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Ashoka University Inspire Lectures: Bridging Boundaries with Interdisciplinarity

For the third session of the Inspire Lecture Series, Professor Patrick Olivelle spoke on “Ashoka's Journey: From Devotee of Buddhism to Apostle of Ecumenism”

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15 November, 2023 | 4m read

Interdisciplinarity, the belief that knowledge has no boundaries, has been a foundational premise in the growth of human knowledge. The Ashoka University Inspire Lectures is a series of talks on the theme of Interdisciplinarity by distinguished speakers for Ashoka and the World. Professor Dame Gillian Beer, King Edward VII Professor Emeritus, University of Cambridge, delivered the inaugural lecture in June 2021. For the second lecture, Ashoka University hosted Professor Ruth Harris, a distinguished historian and Senior Research Fellow at All Souls’ College and a Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford, in January 2023.

The third lecture was delivered by Professor Patrick Olivelle on 18th October 2023. He is a distinguished scholar of Sanskrit texts, Indian religion, asceticism and law. He served as Chair of the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin (1994-2007), where he is currently Professor Emeritus of Sanskrit and Indian Religions. He was elected Vice President of the American Oriental Society in 2004 and President in 2005, and has received many prestigious awards and fellowships. His path-breaking work, marked by extraordinary range and rigour, has had a major impact on understanding ancient India’s intellectual traditions and history. Professor Olivelle has written extensively on themes such as dharma, the ashrama system and asceticism and has published authoritative translations of the Upanishads, Manava Dharmashastra, Arthashastra, Buddhacharita and Panchatantra. His most recent book is Ashoka: Portrait of a Philosopher King.

Professor Somak Raychaudhury, Vice-Chancellor, Ashoka University formally introduced the event by expaining what interdisciplinarity and liberal arts means and how that is woven into the ethos of the Inspire Lecture Series. This was followed by Professor Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Chancellor, Ashoka University introducing Professor Patrick Olivelle and the topic he would speaking on.

Professor Olivelle spoke on “Ashoka’s Journey: From Devotee of Buddhism to Apostle of Ecumenism”. He discussed Ashoka’s experience and innovations as ruler over a vast, multi-cultural and multi-religious empire. He described how he pivoted from being an ardent Buddhist to becoming a proponent and propagator of a broader, universal moral and political vision, referred to in his inscriptions as dhamma. Professor Olivelle discussed the various aspects of the meanings of Ashoka’s dhamma. He especially focused on the term pasanda, which referred to various religious groups. The Maurya emperor Ashoka embarked on a programme of religious ecumenism, where members of different religions would meet to establish harmony and dialogue and learn from each other. Ashoka’s message went beyond simple religious harmony. It called for active inter-religious cooperation and mutual respect that would enhance the spiritual life of all religions. The lecture delved into this aspect of Ashoka’s messages to the various religious organisations of his time, especially the Buddhist, Brahmanical, Jain, and Ajivika—a message of harmony within diversity that is relevant in modern times. He considered this an essential part of human goodness or virtue.

The conversation then switched to the understanding of two fundamental principles, ahimsa and dharma, as seen through the prism of Ashoka’s edicts. The inquiry addressed the topic of whether Ashoka’s perspective on ahimsa was more aligned with Jain or Buddhist principles, implying that Ashoka’s stance was somewhat unclear and did not provide a thorough philosophical grasp of the idea.

Concerning dharma, the speaker acknowledged the term’s complex nature and the difficulties in adequately conveying its broad meaning. The translation, whether as “law” or another phrase, was determined by the context and audience. It was observed that dharma covered a wide range of connotations, including social order and ethical values, and that its interpretation could differ among translations and historical contexts.

The discussion focused on what makes Ashoka appealing to modern readers, with a particular emphasis on the individuality and consciousness conveyed in his edicts. Although Ashoka’s promotion of an ethic of tolerance and coexistence in the face of religious diversity was lauded, it was acknowledged that his approach may not have extended to tribal communities. Furthermore, the debate delved into the complexities of Ashoka’s commitment to nonviolence, as represented by the lion capitals, which suggested a vision of sovereignty with elements of ferocity and surveillance.

The lecture was followed by a question-answer session where students and faculty posed a variety of questions to the speaker, leading to a lively discussion.

Watch the full lecture here.

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