In India, in the town of Sarnath outside Varanasi (formerly Benaras), at the Archaeological Museum, I came upon a four-headed lion made from sandstone. Each head looks in a different direction. The lion once topped a pillar erected by the Emperor Ashoka. The broken pieces of the pillar lie nearby.
At Sarnath, Buddha preached his first sermon after achieving enlightenment. Ashoka championed Buddhism. The four lion heads are said to symbolically convey the pervading influence of the Buddha, his religion, his order, and “the ever active potency of the law.”
I first encountered the four-headed lion when, following graduation from law school, I worked at the New York City law firm of Baker, Nelson, Williams & Mitchell. The firm represented the India Supply Mission, which then was making arrangements to ship vast amounts of U.S. wheat to India under the Public Law 480 program. The lion-heads are a national emblem of India, found on all government documents and on every rupee note.
The Emperor Ashoka, who ruled from 268-233 B.C., is a towering figure in the 5,000 years of Indian history. Through his Rock Edicts, “gouging them into the very bedrock of India,” and his Pillar Edicts, Ashoka proclaimed to his people “a set of behavioral exhortations,” writes John Keay in “India, A History.”
Experiencing deep remorse for the huge loss of life in a battle where he was victorious, Ashoka, in Rock and Pillar Edicts proclaimed throughout the land, renounced violence and abjured war, turning “statecraft on its head,” writes Keay, for rulers exist to conquer and destroy enemies.
In his last Rock Edict, he calls upon his people to honor all sects.
His hope is that these exhortations, in his own words, will bind “my sons and great grandsons, and as long as the sun and moon shall endure….”
Such would not be the case, but “The innovation which he pioneered of appealing across the barriers of sect, caste and kin to the community of India,” writes Keay, “would be revived by a host of other reformers” through the centuries, among them Mahatma Gandhi.
My interest in India began in the late 1950s, shortly before starting law school when, on my first trip abroad, I lived for a month in New Delhi where my mother was teaching a course on American foreign policy to Indian doctoral students.
In New Delhi we lived in a “bungalow” owned by the Ford Foundation. It was the grandest and only house where I have ever lived, with a large garden and five servants.
On the day following our arrival, poor Multoni, the head servant, walked into the swinging door leading from the dining room into the kitchen and got himself a nasty-looking black eye. And there was Christopher the cook, James the driver, the gardener and the sweeper. One day while exploring the garden, I came upon a tiny village, all the inhabitants of whom turned out to be the families of the household staff.
I wandered around Delhi on foot, by tonga—a horse-drawn cart—or by motorcycle, clinging to the waist of a turbaned Sikh driver. In the early afternoon, since it was summer and fiercely hot, I took a siesta and would then rise in the late afternoon to play tennis.
Three days each week, my mother and I would travel to other parts of India, driven by James to Agra and Jaipur, and traveling by plane to Bombay and Kashmir where we lived on a houseboat on Dal Lake across from the Shalimar Gardens in view of the Himalayan Mountains.
In short, I lived a jolly life at No. 5 Tuglok Lane.
I write these notes from New Delhi, having returned here after the passage of 50 years. Delhi traffic makes New York City seem like a paradise. I visit places new for me, such as Qutb Minar, a soaring tower begun in 1193 to celebrate the Muslim defeat of the last Hindu kingdom in Delhi, and the new subway system with air conditioned cars and stations, the latter noted with envy by this heavy user of the MTA’s services. (On every train a car is reserved for women passengers.)
But I most look forward to visiting No. 5 Tuglok Lane. Unannounced, I arrive. A wall, topped by barbed wire now surrounds the house. India is even more security conscious than we are. The present owner, a member of the upper house in the Indian Parliament, kindly shows me around. The house is in wretched condition, the result of ruinous additions and lack of maintenance.
On the property, I come upon a serene looking cow lying on the ground—the only cow I saw in Delhi on this trip. I conceal my disappointment from the owner. The kitchen, where Christopher produced wonderful meals looked vaguely familiar, but what stood out was the white swinging door to the kitchen, perhaps the very one that nailed Multoni.
With my visit to Delhi completed, and also to Varanasi, Agra and Jaipur, I will travel to central Rajasthan for three months to teach 7th, 8th and 9th graders English literature, writing and public speaking, as well as coach basketball.
My first post-retirement adventure is about to begin!
William J. Dean is a lawyer in New York City and the former executive director of Volunteers of Legal Service.