“The ‘Ashoka Approach’ and Indonesian Leadership in the Movement for Pluralist Re-Awakening in South and Southeast Asia”

Capital of inscribed Ashoka pillar at Sarnath, India (250 BCE; photographed in 1904)

JAKARTA, Indonesia and NEW DELHI, India — Leaders of Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim organization, are working to consolidate South and Southeast Asia as an alternate pillar of support for a rules-based international order founded upon respect for the equal rights and dignity of every human being. Integral to this effort is a regional strategy called the “Ashoka Approach,” which seeks to reawaken the ancient spiritual, cultural, and socio-political heritage of the Indianized cultural sphere, or “Indosphere” — a civilizational zone that pioneered, long before the West, key concepts and practices of religious pluralism and tolerance.

Roughly co-extensive with South and Southeast Asia, the Indosphere is a vast geographic and cultural zone stretching from Pakistan to Indonesia, which was formatively and permanently shaped by the great spiritual traditions — particularly Hinduism and Buddhism — that originated in the Indian subcontinent.

The “Indosphere”: An Ancient “Ashokan” Zone. Color key: Dark orange, Indian subcontinent. Light orange, the Indianized states of Southeast Asia. Yellow, peripheral regions subject to considerable Indian influence.

The civilizational heritage and strategy underlying the “Ashoka Approach” is described at length in an article authored by Dr. Timothy Samuel Shah and C. Holland Taylor, published in The Review of Faith & International Affairs in June 2021. Titled “The ‘Ashoka Approach’ and Indonesian Leadership in the Movement for Pluralist Re-Awakening in South and Southeast Asia,” the 9,000-word essay states:

This strategy seeks to reawaken the ancient spiritual, cultural, and socio-political heritage associated with Ashoka, Emperor of the Maurya Dynasty on the Indian subcontinent from 268 to 232 BCE. During the course of his reign the Buddhist Ashoka came to renounce armed conquest and thereafter championed compassion, extensive dialogue and interchange among followers of diverse spiritual paths, inter-faith tolerance, mutual understanding, and respect for the dignity inherent in others. These ideas contributed to the emergence of a civilizational worldview that came to be shared by peoples and cultures throughout much of South and Southeast Asia, thereby fostering an “Indianized” civilizational sphere that overlaps with a geographical region that some scholars have referred to as the “Indosphere.” An alternative label for this region (one less conventional but perhaps also less likely to be misinterpreted) might be the “Ashoka-sphere.” This region is a civilizational zone that pioneered, long before the West, key concepts and practices of religious pluralism.

Today the “Ashoka-sphere” contains over 2.5 billion people, or more than one-third of the earth’s population. It is home to two emerging global powers, India and Indonesia, which are also two of the world’s most remarkable experiments in multicultural, multi-religious democracy. It boasts the world’s greatest religious diversity, with far more Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists than any other region. In fact, all the world’s Hindu-majority countries and Buddhist-majority countries (save one, Mongolia), and the four nations with the world’s largest Muslim populations (Indonesia, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh) are located within this region….

Humanitarian Islam leaders — including [NU Chairman] KH. Yahya Cholil Staquf and Indonesia’s Minister of Religious Affairs, H. Yaqut Cholil Qoumas — maintain that in order to engage in political, economic, and civilizational dialogue on the basis of equality, the nations of South and Southeast Asia must rediscover their shared civilizational legacy, whose cultural and spiritual heritage is equal to those of the “Sinosphere,” Europe, and the Middle East. By re-enlivening the region’s own spiritually informed and benevolent narratives regarding the nature of religious and cultural identity and inter-faith respect — as enshrined in Ashoka’s Major Rock Edicts and the teachings of Islam Nusantara — Humanitarian Islam and the Ashoka Approach seek to strengthen the region and enable it to resist both internal and external disruptive influences.

Building on their transformative work in support of religious pluralism in Indonesia, Nahdlatul Ulama spiritual leaders are seeking to mobilize like-minded religious and political figures throughout South and Southeast Asia to foster a renewed appreciation for the spirituality and respect for pluralism that were once defining features of the Indianized (or perhaps, “Ashoka-ized”) cultural sphere, and forge concrete avenues of cooperation between profoundly spiritual and humanitarian expressions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Their explicit goal is for South and Southeast Asia to re-emerge as a cohesive, vital, and proactive civilizational sphere, which functions as a powerful, independent pillar of support for a rules-based international order founded upon shared civilizational values.

