Though the names of Roosevelt, Mills, Muir, Thoreau are known in the United States as advocates for conservation of natural resources, the first time natural resources were conserved by a government was during the reign of the Emperor Ashoka I of what is today the Indian subcontinent. While the first efforts at conservation were religiously motivated and our modern conservation is motivated for economic and political reasons, the result was surprisingly the same.
Emperor Ashoka reigned in 269 BC, and converted to Buddhism 5 years later after conquering all of what is today known as India, Pakistan, some of Iran, Burma and Tibet. One of the first human rulers to write autobiographical information, and express not only his laws but the reason behind his laws in writing, we have an intense understanding of his mind. In one such account, he wrote “I conquered the Kalingas eight years after my coronation. One hundred and fifty thousand were deported, one hundred thousand were killed and many more died (from other causes). After the Kalingas had been conquered, I came to feel a strong inclination towards the Dhamma, a love for the Dhamma and for instruction in Dhamma. Now I feel deep remorse for having conquered the Kalingas.”
In penance, he freed his people, but they remained loyal to him because of his strong dedication to the Buddhist faith, his fair laws, and humanitarian principles. Under his reign, we also saw the first acceptance of religious freedom (other religions were tolerated and Buddhists were not given special privileges, he commanded “All religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart” and “Contact (between religions) is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. I desire that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions”), but monks sent to convert the Greeks, Chinese, Tibetans, Egyptians and Africans, and numerous Buddhist laws were proclaimed, ranging from protecting animals from cruelty and in some cases from hunting, to the protection of flora, fauna and the land itself.
The conservation of nature began first with a protection for particular species and kinds of animals from the Emperor’s own plate and hunting. Then, as Ashoka’s faith grew, he ceased hunting and limited the number of animals that others could hunt in a year through a system of licenses (much like we have today). Rare animals were especially protected, but so were new mothers and animals that were young (just like today). Integrating animal cruelty with preservation efforts, Ashoka commanded (among other laws) “cocks are not to be caponized, husks hiding living beings are not to be burnt and forests are not to be burnt either without reason or to kill creatures. One animal is not to be fed to another.”
Like today, large and small animals were protected. Even queen ants were protected by Ashoka. Also, like today, animals (and people) were guaranteed rights to health care and shelter. Free roadside rest stops were provided much as trailheads and trail services are provided in some of our parks, with food, water and shelter for people and animals. He wrote, “I made provision for two types of medical treatment: medical treatment for humans and medical treatment for animals. Wherever medical herbs suitable for humans or animals are not available, I have had them imported and grown. Wherever medical roots or fruits are not available I have had them imported and grown. Along roads I have had wells dug and trees planted for the benefit of humans and animals.”
The result of a conservation system being the same whether religiously or secularly motivated is not astonishing when it is understood that, as Thoreau wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of man.”