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Thursday, May 30, 2024

The Truth About Ashoka

Recently, an RSS-backed magazine attacked the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, leading to angry reactions from many quarters. This viewpoint has had support among sections of the Hindu Right wing for a while now. The first to articulate it was Savarkar, in his ‘Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History‘.

Others like Sanjeev Sanyal have also argued (here and in the below embedded video) that the Bharatiya secular state has built a false narrative around Ashoka that does not stand up to proper scrutiny.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Nehruvian Republic viewed itself as an attempt to recreate an idealized Ashokan Imperium.

As Koenraad Elst says,

Under Jawaharlal Nehru, Bharat’s first Prime Minister, Buddhism was turned into the unofficial state religion of Bharat, adopting the “lion pillar” of the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka as state symbol and putting the 24-spoked Cakravarti wheel in the national flag.

The glorification of Ashoka in our school education, where he is portrayed as one of Bharat’s two greatest Emperors, along with Akbar, is part of this project.

It is rather interesting, then, that Bharat’s traditional historiography does not consider him a great or successful ruler at all. In fact, his memory was largely condemned to oblivion till he was rediscovered by British historians and archaeologists in the last two centuries.

As the leader of the Nehruvian ’eminent historians’ Romila Thapar herself notes in  Aśoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, 

In the Bharatiya secular sources, Aśoka remained largely a name in the dynastic king lists, as obscure during the later centuries as the script in which he had his edicts engraved. The fact that the work of Aśoka as a monarch was almost erased from Bharatiya history and thought cannot be overlooked.

Why is this so? Why did our ancestors not think highly of this supposedly great ruler? I will try to explore the reasons in this article. If you are looking for ‘Ashoka The Great’ of your history textbooks, this is not the right place to find him. Indeed, you will discover that everything you know about him is a lie. But this is not an attempt to demonize Ashoka either, simply an effort to reconstruct his life from the available evidence.

Ashoka’s slaying of his brothers, including the rightful heir, and his initial cruel days that earned him the appellations, ‘Kamashoka’ and ‘Chandashoka’ are relatively well-known, so I will not cover them here, apart from one incident that is not that well-known.

In his initial days, Ashoka was known as Kamashoka, for his maintenance of a harem of 500 women (this number is probably exaggerated). Once, when on a stroll, he came across a beautiful Ashoka tree and was very pleased at the sight of it, as well as at the fact that it was his namesake. After that, he went to his harem and slaked his lusts. The women of the harem did not like having to caress his rough skin (he seems to have had some kind of skin condition, a fact that is also referenced in other places), and so after Ashoka fell asleep, his concubines mutilated the tree, in order to slight him. Ashoka was furious, and burned all 500 of them to death.

Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism and The Kalinga War

The conventional narrative regarding Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism is that he was deeply moved by the carnage he had wrought during the Kalinga War, and converted to Buddhism as a result. This narrative is based on a misreading of Ashoka’s Rock Edict XIII, the relevant parts of which I will now reproduce in translation:

The text, as found at Erragudi, Girnar, Kalsi, Maneshra, Shahbazgarhi and Kandahar, runs as follows:

The country of the Kalingas was conquered by King Priyadarśī, Beloved of the Gods, eight years after his coronation. In this war in Kalinga, men and animals numbering one hundred and fifty thousand were carried away captive from that country; as many as one hundred thousand were killed there in action and many times that number perished.

After that, now that the country of the Kalingas has been conquered, the Beloved of the Gods is devoted to an intense practice of the duties relating to Dharma (In versions other than the one at Shahbazgarhi the corresponding expression reads as ‘zealous discussion of Dhamma.’), to a longing for Dhamma and to the inculcation of Dhamma among the people. This is due to the repentance of the Beloved of the Gods on having conquered the country of the Kalingas.

Verily the slaughter, death and deportation of men which take place in the course of the conquest of an unconquered country are now considered extremely painful and deplorable by the Beloved of the Gods. But what is considered even more deplorable by the Beloved of the Gods is the fact that injury to or slaughter or deportation of the beloved ones falls to the lot of the Brāhmanas, the śramaṇas, the adherents of other sects and the householders, who live in that country and among whom are established such virtues as obedience to superior personages, obedience to mother and father, obedience to elders and proper courtesy and are full of affection towards the former; even though they are themselves well provided for, the said misfortune as well becomes an injury to their own selves.