The Ashoka Approach offers an intellectual and spiritual foundation for a burgeoning strategic partnership between the nations of the “Ashoka-sphere,” and has been widely covered by some of India’s most prominent media outlets, including The Print, Open, and India Today — India’s most widely circulated magazine, with a readership of close to 8 million. The Print has run a series of articles on Nahdlatul Ulama and its regional strategy, while India Today ­ published a cover story advocating Indian Muslims’ embrace of “a more inclusive and humanitarian Islam… promoted by organisations like Nahdlatul Ulama,” in order to help bridge India’s deepening communal divide.

A prominent figure in the evolving intercultural and interreligious dialogue between India and Indonesia is Hindu social and political leader Sri Ram Madhav Varanasi, former National Secretary of India’s ruling party, BJP, and a confidant of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Mr. Madhav currently serves on the executive committee of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — a Hindu nationalist organization founded in 1925 — which gave birth to BJP and a wide range of other organizations within the Hindu nationalist umbrella movement known as Sangh Parivar.

H. Amin Said Husni, Vice Chairman, Nahdlatul Ulama; KH. Ulil Abshar Abdallah, Chairman, NU Institute for Study and Human Resource Development; KH. Yahya Cholil Staquf; Sri Ram Madhav Varanasi; and C. Holland Taylor, Special Advisor for International Affairs to the General Chairman, Nahdlatul Ulama Central Board

In a February 2022 article titled “Indian Muslims Need to Emulate the Indonesian Model,” Mr. Madhav wrote that “Indonesia is going to host the G-20 Summit later this year, with India following up the next year. It is time the two countries joined hands as nations with the world’s largest and second largest Muslim populations, respectively, to steadfastly promote the concept of the ‘Humanitarian Islam of the East’ as against the Wahhabi Islam of the Middle East.”

“Mr. Madhav’s embrace of Humanitarian Islam and Nahdlatul Ulama’s engagement hark back to notions of an Indianized civilizational sphere that encompassed South and Southeast Asia for nearly fifteen centuries before the arrival of China, Europe, and Islam in the region,” writes geopolitical analyst and commentator Dr. James M. Dorsey.

In March of 2022, Nahdlatul Ulama founded the G20 Religion Forum (R20) in conjunction with the Indonesian Presidency of the G20, to provide a global platform through which significant religious leaders of every faith and nation may unite to express their concerns and give voice to shared civilizational values.

Held on the Hindu island of Bali, the inaugural G20 Religion Forum (R20) saw participation by some of the Indosphere’s most influential Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian leaders, including Mahamahopadhyay Bhadreshdas Swami (above, left) of the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS, est. 1905), which has built over 1,100 Hindu temples and 3,400 religious centers on six continents; and H.H. Sri Govinda Dev Giri Maharaj (above, right) of Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Trust, who was specifically delegated to represent India’s venerable Shankaracharya tradition.

Other prominent participants included Swapan Dasgupta, a leading Hindu author, politician, and public intellectual; Swami Mitrananda, a spiritual teacher and leader of the All India Chinmaya Yuva Kendra; Dr. Tariq Mansoor, Vice-Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University (est. 1875); Syed Salman Chishti of Dargah Ajmer Sharif, the burial site of Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti (d. 1236) and a renowned pilgrimage site in Rajasthan; Archbishop Felix Machado, who chairs the Office for Interreligious Dialogue of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India; H.H. Samdech Preah Mahasangharaja Bour Kry, Supreme Patriarch of the Thammayut order of Cambodia; Bhante Sri Pannavaro Mahathera, Vice President of the World Theravada Sangha; and Sri Lankan Buddhist scholar and monk, the Most Venerable Kotapitiye Rahula Thera.

“Welcome to Bali, the land of Hindus, in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.”

Following the R20 Summit in Bali, delegates travelled to the island of Java to participate in an R20 planning conference held in the spiritual heartland of Islam Nusantara (East Indies Islam), which gave birth to Nahdlatul Ulama and the R20.

“Yesterday we told all of our students that THIS [R20] is the jihad of today”