Ashoka: From Guilty to Great (269 BCE – 232 BCE)
Emperor Ashoka was one of India’s most extraordinary rulers and his transformation from a brutal conqueror to a propounder of peace is stuff of legends. Yet his memory was forgotten for centuries. How was the story of Ashoka pieced together and what do we really know of the man?
Archaeologists surveying the site of a proposed dam in Karnataka’s Gulbarga district about 25 years ago made a discovery that left them flabbergasted. At the site of Kanaganahalli in Sannati archaeological complex, on the left bank of the Bhima River, they discovered the ruins of an ancient stupa and a broken relief sculpture of a king and a woman who was probably his queen, flanked by female attendants. The inscription on it read ‘Ranyo Ashoka’, or King Ashoka.
It was the first time ever that anyone had seen an image of King Ashoka. It was a discovery like no other.
Till then, despite the wealth of information about Ashoka – in literature and through his numerous pillars and edicts strewn across the country – there had been no clearly defined image of the emperor. This sculpture was the only ‘confirmed’ representation of Ashoka. It put a face to the name of a king so often talked about in the history of India.
Ashoka has a place in world history too. He was the only king of a sizable empire, to openly declare an ‘official’ end to war and violence and propagate universal peace – something we take for granted today. After all one of the primary objectives of a government is to ensure peace, security and opportunity. Ashoka mandated it 2,300 years ago. The other monumental change he brought about was that, through his patronage, he transformed what was till then a local sect into a leading religion – Buddhism.
Even so, the story of ‘Ashoka the Great’ was largely forgotten in public memory within just centuries of his death in the 3rd century BCE. He returned to public consciousness in the 19th century. Credit for this goes to British antiquarian James Prinsep, who famously deciphered the Brahmi and Kharosthi scripts, and was thus able to read the numerous inscriptions carved into the pillars and edicts Ashoka left behind, across the subcontinent.
How was the discovery made?
For a long time, there had been sightings of interesting pillars and rocks with inscriptions across the Indian subcontinent. The pillars were intriguing because they were all made of sandstone and finely polished. They also looked similar, suggesting that they were all related in some way. But since the script of the inscriptions on the pillars was unfamiliar, nobody knew what these pillars meant, although they looked important enough.
Here’s an interesting anecdote. In 1355-56, Sultan Firuz Shah Tughlaq spotted one such pillar while on a military campaign in the village of Topra Kalan, in present-day Haryana. Tughlaq believed it was the walking stick of the Pandava Bhima, and so he decided to install it on top of his palace in his new city, Firuzabad, now called Feroze Shah Kotla.
The pillar’s journey from Topra Kalan to Delhi, narrated by Tughlaq’s court historian Shams Siraj Afifi in Tarikh-i-Firuz Shahi, makes for an interesting read. On the Sultan’s orders, the soldiers dug out the pillar and laid it on a bed of silk cotton specially prepared to encase it so that it would not get damaged during the journey. This was then encased in reeds and raw hides and transported in a carriage with 42 wheels. When the carriage arrived at the Yamuna River, the pillar was loaded onto a barge and taken to Delhi, where it was received by the Sultan himself.
According to Alexander Cunningham, another such pillar, which stood at Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh, was broken down by a local zamindar to use as a sugarcane press! It was only in the 19th century, as British officers and administrators scoured the subcontinent, that they began to realize just how many of these pillars and rock edicts there were – from Girnar in Gujarat, to Kandahar in modern-day Afghanistan, Sopara in the Deccan and Mysore in the south. Scholars began to sit up and pay attention.
Among those interested in studying them was James Prinsep, who became virtually obsessed with them. In 1833, he learnt that the remains of a pillar very similar to the one at Feroze Shah Kotla had been found in the Allahabad Fort. He began studying these pillars with the help of a Sanskrit scholar. Soon, Brian Hodgson, the British Resident in the Court of Nepal, sent him a copy of the inscription found on a similar pillar at Bettiah in North Bihar. Soon after, another British military engineer named Captain Edward Smith sent Prinsep an inscription inscribed into the stone railings around the Sanchi stupa.
