Samrat Ashoka

The first major foreign invasion was by Alexander in 326 BC. The nature and extent of his raid on India are sometimes overstated. The adventure was brilliant but he never fought any of the great armies of Bharat. Neither was there a test between Greek and Indian military skills nor was his campaign a military success as it did not result in a permanent occupation of Punjab or leave an impact on the life of the people. What remained of the Greek occupation was wiped out by Chandragupta Maurya. But Alexander’s invasion promoted the political unification of India, smaller states got merged into bigger ones, paving the way for Chandragupta. The only permanent result of Alexander’s campaign was that it opened up communication between India and Greece. This was achieved at the cost of untold suffering inflicted upon India – massacre, rape, plunder on a scale without a precedent till then but repeated later by Timur, Nadir Shah.

Chandragupta was succeeded by his son Bindusara (300 to 273 BC) followed by Ashoka (273 to 236 BC). A unique features of Ashoka’s rule that left a permanent record of his history in inscriptions engraved on natural rocks and pillars which continue to stand today as proof of India’s architectural / engineering skills.

An able soldier he carried on a policy of conquest and aggression. He conquered Kalinga in the eight year after his coronation but the severity of the resistance put up and the resulting horrors are described in Rock Edict XIII. 1,50,000 captured, 1,00,000 slain and many times more died. Instead of gloating over his conquest, the war brought about a complete change in Ashoka.

According to Buddhist tradition, Asoka was converted to Buddhism after the Kalinga war. In Rock Edict XIII, Asoka expresses genuine remorse for the sufferings caused by the war, he felt remorse on having conquered Kalinga. It is probably the only instance in world history where a victorious monarch is known to have given such expressions. He made two resolutions. One was to eschew all war in the future. “If anyone does him wrong the Beloved of the gods must bear all that can be borne”. Henceforth his policy would be one of conciliation towards all. The exhortation of good deeds was the foundation for his second resolution i.e. the inculcation of his Dharma (Dharma or law of Piety) not only among the people of his own dominions but all over the world. Asoka has up conquest through arms and replaced with conquest through Dharma.

Asoka was attracted more by the ethical than the philosophical aspects of Buddhism and laid stress on the practical benevolent activities and thoughts inculcated by it. Then he entered and or lived in the Buddhist Sangha or monastery, took up missionary activities, the task of propagating Dharma, which is of such universal equality as to appeal to humanity at large. He set up a network of missions within India and abroad. To his credit, he did not ignore governance, in fact the new outlook made him very compassionate towards his subjects.

Dharma – Asoka worked for the moral upliftment of people, insisted on family as the basis of morality, respect to be shown to elders and teachers. Thus the starting point of religious and moral life was purification of home, family and domestic life by the cultivation of relations with all concerned. Character, conduct and behavior counted more than ceremonies to him. Next religion was to extend from family to communities. The 12th Rock is an appeal for the toleration of all religious sects but also delivering a spirit of reverence for them. Above all, Asoka stood for Ahimsa to men and animals, which he preaches in all his edicts. Further he purified his national policy by proclaiming war as an unmitigated and absolute evil. He preached tolerance of all sects, schools of thought. Thus Asoka stood out as an apostle of Peace.

A consequence of this passion for peace was that, unlike his illustrious grandfather’s scheme of establishing authority all over India, Asoka left unsubdued smaller and weaker people, states of India and established all states big or small on equal sovereignty.

Asoka’s great innovation was the substitution of stone with wood and brick. He decorated the country with structures and artistic monuments. The Royal Palace of Pataliputra was recognized as the work of superhuman minds. He also improved upon the irrigation work started by Chandragupta Maurya.

Post Ashoka – The history of his successors is shrouded in mystery. The reason being the empire was too large to be kept as one by unworthy successors. Asoka had too many sons, is likely that fought amongst themselves. It is however agreed that Brihadratha was the last king of the Maurya dynasty i.e. up to 187 BC. The progressive disintegration that followed Asoka’s rule is marked by several facts. According to Rajatarangini, Asoka’s son Jalauka became an independent ruler in Kashmir and conquered territory up to Kannauj. Another son Virasena set up at Gandhara. The disintegration of the Mauryan Empire was speeded up by the Yavana invasions, the final blow struck by the revolt of Pushyamitra, the commander-in-chief of Brihadratha.

What are the reasons for the downfall of the Mauryan Empire? One view is that the humiliation of Brahmans led to a backlash and a revolution by a Brahman Pushyamitra. This logic seems slightly far-fetched. Another reason is the doctrine of Ahimsa. Since Ashoka eschewed all wars, naturally this reduced the military efficiency of his empire. However, considering the circumstances of those days, such a large empire was bound to break. There were other causes too, the spirit of local autonomy, oppressive rule and rebellious disposition of governors, palace intrigues and official treachery. Foreign invasion too. The repeated revolt by the province of Taxila, due to the opposition of local officials is one e.g. It is likely that weaknesses caused by internal dissension invited foreign aggression.

There is no doubt that the moral ascendancy of Indian culture over parts of the world was thanks to Ashoka. As a country it has made many proud. It came albeit at a heavy price, a weak Central authority for which Bharat has had to pay a heavy price during the last two thousand years. All depends what you cherish. High moral values with massacre, rape, loot or political stability with protection of Dharma.

Impact - Quote freedom fighter K M Munshi “But welfare states, which eschew armed coercion of recalcitrant elements are not known to survive. As soon as Asoka died, his Buddhist leanings and pacific policy evoked open resistance. Due to a lack of a vigorous military policy, the outlying provinces rose in revolt. The Greeks invaded India and advanced up to Ayodhya and Chitor. Further disintegration was halted when Pushyamitra (187 to 151 BC), took over what was left of the Empire. Dharma Vijaya was no longer to be achieved by abjuring war but by building military strength, politics became real. The Sungas vanished Greek invaders, were respected by foreign kings. They fostered a revival of art, literature and architecture. In Madhyadea, among the wise and intellectual, the ascetic look lost its attraction. Dharma was strengthened. The new wave of collective enthusiasm found its expression in a combative attitude against Buddhism in search of a fuller and richer life, in the cult of Karttikeya, the god of war, in the resurgence of the Bhagwata Cult, in the unchallenged supremacy of Vasudeva Krishna in the Hindu Pantheon”.

Three main teachings of Asoka were “we must bear all that can be borne, policy of conciliation towards all and tolerate all religions”. These thoughts are divine but are they practical. For the last two thousand years Indians have borne more misery than any other nation in the world. Yet we have no respite. The rule today is that a person who suffers quietly should suffer more e.g. the Pandits of Jammu and Kashmir. Religious tolerance is amongst the best quality of Indian religions. It has allowed foreigners, Parsis, Jews to come and get absorbed in our country. Yet, this goodness is being misused by the Muslims and Christians to indulge in conversions and criticize our religion, culture in harsh terms.

Has the policy of Conciliation brought peace in the Indian sub-continent? Our ex Prime Minster followed this policy in the form of Gujral Doctrine. Inspite of unilateral concessions to our neighbors Pakistan reason for existence is the destruction of India. Nepal has become a beehive of anti-India activities; a mere rumor is enough to start anti-India protests. The less said about the Bangladesh the better. We fought for their freedom, tolerate over 2 crore Bangladeshis in India, yet the recent killing of 16 Border Security Force soldiers in Meghalaya!

I believe that in every experience there is learning. Asoka left an unparalleled example of the chaos that would reign in India when there was a weak central authority. Sardar Patel understood this and insisted on a strong center during his discussions with the British. But thereafter! Over 2,000 years have past, we continue to be influenced by Asoka’s concept of a welfare state.