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Ashoka’s Dilemma

by on January 6, 2015

                                                              Ashoka’s Dilemma

                       by Marco M. Pardi

Note: All comments are appreciated, read, and responded to accordingly.  The COMMENTS sections for all previous articles have been opened for use.  I will certainly look forward to your comments. 

“The poor will be among you always…” rendered variously in Deuteronomy 15:11, Matthew 26:11, and Mark 14:7.

“Freedom’s just another word for nuthin’ left to lose…” Me and Bobby McGee. Janis Joplin

Recent years have seen a sharp increase in attention to and discussion of the growing wealth disparity between the 1%, even the .01% of Americans and the rest of the country.  What is missing from many of these discussions is the explanation that economic trends often take years, sometimes decades to develop and mature.  The current inequity can be traced back not necessarily to its primogenitor but to a force multiplier in the form of Saint Ronald (Reagan) and his Merry Men (most notably the economist Milton Friedman of the Chicago School of Economics).  Rob from the poor and give to the rich.  It will “trickle down” and create jobs.   Long after the orgy of greed and social cannibalism remembered fondly as the “Reagan Years” a major portion of American workers are working at jobs significantly below their capabilities, and glad to have those jobs.  Others simply found their jobs outsourced, created overseas.

It might seem that this is an inevitable step in the development of a post-industrial society.  Sociology classes even in the 1960’s warned of the displacement of skilled labor by mechanized production, robotic assembly lines.  Classes in “Leisure Studies” developed in anticipation of much shorter work weeks and less coping skills for free time.

But resistance to mechanization is nothing new. The word sabotage (French: sabot – shoe; age – suffix denoting an act) originated among the French speaking Belgian peasants who, upon seeing ox drawn mechanical harvesters replacing them in the fields snuck up and inserted their wooden shoes into the gears of the machines – sabotage.

The root of the wealth disparity problem is not to be found in its branches, or expressions.  It is to be found in the crafting of the cultural narrative, including the definition of terms.  Narrowing the concept of wealth solely to money deflects attention from the real meaning of wealth: Access to power.  Being stranded on a desert island with a steamer trunk of Euros might mean I’m rich, but it also means I’m powerless, powerless to alter my circumstances.  I cannot eat the Euros.  I cannot fashion them into a boat.  At least, a death by starvation might be better than that experienced by Manius Aquillius (Roman Consul 101 BCE) who, in 88 BCE was executed by Mithradates VI of Pontus by having molten gold (not Euros in this case) poured down his throat.

So, money is nice. It buys toys. Within limits, it allows one to alter one’s circumstances.  But it does not automatically confer power.  On a societal level true power (wealth) lies with those who are able to alter the cultural narrative, to bring about changes which become accepted as “the way things should be done, the things good members of society share as beliefs.”  An ongoing example of this is the attempt by some fundamentalist groups to re-write American history as a nation founded on the Bible, eradicating all historical references and proofs to the contrary.  A recent upstart is the self-defeating drumbeat against Common Core in public schools.  Those States rejecting it do not individually have the power to stop it at the federal level, but they are asserting the power to stop at the State level, thus ensuring their version of the cultural narrative is taught in schools.

Here’s a cultural narrative:  There were two brothers, one a pastoralist who herded sheep and the other a farmer who grew crops.  In a dispute over which of the two (incompatible until the advent of barbed wire) lifestyles was better,  the farmer killed his pastoralist brother and went off, his descendents eventually raising a great city.  The city was Rome, named after Romulus, the farmer who killed Remus, his pastoralist brother.  Were you thinking Cain and Abel?  If so, that may be because the Hebrews (originally the Elohim – people of El) who apparently derived their new name from when they, as they were accepted into Egypt during a drought in what is now Palestine, were housed and well fed in return for manual labor and referred to by the Egyptians as hebiru, migrant laborers. As the Hebrew narrative, including the Exodus for which there is not a scrap of linguistic or archaeological evidence, gained strength in the Levant its Christian offshoot, through cultural conquest – not monetary conquest, ascended to a position of power sufficient to eradicate previous and competing cultural narratives.  The adoption of a derogatory name into a title of power was again seen later among the Mamluk Turks (Arabic: mamluk – slave). The expanding Caliphate subdued and enslaved the Turks, but subsequent to their conversion to Islam, it being against the Quran to keep slaves, their descendents were freed.  However, they kept the mamluk term of reference as a title and proudly rose to power, changing the narrative.    

