Ashoka The Great (304BC–232 BC)

| September 23, 2012 | Reply

Early life

Ashoka was born to the Mauryan emperor Bindusara and his queen, Dharmā [or Dhammā]. He was the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, founder of Mauryan dynasty. Ashokāvadāna states that his mother was a queen named Subhadrangī, the daughter of Champa of Telangana. Queen Subhadrangī was a Brahmin of the Ajivika sect. Sage Pilindavatsa (aias Janasana) was a kalupaga Brahmin of the Ajivika sect had found Subhadrangī as a suitable match for Emperor Bindusara. A palace intrigue kept her away from the king. This eventually ended, and she bore a son. It is from her exclamation “I am now without sorrow”, that Ashoka got his name. The Divyāvadāna tells a similar story, but gives the name of the queen as Janapadakalyānī.

Ashoka had several elder siblings, all of whom were his half-brothers from other wives of Bindusāra.

He had been given the royal military training knowledge. He was a fearsome hunter, and according to a legend, killed a lion with just a wooden rod. He was very adventurous and a trained fighter, who was known for his skills with the sword. Because of his reputation as a frightening warrior and a heartless general, he was sent to curb the riots in the Avantiprovince of the Mauryan empire.

Rise to power

The Divyavandana talks of Ashoka putting down a revolt due to activities of wicked ministers. This may have been an incident in Bindusara’s times. Taranatha’s account states that Chanakya, one of Bindusara’s great lords, destroyed the nobles and kings of 16 towns and made himself the master of all territory between the eastern and the western seas. Some historians consider this as an indication of Bindusara’s conquest of the Deccan while others consider it as suppression of a revolt. Following this, Ashoka was stationed at Ujjayini as governor.

Bindusara’s death in 273 BC led to a war over succession. According to Divyavandana, Bindusara wanted his son Sushim to succeed him but Ashoka was supported by his father’s ministers. A minister named Radhagupta seems to have played an important role. Ashoka managed to become the king by getting rid of the legitimate heir to the throne, by tricking him into entering a pit filled with live coals. The Dipavansa and Mahavansa refer to Ashoka killing 99 of his brothers, sparing only one, named Tissa,  although there is no clear proof about this incident. The coronation happened in 269 BC, four years after his succession to the throne.

Ashoka as Emperor

Ashoka is said to have been of a wicked nature and bad temper. He submitted his ministers to a test of loyalty and had 500 of them killed. He also kept a harem of around 500 women. When a few of these women insulted him, he had the whole lot of them burnt to death. He also built hell on earth, an elaborate and horrific torture chamber. This torture chamber earned him the name of Chand Ashoka (Sanskrit), meaning Ashoka the Fierce.

Ascending the throne, Ashoka expanded his empire over the next eight years, from the present-day boundaries and regions of Burma–Bangladesh and the state of Assam in India in the east to the territory of present-day Iran / Persia and Afghanistan in the west; from the Pamir Knots in the north almost to the peninsular of southern India (i.e. Tamil Nadu / Andhra Pradesh).

Battle of Kalinga

Kalinga War (Oriya) was a war fought between the Maurya Empire under Ashoka the Great and the state ofKalinga, a feudal republic located on the coast of the present-day Indian state of Orissa and nothern parts of andhra pradesh.The Kalinga city is capital of Kalinga kingdom, it is situated in present day Srikakulam, Andhra Pradesh. The Kalinga war, the only major war Ashoka fought after his accession to throne, is one of the major and bloodiest battles in the history of India. Kalinga put up a stiff resistance, but they were no match for Ashoka’s brutal strength. The bloodshed of this war is said to have prompted Ashoka to adopt Buddhism. However, he retained Kalinga after its conquest and incorporated into the Maurya Empire.

Background of Battle of Kalinga

The main reasons for invading Kalinga were both political and economic. Since the time of Ashoka’s father, King Bindusara, the Mauryan Empire based in Magadha was following a policy of territorial expansion. Kalinga was under Magadha control during the Nanda rule, but regained independence with the beginning of the rule of the Mauryas. That was considered a great setback for the traditional policy of territorial expansion of the Magadhan emperors and was considered to be a loss of political prestige for the Mauryas merely imperative to reduce Kalinga to complete subjection. To this task Ashoka must have set himself as soon as he felt he was securely established on the throne. The war began in the 8th year of Ashoka’s reign, probably in 261 BC. Ashoka’s grandfather Chandragupta had previously attempted to conquer Kalinga, but had been repulsed. After a bloody battle for the throne after Bindusara’s death, Ashoka tried to annex Kalinga. Ashoka was successful only after a savage war, whose consequences changed Ashoka’s views on war and led him to pledge never to wage a war. It is said that in the aftermath of the Battle of Kalinga the Daya Riverrunning next to the battle field turned red with the blood of the slain; more than 150,000 Kalinga warriors and about 100,000 of Ashoka’s own warriors were among those slain.

