Fierce emperor-turned-promoter of peace, Emperor Ashoka of the Maurya Empire is known through the rock edicts and pillars that he had erected across the Indian sub-continent
WORDS: MADHURI. Y
Although it cannot be proven beyond doubt, it is believed that Ashoka was crowned Emperor after he had his 99 half-brothers killed, leaving only Tissa alive. It is only in 269 BCE that he was crowned Emperor, four years after he ascended the throne. Over the next eight years, Ashoka expanded his empire.
Ashoka was a fierce emperor, and some texts describe him as cruel. All that changed with the Kalinga War. Ashoka’s edicts describe the remorse he felt after the Kalinga War when he saw the more than hundred thousand deaths in the war, and the suffering of families of the deceased. He turned to Buddhism, promoting peace within his empire and sending emissaries to spread the religion to distant regions.
Ashoka is believed to have had five wives, Devi, Karuvaki, Asandhimitra, Padmavati and Tishyarakshita. Mahendra and Sangha Mitra who went on a Buddhist mission to Sri Lanka were Devi’s offspring.
Ashoka declared that dharma is the practice of honesty, truthfulness, compassion, mercy, benevolence, non-violence and being considerate towards others. He dissuaded extravagance, being acquisitive, and causing injury to animals.
He respected all religions while directing them to respect other religions, and not to criticise others’ viewpoints vehemently. On his periodic tours, he spoke of dharma and tried to relieve his people’s sufferings. His officers were required to do the same, and to be impartial in giving justice. Ashoka founded hospitals for humans and animals, planting trees alongside roads, digging wells, and building rest houses. He issued orders to prevent cruelty towards animals.
Ashoka’s chief consort Asandhimitra was childless. His youngest wife Tishyarakshita is believed to have blinded his son Kunala (son of Padmavati). Her intent was to have him killed, but the killers spared his life and Kunala became a wandering singer along with his wife Kanchanmala. Hearing of this, Ashoka condemned Tishyaraksha to death.
Ashoka’s end came in 232 BCE. His grandson Dasharatha is believed to have succeeded him to the throne. In 185 BCE, the last Mauryan Emperor, Brihadratha was assassinated by his Commander-in-Chief, Pushyamitra Shunga, who founded the Shunga dynasty and ruled over a part of the Mauryan Empire.
Emperor Ashoka is probably the most famous Mauryan Emperor, not just for expanding the empire, but also for turning from a fierce ruler to a peaceful one. He expanded the empire from Afghanistan to Bangladesh and from the Himalayas to the south, leaving just the southern region out of his control. Grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the empire, Ashoka ruled with Pataliputra (Patna) as his capital..
Also known by the names Devanampriya, (Beloved of the Gods), and Priyadarsin (He who regards everyone with affection), Ashoka lived up to these names after the Kalinga War.
Kalinga, which constitutes present-day Odisha and northern part of coastal Andhra Pradesh, stood autonomous, defying Mauryan rule. Ashoka waged a war against the kingdom during the eighth year of his rule, annexing it in a bloody battle. The war which saw deaths estimated anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000, including war casualties and those who succumbed to death during deportation, brought change in the Emperor’s heart and Ashoka embraced Buddhism.
The Ashoka Chakra on the Ashoka Pillar in Sarnath is a famous symbol from the emperor’s time. It is a representation of the Buddhist Wheel of Dharma, or Dharmachakra. Twelve spokes of the wheel stand for the 12 causes of suffering. The other 12 spokes represent the principle of cause and effect. The 12 causes of suffering are avidya (ignorance), sanskara (mind’s conditioning), vijnana (consciousness), namarupa (name and form), sadayatana (six senses), sparsa (contact), vedana (sensation), trishna (thirst), upadana (grasping), bhava (being), jati (to be born), jaramarana (old age and death).
The remaining 12 deal with reversing these links so that with awareness of mind, we reach a stage of no cause and no effect. The Ashoka Chakra in the Indian flag comes from this Chakra.
Ashoka Chakra is also India’s highest peacetime military decoration. It is awarded to people who have acted with valour, courage and self-sacrifice away from the battlefield.
Ashoka Pillars are stone columns, which were erected by the emperor across the sub-continent. Ten pillars with inscriptions survive today. The inscriptions are in Prakrit written in the Brahmi script. Between forty and fifty feet in height, their weight is estimated at fifty tons. The stone came from Chunar, south of Varanasi.
Ashoka Mudra (Lion Capital of Ashoka)
Ashoka Mudra is a sculpture with four lions facing the four directions. Placed atop the Ashoka Pillar in Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh, it has been shifted to the Sarnath Museum, while the pillar stands in its original location.
It has been adopted as India’s national emblem. The four lions stand on a short cylindrical stone, which carries sculptures of four animals, symbolising the stages of Lord Buddha’s life:
Elephant: Queen Maya’s dream of a white elephant entering her womb
Bull: Signifies desire when Buddha was a prince
Galloping Horse: Departure from life in the palace
Lion: Buddha’s accomplishments.
The four animals are separated by chariot wheels over a bell-shaped lotus. The entire sculpture was carved out of a single block of polished sandstone. It is said that the mudra was crowned by a Dharmachakra, the Ashoka Chakra.
The stupas of Sanchi, Sarnath are well-known. The Mahabodhi temple and Nalanda Mahavihara in Bihar, as well as Takshasila in Pakistan too are famous. Ashoka is also credited with more stupas in Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Pakistan.
His name Ashoka means one without sorrow.
In addition to the second century compilations, Ashokavadana, which is part of Divyavadana, and Mahavamsa, a Sri Lankan compilation, his rock pillars, edicts and monuments tell us about him.
While there is no dispute that his father was Bindusara, some texts state that his mother was Subhadrangi, and others state that she was Janapadakalyani. Ashoka grew with his many half-brothers under royal military upbringing.
From Prince to Emperor
After suppressing a revolt during his father’s time, Ashoka became the Governor of the Malwa capital, Ujjain. Although Bindusara wanted Prince Susima, his elder son to succeed to the Mauryan throne, his ministers, with Radhagupta playing a strong role, supported Ashoka’s bid for the throne. Ashoka then made Radhagupta his minister.