In war, this fate is shared by all classes of men and is considered deplorable by the Beloved of the Gods. Now really there is no person who is not sincerely devoted to a particular religious sect. Therefore, the slaughter, death or deportation of even a hundredth or thousandth part of all those people who were slain or who died or were carried away captive at that time in Kalinga is now considered very deplorable by the Beloved of the Gods.

Now the Beloved of the Gods thinks that, even if a person should wrong him, the offense would be forgiven if it was possible to forgive it. And the forest-folk who live in the dominions of the Beloved of the Gods, even them he entreats and exhorts in regard to their duty. It is hereby explained to them that, in spite of his repentance, the Beloved of the Gods possesses power enough to punish them for their crimes, so that they should turn away from evil ways and would not be killed for their crimes.

[Translation from Emperor Aśoka and Buddhism: Unresolved Discrepancies between Buddhist Tradition & Aśokan Inscriptions by Ananda W.P. Guruge.]

The first point to note here is, this is NOT an apology to the people of Kalinga. This Edict was, in fact, deliberately omitted from the edicts at Kalinga, even though it is present in identical series of edicts in multiple other places. Surely if one feels genuine regret for violence committed by oneself and wishes to express that regret, the people one should do so to first and foremost would be those wronged by the said acts.

As Guruge notes,

So far, as many as eight versions (including a condensed Greek version) have been found in such far-flung places as Afghanistan (2 copies), Pakistan (2 copies), Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh (near Dehradun), Mahārāshtra (near Bombay) — but not a single version in or near Kalinga itself. There must be a special reason for this. This would be, on the face of it, rejected as an “argument from silence.” But that is not so in this particular case.

The series of fourteen Rock Edicts (RE I – XIV) appears in exact sequence in identical words (with very minor modifications) in the eight sites mentioned above. There are two similar series of Rock Edicts in Jaugada and Dhauli in Orissa, that is, in ancient Kalinga. They differ from the rest in one major and most significant factor.

The crucial Rock Edict XIII which expresses Aśoka’s heartfelt repentance on the miseries he caused to the people of Kalinga is missing, along with Rock Edicts XI and XII. If these three Edicts were simply dropped from the series, it could have been explained as an omission by the scribes.

What strikes our attention is that in their place two other Edicts have been inserted which are specifically addressed to the Mahāmātras stationed at Samāpā and Tosalī. There is of course, the explanation which Aśoka had himself given in RE XIV.

By way of explaining the possible variations in text and contents, he says: In the series of records, there are texts written in a concise form or in a medium form, or in an elaborate form. And all the items of the series have not been put together in all places. For my dominions are wide, and much has been written, and I shall certainly cause still more to be written. There are some topics which have been repeated over and over again owing to their sweetness, so that people may act accordingly.

There may be some topics which have been written incompletely either as the particular place of a record was considered unsuitable for them or as a special reason for abridgment was believed to exist, and also owing to a fault of the scribe.

Thus, the omission of this ‘apology’ in Kalinga is deliberate. And why not? It is not an apology at all, it is a threat, as can be seen from what Ashoka says later in the Edict:

And the forest-folk who live in the dominions of the Beloved of the Gods, even them he entreats and exhorts in regard to their duty. It is hereby explained to them that, in spite of his repentance, the Beloved of the Gods possesses power enough to punish them for their crimes, so that they should turn away from evil ways and would not be killed for their crimes.

Thus, Ashoka’s recounting of the atrocities he had committed at Kalinga was to impress upon his subjects the consequences of disobedience, coated in honeyed words about repentance.

This also negates the conventional narrative of a turn to extreme pacifism after the war. Though Ashoka did cease further attempts at conquest, he was willing to use violence if he deemed it necessary. In fact, as we will see later, he did in fact use violence at later points in his reign.