Looking at all the material before him, Prinsep immediately knew that the information on these stones was almost identical and that they had been written by the same person. He also took into account all the rocks which had this script. After four years of painstaking work, Prinsep managed to decipher the script that we today call Brahmi.
As he decoded the inscriptions, Prinsep also realised that they had been written by someone who referred to himself as either ‘Devanampiya’ (beloved of the gods) or ‘Piyadasi’ (he who looks on auspiciousness), and was a propagator of Buddhism.
News of Prinsep’s work spread and a historian studying Buddhist history in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) got in touch with him. He told Prinsep that ancient Ceylonese Buddhist literature mentioned a king named ‘Ashoka’, who had sent a religious mission to Ceylon. He too was referred to as Devanampiya or Piyadasi.
This helped connect the dots and soon the world of the great Mauryan Emperor Ashoka opened up!
Early Buddhist texts preserved in Sri Lanka have helped throw light on much of the subcontinent’s Buddhist history. India’s own records were mostly wiped out, as was Buddhism itself by the 12th-13th centuries CE.
What we know of Ashoka’s early life
The 30-odd Ashokan inscriptions, including those on edicts and pillars, across the subcontinent, only hint at the monarch’s life after he became a ruler. Also, most of them contain only commandments and advice to be followed by his subjects as they walked the path of Dhamma or Dharma, as put forth by Ashoka. Whatever we know about Ashoka comes from Buddhist narratives compiled several centuries later, like the Sanskrit Ashokavadana (c. 2nd CE) and the Pali epic from Sri Lanka called Mahavamsa (c. 5th CE).
Ashokavadana, believed to have been composed by Buddhist monks from the Mathura region, mentions that Ashoka’s mother was Subhadrangi, daughter of a Brahmin from Champa, near present-day Bhagalpur in Bihar. According to this text, she was kept away from the king (her husband Bindusara) due to palace intrigue. It was only when she had a son that she gained access to her husband. She was so relieved when the boy was born that she is said to have declared, ‘I am (now) without sorrow.’ i.e. ‘A-shoka’.
However, according to an old Buddhist legend, Bindusara disliked Ashoka because of his ‘rough’ looks. Before we get to that, we need to mention that despite his supposed dislike for Ashoka, Bindusara seems to have had great faith in his son and his leadership qualities.
Ashoka was given some important responsibilities at a young age. For instance, when the people of Taxila, in Gandhara, revolted against the oppression of higher officials, Ashoka, who was probably just 20 years old then, was sent to quell the dissent. This was a prosperous region and crucial to the Mauryan empire as it was well connected via the Uttarapatha trade route to the Mauryan capital, Pataliputra. Ashoka marched with his army to suppress the rebellion 1,500 km away.
The young prince was also sent to present-day Ujjain and was appointed as the Governor of Malwa. Ujjain was a thriving trading hub and also a great centre of learning.
Sri Lankan texts tell us of an incident from Ashoka’s personal life here. We are told that on his way to Ujjain, Ashoka visited Vidisha (Besnagar), where he met Devi, the daughter of a wealthy merchant. He fell in love with her. There is no reference to their marriage in the Buddhist work Dipavamsa (3rd-4th century CE), but it is said that two children were born to them – Mahinda and Sanghamitta, both of whom played pivotal roles in the Buddhist missions he later sent to Ceylon. The nearby Sanchi stupa originally built by Ashoka marks his close connection with the region.
The next incident that finds mention in the legend is around Ashoka’s accession to the throne.
When Bindusara took ill, he chose his eldest son Susima as his heir. But it seems Susima was disliked by the court ministers, who preferred Ashoka. As a result, Ashoka came back to Pataliputra and sat on the throne after Bindusara’s death in c. 273 BCE. A civil war erupted and popular legend goes that Ashoka killed 99 of his brothers. While this may be an exaggeration, there definitely was a bitter battle of succession as Ashoka was officially crowned king only four years after he seized the throne, in 269 BCE.
