Inside India #2: Ashoka the Great – from mass murderer to Buddhist

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

On January 26th 1950, the day that India officially became a republic, the new nation adopted an “Emblem of India” – a graphic representation of four lions standing back to back on an elaborately carved base. This emblem was derived from the Lion Capital of Ashoka, a sculpture originally placed on top of a pillar at a Buddhist site at Sarnath by the Emperor Ashoka in around 250 BCE. At one time, there were numerous such pillars dotted around the subcontinent bearing the so-called Edicts of Ashoka.

Who was Ashoka? Why did he leave such a mark on the subcontinent? 

The grandson of Indian emperor Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the Maurya Dynasty; Ashoka ruled from 268 to 232 BCE. 

Upon ascending the throne, the young king quickly distinguished himself with his military prowess and a notable penchant for cruelty, particularly towards criminals. (A later Chinese visitor to India reported on a handed-down tale of a prison established by the former emperor known as “Ashoka’s hell”. Those unlucky enough to be sent there were routinely tortured and had no hope of leaving the place alive.)

Ashoka’s moment of revelation occurred following a destructive war against the state of Kalinga – modern day Odisha, on India’s eastern coast. Despite emerging as the victor in that conflict, the price of victory horrified the young king. Apocryphal stories tell of him walking through a battlefield strewn with a hundred thousand dead, facing up to the bloodthirsty necessities of empire-building. 

Soon afterwards, Ashoka converted to Buddhism, going on to become a tireless proselytiser for the faith. In time, he would despatch Buddhist monks to all corners of the subcontinent with his message of peace. Guided by the tenets of his new religion, he constructed thousands of monasteries and stupas, and pursued a programme of social welfare including the establishment of medical facilities – for both humans and animals, the digging of wells, and the mass plantation of trees. He began to issue a succession of now-famed edicts, instructing his officials to carve them on rocks and pillars throughout his kingdom. In these ‘rock edicts’, Ashoka talks about religious tolerance, charity for the poor, obedience to one’s parents, and respect for elders.

Ashoka ruled for over 30 years. At its zenith, his empire extended from present-day Afghanistan in the west to modern Bangladesh in the east. His inscriptions are a testament to the fact that he spent much of his reign in the propagation of the Buddhist concept of “dharma” – the achievement of ‘rightness’ or ‘justice’. Under him the subcontinent thrived, maintainingan estimated population of 30 million, higher than any of his contemporary Hellenistic kingdoms. Following his death, the Mauryan Dynasty came to a swift end and Ashoka’s vast empire crumbled into ruin. Yet his name – which means “without sorrow” – lives on. It is often remarked that he did for Buddhism in India what Constantine did for Christianity in Europe.

The great author H.G. Wells, wrote of him: “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.” 

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

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