crowd holding vegan banners

How has western vegetarianism risen, within living memory, from fringe to mainstream choice? And how has veganism gone from nowhere to everywhere?

Episode 15: Liberation

This final episode recounts the growth of veganism, vegetarianism, and the modern animal advocacy movement.

Ian treads in the footsteps of the handful of pioneers who set up the vegan movement in the 1940s, and meets a life vegan born in 1951.

He investigates the sixties counterculture that combined the philosophy of ethics, activism, and new ways of living and working, visiting one of Britain’s first vegetarian wholefood co-operatives.

And as vegetarian and vegan movements increasingly link up around the world, he looks at developments in China and India. In New Delhi, he meets the vegan politician who is also the most prominent animal advocate in the world’s largest democracy.

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VegHist Ep 13: The Vegetarians. Abolitionism, colonialism, and Victorian reformers; with Julia Twigg and Bhaskar Chakraborty. In London

An old photograph of over a dozen vegetarian magazines

In the late nineteenth century, the new vegetarian movement is intertwined with other struggles – including Victorian reformers, the Indian reaction to British colonialism, and most importantly, slavery.

Episode 13: The Vegetarians

After their foundation in 1847 and 1850, the vegetarian societies in Britain and America rose swiftly faced new challenges.

Dr Adam Shprintzen, author of the history of US vegetarianism “Vegetarian Crusade, tells Ian how the American Vegetarian Society poured its energies into an anti-slavery vegetarian settlement in the Wild West. And how its founder, Englishman Henry Clubb, ultimately took a bullet for the union in the Civil War.

Under British rule, Hindu vegetarianism faced a mix of threat and opportunity. In India, Ian meets historians DN Jha, Burton Cleetus, and Bhaskar Chakraborty, who explain how, faced with rule by distant Christians, vegetarianism became more important as a marker of caste and identity.

Ian also sets off on a cycle tour of vegetarian Victorian London, and talks to the first modern academic to study vegetarian history – Dr Julia Twigg.

Play or download (58MB MP3 41min) (via iTunes)

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VegHist Ep 8: Contacts. Indian Sufism, Bhakti, Akbar, Portuguese Christianity, and Gaudiya Vaishnavism; with Sanjukta Gupta; in Agra, Delhi, and London

An east Indian Jagannath image of Krishna and the words "Go veggie!" and "Krishna" are painted on the side of a cart.

When conquerors who profess Islam or Christianity rule over Indian vegetarians, the conversations about food ethics go both ways.

Episode 8: Contacts

Ian discovers the ecstatic dancing and singing shared by Sufis and Hindus – including westerners singing Hare Krishna in London’s main shopping street.  In Delhi, he finds out about the inquisition that started with European antisemitism and ended with Indians being forced to eat beef.

And in the royal city of Agra, he visits a shrine built to commemorate a conversation about religion and vegetarianism between a Jain saint and the Mughal emperor Akbar. He uncovers the fascinating story of this heretic emperor who advocated vegetarianism.

At the halfway point of this 15-part history of vegetarianism, the traditions of East and West come together. From hereon, it’s all one story.

Play or download (52MB MP3 37min) (via iTunes)
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VegHist Ep 6: Hinduism. On Indian Vegetarianism, Vaishnavism, Satvik, and Mahayana Buddhism; with Sanjukta Gupta, Deepak Anand, and Ranjan Garavu; at Ananta Vasudeva Temple, Bhubaneswar and Nalanda Mahavihara

A smiling man, wrapped in saffron cloth, sits cross-legged on a carved stone platform

In the first millennium CE, Indian vegetarianism advances from an ascetic fringe to a mainstream high-status lifestyle.

Episode 6: Hinduism

How did vegetarianism permeate Indian society? Ian tracks the changes in India’s religious life during the first millennium, following the vegetarian strands of the tapestry that we now call Hinduism.

Ian travels to a temple to Vishnu in eastern India to understand the importance of vegetarianism to his worshippers. He talks to theologians and historians in Oxford and Delhi about the factors that caused the change. He uncovers heated arguments about vegetarianism and animal advocacy in the leaves of India’s sacred texts. And he explores the medieval Buddhist monastic university of Nalanda, in the company of a lecturer from its modern namesake.