Legend has it that this was prophesied. The Mahavamsa mentions that when Ashoka’s mother was pregnant with him, she expressed a desire to ‘trample on the moon and the sun to play with the stars and to eat up the forests’. The elders interpreted this to be an omen – the ‘trampling’ indicated her child would conquer the people of the Indus and ‘eating’ indicated that he would kill those of his brothers who displeased him!
The empire Ashoka inherited was already a large one, with almost the entire Indian subcontinent coming under its purview, except for the southernmost regions and Kalinga. Ashoka’s grandfather, the great Chandragupta Maurya had laid the foundation of the dynasty and expanded its dominions in the north-west.
His father, Bindusara, extended it to the Deccan. In fact, Bindusara deserves far more credit than he gets. While he is mentioned only as a bridge between Chandragupta the ‘Empire Builder’ and Ashoka the ‘Great’, the truth is that not only did he keep the dominions (in the far corners of the subcontinent) that his father had won, he added a lot more, pushing into the Deccan even. Soon after Chandragupta’s death, he is said to have brought back Chanakya (who seems to have had a falling-out with Chandragupta) back as an advisor and also expanded his empire.
One of the reasons we know so little about Bindusara is probably because he was neither a Jain like his father nor Buddhist like his son. He was probably a supporter of Ajivika, a sect that believed in the principle of niyati or fate.
Ajivika’s followers were rigid fatalists, believing that no human effort could have any effect against what was preordained to happen. They claimed that there was no such thing as karma and nirvana. The Ajivika sect died out in time. So if his predecessor and successor had the Jain and Buddhist texts to remember them and chronicle their reign, Bindusara had none. He was destined to be remembered as an ‘interim’ king.
By the time Ashoka took over the reins, the only place left to conquer was Kalinga. It was a land rich in minerals and ports and boasted a string of urban centres connected all the way down the length of present-day Odisha, into the Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh.
So what do we know of Ashoka as a ruler before his famous battle of Kalinga, after which he is said to have transformed?
While we don’t know much about the nitty-gritty of his administration, he would have inherited a fairly organised set-up by the time he took over. Buddhist texts shed light on some other interesting aspects of his life.
They tell us that Ashoka spent a lot of time in pleasurable pursuits, earning him the nickname ‘Kamashoka’.
He was also referred to as ‘Chandashoka’ (‘cruel Ashoka’). Buddhist literature probably exaggerates the ‘cruelty’ of Ashoka as a ruler to underline his transformation after he turned to Buddhism. That’s when he becomes ‘Dhammashoka’.
One early incident stands out for its ‘cruelty’. We are told that when the women in his harem told Ashoka that he was unpleasant to look at and mocked him by breaking the leaves of the Ashoka tree in the garden, he had all 500 of them burnt alive! Ashoka, supposedly, also built ‘hell on earth’ – an elaborate and horrific torture chamber, where he took pleasure in watching people being tortured.
But, as mentioned earlier, these legends need to be looked at objectively.
The Battle of Kalinga
The landmark event during Ashoka’s reign was his conquest of Kalinga. It was important to bring Kalinga into the Mauryan empire, not only due to its proximity to Pataliputra but also to tap its rich iron and copper mines, and its ports, which had access to the lucrative Bay of Bengal trade. Controlling this region would make the empire complete.
Ashoka’s army emerged victorious after a bloody battle here but, in retrospect, he did not consider it a victory. The loss of lives weighed heavily on his heart.
In his 13th rock edict, Ashoka records the sufferings of the vanquished and his own remorse at having caused it – 100,000 died in the war, even more from wounds and hunger; 150,000 were taken prisoner.
This edict has been found inscribed in several places, including Erragudi in Andhra Pradesh, Girnar in Gujarat, Khalsi in Uttarakhand, Mansehra and Shahbazgarhi in Pakistan and Kandahar in Afghanistan. However, it is omitted in Ashoka’s inscriptions found in the Kalinga region, where Rock Edicts 13 and 14 have been replaced by two separate edicts that make no mention of Ashoka’s remorse. Historian Romila Thapar explores the possibility that Ashoka did not consider it politically appropriate to make such a confession to the people of Kalinga.
