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Emperor Ashoka, The Not-So-Great: What We Learned About The Last Mauryan Emperor Could Be Wrong

We know Ashoka, the third and final major Emperor of the Mauryan dynasty, as a king who was so devastated by the violence he witnessed during the Kalinga war, he chose the path of nonviolence and Buddhism. We have learned that Ashoka, following the successful but bloody conquest of Kalinga, renounced violence and spent the rest of his life spreading Buddhism.

Sanjeev Sanyal, in his book The Ocean of Churn, challenges this narrative.

Sanjeev Sanyal's book: The Ocean of Churn

Sanyal argues that the story of Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism and vows of Ahimsa and dharmic life is more of a post-independence myth created by Jawaharlal Nehru and the academic historians at the time for promoting a socialist rule of law. In fact, according to many historical sources, Ashoka had already converted to Buddhism two years prior to the Kalinga War, which happened in 262 BC.

Before we come to the question of why academic historians created and promoted a false narrative about Emperor Ashoka, we need to look at the historical claims of Sanjeev Sanyal that are well substantiated by evidence.

Chandashoka: Ashoka The Cruel

The Mauryan Empire was built upon the wisdom of Kautilya or Chanakya. He had a protégé

by the name of Chandragupta Maurya. Chandragupta overthrew the Nanda Empire in 322 BCE and established the Mauryan empire with Patliputra (present-day Patna) as its capital. Chandragupta Maurya was succeeded by Bindusara.

Kautilya or Chanakya

Bindusara passed away in 274 BC due to a sudden ailment. The crown prince Sushima rushed back from the north-western frontiers upon hearing the news. But he learned that Ashoka was seizing control of the Empire with the help of Greek mercenaries. Sushima may have been murdered at the eastern gates by the order of Ashoka. A bloody civil war followed, and according to Buddhist texts, Ashoka killed ninety-nine of his half-brothers, sparing only his full brother, Tissa. Thus, Ashoka came to power in 270 BC.

This, along with his brutal way of rule, gave him the name ‘Chandashoka’ that is, Ashoka the cruel.

The Kalinga War

Mauryan Empire Architecture

Kalinga was a prosperous and beautiful region that was under the control of the Nanda Empire. It also had a major seaport that connected the eastern region to the ocean. The exact political structure of Kalinga was unknown to us at the time of Ashoka's invasion, therefore the reason behind this attack as well. Nevertheless, King Ashoka annexed Kalinga after the capture of Magadha.

Tosali, the capital of Kalinga, was built in the middle of the plains, making it easier for anybody to attack. "Archeologists have only excavated a small section of the walls from the site, but have found it riddled with arrowheads. A blizzard of arrows must have been unleashed by the Mauryan army. The Kalingans did not stand a chance," Sanyal writes in the book. One lakh people died during that war and another 1,50,000 people were taken as prisoners.

Now, we are taught that this was the turning point in Ashoka’s life. But Sanjeev Sanal points out the contradiction here.

It’s curious to learn that the inscriptions in which ‘regret’ that Ashoka supposedly felt is mentioned are in Shahbazgarhi in north-western Pakistan, while the ones in Odisha show no signs of repentance. Ashoka didn’t even bother to apologize to the people he hurt or offered to set the prisoners free. Even in the inscriptions where he expresses regret, he threatens to use violence against other groups, like the forest tribes, if they were to break the rules.

Religious Persecutions Under Ashoka's Reign

Ashoka's cruelty and repressive rule don't end with the Kalinga War, according to many historical sources. Buddhist text Ashoka Vandana tells us about acts of genocide committed by the Emperor years after he purportedly became a pacificist. These were directed particularly at followers of the Jain and Ajivika sects. Interestingly, these were the sects his grandfather and father had followed in their lifetimes.

The Pali scripture Ashoka Vandana recounted how Ashoka had 18,000 Ajivikas in Bengal put to death in a single episode. In Pataliputra, a Jain devotee was caught sketching a portrait of the Buddha submitting to a Jain Tirthankara. Ashoka gave the order to lock him and his family inside their house and set the structure on fire. Then he offered a gold coin in exchange for each severed head of a Jain. The killing spree ended only when his last surviving brother, Vitashoka (also called Tissa), a Buddhist monk, was accidentally killed.

A Repressive Ruler

Sanyal argues that Ashoka passed a lot of unpopular decrees which were religiously motivated during his reign.

While Kautilya believed in minimalist governance, Ashoka viewed his subjects as children he needed to provide for.

“All men are my children. What I desire for my own children, and I desire their welfare and happiness both in this world and the next, that I desire for all men. “ -KALINGA ROCK EDICTS

He instated a special cadre of officials called Dhamma Mahamantras — religious police — in his kingdom who were tasked with enforcing strict laws according to his religious leanings. There were restrictions on what one should eat or how one should live in his kingdom.

The reality is that the Mauryan Empire started to face its downfall due to rebellions and poor economic situation while Ashoka was still alive. Sanyal attributes that to the regressive and violent rule under Ashoka.

So Why Do We Glorify Emperor Ashoka?

Ashoka has assumed center stage in the history we are taught in this country. And we have known him only as a benevolent, non-violent king. But at least some historians are presenting a new narrative based on primary historical sources. That puts us in a conundrum, at best, on which narrative we should believe.

But the pertinent question is: when these primary sources were available to historians at the time, why did they glorify Emperor Ashoka? Even after the Empire disintegrated right after his rule, never to be saved from its ruins.

Sanyal argues that Nehru and the socialist academicians in the post-independence era were responsible for that. Academic historians were pushed to bolster the myth of Ashoka the Great after independence to give legitimacy to Nehru's socialist goal, and contradictory information about him was simply put under the rug. Along with Buddhism and religious appeasement, an over-extended state under Nehru was promoted, wherein the government played an active role in every sector of the nation. King Ashoka seemed to be the perfect historical icon for that because socialism and command economies are otherwise non-existent in the Indian subcontinent.

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