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Read transcript of Ep 4: Ashoka

Brahmi Inscription

Alternatively, follow this link to hear Ep 4: Ashoka and read the show notes. Transcription by Amy Carpenter.

[fade in, with devotional music playing in the distance]

Dr Bharati Pal:

… in Gujarat, in Maharashtra, in Andhra Pradesh, in Bihar, all… in Uttar Pradesh, in all parts of India.

Ian McDonald:

And in Pakistan and Afghanistan.


Yeah, Pakistan, Afghanistan, [?] Shabazgarhi …[fade under …]

Ian [as narrator]:

This is Dr Bharati Pal, inscriptions expert at the Orissa State Museum in eastern India, talking about the edicts of a ruler called Ashoka. India’s written history begins with these proclamations, carved into boulders and pillars across the breadth of the subcontinent.


In every place of India is rock edicts is found, and that is the Brahmi script is the mother of all Indian script. From all the script is derived from this Brahmi script.

Ian [as narrator]:

It’s the 3rd Century BCE. The preachers of philosophies of non-violence – Śramaṇas like Mahavir and the Buddha – have become part of India’s oral traditions. And independent kingdoms and republics like this one, Kalinga, face absorption into an empire.

We’re here because this edict of Ashoka, on the Dhauli hillside, looks down on the valley where his imperial army, white banners glittering, came to crush this stubborn province.

[sound vehicles in background]

Ian [to Pal]:

We’re right next to the road up the hill to the temples and the shrines that have been erected on this spot by Buddhists. I just want to get a sense of the Kalinga war, because we got the literary sources that say that this was the battlefield.




So, I…

Pal: [unhesitating]

And I have seen you that river Daya. It is said that one lakh* people are killed. [fades out] (*“lakh” = 100,000)

Ashoka Maurya [13th Major Rock Edict, actor reading]:

One hundred and fifty thousand were dispossessed, one hundred thousand were slain there and many more died otherwise.


“… Many ladies lost their husbands. Many mothers lost their children.” These are all types of things described in these inscriptions. After that he became a changed man and he became a Buddhist.

Ian [as narrator]:

After this conquest, Ashoka rules perhaps one human being in three – the biggest empire in the world, stretching from the Hindu Kush to the Bay of Bengal.


In northwestern frontier and Pakistan it is written in Kharosthi script – in Greek, in Greek script, in Aram, is Aramaic script. There are four languages’ [whose] script is used by Ashoka.

Ian [as narrator]:

Buddhists also credit this changed man with turning Buddhism from a minor philosophy into a proselytizing religion.

His proclamations advance the cause of animals – in them he creates animal hospitals, bans slaughter, and opposes their use as food.

So this episode, we discover when an animal activist was the most powerful man on earth.

[Theme starts – music with sound of gongs]


Vegetariansm: The Story So Far, with me Ian McDonald. Episode four, Ashoka.

[Theme ends]

[Noise of foot traffic echoing inside a hall]


The Bihar State Museum. We’re in the capital of Ashoka’s Mauryan empire, the city of Pataliputra, in the old kingdom of Maghada, where our story began with philosophers like the Buddha and Mahavir preaching the concept of non-violence, ahimsa.

Here, back in the late 4th Century, around 324 BCE, Ashoka’s grandfather defeats the ruling dynasty and takes over the kingdom.

Maghada already controls north India. King Chandragupta expands this south and west. He makes war on the successor of Alexander the Great, who surrenders Greek India – now north-east Pakistan and Afghanistan – in exchange for five hundred elephants.

So the Mauryan empire spreads out from Maghada, from the heartland of these ascetic movements – the Śramaṇas – Jains, Buddhists, et cetera. So what did the Mauryan period mean for these movements?

Prof. UC Dwivedi:

We have no images of Buddhism or Hinduism of the Mauryan period. And this is the only surviving known religious figurine.

Ian [as narrator]:

Professor UC Dwivedi, emeritus director of the Bihar State Museum. By the way, “Bihar”, the name of the modern Indian state, is another reminder that we’re in the Śramaṇa heartland, because it means “monastery”.

