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Ashoka

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Emperor Ashoka (a possible picturisation)
Emperor Ashoka (a possible picturisation)
Ashoka the Great (also Asoka, Aśoka, pronounced as Ashok-uh, not Ashokaa) was the ruler of the Mauryan empire from 273 BC to 232 BC. A convert to Buddhism, Ashoka reigned over most of the Indian subcontinent, from present day Afghanistan to Bengal and as far south as Mysore.

The name "Ashoka" translates into 'without sorrow' in Sanskrit (a – without, shoka – sorrow). Asoka was the first ruler of ancient Bharata (India), after the famed Mahabharata rulers, to unify such a vast territory under his empire, which in retrospect exceeds the boundaries of the present-day republic of India.

The British author H. G. Wells wrote of Ashoka: "In the history of the world there have been thousands of kings and emperors who called themselves 'Their Highnesses', 'Their Majesties' and 'Their Exalted Majesties' and so on. They shone for a brief moment, and as quickly disappeared. But Ashoka shines and shines brightly like a bright star, even unto this day."

Contents

Early life

Ashoka was the son of the Mauryan emperor Bindusara by a relatively lower ranked Queen known as Dharma. Ashoka had several elder siblings and just one younger sibling, Vitthashoka. Because of his exemplary intellect and warrior skills, he is said to have been the favourite of his grandfather Chandragupta Maurya. As the legend goes, when Chandragupta Maurya left his empire for a Jain living, he threw his sword away. Ashoka found the sword and kept it.

Rise to power

Developing into an impeccable warrior general and a shrewd statesman, Ashoka went on to command several regiments of the Mauryan army. His growing popularity across the empire made his elder brothers wary of his chances of being favoured by Bindusara to become the next emperor. The eldest of them, Prince Susima, the traditional heir to the throne, persuaded Bindusara to send Ashoka to quell an uprising in the city of Taxila in the north-west province of Sindh, of which Prince Susima was the governor. Taxila was a highly volatile place because of the war-like Indo-Greek population and mismanagement by Susima himself. This had led to the formation of different militias causing unrest. Ashoka complied and left for the troubled area. As news of Ashoka's visit with his army trickled in, he was welcomed by the revolting militias and the uprising ended without a fight. (The province revolted once more during the rule of Ashoka, but this time the uprising was crushed with an iron hand.)

Ashoka's success made his step-brothers more wary of his intentions of becoming the emperor, and more incitements from Susima led Bindusara to send Ashoka into exile. He went into Kalinga and stayed incognito there. There he met a fisherwoman named Kaurwaki, with whom he fell in love; recently found inscriptions indicate that she went on to become his second or third queen.

Meanwhile, there was again a violent uprising in Ujjain. Emperor Bindusara summoned Ashoka back after an exile of two years. Ashoka went into Ujjain and in the ensuing battle was injured, but his generals quelled the uprising. Ashoka was treated in hiding so that loyalists of the Susima group could not harm him. He was treated by Buddhist monks and nuns. This is where he first learned the teachings of the Buddha, and it is also where he met Devi, who was his personal nurse and the daughter of a merchant from adjacent Vidisha. After recovering, he married her. It was quite unacceptable to Bindusara that one of his sons should marry a Buddhist, so he did not allow Ashoka to stay in Pataliputra, but instead sent him back to Ujjain and made him the governor of Ujjain.

The following year passed quite peacefully for him and Devi was about to deliver his first child. In the meanwhile, Emperor Bindusara died. As the news of the unborn heir to the throne spread, Prince Susima planned the execution of the unborn child; however, the assassin who came to kill Devi and her child killed his mother instead. As the folklore goes, in a fit of rage, Prince Ashoka attacked Pataliputra (modern day Patna), and beheaded all his brothers, including Susima, and threw their bodies in a well in Pataliputra. At that stage of his life, many called him Chanda Ashoka meaning murderer and heartless Ashoka.

Ascending the throne, Ashoka expanded his empire over the next eight years, expanding it from the present-day boundaries of Bangladesh and the state of Assam in India in the east to the territory of present-day Iran and Afghanistan in the west; from the Palmir Knots in the north to the almost peninsular part of southern India.