While Sri Lankan Buddhist scholar Ananda W P Guruge feels that the war and its consequences mentioned in the edicts are more imaginary than real, and that this description is meant to impress those far removed from the scene, and thus unable to verify its accuracy. Maybe it was to show his power and to strike fear into the hearts of others.
Whatever the reason, one thing was sure – the Kalinga incident made Ashoka renounce war and adopt a policy of peace and non-violence, which he fulfilled by embracing Buddhism.
But why Buddhism? His grandfather Chandragupta is said to have been a Jain and his father Bindusara favoured Ajivikas. The only thing common to all these three religions was that they were antagonistic to Brahmanical values.
According to Historian Dr Romila Thapar, Buddhism was then “a new development of the times. It was a socio-intellectual movement, and an ambitious ruler such as Ashoka used it as an appropriate tool to consolidate political and economic power.” Buddhism became his way to re-order and re-organize society. Finding solace here, Ashoka made it his life’s business to preach and propagate the Buddhist Law of piety, and an influential figure who played a major role in helping Ashoka with this was Buddhist monk Mogaliputta Tissa.
To understand Ashoka’s beliefs, ideas and vision, you have to go deep into what he wrote in his edicts, scattered across the subcontinent.
Ashoka’s pillar Edict 2 describes Dhamma as consisting of the least amount of sin, performing many virtuous deeds, compassion, liberality, truthfulness and purity. One of the cardinal aspects of the doctrine of Dhamma that he preached was protecting animals. He confesses in his First Rock Edict that “formerly in the kitchen of his Sacred and Gracious Majesty, each day, many hundred thousand of living creatures were slaughtered to make curries”. Afterwards, this was reduced to “two peacocks and one antelope”, and eventually to complete prohibition. He also laid down a code of regulations to restrict the slaughter and mutilation of animals throughout the empire.
Next came reverence for parents, seniors and teachers. Ashoka also talked about providing comfort for man and beasts by planting shade-giving and fruit-bearing trees, the digging of wells and erection of rest houses. His edicts also represent his respect for and understanding of other religions.
Rock Edict No 9 begins with a criticism of ceremonies performed by people, especially women, on occasions such as illness, weddings, births and setting forth on journeys.
Such rituals produce meager results. Instead, contrast these with the ceremony of Dhamma, which is bound to yield results in this life as well as the next, he urged.
The Fifth Pillar Edict states that the king had released a number of prisoners annually, as many as 25 times. Pillar Edict 4 contains Ashoka’s claim that he introduced samata (interpreted as varna or equality) in judicial procedures.
In his 14th regnal year (c. 256 BCE), Ashoka added to the normal establishment, a body of officers specially appointed to teach and enforce the rules of Dhamma. They were called ‘dhamma-mahamattas’. Ashoka is also credited with ordering the building of 84,000 stupas and viharas. Sources say that Ashoka dug out the relics of Buddha from seven of eight locations, had them portioned and kept in 84,000 boxes made of gold and silver, and ordered them to be consecrated. The monuments include the ones at Sanchi (Madhya Pradesh), Dhamek (Uttar Pradesh), Bharhut (Madhya Pradesh), Sannati in Karnataka and Dharmarajika in Pakistan.
He also sent multiple missions to spread Buddhism. The 13th Major Rock Edict mentions that envoys were sent to the courts of the Chola and Pandya kingdoms, which were independent. But, it seems, this was not enough for Ashoka, who wanted to venture even further.
The information here not only talks about Ashoka’s propagation of Buddhism but also points to his knowledge of the outside world. He sent envoys into the dominions of Antiochos Theos, king of Syria and Western Asia; Ptolemy Philadelphos, king of Egypt; Magas, king of Cyrene in Northern Africa; Antigonos Gonatas, king of Macedonia; and Alexander, king of Epirus. Rock Edict 5 adds to the list of border nations given above, the names of the Rashtrikas of the Maratha country, and the Gandharas of the Peshawar frontier.
