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Ashoka the Great And The Rise of the Mauryan Empire

Ashoka the Great And The Rise of the Mauryan Empire

The Third Century BC was a notoriously violent time, filled with titanic clashes and amazing personalities. Alexander’s conquests gave way to a period of constant warfare amongst his Seleucid, Ptolemaic and Antigonid successors, while the rising Roman juggernaut began a series of conquests to unite the Italian Peninsula, and fought its Carthaginian Rival, paving the way for future dominance. India during this period was also experiencing revolutionary change, which culminated in the rise of the Mauryan Empire and the reign of Ashoka the Great.

In 326 BC, Alexander the Great crossed the Hindu Kush mountains and entered India for the first time, calling his veteran army to a halt at the Indus River, and demanding that two rival kings in the region – Omphis and Porus – come to him and submit. Omphis of Taxila surrendered to Alexander, but Porus of Paurava resisted, and forced Alexander into a climactic battle at the Hydaspes River, which he won nonetheless.

Wishing to conquer all of India, Alexander marched onward, but his army mutinied at the Hyphasis River, and he was forced to withdraw to Babylon. Their refusal to march on was in part due to rumours of a massive Indian kingdom, possessing innumerable legions, further to the east. This was the Nanda Empire centered on the Magadha region, which supposedly fielded a colossal force of 250,000 infantry, cavalry, chariots and war elephants. Though he had retreated, Alexander’s conquests had destabilized northern India, a fact which would play a key role in what was to come.

A Legend of the Conqueror Chandragupta Maurya

Once the historical shroud falls away once again, we see in 320 BC that it was a man named Chandragupta Maurya who stood victorious. This Indian conqueror’s origins are not clear, but less favourable Brahman sources state that he was a Shudra – a peasant or serf – whilst more favourable Buddhist texts designate him as a member of the prestigious kshatriya – or warrior caste. He likely knew about Alexander’s stunning conquests, and was given a crash course in ancient warfare, tactics and geopolitics, which he would use to conquer his own empire.

Having gathered followers, he initially attacked the Nanda Empire’s capital, but failed a few times. Then he changed his tactics and conquered the northwestern lands, which had been weakened by Alexander, using his subsequent control of these prosperous regions to cut off supplies to the capital, resulting in the fall of the Nanda dynasty.

After he established his realm he fought, decisively defeated and made an alliance with Seleucus, famously gifting him 500 war elephants in exchange for peace and the hand of Seleucus’ daughter in marriage. Chandragupta’s successor, Bindusara, continued his father’s wise domestic and foreign policies, such as his friendship with Seleucus and his religious tolerance. In addition, he thrust south into the Deccan plateau and expanded the Empire.

ashoka the great

It is the second of Bindusara’s three sons who is the subject of this video – Ashoka, whose eldest brother was Susima, and whose younger brother was Tissya. It seemed as though the future Mauryan emperor at this point had no chance of ever inheriting the throne. For one, his mother, Subhadrangi, was a commoner, while the crown prince and favourite child Susima’s mother was a royal princess. Nevertheless, Indian princes were often sent to govern faraway provinces, and Ashoka was no different. At the age of 18, the young Mauryan royal was sent to the cosmopolitan silk road hub of Taxila to quell a revolt, a task which he supposedly accomplished quickly. The nature of Taxila as a scholarly and cosmopolitan settlement, where intellectual debates were often had amongst different faiths, would have improved Ashoka’s knowledge of the world, as well as making him more tolerant and sophisticated. His next appointment was at the important city of Ujjaini – capital of Avanti province. The high quality of the governorship that Ashoka provided is shown by the fact that he was entrusted with this station – that of administering a crucial region connecting the capital city and the coast.

It was in this new station that Ashoka fell in love with Devi, the daughter of a trader. Interestingly, she was a member of the ‘Sakya’ clan, the clan of Siddhartha [Sidd’art-ha] Gautama – the Buddha himself. It is widely thought that she was a Buddhist upon bearing Ashoka his two children: their son Mahendra and their daughter Sanghamitra.