A second point to be noted is Ashoka’s own account of the effect of the Kalinga war on him:

After that, now that the country of the Kalingas has been conquered, the Beloved of the Gods is devoted to an intense practice of the duties relating to Dhamma (In versions other than the one at Shahbazgarhi the corresponding expression reads as ‘zealous discussion of Dhamma.’), to a longing for Dhamma and to the inculcation of Dhamma among the people. This is due to the repentance of the Beloved of the Gods on having conquered the country of the Kalingas.

Ashoka nowhere states that the war led to his conversion to Buddhism, though his reference to an increased zeal for the practice and propagation of Dhamma is contrived to be a reference to his conversion.

In factnone of the literary sources on Ashoka mention the Kalinga War or refer to it as the reason for his conversion. In the Sri lankan Pali Chronicles, Ashoka’s conversion is credited to a young Buddhist monk named Nirgodha, the son of Sushima, the crown prince who was among the brothers Ashoka murdered in order to seize the throne while in the Sanskrit Ashokavadana and Divyavadana, Ashoka’s conversion is credited to miracles performed by the monk Samudra.

Scholars like Charles Allen and Ananda Guruge have rejected the latter version. It is likely that Ashoka converted in the fourth year of his reign.

As per the Sri Lankan Pali chronicles, for the first three years of Ashoka’s reign, he continued Bindusara’s patronage of Brahmins, feeding sixty thousand of them. Ashoka’s father and mother were both Ajivikas, and hence he was most definitely raised as one. However, he grew increasingly dissatisfied with the behaviour of the Brahmins he used to feed daily, and began scouting for alternatives, meeting representatives of all faiths.

One day he saw a young monk, Nigrodha passing under his window, and was drawn to his calm demeanor. He called him into the palace and met with him. Nirgodha turned out to be the son of Sushima, his step brother, whom Ashoka had killed in the process of his ascent to the throne. After questioning Nirgodha on various points of doctrine and listening to a discourse by him, Ashoka adopted Buddhism.

After this, the sixty thousand Brahmins who are recipients of his patronage were replaced with Buddhist monks.

The start of this story hints at another factor in Ashoka’s conversion- He had just come to power in a bitter power struggle, in which most of his opponents were Ajivikas, Jains or followers of the Vedic faith. By converting to Buddhism, Ashoka sidelined the Brahmins at court, counteracting their power with the organizational strength of the Buddhist Sangha, and the power of a growing faith. Ashoka also gained the complete backing of the Buddhist lobby.

One further argument is used in favour of the Kalinga War as the catalyst for Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism, the Minor Rock Edict (MRE) I, which is most certainly Ashoka’s oldest edict:

A little more than two years and a half have passed since I have been avowedly a lay follower (upāsaka) of the Buddha. It is now more than a year since the Saṅgha has been intimately associated with me (saṅghe upayīte) and I have been exerting myself in the cause of the Dharma.

In Pillar Edict (PE) VI, Ashoka says

Twelve years after my coronation, records relating to Dhamma were caused to be written by me for the first time for the welfare and happiness of the people so that, without violation thereof, there might attain the growth of Dharma in various respects.

This is interpreted to the state that MRE I is to be dated to 12 years after his coronation, placing Ashoka’s conversion in the eighth and ninth year after his coronation, a while after the Kalinga War.

However, Ashoka clearly refers to ‘records relating to Dhamma’ being inscribed from the twelfth year of his coronation onwards, and thus MRE I does not fall into this category. Ashoka’s first ‘record relating to Dhamma’ was indeed inscribed in the twelfth year of his reign:


3. Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, speaks thus: Twelve years after my coronation this has been ordered — Everywhere in my domain the Yuktas, the Rajjukas and the Pradesikas shall go on inspection tours every five years for the purpose of Dhamma instruction and also to conduct other business.[6] Respect for mother and father is good, generosity to friends, acquaintances, relatives, Brahmans and ascetics is good, not killing living beings is good, moderation in spending and moderation in saving is good. The Council shall notify the Yuktas about the observance of these instructions in these very words.

