Twitter has been abuzz suddenly with the period of Emperor Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism becoming a matter of dispute and controversy. A well known twitter handle, which goes by the name, ‘True Indology’ (@TIinExile) twitted that Emperor Ashoka had converted to Buddhism during the 4th year of his reign while he invaded Kalinga in the 8th year of his reign, which is contrary to what our history books taught us that Emperor Ashoka converted to Buddhism, feeling repentant at the bloodshed unleashed by him during the Kalinga war. True Indology’s tweet came in response to a tweet by Leftist NRI academician, Ashok Swain’s tweet, where the latter claimed that the largest number of Odiya Hindus was killed by a Hindu from Bihar, viz. Emperor Ashoka. While this tweet of Swain is laden with racism and regional bias, something which the leftists have been doing all along, fanning the fire of regionalism with the intention of dividing the Hindus, it has stirred up a hornet’s nest with True Indology’s response as we are exposed to another blatant lie propagated by our Darbari historians with the sole motive of maligning the Hindus. The said tweet by True Indology received accolades and acknowledgement from well known twitted handles like that of Dr. Anand Ranganathan, scholar and political analyst and Kangana Ranaut, Nationalist actor.

Emperor Ashoka, also known in history as Ashoka the Great reigned between 268 to 232 BCE, over almost all of the Indian subcontinent, by expanding the domain of his grandfather, Chandragupta Maurya’s empire. His Magadha kingdom stretched from present day Afghanistan in the West to Bangladesh in the East- except for parts of present day Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. His capital was Pataliputra (present day Patna) with provincial capitals at Taxila and Ujjain.

Ashoka was a brutal ruler. He ascended the throne of Magadha after the death of his father Bindusara by eliminating all male heirs apparent to the throne, including the natural claimant, Bindusara’s eldest son, Sushim. When Bindusara died, Sushim was fighting incursions at the northwest frontiers. Taking the advantage of his absence, Ashoka ascended to the throne with the help of Greek mercenaries. When Sushim returned to Pataliputra, Ashoka had him killed at the eastern gates. Some believe that Sushim may have been roasted alive at the moat. This was followed by four years of bloody civil war during which Ashoka killed all his male rivals. Buddhist texts mention that Ashoka killed 99 of his half brother, only sparing his own brother, Tissa. He also killed hundreds of their loyalists, personally decapitating 500 of them. Such was the barbaric nature of Ashoka.

Ashoka was so cruel that in his early years, he was known as Chandashoka or Ashoka the cruel. We learnt that Ashoka had invaded Kalinga in 262 BCE but minor rock edicts reveal that Ashoka had converted to Buddhism two years prior to that. Moreover, he seemed to have had contacts with the Buddhists a decade prior to that. Most of the information about Ashoka are available from Buddhist legends which appear in texts not contemporary to Ashoka. These legends were composed by Buddhist authors who used various stories to illustrate how their faith impacted Ashoka. Some of the modern day authors downright rejected these texts as these were presenting conflicting views on the emperor and his much believed ‘change of heart’ from those found in Ashoka’s edifices, which suits the narrative of these authors.

Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism might as well be due to political reasons rather than moral ones as our history books suggest. Even though the Mauryans followed Vedic court rituals, with most of their top officials being Brahmins, yet they exhibited no qualms in adopting other Indic religious practices. Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Mauryan dynasty developed links with the Jains in the old age while his son Bindusara had popularised the the heterodox school of thought, the Ajivikas, a school which supported atheism. It is believed that, when Ashoka usurped the throne, his family members might have had links with the Jains and Ajivikas. Hence Ashoka might have taken the help of their rivals, the Buddhists to ascend to the throne of Magadha. There is also conflict between the Buddhist sources and others with regard to Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism. As per the edicts and inscriptions commissioned by the emperor, Ashoka’s transition to Buddhism was a gradual process under the influence of the older Indic religions and was driven by guilt for taking lives mercilessly. While the Buddhist sources suggest that the transition was more sudden and was a result of immediate enlightenment. Hence such conflicting views about his conversion to Buddhism always existed. The Buddhist text, Asokavadana, written hundred years after Ashoka’s death concur with the fact that Ashoka was a brutal and merciless king, who would kill his concubines for minor confrontations and had built an elaborate torture chamber based on the Buddhist version of hell. However, it states that Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism was the result of a sudden enlightenment rather than a gradual process. Ashoka had attempted to torture and kill a Buddhist monk, Samudra by throwing him on to an iron cauldron full of water, human blood, marrow, urine and excrement and by lighting a great fire underneath. But even after several attempts, the cauldron didnot catch fire; instead the monk was seen seated there, cross-legged on a lotus. As per the text, the incident had caused Ashoka to change his mind and take recourse to Buddhism. This again is in contrast to the change of heart theory on account of the bloodshed during the Kalinga war.

