Chandragupta abdicated in 298 BC (or 303 BC according to another source) in favour of his son Bindusara who ruled till 273 BC. Bindusara had inherited an empire that was already very large — from Afghanistan to Bengal. He seems to have extended the realm further south till the empire covered all but the southern tip of the peninsula. For the most part, his rule seems to have been peaceful except for a few rebellions. He also seems to have maintained diplomatic and trade links with the kingdoms carved out from Alexander’s empire.
In 274 BC, Bindusara suddenly fell ill and died. The crown prince Sushima was away fending off incursions on the northwestern frontiers and rushed back to the imperial capital Pataliputra, present-day Patna. However, on arrival he found that Ashoka, one of his half-brothers, had taken control of the city with the help of Greek mercenaries. It appears that Ashoka had Sushima killed at the eastern gates. The crown prince may have been roasted alive in the moat! This was followed by four years of a bloody civil war in which Ashoka seems to have killed all male rivals in his family. Buddhist texts mention that he killed ninety-nine half-brothers and only spared his full brother Tissa. Hundreds of loyalist officials were also killed; Ashoka is said to have personally decapitated five hundred of them. Having consolidated his power, he was finally crowned emperor in 270 BC.
All accounts agree that Ashoka’s early rule was brutal and unpopular, and that he was known as ‘Chandashoka’ or Ashoka the Cruel. According to mainstream textbook narratives, however, Ashoka would invade Kalinga a few years later and, shocked by the death and destruction, would convert to Buddhism and become a pacifist. The reader will be surprised to discover that the popular narrative about this conversion is based on little evidence. Ashoka would invade Kalinga in 262 BC whereas we know from minor rock edicts that Ashoka had converted to Buddhism more than two years earlier. No Buddhist text links his conversion to the war and even Ashoka’s eulogists like Charles Allen agree that his conversion predated the Kalinga war. Moreover, he seems to have had links with Buddhists for a decade before his conversion. The evidence suggests that his conversion to Buddhism was more to do with the politics of succession than with any regret he felt for sufferings of war.
The Mauryans were likely to have followed Vedic court rituals (certainly many of their top officials were Brahmins) but had eclectic religious affiliations in personal life. The founder of the line, Chandragupta, seems to have had links to the Jains in old age while his son Bindusara seems to have been partial to a heterodox sect called the Ajivikas. This is not an unusual arrangement in the Dharmic (i.e. Indic) family of religions. This eclectic approach remains alive to this day and lay followers of Dharmic religions think nothing of praying at each other’s shrines. You will find many Hindus at the Golden Temple in Amritsar just as the streets of Bangkok are full of shrines dedicated to the Hindu god Brahma. The coronation of the king of Thailand is still carried out by Brahmin priests.
It is likely that when Ashoka usurped the throne, he was opposed by family members who had links to the Jains and the Ajivikas. He may have responded by reaching out to their rivals, the Buddhists, for support. The power struggle may even explain his invasion of Kalinga. The mainstream view is that Kalinga was an independent kingdom that was invaded by Ashoka but there is some reason to believe that it was either a rebellious province or a vassal that was no longer trusted.
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.
Whatever the real reasons for attracting Ashoka’s ire, a large Mauryan army marched into Kalinga around 262 BC. The traditional view is that the two armies met on the banks of the river Daya at Dhauli near modern Bhubaneswar. It is possible that Dhauli was the site of a skirmish but recent archaeological excavations point to a place called Yuddha Meruda being the site of the main battle followed by a desperate and bloody last stand at the Kalingan capital of Tosali.
The remains of Tosali were discovered only recently by a team of archaeologists led by Debraj Pradhan, a humble and affable man who has made some extraordinary discoveries about Odisha’s ancient past. The site is at a place called Radhanagar, a couple of hours’ drive from Cuttack. It is situated in a broad fertile plain watered by the Brahmani river and surrounded by low hills. Surveying the beautiful valley from one of the hills, one is overwhelmed by a feeling of eternity — rice fields, fish ponds, coconut palms, mango trees, and thin wisps of wood smoke rising from village huts. Other than a few power transmission towers, the scene is perhaps close to what it would have looked to Mauryan generals planning their final assault.
The remains of the city’s earthwork defences suggest that Tosali was built in the middle of the plains; arguably a poor choice as the city’s defences would have been better served if they were wedged more closely to one of the hills. Archaeologists have only excavated a small section of the walls but have found it riddled with arrowheads; a blizzard of arrows must have been unleashed by the Mauryan army. The Kalingans never stood a chance. Ashoka’s own inscriptions tell us that a 100,000 died in the war and an even larger number died from wounds and hunger. A further 150,000 were taken away as captives.