4. In the past, for many hundreds of years, killing or harming living beings and improper behavior towards relatives, and improper behavior towards Brahmans and ascetics has increased but now due to Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi’s Dhamma practice, the sound of the drum has been replaced by the sound of the Dhamma. The sighting of heavenly cars, auspicious elephants, bodies of fire and other divine sightings has not happened for many hundreds of years. But now because Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi promotes restraint in the killing and harming of living beings, proper behavior towards relatives, Brahmans and ascetics, and respect for mother, father and elders, such sightings have increased.

These and many other kinds of Dhamma practice have been encouraged by Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, and he will continue to promote Dhamma practice. And the sons, grandsons and great-grandsons of Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, too will continue to promote Dhamma practice until the end of time; living by Dhamma and virtue, they will instruct in Dhamma. Truly, this is the highest work, to instruct in Dhamma. But practicing the Dhamma cannot be done by one who is devoid of virtue and therefore its promotion and growth is commendable.

This edict has been written so that it may please my successors to devote themselves to promoting these things and not allow them to decline. Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, has had this written twelve years after his coronation.

(Translation from here)

Also, the Sri Lankan Pali chronicles state that in the sixth year of his reign, his son Mahendra and his daughter Sanghamitra became Buddhist monks, thus making the Sangha ‘more intimately associated with him’ as stated in MRE I, in the same time period (two years) as stated in the Pali chronicles.

Cause Of The Kalinga War

Some have argued that the Kalinga War was not a war between two kingdoms, but a brutally put down revolt.

As per the Buddhist chronicler Taranatha, Chanakya served both Chandragupta Maurya and Bindusara, and made the Mauryas, engineered the destruction of the rulers of sixteen kingdoms, and made the Mauryas the master of ‘all the territory between the eastern and western oceans’.

This would obviously require the control of Kalinga too, and thus it it would imply that Kalinga was already a part of the Mauryan Empire when Ashoka ascended to power. (Chandragupta likely did not conquer the South, so the Southern conquests most probably happened under Bindusara).

Also, Tamil Chronicles refer to an invasion of the Tamil lands by “Vamba Moriyar’ ie. the upstart Mauryas’ described as ‘Vadugar’ or northerners aided by local allies, which was ultimately foiled by a mountain which the  chariots of the Mauryan army could not cross or possibly driven back after a battle at the mountain). This most probably happened in the reign of Bindusra. It is highly unlikely that the Mauryas would launch an invasion of the deep south and yet tolerate an independent state (Kalinga) so close to the heartland of their Empire.

As Sanjeev Sanyal says here,

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.

And Kailash Chandra Dash says here,

This rock edict states the term abijita which has been taken by the historians for Kalinga which was not conquered in the pre-Ashokan phase. This view needs reconsideration in this respect. In the edict the repentance of Ashoka was followed by a general statement which actually does not refer to Kalinga. It only states about the nature of an unconquered country. It states, while one is conquering an unconquered country (abijita), slaughter, death and deportation of people (Jana) are taking place there. This was deplorable.

But even more deplorable than this by Devanampriya was the slaughter or deportation of Brahmanas or Sramanas or other sects or householders who are living and among whom the following are practised: obedience to those who receive high pay obedience to mother and father, obedience to elders, proper courtesy to friends, acquaintances, companions and relatives, to slaves and servants in that unconquered country.

After this statement on unconquered country in general in a vicious war Ashoka`s edict states about Kalinga again. It stated that therefore, even the hundredth part or the thousandth part of all those people who were slain, who died and who were deported at that time in Kalinga would now (when the edict was inscribed) be considered very deplorable by Devanampriya.

Historians generally combine these passages as the context for Kalinga and claim Kalinga as an unconquered kingdom before Ashoka. As a matter of fact, according to the edict any unconquered country when conquered such slaughter and deportation usually had taken place; but this was deplorable. But for Kalinga living beings were affected.

Therefore, Prana is used for Jana. These verses explain that Kalinga was conquered in the pre-Ashokan phase but for some other reasons it was again conquered by Ashoka. This view also corroborates with the statement in Hatigumha inscription of Kharavela which states that Kalinga was under the control of Nandaraja.

