Along with the wily Chanakya, Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Maurya dynasty built one of the largest empires in Akanda Bharat. He abdicated the throne in favour of his son Bindusara who was equal to the task. Bindusara not only consolidated the control over the empire but also extended it further south. Travellers’ documentation and texts suggest that his reign was largely peaceful.
Bindusara was in favour of his son Sushima to take up the reins of the empire. Sushima had been despatched to the north-west to deal with some incursions when Bindusara suddenly took ill. Sushima rushed back to Pataliputra only to find that his half-brother Ashoka had grabbed control of the city with the help of Greek mercenaries. Ashoka soon did away with the crown prince by supposedly roasting him alive in the moat for all to see!
Ashoka spent the next four years dealing with civil unrest that led to bloody clashes and the cold-blooded execution of all the male heirs and contenders for the throne in his family. Passages found in Buddhist texts that have documented his life in detail say that he killed ninety-nine half-brothers sparing only one named Tissa who took up sannyāsa, cut off the heads of at least five hundred officers loyal to the late Bindusara and Sushima and sent the remaining to their death.
He ascended the throne that was stained with the blood of thousands of people in 270 BCE. It is during the second to fourth year of his reign as king (approximately 268 – 266 BCE) that he converted to Buddhism under the influence of his wife Devi. However, the teachings of Buddhism had yet to have the desired effect on the malevolent tendencies of Ashoka who was titled ‘Chandashoka’ or Ashoka the Cruel.
Ashoka’s ideology was fairly simple – rule by the sword. His reign was filled with brutality, intolerance, religious persecution and genocide. Buddhist texts indicate that his conversion to Buddhism had more to do with trying to quell any misgivings over succession while maintaining strict vigil over rebellious factions.
The Mauryan empire that was preceded by the Nandas had annexed Kalinga. There is sufficient historical evidence to suggest that Kalinga was not an independent kingdom but rather a part of the greater Maurya empire either functioning as a feudatory or a province. As Ashoka’s reign was singularly unpopular, rivals united in large numbers to support the sitting feudal lord of Kalinga to declare themselves independent of the Mauryas.
A massive army of Ashoka marched towards Kalinga in 262 BCE. Archaeological excavations suggest that the location for the main battle was at a place called Yuddha Meruda while smaller contingents fought on the banks of River Daya at Dhauli. The final leg of the war was waged at the capital of Kalinga, Toshali. The remains of the great city of Toshali has recently been unearthed at Radhanagar in Odisha with the Brahmani river flowing close by.
This discovery has thrown to light why Tosali was razed to the ground so easily. As Tosali sits in the middle of a broad fertile plain, it appears to have had very poor natural defenses. The excavations at the walls have unearthed innumerable arrowheads likely from the Mauryan army. It is therefore clear that the Kalinga army though courageous was decisively decimated by the larger army of the Mauryas.
Ashoka’s inscriptions state that 1,00,000 died in the war and a greater number died from injuries and hunger. About 1,50,000 were captured. However, there is no mention of regret or remorse over his actions in any edicts near the scene of the great devastation but there is a passing mention of some reflection over his actions in Shahbazgarhi in Pakistan.
The inscriptions especially at Dhauli are most curious as it speaks of morality, governance and administration with a veiled threat to forest tribes who were ordered to either tow his line or face consequences as becoming of his autocratic nature but no apology, repentance and release of the war prisoners was issued anywhere.
It therefore raises questions over the purpose of these inscriptions which in all probability would not have been read by locals based on their locations. The authoritative Buddhist text, Ashokavadana graphically describes heinous acts of genocide committed by Ashoka after he supposedly converted to Buddhism.
The followers of Jainism and Ajivikas were his primary targets and one incident mentioned in Ashokavadana where Ashoka put 18,000 Ajivikas to death in Bengal in one swift pronouncement is horrifying to say the least. More such incidents have been mentioned in this text that makes for a very troubling read.
In another incident, a Jain follower was found in Pataliputra drawing a picture of Mahatma Buddha bowing to a Jain Tirthankara. Needless to say, Ashoka locked him and his family in their home and set it on fire. He then went on a rampage and passed yet another decree that he would pay a gold coin in exchange for every decapitated head of a Jain.
This gruesome carnage finally ended when someone mistakenly killed Ashoka’s only surviving brother, Tissa who was now a Buddhist monk. As the years went by, Ashoka’s power over his empire gradually crumbled owing to his lack of administrative skill, incompetence and penchant for ruling with an iron fist. The empire built by his grandfather had slowly broken off and his own legacy which is a far cry from the diplomacy and magnanimity displayed by his grandfather Chandragupta Maurya was shrouded in infamy and abominable cruelty.
One can wonder how and why such a deplorable man came to be called as Ashoka the Great and one doesn’t need to look far to see the handiwork of the British. The British who have shown remarkable proclivity to guile since their arrival on Indian shores chose to hide their own condemnable and reprehensible acts of violence, genocide, religious persecution and suffocating oppression leading up to India’s independence by propping up a man whose unbecoming legacy suited their evil machinations.
This deceit unfortunately continued even after India’s independence and today the British are having the last laugh as our National Emblem is modelled after the Lion Capital of Ashoka!
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
* Photos are only symbolic (Taken from public domain/internet and any copyright infringement is unintentional and regrettable)
* Information about the Ashoka and the Kalinga War is taken from archives