In the main gallery Professor Dwivedi is showing me the remains of a statue of one of the Jain enlightened teachers – perhaps Parshwa or Mahavir.


You see this headless and legless, unfortunately this torso of the Jain Tirthankara. This image is made in round, of Chunar sandstone. And the polish noticed on this image…

Ian [as narrator]:

The polish on this sandstone torso still shines millennia later.


Because this polish is noticed all in the Mauryan period. Neither before, nor later on. Most probably it was product of the rulers of that time, and… [fades out]


This Jain statue from the exclusive royal quarry is a physical reminder of Mauryan support for these monastic ascetic movements that are associated with abstention from flesh.

By now, some Brahmins – the hereditary priesthood who maintain rituals, ancient verses, and animal sacrifices – are getting in on the asceticism. King Chandragupta supports a Brahmin monastery, and remember monasteries were a Śramaṇa idea.

And the Greek diplomat who arranged that treaty describes Brahmins as following vows of bloodless purity during their apprenticeship.

Megasthenes [from “Indika”, actor reading]:

They abstain from animal food and sexual pleasures, and spend their time in listening to serious discourse, and in imparting their knowledge to any who will listen to them.


But that’s only training. When that’s over…


They eat flesh, but not that of animals employed in labour. They marry as many wives as they please, with a vow to have numerous children.

[sounds of vehicles, voices and insects on Indian road]

These sramana ideas spread out from their Magadha heartland along the trade routes the empire creates. The first to spread are the fatalistic now-vanished mysterious Ājīvikas whom I mentioned in episode two; and the strictly vegetarian Jains.

[Market sellers calling out]


Fruit and vegetable sellers in the bazaar in Puducherry in the Tamil south of India.

Jainism takes root amongst traders. Trading and commerce are compatible with Jainism’s strict principles of non-violence. And it spreads far.

Our sources on King Chandragupta’s last years are Jain; and they say he renounced the empire he had built to become a Jain monk in the south of India.
And at the end, they say, as a devout Jain monk he fasted unto death.

[Market sellers calling out; car horn]

Dr Suchandra Ghosh:

Because we know Chandragupta going to southern Karnataka, becoming a Jain, dying in… starving to death in Shravanabelagola. Though so Karnataka was very much within Chandragupta’s .. thing.

Ian [as narrator]:

Dr Suchandra Ghosh lectures on the Ashokan edicts at Calcutta University. She met me in the city’s Indian Museum. Just inside from one of central Calcutta’s busiest roads, visitors are greeted by its prized exhibit, a lion from a pillar of Ashoka.

[murmur of voices in a busy building]

Ian [in Calctta]:

A massive stylised lion sitting up and facing forward. Atop an upturned lotus.


The lion is made of the same polished Mauryan sandstone as the Jain statue.


This is actually a Chunar sandstone. It is from, there was this quarry at Chunar. So this was the place…

Ian [to Ghosh]:

Right in the middle of north India.


Absolutely. And the middle of the Ganges valley, part of the Ashokan empire. And from there the stones were being brought… the pillars were made and these pillars were all monolithic pillars. Single stone pillars. And they had these capitals on them.

Ian [as narrator]:

The throne passes to Chandragupta’s son and then – Buddhist texts say after a bloody succession struggle – his grandson, Ashoka. And for the first time in this story, we hear an Indian figure not in the oral traditions of followers and rivals, but in his actual words.

Ashoka [from Pillar Edict 7]:

Wherever there are stone pillars or stone slabs, there this Dharma edict is to be engraved.


Ashoka takes over an empire that covers the whole subcontinent bar the southern tip, and, close to its heart, by the Bay of Bengal, this stubborn province called Kalinga.


Kalinga was a very prosperous and powerful country. It is a country of warrior peoples. In our all the Purana, Upanishad, Mahabharata, Ramayana.

Ian [as narrator]:

The ancient epics.


Understand that Kalinga is a country of warrior peoples. Many warriors are there.


Ashoka defeats the Kalingas in the eighth year of his reign. His edict here is now protected by a small concrete hut. Beside it, an elephant carved in relief steps out of the stone.


This is the best carving elephant in Kalinga.

Ian [to Pal]:

The best carving of an elephant in Kalinga.


