Nehru and “Ashoka Not So Great”

(NewsBred publishes an extract from “The Ocean of Churn” by Sanjeev Sanyal, released last month, which turns upside down the legacy of “Ashoka the Great”)

Chandragupta abdicated in 298BC (or 303 BC according to another source) in favour of his son Bindusara who ruled till 273BC. Bindusara had inherited an empire that was already very large—from Afghanistan to Bengal. He seems to have extended the real 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 274BC, Bindusara suddenly fell and died. The crown prince sushima was away fending off incursions on the north-west 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 wil be surprised to discover that tht popular narrative about the 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. Moreever, 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.

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 a place called Yuddha Meruda being the site of the main battle followed by a despearate and bloody last stand at the Kalingan capital of Tosali.

The Kalingans never stood a chance. Ashoka’s own inscriptions tell us that 100,000 died in the war and 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 north-western 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 apologize 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. Morever, 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 historicals including Nayanjot Lahiri have wondered about this. Is is possible that some of the inscriptions were really meant for later generations rather than his contemporaries?

The Buddhist text, Ashokavadana, 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 Brahimns. The Ashokavadana recounts how Ashoka once had 18,000 Ajivikas in Bengal put to death in a single episode.

This is no 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 be 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 skepticism should be even applied to all the evidence and just to portions of the texts 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 Satvanhanas 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 Prinsep. 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.

What is more worrying is how easily modern Indians have come to accept a narrative based on such minimal evidence.

--Sanjeev Sanyal

(Famous mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik writes: The undisputable fact is that a king called Devapriya and Piyadasi (Beloved of the gods, who loves everyone) Ashoka of the Maurya clan established 33 rock edicts across the Indian subcontinent 2300 years ago. More information comes from a Sanskrit text, dated 2nd century, called Ashokavadana that speaks of how Ashoka, a cruel monster of a king, eventually became a patron of Buddhism. Information also comes from Pali texts, Mahavamsa and Dvipayamsa, from Sri Lanka, that speak of the missionary activities of Ashoka’s children, the monk Mahendra and the nun, Sanghamitra.

The information led HG Wells in the 1920s to describe Ashoka as the “greatest of kings” in the short history of the world. Wells is famous for his science fiction works like “War of the Worlds.” HG Well’s impression of Ashoka inspired Nehru to use Ashokan symbols, like the wheel and the lion, for the new Indian republic. Nehru even called his daughter Indira, Priyadarshini based on Ashoka’s titles.

However, when we go deeper, ideas emerge that make us question what we know. For example, why did ashoka write about his remorse at the Kalinga war not in Odisha, where the battle took place, but in Girnar in Gujarat? Was it simply royal propaganda? Ashokavadana describes him not as handsome hunk, but as having bad skin and punishing courtesans who mocked his ugliness.)

NewsBred adds: So was Nehru a Buddhist? However, in his book Discovery of India, he has substantially praised Buddhism as he has Hinduism. He seems to be interested in the sociological implications of Buddhist and Hindu philosophies rather than the religions themselves. However there is no ambiguity on Ashoka based on archaeological evidence: That he remained cruel; he turned Buddhist much before the Kalinga war and that his empire disintegrated soon after his death. There is little to support “Ashoka the Great,” and is possibly one more instance of how Western orientalists have messed with the Indian past