The Truth About Ashoka
The popular narrative about Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism after the terrible Kalinga war is based on little evidence. Even Ashoka’s supposedly regretful inscriptions include clear threats of violence.
The history of ancient Greek city-states is dominated by their conflicts with the Persian empire, the superpower of that time. The rivalry culminated a large-scale Greek–Macedonian invasion led by Alexander III of Macedon, better known as Alexander the Great. After winning a series of battles in the Levant and conquering Egypt, Alexander’s army decisively defeated the Persians led personally by Darius III in 331 BC at Gaugamela (near modern Mosul, northern Iraq). Roman-era historian Arrian mentions a contingent of Indian cavalry that fought for the Persian cause and continued to put up fierce resistance even after Darius had fled the battlefield. Not counting the Mitanni, this is the first explicit mention of Indian soldiers fighting in Iraq and it would not be the last. It is also interesting that the Indians were participating as cavalrymen because an early version of the stirrup was invented in India around this time. One wonders if it was used by the Indian horsemen in this battle.
The victory at Gaugamela would have been enough to establish Alexander’s control over the Persian empire, but he dreamt of conquering the whole known world. Thus, in the winter of 327–326 BC, he led his army through Afghanistan towards India. Along the way he subdued several small kingdoms including Massaga, probably in what is now eastern Afghanistan or Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province. The Massagan army had 7,000 Indian mercenaries who put up a fierce resistance but the royal family finally agreed to Alexander’s terms of surrender. The terms included a condition that the mercenaries would join the Macedonian invasion of India.
Unfortunately, the Indians had not been consulted before the agreement and they refused to fight against their own countrymen. Alexander responded by massacring all of them.
He next marched into the plains of Punjab where he and his local allies defeated Porus (probably relates to the Puru tribe who had lived in this area since Vedic times). Alexander wanted to keep pushing east but his troops were weary and wanted to go home. There were also rumours of a large army being mobilised by the Nandas of Magadh (roughly modern Bihar). The conqueror was forced by a near rebellion to change plans and decided to return home by sailing down the Indus on the mistaken belief that the river became the Nile in its lower reaches. In other words, the Macedonians thought that if they simply sailed down the Indus, they would end up in the Mediterranean. They seem to have reached this conclusion based on certain similarities between the flora and fauna of India and that of the upper reaches of the Nile. Arrian mentions crocodiles and a certain variety of beans, but it is quite likely that elephants added to the confusion. It is also likely that they misunderstood Herodotus’ account of the Persian expedition that sailed down the Indus and then made its way to Egypt through the Red Sea.
Whatever the real reason for the decision, Alexander’s army pillaged their way down the Indus till they arrived on the shores of the Arabian Sea in 325 BC. As already mentioned, the main channel of the river used to flow much further east of its current location and it is likely that the Macedonians reached the sea around Lakhpat in Kutchh. Having realized his mistake, Alexander sent back part of the army by sea following the old Harappan coastal route to the Persian Gulf. However, perhaps due to the lack of boats, he marched the bulk of his army through the deserts of Baluchistan and eastern Iran.
It was a very bad choice and thousands of soldiers died from hunger and thirst in the stark, barren landscape. Much of the plunder from years of campaigning had to be abandoned as most of the pack animals died. The army arrived in Mesopotamia undefeated but decimated. Recall that the same Persian Gulf–Gujarat stretch had been frequently crossed by early humans as they populated the world but climate change had now rendered it virtually uninhabitable. The Greeks found that the only people who survived in this dry, inhospitable Makran coast were the Ichthyophagi or “fish-eaters”.
Alexander died soon after his return to Babylon, possibly poisoned by members of the Macedonian elite who had come to fear his increasingly erratic behaviour. His young son was later murdered and the generals divided up the empire amongst themselves. However, Alexander’s brief incursion into the Indian subcontinent had an unintended consequence. A scholar called Chanakya and his protégé Chandragupta Maurya took advantage of the political confusion caused by the invasion to carve out a power-base in India’s north-west. After several attempts, they defeated the Nanda king of Magadh and created the foundations for the powerful Mauryan empire.