Yeah, yeah, in Kalinga.

Actually in this spot he says after this Kalinga war, the horrors of the Kalinga war is not mentioned here.

He look after the welfare of his subject and he allows that like my own children, he looks all… [fades out]

Ashoka [Kalinga Edict 1]:

All men are my children.

What I desire for my own children, as I desire their welfare and happiness both in this world and the other, that I desire for all men.

You do not understand to what extent I desire this. Perhaps some of you do understand, but even they do not understand the full extent of my desires.

[murmur of voices in a busy building]


And he did not want the people of Kalinga to read about those things.

Ian (to Ghosh):

Sorry seems to be the hardest word.


[laughs] Yeah, that’s true. But he was definitely moved after the Kalinga war, after seeing the bloodshed and the killing that occurred in the war. So Buddhism of course had a very strong impact on Ashoka, on his change of his personality.

Ian [as narrator]:

Folk stories and Bollywood movies picture a dramatic battlefield conversion.

[horns start blowing softly]


Ashoka himself confesses to monks a more gradual process that started before his coronation.

Ashoka [from Bairat Minor Rock Edict]:

It is now more than two and a half years since I became a lay Buddhist, but till now I have not been very pious.

Now, a year and somewhat more since I have visited the order, I am pious.

[horns change to a lower note]


The Buddhist legends tell of a cruel angry man, who killed thousands of Ājīvikas when offended, won over to peace by an erudite monk at court, and redeemed by his patronage of the Buddhist order. A Sri Lankan text called the Mahavamsa, the great chronicle, ends:

Mathura Buddhists [from Ashokavadāna – female actor reading]:

He had become known as “Ashoka the fierce”. By this act he became “Ashoka the righteous”.


But Ashoka himself leaves no doubt of the deep impact of Kalinga.

Ashoka [from Major Rock Edict 13]:

After the Kalingas had been conquered, Beloved-of-the-Gods turned to a pious study of the Dharma, a love for the Dharma and for instruction in Dharma.


Ethic, or right conduct.


Now Beloved-of-the-Gods feels deep remorse for his conquest of the Kalingas. For Beloved-of-the-Gods is deeply pained by the slaughter, death and dispossession that takes place when the unconquered are conquered.

[Dr Pal speaks in an Indian language, presumably Odia]


The archeological survey of India let Dr Pal and me in to take a look at Ashoka’s message for the officials and commoners of Kalinga.

[Indian traffic in background. A metal door clangs open and shut]

Ian [to Pal]:

So, how radical was this edict?


Actually this is a revolutionary nature, because it is for give us some ethics, principles, and…

Ian [as narrator]:

The edict is the hut’s fourth wall: twice as tall as we are, and five yards or meters wide.


Actually line one or two is written here. Yeah. Here is written Dharmalipi. Dharma means – that – is ethic principle, moral principle.


[says at same time as Pal] Moral principle.

[continues] This, that I am touching with my hand here – is the ethical code.


Ah, yeah, this is the Dharmalipi. Ah, yeah. This is the ethical principle, Dharmalipi.

Ian [as narrator]:

The edict begins…

Ashoka [from Major Rock Edict 1]:

Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, has caused this Dharma edict to be written.


Ashoka never used the grandiose titles. He never called him[self] Maharaja, or Maharaja Diraja*, he was just Raja Ashoka. He was just King.

(*Maharaja=”Great King”, Diraja=”Royal”)

But that he was from Magadha, “Magadha Raja” he says, when one point of time, in one of the inscriptions.

Ian [to Ghosh]:

Mainly he calls himself Piyadasi.


Piyadasi, Devanampiya Piyadasi. Beloved of the Gods and beautiful to look at.


And modest too.

[Ghosh laughs]

Ian [as narrator]:

This is the very next sentence.


Here, no living beings are to be slaughtered and sacrificed.

[murmur of voices in busy building]

Ian [to Ghosh]:

What really stands out in the ancient world is this ruler saying, “be kind to animals, be nice to animals,” and boasting of how few animals his kitchen killed.


Absolutely. This is unique. I think this is unique.

You do not have this kind of things.

And then he talks about that all people, [Prakit] ”Save munise pajā mamā“, that ”all people are my children“.

