by Vikram Kolmannskog
I am tired of current masculine idols. For my own sake as well as society’s I will spend today on somebody different.
At first glance and touch, Ashoka is ugly and unpleasant due to a skin condition. In addition, for some reason, he keeps fainting all the time. Still, through scheming and violence, he takes the throne and expands his empire.
But then, after Kalinga, his most brutal conquest, he decides to rule differently. He feels deep remorse after Kalinga. He writes that. The man with ugly and rough skin, the emperor who has killed thousands with his swords, now has words carved onto the face of rocks and stone pillars, beautiful edicts across the empire. I catch myself touching my own face, neck and arms for traces.
“What constitutes Dharma?” he asks. And he goes on to list: “Little evil, much good, kindness, generosity, truthfulness and purity.”
I imagine the wells and hospitals constructed and the trees planted along the roads – and I love that he does it, as he writes, for the benefit of all living beings, regardless of the particularities of their incarnation.
But I think it is when learning the details of his dinner plans that I really fall in love. He writes, “Formerly, in the kitchen of Beloved-of-the-Gods, 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, not even these three creatures will be killed.”
“And the deer not always”: how wise and patient this implicit recognition, that human change is often slow and imperfect, how irresistibly sweet when also read as a recognition of imperfection in the emperor himself. I imagine the deer being among his favorite dishes, and this statement a disclosure of his own cravings and weaknesses along with his striving to still be better. I think I envy the deer a little then. At least, this is when I first want to surrender my body to him.
“And in time, not even these three creatures will be killed”: what a youthful optimism from a mature man, what a vitality, what a wonderful vision to put our faith in. And meanwhile, maybe, I can be held by him, and I can be there to hold him. I imagine us like this for a moment. Working to create a beautiful future, Ashoka should no longer have to fear fainting. To support and hold, I am learning, is a root meaning of Dharma.