Dhauli hill is presumed to be the area where the Kalinga War was fought. The historically important Dhauli hills are located on the banks of the Daya River of Bhubaneswar in Orissa (India). Dhauli hill, with a vast open space adjoining it, has major Edicts of Ashoka engraved on a mass of rock by the side of the road leading to the summit of the hill. It was an important and a decisive event in the history of the world.

Aftermath of Kalinga War

Ashoka had seen the bloodshed with his own eyes and felt that he was the cause of the destruction. The whole of Kalinga was plundered and destroyed. Ashoka’s later edicts state that about 100,000 people were killed on the Kalinga side and almost equal number of Ashoka’s army. Thousands of men and women were deported. Ashoka after seeing this was filled with sorrow and remorse.

Ashoka’s response to the Kalinga War is recorded in the Edicts of Ashoka. The Kalinga War prompted Ashoka, already a non-engaged Buddhist, to devote the rest of his life to Ahimsa (non-violence) and to Dharma-Vijaya (victory through Dharma). Following the conquest of Kalinga, Ashoka ended the military expansion of the empire, and led the empire through more than 40 years of relative peace, harmony and prosperity.

Conversion of Ashoka to Budhism

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 monologue:

What have I done? If this is a victory, what’s a defeat then? Is this a victory or a defeat? Is this justice or injustice? Is it gallantry or a rout? Is it valor to kill innocent children and women? Do I do it to widen the empire and for prosperity or to destroy the other’s kingdom and splendor? One has lost her husband, someone else a father, someone a child, someone an unborn infant…. What’s this debris of the corpses? Are these marks of victory or defeat? Are these vultures, crows, eagles the messengers of death or evil?

The brutality of the conquest led him to adopt Buddhism, and he used his position to propagate the relatively new religion to new heights, as far as ancient Rome and Egypt. He made Buddhism his state religion around 260 BC, and propagated it 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 policy.

Death of Ashoka

Ashoka ruled for an estimated forty years. After his death, the Mauryan dynasty lasted just fifty more years. Ashoka had many wives and children, but many of their names are lost to time. Mahindra and Sanghamitra were twins born 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.Mahindra and Sanghamitra went into Sri Lanka and converted the King, the Queen and their people to Buddhism. They were naturally not handling state affairs after him.

In his old age, he seems to have come under the spell of his youngest wife Tishyaraksha. It is said that she had got his son Kunala, the regent in Takshashila, blinded by a wily stratagem. The official executioners spared Kunala and he became a wandering singer accompanied by his favourite wife Kanchanmala. In Pataliputra, Ashoka hears Kunala’s song, and realizes that Kunala’s misfortune may have been a punishment for some past sin of the emperor himself and condemns Tishyaraksha to death, restoring Kunala to the court. Kunala was succeeded by his son, Samprati, but his rule did not last long after Ashoka’s death.

The reign of Ashoka Maurya could easily have disappeared into history as the ages passed by, and would have had he 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 Harappa. The language used for inscription was the then current spoken form called Prakrit.

In the year 185 BC, about fifty years after Ashoka’s death, the last Maurya ruler, Brhadrata, was assassinated by the commander-in-chief of the Mauryan armed forces, Pusyamitra Sunga, while he was taking the Guard of Honor of his forces. Pusyamitra Sunga founded the Sunga dynasty (185 BC-78 BC) and ruled just a fragmented part of the Mauryan Empire. Many of the northwestern territories of the Mauryan Empire (modern-day Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan) became the Indo-Greek Kingdom.

In 1992, Ashoka was ranked #53 on Michael H. Hart’s list of the most influential figures in history. In 2001, a semi-fictionalized portrayal of Ashoka’s life was produced as a motion picture under the title Asoka. King Ashoka, the third monarch of the Indian Mauryan dynasty, has come to be regarded as one of the most exemplary rulers in world history. The British historian H.G. Wells has written: “Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousnesses and serenities and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Asoka shines, and shines, almost alone, a star.”

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Category: History of India

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