According to the official storyline, Ashoka was horrified by his own brutality and became a Buddhist and a pacifist. But, as we have seen, he was already a practicing Buddhist by then, and from what we know of his early rule, he was hardly a man to be easily shocked by the sight of blood. The main evidence of his repentance comes from his own inscriptions. It is very curious, however, that this ‘regret’ is mentioned only in locations far away from Odisha (such as in Shahbazgarhi in north-western Pakistan). None of the inscriptions in Odisha express any remorse; any hint of regret is deliberately left out.
The Ashokan inscriptions at Dhauli are engraved on a rock at the base of a hill. Almost all tourists drive right past it to the white coloured modern stupa at the top of the hill. So I found myself alone with the inscriptions and the translations put up by the Archaeological Survey of India. What will strike anyone reading them is how they specifically leave out any sign of regret. The silence is deafening.
If Ashoka was genuinely remorseful, he would have surely bothered to apologize to the people whom he had wronged. Far from it, he doesn’t even offer to free the captives. Even the supposedly regretful inscriptions include a clear threat of further violence against other groups like the forest tribes who are unequivocally ‘told of the power to punish them that Devanampriya possesses in spite of his repentance, in order that they may be ashamed of their crimes and may not be killed’. This is no pacifist.
It is likely that Ashoka was using his inscriptions as a tool of political propaganda to counter his reputation for cruelty. As with the words of any politician, this does not mean he changed his behaviour. Moreover, many of the inscriptions are placed in locations where the average citizen or official of that time would not have been able to read them. Several historians including Nayanjot Lahiri have wondered about this. Is it possible that some of the inscriptions were really meant for later generations rather than his contemporaries?
The Buddhist text, Ashoka-vadana, tells us of more acts of genocide perpetrated by the emperor many years after he supposedly turned pacifist. These were directed particularly at followers of the Jain and Ajivika sects; by all accounts he avoided conflicts with mainstream Hindus and was respectful towards Brahmins. The Ashoka-vadana recounts how Ashoka once had 18,000 Ajivikas in Bengal put to death in a single episode. If true, this would be the first known instance of large-scale religious persecution in Indian history (but, sadly, would not be the last).
This is not the only incident mentioned in the text. A Jain devotee was found in Pataliputra drawing a picture showing Buddha bowing to a Jain tirthankara. Ashoka ordered him and his family to be locked inside their home and for the building to set alight. He then ordered that he would pay a gold coin in exchange for every decapitated head of a Jain. The carnage only ended when someone mistakenly killed his only surviving brother, the Buddhist monk Vitashoka (also called Tissa). The story suggests frightening parallels with modern-day fundamentalists who kill cartoonists whom they accuse of insulting their religion.
Supporters of Ashoka may claim that these incidents are untrue and were inserted into the story by fundamentalist Buddhist writers in much later times. While this is entirely possible, let me remind readers that my alternative narrative is based on exactly the same texts and inscriptions used to praise Ashoka. Perhaps the same scepticism should be evenly applied to all the evidence and not just to portions of the text that do not suit the mainstream narrative.
In addition to the references of his continued cruelty, we also have reason to believe that Ashoka was not a successful administrator. In his later years, an increasingly unwell Ashoka watched his empire disintegrate from rebellion, internal family squabbles and fiscal stress. While he was still alive, the empire had probably lost all the northwestern territories that had been acquired from Seleucus. Within a few years of Ashoka’s death in 232 BC, the Satvahanas had taken over most of the territories in southern India and Kalinga too had seceded.
As one can see, Ashoka does not look like such a great king on closer inspection but a cruel and unpopular usurper who presided over the disintegration of a large and well-functioning empire built by his father and grandfather. At the very least, it must be accepted that evidence of Ashoka’s greatness is thin and he was some shade of grey at best. Perhaps like many politicians, he made grand highminded proclamations but acted entirely differently. This fits with the fact that he is not remembered as a great monarch in the Indian tradition but in hagiographic Buddhist texts written in countries that did not experience his reign. He was ‘rediscovered’ in the nineteenth century by colonial era orientalists like James Princep. His elevation to being ‘Ashoka the Great’ is even more recent and is the result of political developments leading up to India’s independence.
After Independence, it appears academic historians were further encouraged to build up the legend of Ashoka the Great in order to provide a lineage to Jawaharlal Nehru’s socialist project and inconvenient evidence was simply swept under the carpet. This is not so different from how the medieval Ethiopians created a Biblical lineage for the Solomonic dynasty. A few Western writers like Charles Allen have patronizingly written how ancient Indians were somehow foolish to have had little regard for a great king such as Ashoka. On a closer look, it appears that they knew what they were doing. What is more worrying is how easily modern Indians have come to accept a narrative based on such minimal evidence.