Thursday, August 31, 2017

261 BC - Ashoka Unmoved

"Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousnesses and serenities and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Ashoka shines, and shines, almost alone, a star." - H.G. Wells

Upon the end of the Kalinga War, Emperor Ashoka of the Maurya Dynasty of India went to survey his newly conquered domain. What he found was a horrifying sight:  his invading forces killed an estimated 100,000 people with another 150,000 carried away as slaves. The dead literally covered the ground between burned-out homes, and the Daya River ran red from the bloodshed. A woman approached Ashoka and said, "Your actions have taken from me my father, husband, and son. Now what will I have left to live for?"

Distraught, Ashoka looked out among the ashes, and there he saw a flower growing. Its bright face, looking up at the sun through the smoky sky, moved him. No matter the terrible destruction, he is said to have thought, a new and better world could grow up from it. Ashoka ordered the woman to become the flower's caretaker for the rest of her days. She would be executed if the flower perished for any reason.

This was one of many tales of violence in Ashoka's life. He had been born grandson of Chandragupta, the founder of the Mauryan dynasty who had united much of the empire Ashoka inherited. In the northeast, the empire butted up against that of Seleucus, one of the late Alexander the Great's generals. The two fought but eventually came to an alliance confirmed by marriage with Chandragupta giving 500 elephants while Seleucus gave his daughter as a bride. In the last years of his life, Chandragupta retired to become a monk, leaving the empire to Bindusara, Ashoka's father. Ashoka was hardly next in line for the throne with as many as ninety-nine half-siblings, but he would seize power for himself.

As a prince-general, Ashoka grew in prominence by crushing revolts and conquering in the southwest. When Ashoka's older brother Susima was pronounced the heir, Ashoka tricked him into falling into a pit filled with burning coals to eliminate him. Upon Bindursara's death, Ashoka killed every other claimant to the throne, except for his brother Vitashoka, who became a monk in the growing new religion based on the teachings of the Buddha. At the head of the empire, Ashoka became known as "Ashoka the Fierce" for his wars of conquest.

He was also famous for his rage, routinely having even ministers executed for offenses like "not being loyal enough." He built a torture-palace called Ashoka's Hell that, on the exterior, was covered in beautiful architecture and gardens. On the inside, prisoners had their mouths pried open by irons and boiling copper was poured down their throats. The chambers were modeled on depictions of Hell from Buddhism, which Ashoka had taken as his state religion after an ongoing feud with the Hindu Brahmin. This hell was led by Girika, whose cruelty was only matched by his loyalty to Ashoka; Girika had executed his own parents for balking when his position as executioner was announced. Girika even agreed that anyone who entered the palace would never leave alive, including himself.

In the ninth year of his reign, Ashoka targeted the peaceful neighboring country of Kalinga. It was a wealthy nation, built up by the strong middle class of artisans and seafarers trading with the lands to the southeast. The people participated in their government through a democratic parliament that supported a popular monarch. The noble people had driven away the army of Chandragupta generations before, so Ashoka determined to conquer without mercy.

With the fleet from Kalinga now at his command, Ashoka dispatched generals to continue his conquests to the east. Ashoka himself marched south to complete conquests of India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Throughout his empire, Ashoka built great pillars and made inscriptions upon boulders with his new view of dharma: build a better world, no matter the cost. He also supported his own branch of monks, sent as missionary-ambassadors to the courts of Ptolemy II Philadelphus in Egypt and Antiochus II Theos in Asia Minor. As far away as Athens, people began to recite analogies of cutting down a grove of trees to build a house. A legend of Ashoka himself states that he ordered his ministers to gather the heads of all kinds of animals, including a human; the ministers were then dispatched to the market to sell them. The minister with the dead human head was unable to sell it, nor was he even able to give it away for free. Ashoka replied, "If I make to bow a head so disgusting that none on earth would take it, what harm is there?"

Ashoka's power grew as he moved into the chaotic vacuum in the northwest when the Seleucid Empire declined. Beating down both the Parni and the Greco-Bactrians, Ashoka dominated central Asia. Controlling trade routes put Ashoka in communication with the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, many of whose famous Terracotta Army feature warriors in Indian dress. Ashoka greatly impressed the Chinese emperor by not only having his armies with elephants in the west but with ships arriving in the east through the Yellow Sea.

After thirty-six years of rule, Ashoka died and was cremated, with legends saying that his body burned continuously for a week upon the funeral pyre. His tightly wound system of government continued the expansive Mauryan Empire for centuries more, but it eventually fell under the blade of the Scythian hordes and the satellite colonies became empires in their own right, such as those that conquered America from the west.

Yet Ashoka did leave his lasting imprint: even the Scythians ascribed to his philosophy of hard-fisted Buddhism, as do many nations worldwide.


In reality, it is said that great regret came upon Ashoka as he viewed the devastation his armies had wrought upon Kalinga and the ongoing suffering of the survivors. The experience humbled him, and he took Buddhism as a personal belief toward a gentler life. His reign lasted another thirty years, during which peace was found over all India. His towering Edicts called for good deeds and respect for all creatures.

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