India is the second-most populous country in the world and perhaps the most populous democracy. But when trace back through the pages of history, the land occupied under ‘Hindustan’ was significantly larger than present-day India. If such tough mechanics are required today for proper governance, one can only imagine the machinery required in the relics of the past. A country that boasts such a rich history can only be prospered by its great empires and titanic warriors of the bygone era.
One such fine ruler was Ashoka- The great, the grandson of yet another robust leader Chandragupta Maurya. While the tale of Chandragupta is compounding stunning, the story of Ashoka was full of courage yet repugnance. During his tenure, he ruled almost the entire Indian subcontinent. This article will take you through Ashoka’s reign for power and success.
The Chakravartin Ashoka Samrat
The exact date to which Ashoka was born is not certain in the Indian texts, yet many scholars believe that he might have been born somewhere around the 4th BCE. His inscriptions mention several rulers of that time, thus the authenticity of this prediction is hardly questionable. He was the son of Mauryan emperor Bindusara and his wife Subhadrangi (there is not much information available about Ashoka’s mother.) He was a half-brother to Susima, the heir-apparent, and 99 others.
According to the historian text ‘Ashokavadana’, king Bindusara disliked Ashoka’s ugly appearance and thus was reluctant on passing him the throne. One fine day the king asked the ascetic about the possibilities of who among his sons would be his successor, upon which the ascetic asked all the princes to gather in the garden. Minister Radhagupta offered Ashoka the royal elephant for his ride to the garden, where Pingala-vatsajiva examined everyone and realized that the next king would be Ashoka. Despite this assumption, due to the rage of Bindusara, Pingala-vatsajiva refused to name any though provided little details like one who had the best mount, seat, drink, vessel, and food would be the next king. Though, hiding the truth from the king, the ascetic did tell Ashoka’s mother about the prophecy and advised her to let Ashoka leave the kingdom to avoid Bindusara’s wrath- which he did.
During his exile, Ashoka disguised himself as a commoner and stayed in the city of Kalinga. There he met a beautiful fisherman’s daughter Kaurwaki and later married her. However, whether Kaurwaki was Ashoka’s first wife or not is highly debatable due to insufficient accounts of their love affair.
Though the king virtually despised the prince, he was impressed by the rebellion qualities of Ashoka and thus usually offers him a chance to fight wars for him. At the young age of 18, Bindusara dispatched the prince to suppress a rebellion in Takshashila which was a successful conquest. His next aim was the capital of the Avanti Kingdom- Ujjain, where he was asked to govern and rule. During his service at Ujjain, Ashoka fell in love with a daughter of a trader called ‘Devi’ and married her. Ashoka and his wife spent most of their time in Ujjain where Devi gave birth to Mahindra and Sanghamitta. But this peaceful life was soon interrupted in 274 BC when king Bindusara passed away. Unlike depicted in the movie ‘Asoka’ starring Shah Rukh Khan, what might really have happened during this time is a bit unknown but it is widely believed that a 2-year long civil war took place between Ashoka and Susima. Ashoka eventually killed all of his brothers sparing only one- Vitashoka. Upon his victory, in 270 BC, Ashoka was crowned as the third ruler of the Mauryan Empire.
The throne of the Mauryan Empire was just the beginning of Ashoka’s conquest and continued defeating fellow kingdoms and thus occupying almost the entire Indian Subcontinent in just 8 years of his tenure. He brought 16 states under the Mauryan Empire covering the entire Indian peninsula. It was a time when every Indian ruler wished to be regarded as ‘Chatravartin’- an ideal universal ruler, yet none was able to achieve this extraordinary honor. It was only after Ashoka conquered several regions, he thus was regarded as ‘Chakravartin Ashoka Samrat’.
Ashoka’s hell is yet another fascinating topic in the pages of history. It is believed that upon the request of his executioner, Asoka built a prison in Pataliputra, which looked extremely enchanted from outside but inside was a brutal torture and annihilation chamber. His reign for power and success was overpowered by his sinister acts. The jail came to be known as his personal hell where prisoners were tortured with several tactics such as pouring hot metal on their bodies.
The Buddhist Journey
The quest for powers soon led Ashoka to attack Kalinga in 260 BC. Kalinga was the only city that was not yet captured during his tenure as an emperor. Though it was the homeland of his wife Kaurwaki, Ashoka stormed the kingdom. He invaded the city and slaughtered 100,000 people and forced 150,000 to deport and the rest died of diseases and famine. It was one of the gruesome wars in history where Kalinga fought courageously with the Chakravartin Samrat though eventually lost. Upon his victory, when he stood above the blooded battlefield something completely altered his mind. It was the first time in his life where he had slaughtered masses and realized the tragedy of blood on his hands. He was disgusted at the atrocities he committed and the futility of the war. This was the life-changing moment of Ashoka’s life when he finally embraced Buddhism. It was definitely not the man who had annihilated his brothers and seized the throne by blood.
His Buddhism journey began shortly thereafter, he built a place with his wealth where people lived with morality and virtues of a good life. He gave up hunting and even refused to eat any type of flesh. Ashoka was now a changed man who marked his journey with non-violence, peace, and mercy. He presumed several social welfare activities where people were often treated with kind gestures. He also well spread Buddhism to neighboring kingdoms. Even his children, Mahindra and Sanghamitta devoted their life to Buddhism and advertised it to miles ahead.
Additionally, Ashoka now ruled the kingdom as a changed ruler. His attitude towards the convicts was not ruthless like before but was merciful. He even banned punishments that include any type of torture and the death penalty. His judicial affairs also pardoned the elderly convicts and those who were the sole breadwinner of families. He also drowned himself in charitable activities.
Ashoka died in 232 BC at the age of 72. The Mauryan Empire thrived for another 50 years before its ultimate decline. The last Mauryan emperor was Brhadrata. However the morals of Ashoka, The Great never faded and continued to prosper the coming generations.