Photo by kkirugi | flickr.com

When we look at the political leadership of today, especially in North America, it has an incredibly apathetic way of looking at the environmental movement. The environmental lobby is seriously outgunned and outmanned by the industrial and manufacturing sector. Politicians always fall back on the ‘’jobs are more important than the environment’’ argument whilst easily ignoring the long-term cost for the short-term benefit.

People have talked about such issues for a long time and several spineless politicians too have been discussed aplenty vis-a-vis this issue. What we can do though is take a glimpse into history to find political leaders who were at the forefront of environmentalism.

One such ruler can be found in ancient India who ruled over the Mauryan dynasty from 273 B.C.E to 232 B.C.E. His name was Emperor Ashoka. He’s one of the legendary emperors of Indian history and presided over a massive imperial dominion stretching through most of modern day India and Pakistan and parts of modern day Afganistan.

The emperor had some incredibly progressive environmental policies that he implemented throughout his empire which had mostly to do with wildlife and the treatment of animals. These policies were heavily influenced by his conversion to Buddhism after touring the site of a battle his army had fought. The sight of the battle with rivers of blood, armies of orphans and widows and piles of the dead made him regret his imperial conquests and he soon adopted an imperial policy dictated by non-violence.

He promoted ideas that would not seem out of place in the modern day environment circles. For one he was a great proponent of vegetarianism. While hunting was allowed for limited food gathering, his belief in the equality of all life meant a drastic reduction in meat consumption throughout the sub-continent. Hunting for sport was outlawed, as was the branding of livestock.

He saw to it that the unnecessary religious mutilation of all members of the animal kingdom was banned. He even created one of the world’s first veterinary hospitals so that injured or ill animals could be treated and healed. In the 5th of his seven iron pillar edicts that are still found all over India, he gave a large variety of wildlife official government protection, much like today’s Endangered Species Act, and assigned an sizeable portion of the imperial army to enforce it.

But, he didn’t stop there. In fact, he attempted to spread these values to other lands. There is a legend from when Ashoka’s son was sent as a missionary to Sri Lanka and Thailand to spread Buddhism to those kingdoms. His son came upon a king’s sport hunt, and stopped the king from killing a deer because of his belief that all creatures have the right to life. The king was convinced and created an animal sanctuary around his palace, where Ashoka’s son founded monasteries.

Thereby we can see that Ashoka made protecting animals a central tenet of his imperial policy and of community life. Leaders from all walks of life today can take inspiration in such a man who dared to embrace and respect the life of a wild animal that others in his time considered god’s gift for human consumption. He did have the advantage of having unchecked supreme imperial power in his own hands which wouldn’t work so well in today’s democratic societies. But that is alas not the lesson one must draw from his story. The message we should choose to focus on is the fact that a human being’s opinions can be changed and that a single person is capable of great and wondrous acts of humanity. 

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AuthorAbhijeet Manay