The Asokan Model in South-East Asian Politics

George P. Landow, Shaw Professor of English and Digital Culture, National University of Singapore

Steven Kemper has shown the different ways that powerful historical examples have taken form in contemporary South-East Asian politics. "The Asokan model -- especially in its emphasis on righteousness, charity, and reforming the monkhood -- exerted greatest power on premodern societies of South and Southeast Asia" (167-168). In Thailand, for example, the "Asokan example" shaped the idea of kingship and royal conduct throughout that country's history from the distant past to the present. India and Sri Lanka encountered this tradition differently because of colonialism.

Asokan imagery reappeared in the expressive politics of newly indepedendent India, despite the fact that India lacked any substantial number of Buddhists. In the Indian case where Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and Christian communities dominate, invoking Asoka had virtue for what it did not emphasize. It put none of the major communities at a disadvantage, celebrating the moral intentions of the new state in a diffuse and nondoctrinal way, besides harking back to a period of righteousness 2,000 years before the British inflicted their own conception of good government on India. [168]

In Sri Lanka, Kemper points out, invoking the great ancient king resonated very differently because "what recommended Asoka was not his even handedness, but his rather his capacity to exemplify both morality in government and the rising force of Buddhism in national life" (168).


Kemper, Steven. The Presence of the Past: Chronicles, Politics, and Culture in Sinhala Life. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991.

Tambiah, S. J. World Conqueror and World Renouncer. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1976.

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Last modified 15 December 2000