Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Defence, Aid and Ethics

On this morning's Today program there was an item on the statement by David Cameron last night when he repeated a promise that Britain will spend more on aid to the world's poorer countries over the next few years. The former Foreign Office minister Lord Malloch Brown and the Conservative MP Sir Gerald Howarth debated the prospect.

While Lord Malloch Brown supported the initiative, saying that it was in our best national interest to improve the prospects of poorer nations, Howarth argued that the money would be better spent on the armed forces and that "nothing leverages influence in this world more than strong defence if you are able to carry a big stick you can speak softly".

I was instantly put in mind of the Emperor Ashoka, who conquered most of what is now present day India in the 3rd century B.C.

He embraced Buddhism after witnessing the mass deaths of the Kalinga War, which he himself had waged out of a desire for conquest. He was later dedicated to the propagation of Buddhism across Asia and established monuments marking several significant sites in the life of Gautama Buddha. Ashoka was a devotee of ahimsa (nonviolence), love, truth, tolerance and vegetarianism.

There is some argument as to whether Ashoka disbanded his army completely but if not it was only ever used in policing actions against wild tribesmen who were posing a threat to villagers. The captured tribesmen were not executed, as would have been normal practise at the time but were instead educated in an attempt to civilise them.

He pursued an official policy of nonviolence (ahimsa). Even the unnecessary slaughter or mutilation of animals was immediately abolished. Everyone became protected by the king's law against sport hunting and branding. Limited hunting was permitted for consumption reasons but Ashoka also promoted the concept of vegetarianism. Ashoka also showed mercy to those imprisoned, allowing them leave for the outside a day of the year.

He attempted to raise the professional ambition of the common man by building universities for study, and water transit and irrigation systems for trade and agriculture. He treated his subjects as equals regardless of their religion, politics and caste. The kingdoms surrounding his, so easily overthrown, were instead made to be well-respected allies. He is acclaimed for constructing hospitals for animals and renovating major roads throughout India. After this transformation, Ashoka came to be known as Dhammashoka (Sanskrit), meaning Ashoka, the follower of Dharma.

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