Most people know of the Hindu/Buddhist traditions.  Many people know of Siddhartha Gautama.  But few seem aware of  arguably the greatest cultural narrative ever written.  At more than eight times the length of The Iliad and The Odyssey put together,  the Mahabharata of India contains the Bhagavad-Gita and other epic poems.  Thought to have been compiled after Ashoka’s death in 232 BCE,  it details the earlier crisis of the transition from pastoralism to agriculture.  In her recent book,  Fields of Blood, Karen Armstrong examines the history of religion and violence.

Although her discussion of brain anatomy and physiology is dated and betrays her biases,  Armstrong goes on to explain the development of structural violence, the multi-faceted phenomenon in which the individual is rendered increasingly powerless before the broadly anonymous face of the State.  Contrasting the egalitarianism (equal access to power) of the pastoralist societies with the stratified (unequal access to power) hierarchy of the developing agriculturally based societies she shows how the selective accrual of surplus in the hands of the few enabled the development of trades and specialties which initially benefited the many, providing the basis for the development of what we call civilization.

Indeed, history and contemporary studies confirm that no truly egalitarian society has ever existed at higher than the band level.  Modern societies that do, or have called themselves “Communist” (egalitarian) have invariably proven to be exactly the opposite; they are narrow pinnacles of power exercised through totalitarian dictatorship.  Furthermore, history is littered with examples of failed “communes” and other experiments with egalitarian society even including, by their account, the early Christian communities (Matthew 6:19-34, and related materials).  In every case, be it some spontaneous “Hippie” commune in the woods or the “refusenik” groups of early Christians they quickly found themselves unable to survive outside the structure of stratified, surplus based economies.  Early Christian communities compounded their troubles not on theological grounds (Rome was in effect too tolerant of various religions) but on structural grounds when their refusal to participate in Roman society presented a socio-political threat, not a theological threat.

Armstrong exhaustively traces many examples of the transition from egalitarian pastoralist societies to stratified surplus based agricultural societies.  Her prime example of the inherent problem of structural inequality leading to the structural violence in which the potential life choices of individuals are increasingly narrowed and controlled by the necessary administrative echelons is the Mauryan Empire living on plunder of its neighbors, constant warfare to control rebellion, and enforced taxation.  Ashoka (“Devanampiya” – Beloved of the Gods), the third Mauryan emperor was, like his predecessors, egalitarian in principle – coining the dhamma, a code remarkably close to Jainism, but practically autocratic in the face of the reality of managing an empire. Torn between his feelings and his needs, feeling the call to become a monk but knowing the disaster that would befall his land and people without strong leadership, his well documented dilemma raised him alongside Mahavira and the Buddha as “the most central political and cultural figure of ancient India.” (Asoka: In History and Historical Memory (Delhi, 2009) Olivelle, Patrick, ed.)

The lesson here is universal: The development of new technologies, even advances on old technologies can come only from the freeing of an entrepreneurial, inventive class from the daily wheel of producing their own food.  The intake, management, and redistribution of surpluses accrued through taxation becomes the specialty of yet another class, the administrators at every level.  The security of the system, from within and without, falls to yet another class – the standing enforcement sector, be they police or military.   And on it goes.

Yet, no such society stands the test of perfection.  As long ago as Plato, the problems of corruption were well recognized, leading Plato to write his utopian The Republic, positing philosopher-kings freed from the corrupting influences of money.   Contrast that with the recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings in favor of practically unlimited campaign donations to politicians.  The administration of the United States is open to the highest bidders.  But what are they bidding for?  The right to control the cultural narrative.  For it is the narrative, embedded in the educational system, the economic system, and all through the culture which spurs people to define themselves as free, to define themselves as immune to the ravages industry brings to the environment and to their own children, to define themselves as entitled to live with the comforts gained off the backs of unseen people elsewhere. 

So, here I sit in a comfortable home powered by electricity generated from a plant spewing pollution through air and water as I click away on a computer assembled by outsourced labor (China? Malaysia?) somewhere.  As it happens, I can turn on my large television today and watch the swearing in of a bought and paid for Congress, an entity for whom my vote may have made only a sub-atomic difference at best, wondering who they will favor (or pay off) with their new round of legislation, deregulation, trampling of women’s rights to control their own reproductive function.

I feel Ashoka’s dilemma.  I see the alternatives such as Somalia (BYOG – Bring Your Own Gun).  I enjoy speaking out, in comfort, while at the same time understanding that my lifestyle is on the backs of people I will never meet. 