And then he talks about, not only of the human world, but he thinks about the animal world, which is very striking. And one thing which we have to take note is that he drastically reduces the killing of animals for cooking in his kitchen.

And then he also… but all this he did not do at one go.

Ashoka [from Major Rock Edict 1] :

Formerly, in the kitchen of Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, many hundreds of thousands of animals were killed every day to make curry.

But now, with the writing of this Dharma Edict, only three creatures – two peacocks and a deer – are killed, and the deer not always. And in time, even these three creatures shall not be killed.


This non-slaughter of animals was a strong ambition that Ashoka had. And therefore we have this in his edicts, also in when he is preaching dharma. So one of the features of dharma is non-slaughter of animal beings.

Ashoka [from Major Rock Edict 1]:

It is good to not kill living beings.

Ian [as narrator]:

He obviously didn’t turn the continent vegetarian, but his edicts include protection laws for species and habitat, including off seasons for hunting.

Ashoka [in Pillar Edict 5]:

Those nanny goats, ewes and sows which are pregnant or nursing are protected, and so are young ones less than six months old.


He outlaws the worst cruelties of animal farming.


Animals must not be fed to animals.


So far, it’s been the Jains making the running for animal advocacy. But even if these proclamations were honoured more in the breach than the observance, including animals in his public works breaks new ground.

Ashoka [various readings running one after the other]:

I have had numerous watering-places built for the…

Along roads I have had wells dug and trees planted for the benefit of man and beast…

… established two types of medical treatment, medical treatment for humans, and medical treatment for animals.

[murmur of voices]


In a future episode and almost two thousand years, we’ll discover how animal hospitals – like this one in northwest India – will astound European travellers.

By the way, that royal curry you’d find perfectly recognisable – dal made of lentils and chickpeas, vegetables like squash, cooked with onions and garlic, in ghee – milk fat – or perhaps coconut oil in the south.

But are those few animals killed for curry for Ashoka or for others? Was he, by the standards of today, let alone the Jains of the Iron Age, vegetarian?


So, there are indications when he stops killing animals, when he stop… [laughs] asking the fisherman not to fish, then naturally he is turning into a vegetarian.

So these are implied, but as a student of history, I cannot categorically, blanketly say that he is; that Ashoka became a vegetarian.

Ian [as narrator]:

If you remember, at the western edge of the Himalayas and Ashoka’s empire, in the Greek Indian territories, in a city called Alexandria then, and Kandahar now, his edict stands translated into Aramaic and Greek, with the Greek idiom for vegetarianism.

[softly played lyre]

Ashoka [Kandahar Edict]:

And the king abstains from animate beings. As do the other men.

And all the king’s hunters and fishermen have stopped hunting.


Of course, the truly sceptical could question the rigour of the translation from the King’s Own Prakit into Greek. But that edict is the oldest object in the world to mention vegetarianism.

By the way, archeologists only discovered it in 1957. And it disappeared from the Kabul museum during the 1990s Afghan civil war, presumably looted.

So what is the dharma, the ethic, that this Buddhist king has promulgated to his empire of millions?

With all his praise of non-killing and animal protection, they are advocacy pamphlets carved in rocks and sandstone.

But he’s also trying to hold an empire together with a national ethos encompassing respect for teachers, elders, and gurus of all religions.

In the Indian Museum Calcutta, Dr Suchandra Ghosh.

[noise of busy building]


This idea of dharma was not just Buddhism, it was a way of life, it was a political philosophy. And through those ideas he was trying to make dharma a cementing factor for the entire subcontinent over which he was ruling.

Ashoka [Major Rock Edict 11]:

And it consists of this: proper behaviour towards bonded servants and hirelings, respect for mother and father, generosity to friends, companions, relations, Brahmins and Śramaṇas, and not killing living beings.


But what Ashoka did was that by his dharma he could consolidate his empire.

So he chose actually those things from Buddhism which are also very common to our day-to-day life. And like for example, even now, our parents tell us that you have to be respectful towards the elders, you have to be respectful towards your teachers. You should treat your servants equally.

But apart from that, when he was talking about Buddhism he never said – he said that there are Brahmanas and Śramaṇas in my country. And he never discriminated between the Śramaṇas and the Brahmanas.