In 305 BC, Chandragupta defeated Seleucus Nikator, the general who had taken over most of Alexander’s Asian possessions.
The treaty between Seleucus and Chandragupta handed the Indians a large chunk of territory extending over Afghanistan and Baluchistan. One of Seleucus’ daughters was also given in marriage to a Mauryan prince, perhaps Chandragupta himself or his son Bindusara. Seleucus, in return, received a gift of 500 Indian war elephants and their mahouts.
In the Battle of Ipsus, 301 BC, Seleucus used these elephants with devastating effect against rival generals and established himself as the most powerful of Alexander’s successors. Thereafter, elephants became the symbol of the Seleucid empire and Seleucus was often depicted on coins seated on elephant-drawn chariots. Given the importance of the animal in his war machine, he tried to ensure control over the supplies of war elephants from India. Ptolemy, the rival general who had taken control of Egypt, tried to circumvent the blockade by sourcing African elephants from the Kushites of Ethiopia. We have records of repeated expeditions sent to acquire the beasts from Ethiopia and of special boats being built to transport them. These elephants were not considered as good for combat as their Indian equivalents and the Kushites seem not to have been conversant in the art of training them for battle. Thus, the Ptolemies eventually smuggled in Indian mercenaries, probably by the Red Sea route, to train and man their war elephants.
Ashoka, The Not So Great
Chandragupta abdicated in 298 BC (or 303 BC, according to another source) in favour of his son Bindusara who ruled till 273 BC. Bindusara had inherited an empire that was already very large— from Afghanistan to Bengal. He seems to have extended the realm further south till the empire covered all but the southern tip of the peninsula. For the most part, his rule seems to have been peaceful except for a few rebellions. He also seems to have maintained diplomatic and trade links with the kingdoms carved out from Alexander’s empire.
In 274 BC, Bindusara suddenly fell ill and died. The crown prince Sushima was away fending off incursions on the north-western frontiers and rushed back to the imperial capital Pataliputra, present-day Patna. However, on arrival he found that Ashoka, one of his half-brothers, had taken control of the city with the help of Greek mercenaries. It appears that Ashoka had Sushima killed at the eastern gates. The crown prince may have been roasted alive in the moat! This was followed by four years of a bloody civil war in which Ashoka seems to have killed all male rivals in his family. Buddhist texts mention that he killed 99 half-brothers and only spared his full brother Tissa. Hundreds of loyalist officials were also killed; Ashoka is said to have personally decapitated 500 of them. Having consolidated his power, he was finally crowned emperor in 270 BC.
All accounts agree that Ashoka’s early rule was brutal and unpopular, and that he was known as “Chandashoka” or Ashoka the Cruel. According to mainstream textbook narratives, however, Ashoka would invade Kalinga a few years later and, shocked by the death and destruction, would convert to Buddhism and become a pacifist. The reader will be surprised to discover that the popular narrative about this conversion is based on little evidence. Ashoka would invade Kalinga in 262 BC whereas we know from minor rock edicts that Ashoka had converted to Buddhism more than two years earlier. No Buddhist text links his conversion to the war and even Ashoka’s eulogists like Charles Allen agree that his conversion predated the Kalinga war. Moreover, he seems to have had links with Buddhists for a decade before his conversion. The evidence suggests that his conversion to Buddhism was more to do with the politics of succession than with any regret he felt for sufferings of war.
