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.