We are that kid again, running at top speed when the realization comes that we’ve lost our balance.  The best we can hope for is to control the fall.    

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  1. Gary permalink

    Excellent post. One small quibble about the slavery and Koran. If true, how do you explain the Janissaries?


  2. Thank you, Gary. Excellent point. I should have been more clear that the Qu’ran forbids the enslavement of fellow Muslims. The Janissaries were enslaved Christians, not converted to Islam and recruited as young as 6 years old. In a sense, they were somewhat akin to the Swiss Guard of the Vatican. Thanks again. Marco


  3. How timely in light of today’s event in Paris. I had never thought about power in those terms but you are right. And today is another example of a group trying to gain power by trying to change the cultural narrative. And while all the news say they will not let that happen I’m sure it gives all artists, authors, journalist pause before expressing views against these groups.


  4. My comment today is going to be so off-topic , that you will have to forgive me … Gary`s comment and Marco`s reply just brought back so many memories, so many incredibly fond memories of my childhood.
    I still remember very vividly how my father used to tell me for hours stories of one of our greatest ancestors who was a Mameluk ( not sure if it`s the same as Janissaries though, but very similar anyway).
    He was captured at a very early age with his brothers by the Turks when they conquered Albania in the 15th century and was `made` muslim and raised by the Turks. His brothers were poisoned by some Arabs but he was a favorite of the Sultan and survived, and was raised as a muslim and became a high commander.
    But it seems he had not forgotten his family, country and religion and when he had a chance he rallied his countrymen and was the only European leader able to defeat the great Turk army with only some mountaineer fighters.
    It is said that thanks to him, Europe was saved from a Turk invasion, which at the time seemed inevitable.
    The Pope and the King of Naples, and Venice too, I believe, became his allies and from what I heard were very grateful to him (but I am not completely sure here, maybe some 40-50 years have passed since i heard these stories !!)
    His name was Giorgio Castriota SKANDERBEG and after freeing his country he was crowned King of Albania.
    We the Musacchio (Muzaka) were not really of the same clan, so we do not come directly from him, but his wife came from the Musacchio 🙂 , so in a way, he is, as Daddy used to say, one of our ancestors … 😉
    PS to make a long story short, after he died Albany went back to the Turks , but Europe was saved 🙂 … kind of a happy ending, all in all !
    Again, please forgive me for going so off topic !! It just all came back to life !


    • Thank you so much, FOAL. This is a very rich history, and a good example of how such narratives are little known or unknown outside of the cultures in which they arose. Your citation of Mameluk reflects the linguistic changes terms frequently experience as they drift through time and cultures. I would venture that few outside of Central Europe know much of the history of Albania. It would be nice if you had this written down somewhere.

      By the way, while in France I learned the Little Red Riding Hood story was designed as a metaphor for young peasant girls to teach them to be wary of the predations of the French nobility who, riding about the countryside as respectable and trustworthy men, would rape peasant girls with no fear of retribution. And, the story of the young maiden indentured to Rumple Foreskin, the evil dick who made her spin straw into gold, was a story of the exploitation of labor.

      So many of these narratives are being lost at an ever accelerating rate. And, there are many groups waiting to step in with their own versions of the narrative.

      Thanks again, and I hope you put that history to writing. Marco


      • Well, that has been actually already put to writing by my father, Marco.
        He was a doctor but for some 40 years he went all over Italy (monasteries , libraries etc.) to find old books and pergamena not only about our family, but about that period of history.
        In Rome, we had a room full of books in so many different languages and I know that as for the Latin and Greek texts, he had them translated by some friars.
        His huge collection is now in my sister`s house, but I did bring with me to Japan quite several of those books (those more comprehensible 😉 !!) and a copy of the pergamena .
        He wrote a huge book with all his findings and his great happiness was that a few months before he passed away, the book was accepted by the Vatican Library and is stored there.
        So you see, there is little I could add , especially because I don`t know much. For me it is more a remembering of the hours I spent listening to his quiet voice, and I guess that of all he said, what stuck in my kid`s mind must be the most flamboyant parts 🙂


      • Dana permalink

        FOAL, you definitely bring a story to life! Off topic? Fun and interesting!

        Marco, I remember your sharing the Little Red Riding Hood background with me when I was in French class. The rest of us rely on your vast stores knowledge greatly, at least I do.


  5. I would love to see that book, though I know it would not be possible. You and your family are prime examples of what I mean by true wealth: you have the power to preserve the narrative, to stand up to people who would change or obliterate it. Money is money. Knowledge, and especially understanding, is wealth. As the saying goes, “So many books, so little time”.