The Mauryans were likely to have followed Vedic court rituals (certainly many of their top officials were Brahmins) but had eclectic religious affiliations in personal life. The founder of the line, Chandragupta, seems to have had links to the Jains in old age while his son Bindusara seems to have been partial to a heterodox sect called the Ajivikas. This is not an unusual arrangement in the Dharmic (i.e. Indic) family of religions. This eclectic approach remains alive to this day and lay followers of Dharmic religions think nothing of praying at each other’s shrines. You will find many Hindus at the Golden Temple in Amritsar just as Bangkok is full of shrines dedicated to the Hindu god, Brahma. The coronation of the king of Thailand is still carried out by Brahmin priests.
It is likely that when Ashoka usurped the throne, he was opposed by family members who had links to the Jains and the Ajivikas. He may have responded by reaching out to their rivals, the Buddhists, for support. The power struggle may even explain his invasion of Kalinga. The mainstream view is that Kalinga was an independent kingdom that was invaded by Ashoka but there is some reason to believe that it was either a rebellious province or a vassal that was no longer trusted.
We know that the Nandas, who preceded the Mauryas, had already conquered Kalinga and, therefore, it is likely that it became part of the Mauryan empire when Chandragupta took over the Nanda kingdom. In any case, it seems odd that a large and expansionist empire like that of the Mauryas would have tolerated an independent state so close to its capital Pataliputra and its main port at Tamralipti. In other words, Kalinga would not have been an entirely independent kingdom under Bindusara—it was either a province or a close vassal. Something obviously changed during the early years of Ashoka’s reign and my guess is that it had either sided with Ashoka’s rivals during the battle for succession and/or declared itself independent in the confusion.
Whatever the real reasons for attracting Ashoka’s ire, a large Mauryan army marched into Kalinga around 262 BC. The traditional view is that the two armies met on the banks of the river Daya at Dhauli near modern Bhubaneswar. It is possible that Dhauli was the site of a skirmish but recent archaeological excavations point to Yuddha Meruda being the site of the main battle followed by a desperate and bloody last stand at the Kalingan capital of Tosali.
The remains of Tosali were discovered only recently by a team of archaeologists led by Debraj Pradhan, a humble and affable man who has made some extraordinary discoveries about Odisha’s ancient past. The site is at a place called Radhanagar, a couple of hours’ drive from Cuttack. It is situated in a broad fertile plain watered by the Brahmani river and surrounded by low hills. Surveying the beautiful valley from one of the hills, one is overwhelmed by a feeling of eternity—rice fields, fish ponds, coconut palms, mango trees, and thin wisps of wood smoke rising from village huts. Other than a few power transmission towers, the scene is perhaps close to what it would have looked to Mauryan generals planning their final assault.
The remains of the city’s earthwork defences suggest that Tosali was built in the middle of the plains; arguably a poor choice as the city’s defences would have been better served if they were wedged more closely to one of the hills. Archaeologists have only excavated a small section of the walls but have found it riddled with arrowheads; a blizzard of arrows must have been unleashed by the Mauryan army. The Kalingans never stood a chance. Ashoka’s own inscriptions tell us that a 100,000 died in the war and an even larger number died from wounds and hunger. A further 150,000 were taken away as captives.
According to the official storyline, Ashoka was horrified by his own brutality and became a Buddhist and a pacifist. But, as we have seen, he was already a practicing Buddhist by then, and from what we know of his early rule, he was hardly a man to be easily shocked by the sight of blood. The main evidence of his repentance comes from his own inscriptions. It is very curious, however, that this “regret” is mentioned only in locations far away from Odisha (such as in Shahbazgarhi in Pakistan). None of the inscriptions in Odisha express any remorse; any hint of regret is deliberately left out.
The Ashokan inscriptions at Dhauli are engraved on a rock at the base of a hill. Almost all tourists drive right past it to the white- coloured modern stupa at the top of the hill. So I found myself alone with the inscriptions and the translations put up by the Archaeological Survey of India. What will strike anyone reading them is how they specifically leave out any sign of regret. The silence is deafening.