The reason for Ashoka’s invasion of Kalinga- Our history books taught us that Kalinga was an independent kingdom which Ashoka invaded. However, this theory is not above reproach. The Nandas, who ruled Magadha prior to the Mauryas, had already conquered Kalinga. Hence, in all probability, Chandragupta Maurya’s empire already constituted of Kalinga. It is unlikely that the mighty Mauryas would have let an independent kingdom remain so for such a long period of time, that also a kingdom which was located so close to their capital, Pataliputra and their main port, Tamralipti. Kalinga might not have been independent during Bindusara’s reign but could have been a province then. Something may have changed during Ashoka’s reign, when it might have declared it’s independence during the civil war that was going on or sided with Ashoka’s rivals. Whatever the reason was for attracting Ashoka’s ire, a huge contingent of Mauryan Army marched to Kalinga and a fierce and bloody battle was waged, first at the banks of the river, Daya at Dhauli near modern Bhuvaneswar, though a recent archaeological excavation pointed out a place called Yuddha Meruda as the place of the main battle, with the most ferocious last stages fought at Toshali, the Kalingan capital. As per Ashoka’s own inscriptions, a 100,000 were killed in battle with an even larger number died of wounds inflicted during the battle and another 150,000 were taken as prisoners of war.

The story that we were told all along was that Ashoka was so horified at his own brutality inflicted on the Kalingans that he decided to convert to Buddhism, a more peaceful religion. This theory is a doubtful one for various reasons cited as follows:

  1. Ashoka was ruthless and shedding blood was a habbit with him, something which he had learnt from his father, Bindusara. Hence, Ashoka being disturbed and horrified at the sight of blood post the Kalinga war, thus converting him to a pacifist is most unlikely.
  2. None of the Ashokan inscriptions in Odisha have a mention of this ‘regret’ by him. The Ashokan inscriptions at Dhauli, engraved on a rock at the base of a hill, too have no mention of the said regret. These ‘regretful’ inscriptions can be found in locations away from Odisha , such as Shahbazgarhi in North-west Pakistan.
  3. If Ashoka was genuinely remorseful, he would have apologized to the people whom he wronged. Far from doing that he didnot even free the captives. So where is the remorse? On the contrary, his ‘regretful’ inscriptions also contain threats of violence against other groups such as forest tribes, should they incur the wrath of the Emperor.
  4. Ashoka’s ‘regretful’ inscriptions may have been used as a political tool by him to counter his reputation of cruelty. Moreover, they were placed in locations where the average citizen or official could not read them. Ashoka’s inscriptions mention his title, ‘Devanampiya’ (Sanskrit: ‘Devanampriya’ or ‘The Beloved of the Gods’) . This has been established by the Maski and Gujjara inscriptions and indicate that there was an obvious attempt by the Emperor to portray himself and his actions as sacred. The name, ‘Priyadarshi’ is associated with Ashoka in the 3rd-4th Century CE chronicle from Sri Lanka, ‘Dipavamsa’. It literally means ‘He who regards amiably’, a term which goes against the character of Ashoka. It may have been a regnal name adopted by Ashoka.
  5. The Buddhist text, Asokavadana tells us of more acts of genocide perpetrated by the emperor many years after the Battle of Kalinga. These were primarily directed towards the Jains and Ajivika sects, though not the mainstream Hindus, primarily the Brahmins, whom he respected. Two instances of his brutality include the massacre of 18000 Ajivikas of Bengal, which might have been the first known instance of religious persecution in Indian history and the killing of a Jain devotee who had drawn a picture of Gautam Buddha bowing in reverence to a Jain Tirthankara. An enraged Ashoka burned the devotee and his family alive in their house and offered a gold coin in exchange for every decapitated Jain head. The carnage stopped only when his own brother, the Buddist monk, Vitashoka (Tissa) was mistakenly killed by someone. But the incidence bore an uncanny similarity with the Charlie Hebdo incident in January 2015.

Was Ashoka really great? – Ashoka, who has been glorified as a great ruler, leader and administrator, may not have been so. An increasingly unwell Ashoka witnessed the disintegration of his empire due to rebellion, internal family disputes and fiscal stress. The entire Northwestern territories acquired by Seleucus. Within a few years of his death, in 232 BC, the Satavahanas had captured most of the territories in southern India and Kalinga too seceded. It is worthwhile to mention here that Ashoka had sent both his son and daughter, Mahendra and Sanghamitra to propagate Buddhism in Sri Lanka rather than teaching them the art of administration of a kingdom. He was involved in propagating Buddhism in Asia. However, the Darbari historians accounted the fall of the Mauryan empire to Ashoka’s successors while hailing him as a great ruler.

Ashoka was revered only in the Buddhist texts in countries where he didnot rule. He was rediscovered and elevated as Ashoka the Great by 19th century orientalists like James Princep. Ashoka’s emblem, the Lion Capital of Sarnath has been adopted as our National Emblem and the Ashok Chakra, which is a depiction of the Buddhist Dharmachakra, represented with 24 spokes adorns our National Flag.
Post independence, the Darbari historians kept on hailing Ashoka as great only to provide a lineage to Nehru’s socialist project and all evidence contradicting their claim was put away in a manner not to be discovered. Besides, the theory of Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism at the sight of bloodshed during Kalinga war, was an attempt to malign Hinduism- make hindu rulers appear brutal and bloodthirsty, who could be pacified only when they changed their religious affiliation.

The alternative to the narrative about Emperor Ashoka has been vividly explained in the book, ‘The Ocean of Churns-How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History’ by Mr. Sanjiv Sanyal, Economist and Principal Economic Advisor to the Govt. Of India. The said book has also been the primary inspiration behind this article. It is also a lesson to the common Indian not to believe any narrative which is fed to them with ulterior motive. No civilization can prosper without recognizing it’s roots. In case of India, the world’s oldest civilization, history has been systematically distorted to create a narrative to suit the erstwhile rulers of our nation. The time has now come to bust these fake narratives and recognize our roots.

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Ashoka, The Kalinga War and The Twitter Views

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