Ashoka And Religious Tolerance

Ashoka is generally portrayed as a model of religious tolerance, as exemplified by edicts like this one (Rock Edict XII):

King Priyadarśī, Beloved of the Gods, honours men of all religious communities with gifts and with honours of various kinds, irrespective of whether they are ascetics or householders. But the Beloved of the Gods does not value either the offering of gifts or the honouring of people so highly as the following, viz., that there should be a growth of the essentials of Dharma among men of all sects. And the growth of the essentials of Dharma is possible in many ways.

But its root lies in restraint in regard to speech, which means that there should be no extolment of one’s own sect or disparagement of other sects on inappropriate occasions and that it should be moderate in every case even on appropriate occasions.

On the contrary, other sects should be duly honoured in every way on all occasions. If a person acts in this way, he not only promotes his own sect but also benefits other sects. But if a person acts otherwise, he not only injures his own sect and disparages other sects with a view to glorifying his sect owing merely to his attachment to it, he injures his own sect very severely by acting in that way.

Therefore, restraint in regard to speech is commendable, because people should learn and respect the fundamentals of one another’s Dharma.

This indeed is the desire of the Beloved of the Gods, that persons of all sects become well informed about the doctrines of different religions and acquire pure knowledge. And those who are attached to their respective sects should be informed as follows: “The Beloved of the Gods does not value either the offering of gifts or the honouring of people so highly as the following, viz., that there should be a growth of the essentials of Dharma among men of all sects.”

Indeed many of my officers are engaged for the realization of the said end, such as the Mahāmātras in charge of the affairs relating to Dharma, the Mahāmātras who are superintendents of matters relating to the ladies of the royal household, the officers in charge of my cattle and pasture lands, and other classes of officials. And the results of their activities, as expected by me, is the promotion of each one’s sect and the glorification of Dharma.

Yet, his statements here contain the seed of two brutal acts of religious persecution by Ashoka. Many historians argue that these incidents (found in the Divyavadana and the Ashokavadana) are out of character for Ashoka, but as you will see, these acts are entirely in accord with the bolded part of the above edict.

As per the Ashokavadana, a Jain in Pundravardhana drew a picture showing the Buddha bowing at the feet of Nirgrantha Jnatiputra (Mahavira). On a complaint from a Buddhist devotee, Ashoka issued an order to arrest him, and subsequently, another order to kill all the Ajivikas in Pundravardhana.

Historians like S. Mukhopadhyaya have argued that the author of the Ashokavadana ‘seems to have confused the Nirgranthas with the Ajivikas. It is more likely that Ashoka was misinformed about the religious affiliation of the person. Around 18,000 followers of the Ajivika sect were executed as a result of this order.’

Sometime later, another Nirgrantha follower in Pataliputra drew a similar picture. Ashoka burnt him and his entire family alive in their house. He also announced an award of one dinara (silver coin) to anyone who brought him the head of a Nirgrantha. Riots broke out in as a result, and his own brother, Vitashoka, who had become a Buddhist monk, was mistaken for a Jain and killed by a cowherd. Ridden with grief and guilt, Ashoka withdrew his order.

Ashoka also expelled ‘heretical’ monks from the Sangha.

Minor Pillar Edict (MPE) I (Allahabad-Kosambī text): This is the order of the beloved of the Gods. The Mahāmātras stationed at Kauśambi are to be addressed in the following words:. I have made both the Saṅgha of the monks and Saṅgha of the nuns united. No heretical monk should be admitted into the Saṅgha. Whosoever be it a monk, be it a nun, shall break up the unity of the Saṅgha should be made to wear white robes unworthy of the Order and to reside in what is not fit for the residence of a recluse.

MPE I (Sānchi text): You should act in such a way that the Saṅgha cannot be divided by any heretical monk. Both the Saṅgha of the monks and the Saṅgha of the nuns have each been made by me a united whole to last as long as my sons and great-grandsons shall reign and the moon and the sun shall shine. The monk or nun who shall break up the Saṅgha should be made to put on white robes and to reside in what is not fit for the residence of a recluse. For my desire is that the Saṅgha may remain united and flourish for a long time.