Ashoka’s Rule of the Capital City and the Conquest of Maurya

This relatively peaceful life would come to an end when, in 274 BC, Emperor Bindusara passed away. What happened next is the subject of much debate, but it is thought that a brief four-year civil war occurred between Ashoka and his brothers. By acting decisively and swiftly occupying the capital city, and because he was supported by his father’s ministers, Ashoka reigned victorious over his brother and was crowned as Emperor in 270 BC – the same year Hannibal Barca was born in Carthage. After he had ascended to the throne, Ashoka continued a policy of expansion and conquest. One of the reasons for this persistent policy of warfare was that, in this period, all Indian rulers wished to be regarded as the chakravartin – the king of kings by their royal rivals. Practical and economic reasons were also important, as taxes were the Mauryan Empire’s main source of revenue. The more land a king conquered, the more taxes he gained. However, the more administrative and military expenses would also pile up, leading to an endless cycle of violence.

So it was that in the year 262 BC, the massive Mauryan army marched into the Kingdom of Kalinga. Their past successes would likely have made them confident of an easy victory, but the king and his army faced a tough, grinding conflict against a doggedly courageous enemy. It is said that Ashoka eventually won the war not because Kalinga surrendered, but because the carnage was so terrible. After the final battle, the victorious monarch stood amongst his dead and dying foes on the battlefield. Most monarchs would have simply rejoiced in the grim victory, but Ashoka, in this moment, felt horror and remorse; it ended up being the key moment of his life. Supposedly, ‘One hundred and fifty thousand were there from captured, one hundred thousand were slain and many times that died’ from famine and disease. More than just being horrified by the direct results of the devastation he had wrought, Ashoka also was acutely aware of the tragedy that struck those left behind – the young sons left without fathers and poor mothers who had been robbed of their sons, their families and loved ones.

The educated and sensitive Ashoka appears to have been made truly aware of the real cost of war, even admitting publicly what no victorious ruler ever had before, that he felt ‘remorse on having conquered Kalinga’, declaring that ‘even one-hundredth or one thousandth part of those who were slain, died or captured in Kalinga is considered regrettable by the Beloved of the Gods’. This was clearly not the same man speaking who had annihilated his brother and had seized the throne by blood. Rather, it was a changed man, finally admitting to his mistakes and thinking on the futility and tragedy of war. Henceforth, said the king, he was not going to be provoked into bearing arms again, and also dedicated his life and huge wealth towards building a society where people lived by the rules of virtue and good moral behavior.

Ashoka, the First King in History to Convert to the Teachings of Siddhartha Gautama

This gradual change of heart led Ashoka to the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama – the Buddha – who had preached the same values of peace, nonviolence and benevolence two centuries earlier. Ashoka had likely known of Buddhism from an early age, as his wife was an adherent of the Buddha’s teachings and the faith was popular with certain segments of the population. However, he was the first king in history to convert to this apparently revolutionary religion. Contrary to what popular legends depict, Ashoka did not instantly convert to Buddhism after his change of heart on the field of war, but thoughtfully and practically chose a slow path which would benefit both him and the welfare of his subjects.

Particular care was taken to remain tolerant of the two other dominant Indian religions – the Hindu Brahmanic faith and Jainism. In one of his major edicts, carved on a rock, he stated that should one blame other religions, or over-glorify one’s own religion, they are instead doing harm to it, an act which should not be done. He began to study under Buddhist monks and, two years later, was accepted into the Sangha, the Buddhist Order. His tutor was a monk named Bhikku Upagupta of Mathura, who took the king on a pilgrimage of all the important sites in their shared faith, such as: Lumbini, where Siddhartha Gautama had been born, Bodh Gaya, where he had achieved enlightenment, Sarnath, where he had delivered his first lecture, and Kushinagar, where he had died and gained Nirvana.

At all of these places and more, Ashoka erected pillars and carved rocks with his edicts and royal orders. These proclamations were routinely read out to the illiterate population by the empire’s officials, and appeared to be personal messages from Ashoka himself, clearly in his own words. It is also as though the king’s voice speaks to us 2,500 years later when we read them today. His change in faith also changed his role as the king. Rather than desiring material gain which so many kings had in the past, he now sought that his ‘children obtain every kind of welfare both in this and the next world’, and dictated that reporters could come to him with the people’s business wherever he might be, at whatever time.