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Conquest of Kalinga

While the early part of Ashoka's reign was apparently quite bloodthirsty, he became a follower of the Buddha's teaching after his conquest of Kalinga, on the east coast of India in the present-day state of Orissa. Kalinga was a state that prided itself on its sovereignty and democracy; with its monarchical cum parliamentary democracy, it was quite an exception in ancient Bharata, as there existed the concept of Rajdharma, meaning the duty of the rulers, which was intrinsically entwined with the concept of bravery and Kshatriya dharma.

The pretext for the start of the Kalinga War (265 BC or 263 BC) is uncertain. One of Susima's brothers might have fled to Kalinga and found official refuge there. This enraged Ashoka immensely. He was advised by his ministers to attack Kalinga for this act of treachery. Ashoka then asked Kalinga's royalty to submit before his supremacy. When they defied this diktat, Ashoka sent one of his generals to Kalinga to make them submit.

The general and his forces were, however, completely routed through the skilled tactics of Kalinga's commander-in-chief. Ashoka, baffled at this defeat, attacked with the greatest invasion ever recorded in Indian history until then. Kalinga put up a stiff resistance, but they were no match for Ashoka's brutal strength. The whole of Kalinga was plundered and destroyed: Ashoka's later edicts say that about 100,000 people were killed on the Kalinga side and 10,000 from Ashoka's army; thousands of men and women were deported.

Conversion to Buddhism

As the legend goes, one day after the war was over, Ashoka ventured out to roam the city and all he could see were burnt houses and scattered corpses. This sight made him sick and he cried the famous quote, "What have I done?" The brutality of the conquest led him to adopt Buddhism and he used his position to propagate the relatively new philosophy to new heights, as far as ancient Rome and Egypt. From that point Ashoka, who had been described as "the cruel Ashoka" (Chandashoka), started to be described as "the pious Ashoka" (Dharmashoka). He made Vibhajyavada Buddhism his state religion around 260 BC. He propagated the Vibhajyavada school of Buddhism and preached it within his domain and worldwide from about 250 BC. Emperor Ashoka undoubtedly has to be credited with the first serious attempt to develop a Buddhist polity.

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Silver punch-mark coins of the Mauryan empire, bear Buddhist symbols such as the dharma wheel, the elephant (previous form of the Buddha), the tree under which enlightenment happened, and the burial mound where the Buddha died (obverse). 3rd century BCE.

Prominent in this cause were his son Venerable Mahinda and daughter Sanghamitta (whose name means "friend of the Sangha"), who established Buddhism in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He built thousands of Stupas and Viharas for Buddhist followers. The Stupas of Sanchi are world famous and the stupa named Sanchi Stupa 1 was built by Emperor Ashoka. During the remaining portion of Ashoka's reign, he pursued an official policy of nonviolence, ahimsa. Even the unnecessary slaughter or mutilation of animals was immediately abolished. Wildlife became protected by the king's law against sport hunting and branding. Limited hunting was permitted for consumption reasons but Ashoka also promoted the concept of vegetarianism. Ashoka also showed mercy to those imprisoned, allowing them leave for the outside a day of the year. He attempted to raise the professional ambition of the common man by building universities for study and water transit and irrigation systems for trade and agriculture. He treated his subjects as equals regardless of their religion, politics and caste. The kingdoms surrounding his, so easily overthrown, were instead made to be well-respected allies.

He is acclaimed for constructing hospitals for animals and renovating major roads throughout India. After this transformation of self, Ashoka came to be known as Dhammashoka (Sanskrit), meaning Ashoka, the follower of Dharma. Ashoka defined the main principles of dharma (dhamma) as nonviolence, tolerance of all sects and opinions, obedience to parents, respect for the Brahmans and other religious teachers and priests, liberality towards friends, humane treatment of servants, and generosity towards all. These principles suggest a general ethic of behaviour to which no religious or social group could object.