    • Thank you, Marco! I think the praise should go to my father, I simply enjoyed listening to his findings. He was a very , very humble person by nature and did his research in the name of research itself. As you said, very few people know this part of history and unfortunately, from what I hear and read, it seems that Albania in many respects (maybe for historical reasons) kind of remained stuck in the 15th century (we fled and asked for asylum in Naples, after Skanderbeg died).

      As Rose justly says, history is written by the victors, so not much is being taught of what Skanderbeg really did.
      We would have a different history of the world , especially Europe, if he had not stopped the Ottoman Empire.
      I know this for `certain` (as far as humans can be certain of anything 🙂 ) , because of the many documents , translated and studied by my father (backed also by Vatican researchers).
      Schools and Wikipedia-like sources really give such a biased and incomplete description of so many historical events, but that is how things go …. 🙂


  6. I have the most interesting friends, and they have the most interesting stories to tell. I am humbled in your collective presence. Each of you (Marco and FOAL) have had relatives which significantly altered the history of the world; in your own way, each of you has also altered the world in which we live.

    What else is there for me to contribute to this conversation which is not cliché? History is written by the victors, and power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. The power to change history, to rewrite what was to reflect one’s idea of what should be, goes beyond definition.


    • Thank you, Rose. Your comments on history and power are right on the mark. As we wander through our lives, I think each and every one of us leaves a trail much of which we are never aware of. I’m so glad to be part of this group with you. Marco


  7. Mike Stamm permalink

    Excellent post, as always. Something else to consider is how a given cultural narrative can be re-directed the wrong way by mistake, as witness America after 9/11. We have not, by and large, become any more Sharia-tolerant…but the resulting establishment of the TSA and the metastatic expansion of the NSA and other spy organizations have not been to the benefit of anyone except those who profit directly from their existence. Which I suspect the more thoughtful among Al Qaeda’s members and the Taliban, if there are any such, probably find amusing but not very useful.

    A couple of side comments: I believe “Me and Bobby McGee” was written by Kris Kristofferson, though of course Janis Joplin’s performance is by far the best known.

    And in an instance of linguistic strangeness, when I lived in Japan (1975-76) I was told that in Japanese student slang “sabotage” meant to skip classes (at least at the university level). This was also at the time of the frequent, loud, and occasionally somewhat violent demonstrations against government bribery by the Lockheed corporation; I have no idea if there’s any intellectual connection.


    • Thank you, Mike. Yes, the permutations are Byzantine and the benefactors usually visible only in hindsight.

      I am certain we would all like to hear of your experiences in Japan, especially FOAL, who lives there. And, we are following your recovery with all best thoughts. Marco.


    • Hi Mike ! you are absolutely right ! SABO-RU (which comes from sabotage) is the relatively new verb for skipping school 🙂 . If you say, `Gakko sabotta ` it means you skipped school !


      • Thank you, FOAL. Perhaps you can draw out Mike to tell us of his time in Japan. I find it hard to consider SABO-RU a cognate of sabotage, but perhaps it is. Interesting information. Thanks. Marco


        • Well Marco, it actually is ! 🙂 In Japan, they are quite taken with foreign words and do have a way to import them and sometimes …totally change them (even the meaning gets `sabotaged` , as in this case 😉 ).
          One big reason for this is that they have to , how can I say, `adapt` them to the Japanese syllabic alphabet.
          It is actually this that gives away words of a foreign origin, since they must be written in KATAKANA which is the alphabet used for foreign words.
          So it would be SABO written in Katakana (from sabotage) and RU which is the ending of an infinitive (and this part is written in the HIRAGANA alphabet, usually not used for foreign words).

          P.S. I can`t read the Chinese characters, so am no authority, but this bit about sabotage has been explained to me several times, since it seemed so farfetched to me that I had to ask again ! 🙂 You won`t believe how distorted some words can get ! and to make it `easier`, it is not only from English that they are imported !!!


          • Thank you, FOAL. Years ago I took an interest in learning Japanese, but was displeased by the cultural attitude toward exploiting non-human animals. I did learn that, as part of the restructuring of Japan following WWII the American concept “sexual harrassment” was imported as SEKUHARA, and “mass communications” as MASUKOMI. Of course, English is also a rich mixture of imported terms, many of which are not recognized by the people who use them.

            Your fluency in several quite different languages is inspiring, and awesome. Marco


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