If Ashoka was genuinely remorseful, he would have surely bothered to apologise to the people whom he had wronged. Far from it, he doesn’t even offer to free the captives. Even the supposedly regretful inscriptions include a clear threat of further violence against other groups like the forest tribes who are unequivocally “told of the power to punish them that Devanampriya possesses in spite of his repentance, in order that they may be ashamed of their crimes and may not be killed”. This is no pacifist.
It is likely that Ashoka was using his inscriptions as a tool of political propaganda to counter his reputation for cruelty. As with the words of any politician, this does not mean he changed his behaviour. Moreover, many of the inscriptions are placed in locations where the average citizen or official of that time would not have been able to read them. Several historians including Nayanjot Lahiri have wondered about this. Is it possible that some of the inscriptions were really meant for later generations rather than his contemporaries?
The Buddhist text, Ashoka-vadana, tells us of more acts of genocide perpetrated by the emperor many years after he supposedly turned pacifist. These were directed particularly at followers of the Jain and Ajivika sects; by all accounts he avoided conflicts with mainstream Hindus and was respectful towards Brahmins. The Ashoka-vadana recounts how Ashoka once had 18,000 Ajivikas in Bengal put to death in a single episode. If true, this would be the first known instance of large-scale religious persecution in Indian history (but, sadly, would not be the last).
This is not the only incident mentioned in the text. A Jain devotee was found in Pataliputra drawing a picture showing Buddha bowing to a Jain tirthankara. Ashoka ordered him and his family to be locked inside their home and for the building to set alight. He then ordered that he would pay a gold coin in exchange for every decapitated head of a Jain. The carnage only ended when someone mistakenly killed his only surviving brother, the Buddhist monk Vitashoka (also called Tissa). The story suggests frightening parallels with modern-day fundamentalists who kill cartoonists whom they accuse of insulting their religion.
Supporters of Ashoka may claim that these incidents are untrue and were inserted into the story by fundamentalist Buddhist writers in much later times. While this is entirely possible, let me remind readers that my alternative narrative is based on exactly the same texts and inscriptions used to praise Ashoka. Perhaps the same scepticism should be evenly applied to all the evidence and not just to portions of the text that do not suit the mainstream narrative.
In addition to the references of his continued cruelty, we also have reason to believe that Ashoka was not a successful administrator. In his later years, an increasingly unwell Ashoka watched his empire disintegrate from rebellion, internal family squabbles and fiscal stress. While he was still alive, the empire had probably lost all the north- western territories that had been acquired from Seleucus. Within a few years of Ashoka’s death in 232 BC, the Satvahanas had taken over most of the territories in southern India and Kalinga too had seceded.
As one can see, Ashoka does not look like such a great king on closer inspection but a cruel and unpopular usurper who presided over the disintegration of a large and well-functioning empire built by his father and grandfather. At the very least, it must be accepted that evidence of Ashoka’s greatness is thin and he was some shade of grey at best. Perhaps like many politicians, he made grand high-minded proclamations but acted entirely differently. This fits with the fact that he is not remembered as a great monarch in the Indian tradition but in hagiographic Buddhist texts written in countries that did not experience his reign. He was “rediscovered” in the 19th century by colonial era orientalists like James Princep. His elevation to being “Ashoka the Great” is even more recent and is the result of political developments leading up to India’s independence.
After Independence, it appears academic historians were further encouraged to build up the legend of Ashoka the Great in order to provide a lineage to Jawaharlal Nehru’s socialist project and inconvenient evidence was simply swept under the carpet. This is not so different from how the medieval Ethiopians created a Biblical lineage for the Solomonic dynasty. A few Western writers like Charles Allen have patronisingly written how ancient Indians were somehow foolish to have had little regard for a great king such as Ashoka. On a closer look, it appears that they knew what they were doing. What is more worrying is how easily modern Indians have come to accept a narrative based on such little evidence.