Some critics say that Ashoka was afraid of more wars, but among his neighbors, including the Seleucid Empire and the Greco-Bactrian kingdom established by Diodotus I, none could match his strength. He was a contemporary of both Antiochus I Soter and his successor Antiochus II Theos of the Seleucid dynasty as well as Diodotus I and his son Diodotus II of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. If his inscriptions and edicts are well studied, one finds that he was familiar with the Hellenic world but never in awe of it. His edicts, which talk of friendly relations, give the names of both Antiochus of the Seleucid empire and Ptolemy III of Egypt. But the fame of the Mauryan empire was widespread from the time that Ashoka's grandfather Chandragupta Maurya defeated Seleucus Nicator, the founder of the Seleucid Dynasty.

The source of much of our knowledge of Ashoka is the many inscriptions he had carved on pillars and rocks throughout the empire. Emperor Ashoka is known as Piyadasi (in Pali) or Priyadarshi (in Sanskrit) meaning "good looking" or "favoured by the gods with good blessing". All his inscriptions have the imperial touch and show compassionate loving; he addressed his people as his "children". These inscriptions promoted Buddhist morality and encouraged nonviolence and adherence to Dharma (duty or proper behavior), and they talk of his fame and conquered lands as well as the neighbouring kingdoms holding up his might. One also gets some primary information about the Kalinga War and Ashoka's allies plus some useful knowledge on the civil administration. The Ashoka Pillar at Sarnath is the most popular of the relics left by Ashoka. Made of sandstone, this pillar records the visit of the emperor to Sarnath, in the 3rd century BC. It has a four-lion capital (four lions standing back to back) which was adopted as the emblem of the modern Indian republic. The lion symbolises both Ashoka's imperial rule and the kingship of the Buddha. In translating these monuments, historians learn the bulk of what is assumed to have been true fact of the Mauryan Empire. It is difficult to determine whether or not some actual events ever happened, but the stone etchings clearly depict how Ashoka wanted to be thought of and remembered.

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Ashoka's first rock inscription at Girnar

Ashoka's own words as known from his Edicts are: "All men are my children. I am like a father to them. As every father desires the good and the happiness of his children, I wish that all men should be happy always." Edward D'Cruz interprets the Ashokan dharma as a "religion to be used as a symbol of a new imperial unity and a cementing force to weld the diverse and heterogeneous elements of the empire".

See also: Edicts of Ashoka

Death and legacy

Emperor Ashoka ruled for an estimated 41 years, and after his death, the Maurya dynasty lasted just 50 more years. Ashoka had many wives and children, but their names are lost in time. Mahinda and Sanghamitta were twins borne by his first wife, Devi in the city of Ujjain. He had entrusted to them the job of making his state religion, Buddhism, more popular across the known and the unknown world. Mahinda and Sanghamitta went into Sri Lanka and converted the King, the Queen and their people to Buddhism and then travelled to many countries, including Egypt and the Hellenic world. So they were naturally not the ones handling state affairs after him. Some rare records speak of a successor of Ashoka named Kunal, who was his son from his last wife. But his rule did not last long after Ashoka's death.

The reign of Emperor Ashoka Maurya could easily have disappeared into history as the ages passed by, and would have, if he had not left behind a record of his trials. The testimony of this wise king was discovered in the form of magnificently sculpted pillars and boulders with a variety of actions and teachings he wished to be published etched into the stone. What Ashoka left behind was the first written language in India since the ancient city of Harrapa. Rather than Sanskrit, the language used for inscription was the current spoken form called Prakrita.

In the year 185 BC, about 50 years after Ashoka's death, the last Mauryan ruler, Brhadrata, was brutally murdered by the then commander-in-chief of the Mauryan armed forces, Pusyamitra Sunga, while he was taking the Guard of Honour of his forces. Pusyamitra Sunga founded the Sunga dynasty (185 BC-78 BC) and ruled just a fragmented part of the Mauryan Empire.

Not until some 2000 years later under Akbar the Great and his great-grandson Aurangzeb would as large a portion of the subcontinent as that ruled by Ashoka again be united under a single ruler. When India gained independence from the British Empire it adopted Ashoka's emblem for its own, placing the Dharma wheel that crowned his many columns on the flag of the newly independent state.

In popular media


Preceded by:
Bindusara
Mauryan rulers Succeeded by:
Dasaratha
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