Despite all of this piety and benevolence, we must always keep in mind that Ashoka was an emperor above all else, not a religious teacher or a philosopher. He had the duty of running an Empire, and this was not always a job which led to peaceful outcomes. There was a serious danger that once Ashoka’s supposed pacifism had been announced, the provinces would rebel and neighboring kings would invade, sensing weakness in the Mauryan leadership. However, the Emperor, while he had given up on aggressive conquest, would reluctantly but fiercely defend his empire, and refused to disband his army.

Ashoka and His People: A History of Their Relationship

Every rebellion would still be put down brutally, and any foreign invader would be met with devastating military force, a fact which he made clear. To his own subjects he also remained an almost stern, father-like figure, benevolent and caring but willing to inflict severe punishment if necessary – though his engravings almost appear to plead with his people not to force him to inflict these penalties. For example the ‘forest people’, or ‘Adivasi’, were told that despite Ashoka’s remorse, he still had the power and will to punish them for their injustices if necessary. They should, he said, ‘be ashamed of their wrongs’ lest they be killed. Overall, historian A.L. Basham stated that while Ashoka could seemingly be a bit naive, he was still indefatigable, strong willed and imperious. Ashoka also worked hard to change the attitude of his subjects; not to force Buddhism onto them, but to spread his universally ‘right’ values. The Emperor, who had previously enjoyed pleasure trips of hunting and had wielded a mighty sword, now went on Dhammayatras, or pious pilgrimage tours, during which he visited holy sites and met his subjects. He frequently talked to local people to make sure they were happy, and would hear their compliments or complaints about local officials.

In this way he was the first Indian king to think of the welfare of the poor, rather than just using them for tax revenue. As he stated, ‘the finest conquest is the conquest of Right, and not Might.’ The values he sought to spread were known as Ashoka’s dharma, a complex term which essentially were rules of good behavior in this particular context.

For example, Ashoka wished that people should be obedient to parents and teachers, should behave properly towards holy men, relatives, servants, friends and the poor, and should be kind and generous to the old and vulnerable. Nonviolence towards all living creatures, be they humans, birds or animals was practiced. One edict in particular goes into detail about how the Imperial kitchens will no longer slaughter vast amounts of animals for food. In addition to preaching these noble virtues to his people, Ashoka also sought to try his best to live by the same tenets. This was exemplified by his thoughtfulness in the construction and renovation of infrastructure. He ordered that shade trees be planted along roads for shelter from the sun and rains, that mango groves be planted in order to provide food, and that watering places be dug to quench a traveler’s thirst. In 253 BC a great gathering of Buddhist monks was held at Pataliputra, hosted by the king himself. At this, the third Buddhist council, a momentous decision was taken to send teams of Bhikshus, Buddhist monks, to other foreign kingdoms in order to spread the teachings of the Buddha.

These missionaries are said to have reached as far as Kashmir, Gandhara, the Greek Hellenistic kingdoms, North Africa, Burma and Sri Lanka. One of the travellers was a man named Dharmarakshita, and is designated as a ‘Yona’, or ‘Ionian’ in the texts, so it is possible he was a Greek convert. The most famous missionary of the period however, was Prince Mahendra – Ashoka’s firstborn son. In 249 BC, Mahendra journeyed to Sri Lanka – then called Tamraparni – at the invitation of King Devanampiya Tissa, an admirer of Ashoka and a man who wished to learn more of Buddhist principles.

The subsequent mission to this realm was so successful that it gradually became a Buddhist country and remains so even today. Such was the legacy of Ashoka the Great. When he died in 232 BC, he was 72 years old, and had reigned for 38 glorious years. Though his death would instigate the long decay of his earthly Mauryan Empire, which fell after another half century, Ashoka had ruled over the largest indigenous empire in Indian history with wisdom, efficiency and most importantly, compassion. Buddhism in the 21st century is a world religion because the first steps to spread it to the world were made by Ashoka himself. Gradually, as the centuries progressed after Ashoka’s death, the faith travelled along the Silk Roads as far as Tibet, China and even Japan, despite its decline in the predominantly Hindu land of its birth. Writer H.G. Wells stated that ‘Ashoka shines and shines brightly like a bright star’ among the thousands of other kings and majesties ‘even unto this day’.

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