Ashoka [Major Rock Edict 13]:

There is no land, except among the Greeks, where these two groups, Brahmins and Śramaṇas, are not found.

Ian [to Ghosh]:

So, he tried to re-mould society and an empire with his personal, political, Buddhist-informed sense of dharma. How well did he do?


So he… the idea of dharma that he had, he was trying to have officers known as Dharma Mahamatras to go into different places. The only duty was that they should go and preach dharma.

Ashoka [Pillar Edict 7]:

My Dharma Mahamatras are concerned with diverse good works amongst the ascetics and householders, amongst all sects.


He was trying to have a kind of society where everybody will be under the spell of dharma, which was a little, ah, little, um…


Sounds a little bit like political officers in the Socialist Union.


Yeah, and [laughs] absolutely. And then, this is not accepted that all the people will think in the same tune. And what is important is that the Dharma Mahamatras, they went very categorically to different places.

Ashoka [Pillar Edict 7]:

Some were ordered that they should be busy with the affairs of the Buddhist order.

I have also ordered that some should be busy with the affairs of the Brahmins and the Ājīvikas; that some be occupied with the Jains.

Ian [as narrator]:

This list confirmed that these three specific movements – the Buddhists, Ājīvikas, and the vegetarian Jains – have now emerged from the many philosophies of a few generations earlier.

And again, one imagines that this army of Dharma Mahamatras also helped Ashoka make India and her traditions more vegetarian – but we don’t know.

Before we picture a vegetarian utopia, we should bear in mind that we’ve only got Ashoka’s side of the story. As well as speaking softly, he does carry a stick. For example, his rule doesn’t reach into India’s vast forests. So to the tribes within he says:

Ashoka [in Major Rock Edict 13]:

They are told that despite his remorse Beloved-of-the-Gods has power when needed, so that they may be ashamed of their wrong and not killed.


Ashoka praises a “victory by dharma” over one by conquest.

Ashoka [Major Rock Edict 13]:

Now it is victory by Dharma that Beloved-of-the-Gods considers to be the best victory.


But some scholars take this as a threat. It was terrible what happened to Kalinga. Wouldn’t you prefer a victory by dharma?

He’s a politician. But I do find it hard to read the frankness in these messages, and through the hubris, not hear a passionate man who wants to change the world.

Ashoka [Major Rock Edict 5]:

To do good is difficult. One who does good, first does something difficult.


The Dhauli and Kandahar edicts mark far reaches of Mauryan power. But what of the lion capitals over the pillars in the Magadha heartland?

[to Ghosh] … and back in the day, this stood atop a pillar with the seven edicts on it. The kind of condensed version for the core empire.


Right. When we look at the pillar edicts, we find that he talks about mostly about dharma. And he talks about, that he had gone for these 256 nights, he had spent on the pilgrim[age]s.

Ashoka [Major Rock Edict 8]

In the past, kings used to go out on pleasure tours, during which there was hunting and other entertainment.

But ten years after Beloved-of-the-Gods had been enthroned, he departed for the place of enlightenment and thus instituted Dharma tours.


These pillars, the seven pillars of Ashoka, most of them relate to sites having some kind of association with Buddhism. This is actually from Rampurva. This is a very important site.


Where the Buddha is said to have discarded his princely robes as he embarked on his life as an ascetic. There are pillars at Vaiśālī and Mahabodhi, too.

But it’s Ashoka’s efforts to spread Buddhism beyond his frontiers that has the most impact on vegetarianism. Even accepting the form of Buddhism he spread wasn’t veggie, he creates the beachhead from which later Mahayana Buddhists will reach across Asia.

And when he talks of attaining victory by dharma, one assumes his diplomacy comes packaged with Buddhism.

Ashoka [Major Rock Edict 13] :

And it has been won here, and on the frontiers, even six hundred yojanas away, where the Greek king Antiochos rules, and beyond there where the four kings named Ptolemy, Antigonos, Magas and Alexander rule; and in the south among the Cholas, the Pandyas and as far as Sri Lanka.

This victory has been won everywhere, and it gives great joy – the joy that only victory by Dharma can give.