MPE I and MPE II (Sarnath text): You should act in such a way that the Saṅgha cannot be divided by anyone. But verily that monk or nun who shall break up the Saṅgha, should be compelled to put on white robes and to reside in what is unfit for the residence of a recluse. Thus should this order be communicated to the Saṅgha of the monks as well as to the Saṅgha of the nuns. Thus saith the Beloved of the Gods. One copy of the above document has been deposited in your office, so that it would be accessible to you. And deposit another copy of this very document so as to make it accessible to lay followers of the Buddha. Now the lay followers should assemble near the document every fast day in order to be inspired with faith on account of this very edict.

(Translation here)

Ashoka also banned various Hindu yajnas, ceremonies, and festivals.


Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, has caused this Dhamma edict to be written. Here (in my domain) no living beings are to be slaughtered or offered in sacrifice. Nor should festivals be held, for Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, sees much to object to in such festivals, although there are some festivals that Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, does approve of.

Formerly, in the kitchen of Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, hundreds of thousands of animals were killed every day to make curry. But now with the writing of this Dhamma edict only three creatures, two peacocks and a deer are killed, and the deer not always. And in time, not even these three creatures will be killed.

Translations here.

As per Charles Allen,

The Northern tradition speaks of both Ashoka and his queen as heretics who attempted to destroy the Bodhi tree, with Ashoka using his troops to destroy other sites associated with the Buddha. This seems unlikely for a man whose first wife was a Buddhist, but it may represent his indifference to his senior queen’s overt hostility towards Buddhism.

From Ashoka, The Great by M. H. Syed

Yuan Chwang records the tradition of Ashoka and his Queen, in succession, making determined efforts to destroy the Bodhi Tree.

Apart from the riots caused by Ashoka’s mass murders, there are other stories that hint at religious discord.

As per a legend, Ashoka’s reckless donations to the Sangha (more on this later) caused disquiet among the Brahmins, causing one of them to travel to Ashoka’s palace with five hundred other Brahmins, demanding to be served food.

Ashoka obliged, but then the Brahmins placed him in a quandary by saying that they only ate Buddhist monks. Ashoka consulted members of the Sangha, who sent a young novice to the palace. The novice offered to be served to the Brahmins, on the condition that he be fed first. He was served the food that was prepared for the five hundred Brahmins, and devoured it all, then finished all the food in the kitchens and storehouses, and then, still unsatisfied, he devoured the five hundred Brahmins.

Ashoka feared that he would be eaten next, but the monk instead took him to the monastery at Kukkutarama, where he saw the monks of the monastery eating the food devoured by the novice earlier, and the five hundred Brahmins, alive but now Buddhist monks.

This legend gives us another hint at the fact that far from being a model of religious amity, Ashoka’s Empire was a hotbed of barely concealed, simmering religious tensions, necessitating his many calls for religious amity.

Sanjeev Sanyal notes that the Barabar cave shelters for Ajivikas, built by Dasharatha Maurya, who succeed Ashoka on the throne of Pataliputra, they were never finished and the term ‘Ajivika’ in the cave inscription was later deliberately vandalized, which also hints a religious tensions.

Ashoka’s legacy

In 239 BCE, Ashoka’s chief Queen Asandhimitra died. Four years later he married her former attendant, Tishyarakshita. Ashoka was quite old by now, and the age difference between him and Tishyarakshita was quite large. Buddhist texts regard her as a heretic (possibly an Ajivika).

In his later years, Ashoka became increasingly obsessed with the Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya, perhaps out of repentance for his attack on it in his youth. Jealous of his lavishing attention on the tree and regularly sending offerings to Bodhgaya, she employed a woman to poison the tree, causing it to wither.

Ashoka reacted with extreme grief, and went through fainting spells (he was already highly prone to them). Tishyarakshita then realized her mistake and told the woman to stop poisoning the tree, and Ashoka painstakingly nurtured it back to health.

Tishyarakshita later fell in love with the Crown Prince, Kunala, who was closer to her age than Ashoka, but he rejected her advances, unwilling to sleep with his stepmother. Due to this, Tishyarakshita came to hate Kunala.

After sometime, a revolt broke out in Takshashila, and Kunala was sent to suppress it. During this time, Ashoka fell ill, and was cured by Tishyarakshita. As a reward, Ashoka offered her a boon, and she asked to rule for a week.