Mauryan Trade Routes
The establishment of a large united empire across the subcontinent would have led to a spurt in internal trade along both the northern and southern highways. In his treatise Arthashastra, Chanakya (also called Kautilya) has left us his opinion on the relative merits of trading along the Uttara Path and the Dakshina Path. The text tells us that earlier scholars had a preference for the northern highway but Chanakya makes the case that the southern route was a much better source of all goods except horses and woolen cloth. Perhaps this reflects the changing economic dynamics of the subcontinent by the fourth century BC. Note that Chanakya specifically mentions diamonds, a gemstone that was at that time only found in peninsular India; a product of the volcanic processes that also created the Deccan plateau.
Meanwhile, maritime trade too continued to do well. Ships would have sailed out of the ports of Gujarat and sailed along the Makran coast to the Persian Gulf while a branch would have made its way into the Red Sea. We know that Bindusara was in touch with Alexander’s successors in the Middle East. He once asked Seleucus’ successor Antiochus for figs, wine and a Greek philosopher. Antiochus sent the figs and the wine but politely refused to send the philosopher on grounds that Greek law forbade the sale of scholars.
So, what did Bindusara send in return? We know that Antiochus used Indian war elephants to fend off a major invasion by Gauls into Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). So it is quite likely that he was being supplied elephants and their mahouts by Bindusara. In other words, the Greeks had continued the Persian practice of using Indian soldiers although they had shifted from horsemen to mahouts for war elephants.
Ashoka too maintained the links with the Greek rulers of the Middle East. His 13th edict mentions that he sent missionaries to Antiyoka (Antiochus of Syria), Turamaya (Ptolemy of Egypt), Antikini (Antigonus of Macedonia), Maka (Magas of Cyrene) and Alikasundara (Alexander of Corinth). The Indian rendering of these ancient Greek names is interesting in itself. Maritime trade was also active along the eastern coast and the same edict mentions the Cholas and Pandyas of Tamil country. The port of Tamralipti in Bengal was thriving during this period and it is probably from here that Ashoka’s son Mahinda set sail for his mission to Sri Lanka.
Despite all these maritime linkages, let us not forget that sailing the seas was still dangerous business. The Arthashastra tells us that Chanakya preferred coastal and river routes over those crossing the high seas as he considered them too dangerous. The use of the monsoon winds had still not been mastered at this stage and it was considered foolhardy to sail too far from the coast. Or perhaps it was just a landlubber’s suspicion of the deep ocean!Nonetheless, it is interesting that he mentions this at all as it suggests that there were some mariners in the fourth century BC who were confident enough to try trans-oceanic routes.
Ashoka’s successors tried hard to stabilise the empire after his death. It appears that they all distanced themselves from Ashoka’s aggression and tried to mend relations across groups. Ashoka’s immediate successor was Dasharatha who reached out to the Ajivikas and constructed the rock-cut Nagarjuni and Barabar caves for the sect. These are located near Gaya, Bihar, and are the oldest rock-cut shrines in India. After Dasharatha, the empire seems to have broken up rapidly. One of Ashoka’s sons or grandsons, Jalauka, carved out an independent kingdom in Kashmir where he promoted Shaivite Hinduism. In Pataliputra, the teenage Samprati took over the crown but was forced by intra-family feuds to shift to Ujjain.
Meanwhile, the Satvahanas began to take over the southern territories of the empire. They seem to have been from Andhra country and called themselves the “Andhra-bhritya” or servants of the Andhras. The modern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh is named after them although, ironically, the most likely location of their origin is now in the breakaway state of Telangana.
The Satvahanas would set up their capital at Pratishthana (modern Paithan), in present-day Maharashtra, a major node on the southern highway and would take on the title “Lords of Dakshina Path”. For some inexplicable reason, Indian’s post-independence historians and archaeologists ignored the Satvahanas and it is only in 2015 that the government finally decided to re-examine sites that had been identified over a century ago by colonial-era researchers.