[murmur of many voices in noisy building]

Ian (to Ghosh):

But what about his contribution to the spread of Buddhism, to the spread of the idea of ahimsa and not killing?


Of course, he is… Ashoka will always be remembered as somebody who tried to spread Buddhism, not only in our country but in other places.

For example, even now, I was, in January I was in Myanmar, and I found, the archaeologists, they were showing me places where they said that Sona and Uttara had come from Ashoka.

Ashoka had sent them with the peepal leaf, to spread Buddhism.

So in Myanmar, in Sri Lanka, outside India, you have the spread of Buddhism which began with Ashoka and which was carried on with other rulers also. So this spread of Buddhism was definitely one of his agenda – if we go by the textual references, like the Divyavadana and Ashokavadana. But these are all Buddhist texts.


The Ashokavadana is the light of Ashoka…




From a very positive Buddhist point of view.


Right, right.

Ian [as narrator]:

Ashoka didn’t retire to a monkhood like his grandfather. He reigned for less than forty years. After his lifetime, he becomes a legend. In the Mahavamsa, for example, he miraculously builds shrine mounds – stupas – for the Buddha’s remains all over India, overnight.

Mahāvamsa [female actor reading]:

From those seven reliquaries of old the Mauryan took away the relics of the sage, and built on this earth in one day eighty four thousand stupas, resplendent as the morning clouds.


In the stories, he sends evangelists, founds monasteries, and holds a major Buddhist council. This begs the question of whether Ashoka strengthens vegetarian ideas within Buddhism, and again we can but guess. But he definitely hopes his dharma will last.

[Theme starts – music with sound of gongs]

Ashoka [Pillar Edict 7]:

It has been engraved so that it may endure as long as my sons and great-grandsons live and as long as the sun and the moon shine.

[car horns and murmur of many voices]


Everything changed after Ashoka.

So he was… his successors we know the empire crumbled.

His successors were also did not have that kind of understanding of his dharma. Perhaps he was too ahead of his time.

And later on when we have Brahmanical rulers, you have horse sacrifices, Ashvamedhas. Post-Ashoka, there was not much of impact of his idea of non-slaughter of animals, or ahimsa.

Ian [as narrator]:

If he failed to change India, he transformed Buddhism. I asked two of the experts in Buddhism from earlier episodes. In noisy Delhi University, Professor KT Saroa.

Prof KT Saroa:

Well, we as students and teachers of Buddhism believe that Ashoka was only second to the Buddha.

If Ashoka wasn’t there, possibly we wouldn’t have Buddhism at all. Actually he’s the one who brings Buddhism into life as an institutionalised religion.

Ian [to Saroa]:

Because he funds the institutions.



Ian :

[as narrator] And in his home in Oxford, Professor Richard Gombrich.

[to Gombrich] Did it have a permanent effect, or was it just a tide that went out and then was…

Prof. Richard Gombrich:

Look at how much of the world is Buddhist. Of course it had enormous permanent effect. Ashoka then became very important to especially the Buddhists in history, as, if you like to use the expression, the Golden Age.

There was once this great Buddhist king, and, you know, through history – it happened in Cambodia, it happened in China and so on – people said, “I’m going to be Ashoka, I’m going to be like Ashoka.”

He first he pushes up into Nepal, and then they go further and so on. And of course much of the, most of the Buddhism got to China from India via Central Asia. And there were Buddhist kingdoms in Central Asia.

Ian [as narrator]:

Ashoka himself passes utterly into myth, until in the 19th Century a British Indologist manages to decipher the Brahmi script on the pillars, and rediscovers this lost king of a united India.

The capital from the column at Sarnath, the first sermon, is much more ornate.

[Murmer of voices in museum]


[her voice fades in and out] …and he was knowns as the lion of the …

Ian [as narrator]:

Suchandra Ghosh and I walked up stone steps to the Indian Museum’s replica.


And when Ashoka was… this pillar was built so you have the dharma chakra, you have the lion, you have the bull. So there are, is a connection with Buddhism.

Ian [to Ghosh]:

So what I’m looking at, I mean it’s… even if I had no interest in vegetarian history, I would know this symbol very well because of every single note I’ve been paying every single taxi driver with.