Ashoka granted her wish, and she used this opportunity to issue an order to blind Kunala, whose eyes were what she found most attractive. The order was carried out, but the blinded Kunala managed to return to the palace and tell Ashoka what had happened, and Tishyarakshita was executed, despite Kunala requesting mercy for her. There is evidence that this was part of a broader conspiracy.

From Ashoka: The Search for India’s Lost Emperor by Charles Allen,

The essential element seems to be that the new queen headed a non-Buddhist faction at court which opposed the Buddhist heir-apparently Kunala and which grew in strength while Kunala was away acting as governor of Taxila. The anti-Buddhists succeeded in blinding Kunala but were subsequently crushed, resulting in the execution of the queen and the break-up of the anti-Buddhist faction.

In support of this thesis, Xuanzang provides a detail not found in other versions of the story, which is that having executed his queen, Ashoka ‘reproached his ministers and denounced his assistants at court, who were dismissed, or banished, or relegated, or executed, and many powerful and wealthy families were deported to the desert to the north-east of the Snowy Mountains’.

The blinding made Kunala ineligible to rule, and Kunala’s son Samprati became the Crown Prince.

The now ailing Ashoka began to plan a second quinquennial Buddhist festival, but his ministers, increasingly alarmed at the amounts Ashoka was spending in his patronage of Buddhist institutions, restricted his access to the state finances, and eventually took de-facto control, leaving Ashoka an ailing and powerless figurehead in his last days.

Meanwhile, the simmering religious tensions in the Empire and his own household, that had led to such bloodshed in the court and the royal family, were coming to a head, as all factions prepared to make their bid for power as son as Ashoka died.

Charles Allen says,

However, the most surprising element here is the absolute silence of the Southern tradition regarding the circumstances surrounding the death of their favourite monarch, the Wheel-turning friend of Lanka who brought the Dharma to their island. The Island Chronicle, the Great Dynastic Chronicle and Great Dynastic Chronicle gloss have absolutely nothing to say on Ashoka’s demise or the succession. This silence is deafening. At the very least, it suggests dismay and grave disapproval of whatever did happen, which can only have been a major setback to the Buddhist cause.

A free-for-all broke out after Ashoka’s death, and Dasratha (a grandson of Ashoka, who was an Ajivika), was crowned at Pataliputa, while Samprati fled to Ujjain, retaining control of the Western half of the Empire. Kalinga seceded, becoming an independent kingdom ruled by the Mahameghavana dynasty, as did the Andhra region under the Satavahanas, who were until now vassals of the Mauryas.

A great-grandson of Ashoka named Virasena set up an independent kingdom in Gandhara. He resumed the patronage of Brahmins and Vedic rites. Thus Ashoka’s Empire fragmented into several pieces.

Eight years later, Dasaratha died, and Samprati regained control of the Eastern half of the now badly damaged and weakened Empire.

The Mauryan Empire was struggling economically, with later Mauryan rulers having to debase the currency and increase taxes to oppressive levels. The Empire fragmented after Samprati’s death seven years later, with a succession of weak rulers ruling an increasingly weak kingdom centered around Magadha. Kalinga regained his freedom, and under its greatest ruler, Kharavela, humiliated Magadha in the field, smashing its armies. The Indo-Greeks whom Chandragupta had defeated with ease ravaging North Bharat, due to the weakening of border defenses.

From Sanjeev Sanyal’s book ‘The Ocean of Churn

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 realized 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 Bharat.

Remember that Ashoka’s brutal invasion has taken place only three generations earlier and would have still been fresh in Odiya memory. So, when Kharavela returned from his Magadh campaign, he had his exploits inscribed on a rock on Udayagiri hill, now effectively 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 sacked Pataliputra and caused the end of Mauryan rule.

Note that Kharavela seems to have followed both Jain and Vedic rituals. He uses salutations derived from the Jain tradition but also mentions Vedic fire sacrifices including the Rajasuya. Interestingly there is no reference to Buddhism. The Odiya probably still resented it as an Ashokan imposition.

I will leave it to you to judge Ashoka’s legacy.

(This article first appeared on and has been reproduced here in full.)

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