Environmentalism in 250 B.C.


Last week we kicked off our new series covering environmental issues throughout history.


Our first post covered King Edward I’s decision to ban coal burning in 1306. We’re now travelling 1500 years backwards and halfway across planet Earth to look at the environmental issues and ideas of another famous king.

King Ashoka (also known as Ashoka the Great and Priyadarsi) ruled over the Maurya Dynasty of India from 273 to 232 B.C. He is one of the most legendary kings in Indian history, and presided over a massive empire that included most of the present day country of India, plus parts of modern day Iran and Afghanistan.

Ashoka also had some very progressive environmental policies, mostly to do with wildlife and the treatment of animals. The emperor’s policies were heavily influenced by his conversion to Buddhism. Ashoka converted after touring the site of a battle his army had fought. The site of vultures feasting and fighting over the bodies of thousands of dead sickened him. He soon adopted Buddhism and devoted himself to a peaceful life. His newfound policy of non-violence saw his nickname change from “the cruel Ashoka” to “the pious Ashoka”.

As part of his new philosophy, Ashoka improved conditions for all living beings in his kingdom. Human rights and tolerance reached never before seen levels in the empire. But his policies extended not only to humans, but to animals as well.

Ashoka was a great promoter of many ideas that would not seem out of place in modern day environmental circles. For one, he was a great promoter of vegetarianism. While hunting was allowed for limited food gathering, his belief in the sanctity of all life meant a drastic reduction in animal consumption. Hunting for sport was outlawed, as was the branding of livestock. The unnecessary slaughter or mutilation of all members of the animal kingdom was banned. He even created hospitals for animals. His environmental policies probably culminated in the 5th of his Seven Pillar edicts, in which he gave a large variety of wildlife official government protection, a bit like today’s Endangered Species Act.

Not only that, but he attempted to spread these values to other lands. There is a legend from when Ashoka’s son was sent as a missionary to convert Sri Lankan and Thai kingdoms to Buddhism. He came upon a king’s sport hunt, and prevented the king from killing a deer while telling him all creatures have the right to life. The king was convinced and created an animal sanctuary around his palace. And where Ashoka’s son founded monasteries, he made sheltering animals a central tenet of the community.

So far our series has focused on Kings, but monarchs weren’t the only ones with environmental ideas back in the day. Join us next week as we get philosophical on environmental history.

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