It’s taller than me, has lions facing out in four parallel directions, over…


An upturned lotus.


And in between you have a wheel and some animals.


Yeah, which is, which represents the dharma chakra, the righteousness. So, it was actually to show that kingship, the strength of the kingship, the lions were used. And lions also if you see it in a different way, lions also were symbolical representation of Buddha.


Excuse me ma’am, take photo.


Oh, they want to take a photo.

Ian [as narrator]:

To modern Indians, this lion capital that Ashoka had erected to mark the first preaching of the Buddhist dharma is simply the emblem of the Republic of India. For Dr Pal in Dhauli, Ashoka is now a patriotic inspiration.


That non-violence principle is the best principle that we have getting independence of India in 1947.

This principle of Ahimsa, of non-violence, it is adapted by our father of nation, Mahatma Gandhi. We have accepted it is our principle for getting independence against the British.

[car horn]

This is the revolutionary message from the Ashokan inscription.

Ian [as narrator]:

As we’ve heard, the Mauryan empire crumbles under Ashoka’s heirs. The next dynasty brings back the Vedic Brahminical horse sacrifice, and there are apocryphal stories of persecution of Buddhists.

But Buddhist Greek kingdoms do persist in the footsteps of Alexander through the 2nd and 1st Centuries BCE to the days of Caesar Augustus.

And – whatever impact Ashoka had on India – Buddhism is on the road that will ultimately carry its pro-vegetarian Mahayana form across east Asia.

[Theme starts – music with sound of gongs]


Śramaṇa ideas about vegetarianism travel west, too, to the Mediterranean.

Next episode, we enter the religious struggles to succeed the retreating Gods of Olympus. Where ideas about vegetarianism are definitely part of the argument.

This episode was sponsored by Kickstarter Backers Menka & Ajay Sanghvi to whom I’m very grateful. Nimi Hirani of the Philosophy Club Ahmedabad gave me great help with production. With the music of Robb Masters, the voices of Sandeep Garcha, Jeremy Hancock, and – as King Ashoka Maurya – Vinay Varma.

Follow on facebook and twitter dot com slash veganoption. There’s more to find out at theveganoption dot org.

[Theme ends]

Finally, if you like this series, and I’m guessing you do if you’ve listened this far, please do help get the word out. Review on iTunes or your podcast provider, share it on Twitter and Facebook, blog about it, and tell your friends. It takes months of unpaid work to put this series together, so if you think it’s too good to keep it to yourself, let everybody know. Thank you so much for listening.


This transcript was posted November 29 2017, but dated so that it appears after the show itself in listings. Many thanks to Amy Carpenter. Featured image of Brahmi script on the Pillar Edict at Lumbini CC-BY Ananda Joti.

Read transcript of Ep 3: Pythagoreans

Writing in Greek on gold leaf

Alternatively, follow this link to hear the episode & read the show notes. Transcription by Amy Carpenter.

[Chatter, doors, steps]

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Read transcript of Ep 2: Middle Path

Burmese writing in pattern

Alternatively, follow this link to hear the episode & read the show notes. Transcription by Amy Carpenter.

[Tibetan horns. Buddhist chanting]
Read More…

VegHist Ep 2: The Middle Path. On Siddharta Gautama, and Buddhism; with Rev Varasambodhi Thera, Peter Flugel, and Richard Gombrich; at Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya, India

Buddhist monks under a large tree

Ian travels to the tree where the Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment, and explores the paradox of his early followers’ attitudes to vegetarianism.

Episode 2: The Middle Path

Of the many monks of the ancient Indian kingdom of Magadha, only one has become a global household name. Buddhism will spread ahimsa to the ends of the earth, and inspires many millions of vegetarians today.

And yet the oldest Buddhist texts seem to portray the Buddha eating meat. Hear commentary from theologians from both vegetarian and meat-eating interpretations of Buddhism, the insights of world-leading historians, and a dramatisation of the moment in early texts where vegetarian Jain activists clash with Buddhist meat-eating.

Play or download (43MB MP3) (via iTunes) or read transcript.
Read More…

"The Vegan Option Vegetarianism: The Story So Far - A Radio History