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Ashoka the Great: The Legend and the Reality (270-232 BC)

Part I:

In 274 BC J.-C. King Bindusara fell seriously ill and died. His son and heir Sushima, who had gone to tame a rebellion on the North-West borders of India, rushed back to Pataliputra as soon as he heard the news. However, when he arrived, he discovered that his half-brother, Ashoka, had usurped the throne with the help of Greek mercenaries.

Prince Ashoka, Davanampriya Priyadarshi Samrat Ashoka, his full name, was born in the year 304 BC in Pataliputra. He was the son of King Bindusara and Maharani Dharma, one of the king’s many wives. From his youth he showed himself adept for combat and hunting; it is even said that he was able to kill a lion with a spear. Considered fearless – and cruel – he was sent by his father Bindusara, to teach a lesson to the rebels of the Avanti Provinces of the empire in Central India. He drowned the revolt in blood and, after his success, was named viceroy of this province in 286 BC. He was recalled by his father to help Sushima put down another revolt, that one in Taxila. Which he did – with incredible cruelty, report historians – then becoming Viceroy of Taxila. On the death of his father in 274 BC, he took control of Pataliputra, and according to Buddhist texts, killed ninety-nine of his half-brothers, including the heir Sushima, sparing only the life of his true brother, Tissa. Hundreds of officers loyal to Sushima were also executed. Ashoka eventually became emperor in 270 BC.

The beginning of Ashoka’s reign is known for having been brutal and unpopular, to the point that he was known as Chand Ashoka, “Ashoka the Cruel”. The beautiful story – and the source of his fame – reported by most contemporary chroniclers – is that Ashoka converted to Buddhism after the murderous wars of Kalinga, having seen the battlefield littered with thousands of bodies. But it seems that this version is false, because we know, thanks to some edicts found engraved in stone, that Ashoka had converted to Buddhism two years before the killings of Kalinga. Even great admirers of Ashoka, such as historian Charles Allen, acknowledge that he had been in contact with Buddhist scholars ten years prior to his famous conversion. Recent discoveries suggest that his conversion to Buddhism was due more to a dynastic politics, than his remorse at the horrors of war. The Maurya dynasty was Vedic, thus following Vedic rituals, both personally and publicly, and its priests were Brahmins. However, the Mauryan emperors, as early as Chandragupta, seemed to have wished to alleviate the Vedic yoke, which had become very constraining and had lost its original spontaneity and purity. Already, Chandragupta had forged ties with Jain monks, and in his later years, his son Bindusara became close to a parallel “heretical” sect called Ajivika, which lasted until the 14th century. It is likely that Ashoka, having usurped the throne, and despite the assassination of all possible heirs, faced the opposition of the surviving family members, many of whom had ties to the Jains and Ajivikas. At that time, Buddhists were the great rivals of Jain and Ajivikas, which would be the reason for Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism.

It is important to take a look at the kingdom of Kalinga (located in the modern state of Orissa, now Odisha), at that time a vassal empire, in the hands of the Nanda dynasty, until it was conquered by Chandragupta, Ashoka’s grandfather. Like many vassal kingdoms of Ashoka, it seems that Kalinga rebelled and allied with rivals of the emperor during the war of succession, and that it later declared independence. This seems to have drawn the wrath of Ashoka, who marched on Kalinga in 262 BC at the head of a powerful Mauryan army. The Kalingians never had a chance, and according to Ashoka’s own writings, 100,000 Kalingians died during the battle, 120,000 others perished from hunger or their wounds, and 150,000 were enslaved. As legend has it, horrified by the spectacle of this battlefield strewn with bodies, Ashoka became a Buddhist, a pacifist, for the rest of his life. This is unlikely, however, since he was used to violence, war and blood. Some historians take as evidence of his repentance the text of the decrees he had engraved on stone or pillars all over India. However, none of these inscriptions expresses neither remorse or regret. If Ashoka had felt guilty, he would have apologized to the people he had persecuted.

He does not even seem to have wanted to free the slaves of Kalinga, and in his edicts, it is noted that he threatened all ethnic groups of reprisals who may dare to revolt against his reign. In fact, it is likely that Ashoka used these inscriptions as a propaganda tool to mitigate his reputation for cruelty. In addition, a text in Pali (which succeeded Sanskrit), the Ashoka Bandara, narrated other acts of cruelty perpetrated by the emperor many years after he is supposed to have become a “pacifist”. These murderous acts were allegedly committed against Jain and Ajivika followers. The Ashoka Bandara even says that he put 18,000 Ajivikas of Bengal to death in one day – the first religious persecution in India.

This is not the only incident mentioned in this manuscript, which tells that when a Jain disciple was discovered in Pataliputra, painting the Buddha prostrating himself before a Jain monk, Ashoka ordered that he and his family be locked in their house and that be burned alive in it. He then declared that he would pay in gold for every decapitated head of a Jain. This carnage ended only when his only surviving brother, the Buddhist monk Vitashoka (also called Tissa), was mistakenly killed. Historians agree, however, that he avoided conflict with Hindu kingdoms and remained respectful of Brahmins.

(To be continued)

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