The most well-known missions relating to Ashoka are those taken by his oldest children, Mahinda and Sanghamitta, both of whom who had entered an order of Buddhist monks. The siblings were requested by Sri Lankan king Devanampiya Tissa, a contemporary of Ashoka and based at the ancient Sri Lankan capital Anuradhapura, to spread the teaching of the Buddha in his kingdom. Sources say that Sanghamitta carried with her a branch selected by Ashoka from the Mahabodhi tree in Gaya and planted it in Anuradhapura. The tree that grew from it still survives and is worshipped to this day.
Ashoka’s inscriptions also reveal just how big the Mauryan empire was. Edicts have been found as far as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. These edicts and inscriptions were engraved in prominent places, either near towns or important trade and pilgrimage routes, to reach a large number of people. Interestingly, they are also in different languages and scripts, depending on what the locals were fluent in at the time. There’s Prakrit in the Brahmi and Kharosthi scripts as well as Greek and Aramaic, as found in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
In the later years of his life, Ashoka undertook a pilgrimage to all the major places connected with Buddha’s life, such as Lumbini, in c. 249-48 BCE. By now he must have been about 55 years old then.
Death and Legacy
Surprisingly, how, when or where the life of this emperor ended is not clear. According to the Ashokavadana, the emperor was seriously ill during his last days. He started using state funds to make donations to the Buddhist Sangha, prompting his ministers to deny him access to the state treasury. Ashoka then started donating his personal possessions but was similarly restricted from doing so. On his deathbed, his only possession was half an amala (myrobalan fruit), which he offered to the Sangha as his final donation.
The Sri Lankan tradition states that Ashoka’s chief queen died during his 29th regnal year, and in his 32nd regnal year, his wife Tissarakkha was given the title of queen. But she was jealous of the attention Ashoka gave to a Bodhi tree and pricked a poisonous thorn into the tree. The mental agony this caused Ashoka is said to have caused his death when he was 72 years old, in c, 232 BCE. Legend says that during his cremation, his body burned for seven days and nights.
Ashoka was succeeded by his son Kunala, and soon the Mauryan empire began disintegrating. But what’s noteworthy is that never again did any Indian ruler rule over an equally large territory as that governed by Ashoka.
Today Ashoka’s spiritual legacy lives on as does his legacy as a leader and statesmen. No wonder then that the emblem of the modern Republic of India is his lion capital, originally found atop the Ashokan column at Sarnath, established in c. 250 BCE. The capital has four Asiatic lions—symbolising power, courage, pride and confidence—seated on a circular abacus. The abacus has sculptures of a bull, a horse, a lion and an elephant, separated by dharma chakras. The chakra or the wheel represents progress in the righteous path. This was also adopted in the Indian national flag.
Today, there is a growing body of research that takes a critical look at Ashoka and his legacy. It raises questions on hitherto accepted theories on Ashoka and his decision to give up the sword and walk the path of peace. It also blames him for ensuring that the Mauryan Empire that Chandragupta built with force and determination, crumbled unable to hold its own, after his death.
Was Ashoka a genuine visionary or was he an opportunistic ruler who cashed in on a popular wave i.e. Buddhism? While one can keep arguing on this question what you can’t deny is that Ashoka was a trailblazer. He was an Emperor far ahead of his times and it is because of this that his legacy lives on, even as India marches on.
Ashoka wasn’t the only ruler in the world to dictate rules of ethics and underline the message through inscriptions in edicts for all his subjects to read. One of the earliest and most complete written legal codes was issued by the Babylonian king Hammurabi, who reigned from 1792 to 1750 BCE. Hammurabi’s Code of laws, is a collection of 282 rules, which were vast in scope. They established standards for commercial interactions and set fines and punishments to meet the requirements of justice. Hammurabi’s Code was carved onto a massive, finger-shaped black stone stele (pillar) that was looted by invaders and finally rediscovered in 1901. It is currently on display in the Louvre Museum, Paris.
This article is part of our ‘The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material – archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.
This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.