Ungainly in appearance and not the Crown Prince, Ashoka worked hard to win acceptance and approval from his teachers, and his father the King, to become Viceroy of a province at a young age, a job he expected to do for the rest of his life. Helped by his teacher, he unexpectedly became King after his father died. Still wanting to win approval, he agreed to a war, which his forces won, but left him devastated and remorseful. Exposed earlier to Buddhism by his consort when he was a Viceroy, he gradually became an ardent follower of Buddha’s teachings and spent his life working to incorporate those values in the governance of his empire. He succeeded in ruling with non-violence while promoting tolerance of all religions and showing concern for the welfare of his subjects. His support for Buddhism helped the philosophy spread from a small following to become an international religion. After his queen died, he married a young, attractive (surprise) and impetuous woman. She took a fancy to his son, who rejected her advances so she caused him to be blinded. Incensed, reminded of his appearance, Ashoka executed her, even though his son interceded on her behalf. With that act, he undid three decades devoted to non-violence. Remorseful again, he atoned by reckless charity to all religious orders. For that, his successor and ministers sidelined him. He died a sad man, divested of power. Nevertheless, his legend as a righteous ruler influenced many kings in Asia, from India to Japan, including modern rulers of India, Bhutan, Myanmar, and Cambodia.

An extended version of this ebook will be published by Bloomsbury in India in mid-December 2019 as Ashoka the Visionary: Life, Legend and Legacy.


Too few in India or around the world know who the great Emperor Ashoka (Third Century BCE) was, what were his accomplishments, thousands of years ahead of his time, and what were his extraordinary deeds and edicts. This excellent book fulfills that need successfully, and in our times of widespread distrust of governments all over the world, holds up this great emperor and his world as a prime example of what good governance has accomplished in the past, and what we need to recover to survive the challenges we face. I highly recommend this book!’  Robert ThurmanProfessor of Buddhist Studies at Columbia University 

“I have known Ashok Khanna since my earliest memories, and since his earliest memories Ashok Khanna has been in pursuit of Ashoka. This book is the culmination of the journey of a lifetime: a passionate, heartfelt, thoughtful, and personal inquiry into a figure of enormous significance not just for our past, but for our future, too.”  Mohsin Hamid, author of “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” and “Exit West“, both short-listed for the Booker Prize.

“Over 70 years ago, Winston Churchill, quoting George Santayana, observed that those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it. So it is with the link between governance and economic development. While the study of governance and institutions is now acknowledged to be a foundation of the development of nations, its long history is often ignored. The story of Ashoka, told with an eye for its relevance to the modern world, is one such history. The author reminds us that human rights, respect for nature, and non-violence are universal and timeless values, and provides warnings of what transpires when these are ignored.” Dr. Homi KharasInterim Vice President and Director, Global Economy and Development, BROOKINGS, Massachusetts Ave, Washington, DC

“Ashok Khanna has written an original and personal account of his intellectual and personal encounter with the thought and life of the great 3rd Century BC Indian  Emperor Ashoka, whose message of non-violence and care for all sentient beings is more urgent than ever.’ Bruce Rich, Author of “Ashoka in Our Time: The Question of Dharma for a Globalized World”  (Penguin, 2017)

‘This book takes us on a fascinating odyssey of Ashoka’s life as an Indian Emperor in the third century BCE. It introduces us to his ideals of governance which closely approximate to a contemporary human rights vision.  By spreading the word of this episode in Eurasian political theory and practice, Ashok Khanna corrects a tendency to hubris regarding the uniqueness of the European Enlightenment as a source for ideas of human rights and at the same time provides a crucial antidote to contemporary claims that human rights are a creation of Western imperialism and not applicable to other cultural systems. Dr. Frances Raday President, Concord Research Center for Integration of International Law in Israel, The Haim Striks School of Law, COLMAN, Professor of Law, Emerita, Hebrew  University; Honorary Professor Univ. College London; Doctor Honoris Univ. of Copenhagen, Formerly: Special Rapporteur, UN Human Rights Council; Expert Member, UN CEDAW Committee

A highly informative, instructive, and enjoyable account of the life of a great king. Ancient history comes alive in these pages; and there are lessons in compassion and tolerance here for today’s world. M G Vassanji, Author of “The In-Between World of Vikram Lall”.

“We live today in a spiritual wasteland in which religion is often just the handmaiden of politics.  We need to learn from true leaders of history such as Emperor Ashoka about the meaning of existence, the way forward as individuals, and the way to integrate religion with the social, political, and economic systems engulfing us.  Ashok Khanna’s Gift of Eye: Searching for Ashoka is an important beginning step for us to understand the past as way to make a better future.” Jack Weatherford, former DeWitt Wallace Professor of anthropology at Macalester College in Minnesota and author of “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.