As the Satavahanas expanded north, they came in conflict with the Indo-Greeks and Sakas (Scythians) who had taken over north-western India and were now trying to take control of the ports of Gujarat. An inscription in Nasik tells us of the Satvahana king Gautamiputra Satakarni who defeated and pushed back the Greeks and Scythians.
The invaders, however, seem to have met with less resistance from the later Mauryans and we see them making raids deeper and deeper into the Gangetic plains. Taking advantage of the situation, Kalinga rebelled and seceded under the leadership of the Chedi clan. Around 193 BC, a remarkable military leader called Kharavela came to the throne of Kalinga. We know about him because of a long inscription at Hathigumpha, or Elephant’s Cave.
We are told that in the early years of his reign, he led a large army against the Satvahanas and secured his western frontiers. Around 185 BC, he seems to have marched north into Magadh where he defeated the invading Indo-Greek king Demetrius and forced him to retreat to Mathura. The irony is that the Kalingan army must have gone on this campaign on the invitation of the Mauryas who could no longer fend off the marauding foreign invaders who had reached their gates.
Kharavela realised that the old empire was on its last legs and four years later he returned with a large army and sacked the Mauryan capital. He tells us proudly that he brought back the Jain idols that had been taken away to Pataliputra at the time of the Nanda kings and that he made King Bahasatimita (probably the last Mauryan king Brihadhrata) bow to him. With the prestige of the Mauryas in tatters, the last emperor would be deposed by his general Pushyamitra Sunga who founded a new dynasty that would later re-establish control over most of north and central India.
Remember that Ashoka’s brutal invasion had taken place only three generations earlier and would have been still fresh in Odiya memory. So, when Kharavela returned from his Magadh campaign, he had his exploits inscribed on a rock on Udayagiri hill, now a suburb of Bhubaneswar. The hill has a number of beautifully carved caves cut into the hillside for the use of Jain monks. If one climbs up the hill and stands in front of Hathigumpha and looks out over Bhubaneswar, one can see Dhauli on a clear day (smog can often obscure the view). It is unmistakable how Kharavela had his inscriptions placed directly looking out at those of Ashoka at Dhauli. It is as if to tell Ashoka that he, Kharavela of Kalinga, had had sacked Pataliputra and caused the end of Mauryan rule.
Archaeologists have recently uncovered a large fortified city from this period at Sishupalgarh, very close to modern Bhubaneswar. It is very likely the remains of Kharavela’s capital, Kalinga-nagari. Although the expanding modern city is slowly encroaching into the site, the straight lines of the earthwork defences are still discernable and the moat now seems to function as a municipal drain. One of the city’s main gateways has been excavated. Perhaps this is the very gate that Kharavela tells us that he repaired after it had been damaged by a storm in the first year of his reign. India’s eastern coastline remains prone to severe storms and I personally witnessed the damage wrought by Cyclone Phailin which had hit Odisha just a few weeks before I visited the archaeological site in 2013.
Kharavela’s inscriptions suggest that he had defeated the Satvahanas, the Mauryas, the Indo-Greeks and even the Pandyas of Tamil country in the deep south. Having done all this, he declared that the “wheel of conquest” had been turned—possibly meaning that he had conducted the Vedic ashwamedha-yagya and declared himself a Chakravarti (or World Conqueror). This would have made him the most powerful Indian ruler of his time. Despite these achievements, Kharavela is almost never mentioned in Indian textbooks because history is written in a way that systematically emphasizes a continental veiwpoint over the coastal perspective.
It is as if political power was naturally centred in some inland city like Pataliputra or Delhi, and the rest of India must exist as mere provinces.
Kharavela’s inscriptions are mostly about his military campaigns but there are a few references to economic concerns. The restoration of a number of reservoirs and the extension of an old Nanda-era canal are mentioned. The management of water supply was obviously an important activity expected of the state. There is also a fleeting mention of the king gifting Chinese silk to priests/monks. This would suggest that Indian merchants operating in South East Asia had connected through to trade routes that extended all the way to China.
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