Ashoka Retold: A Revisionist Reading of Ashoka (and Religious Strife in Ancient India)

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Sukla Sen

Nov 22, 2015, 7:00:49 AM11/22/15

Ashoka, The Not So Great

Sanjeev Sanyal

Sanjeev Sanyal, currently global strategist with one of the world’s
largest banks. He is a Rhodes Scholar and Eisenhower Fellow, who was
named "Young Global Leader 2010" by the World Economic Forum at Davos

*Ashoka is commonly eulogized in Indian history textbooks as a great
emperor and a pacifist. A current television serial is adding to the
legend. The problem is that this is all based on very thin evidence
and, even a little bit of probing, suggests a very different story.*

In 274BC, Bindusara suddenly fell ill and died. The crown prince
Sushima was away fending off incursions on the north-western frontiers
and rushed back to Pataliputra, the royal capital. However, on arrival
he found that Ashoka, one of his half-brothers, had taken control of
the city with the help of Greek mercenaries [1]. It appears that
Ashoka had Sushima killed at the eastern gates. 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. Having consolidated
his power, he was finally crowned emperor in 270BC.

All accounts agree that Ashoka’s early rule was brutal and unpopular,
and that he was known as “Chandashoka” or Ashoka the Cruel. In the
popular imagination, 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 narrative about this conversion is almost certainly
false. Ashoka would invade Kalinga in 262BC whereas we know from minor
rock edicts that Asoka had converted to Buddhism more than two years
earlier. 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

ashokan pillar

The Mauryans likely 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 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.

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. This may explain his later treatment of Jains and Ajivikas.
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 preceeded 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

Whatever the real reasons for the attracting Ashoka’s ire, a large
Mauryan army marched into Kalinga around 262BC. The Kalingans never
had 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 narrative, Ashoka was horrified by his own
brutality and became a Buddhist and a pacifist. However, as we have
seen, he was already a practicing Buddhist when he invaded Kalinga.
Moreover, 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. However, it is very
curious 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.

Surely, if Ashoka was genuinely remorseful, he would have bothered to
apologize to the people whom he had wronged. Far from it, he does not
even offer to free the captives. Even the inscriptions where he
expresses regret include a clear threat of 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”[2]. This is no pacifist.

It appears 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
behavior. Indeed, given that several of his inscriptions are
deliberately placed in locations that are difficult to reach, it is
quite possible that some of the propaganda was meant for us rather
than his contemporaries. The Pali text Ashoka-vadana, moreover, tells
us of more acts of genocide perpetrated by the emperor many years
after he supposedly turned pacifist [3]. 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 Ashokavadana clearly tells us how an
enraged Ashoka had 18,000 Ajivikas in Bengal put to death in a single
episode. This is the first known instance of large-scale religious
persecution in Indian history and sadly, would not be the last.

Indian_relief_from_Amaravati,_Guntur._Preserved_in_Guimet_Museum ashoka

1st century BCE/CE Indian relief from Amaravathi village, Guntur
district, Andhra Pradesh (India).The figure in the centre may
represent Ashoka.

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 will claim that these acts of genocide are untrue
and that they were inserted into the story by fundamentalist Buddhist
writers in much later times. This is indeed a possibility but let me
remind readers that my alternative narrative is based on exactly the
same texts and inscriptions used to praise the emperor. Perhaps the
same skepticism should be evenly applied to all the evidence and not
just to portions of the text that do not suit the mainstream

In addition to the evidence of his continued cruelty, we also have
proof that he 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 some of the north-western
territories that had been acquired from Seleucus. Within a few years
of Ashoka’s death in 232BC, the Satvahanas had taken over most of the
territories in southern India and Kalinga had seceded.

As one can see, Ashoka does not look like such a great king on closer
inspection but as a cruel and unpopular usurper who presided over the
disintegration of a large and well-functioning empire. 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 19th
century by colonial era orientalists like James Princep. His elevation
to being “Ashoka the Great” is an even more recent and is the result
of political developments of the first half of the twentieth century.


Bilingual (Greek and Aramaic) inscriptions by king Ashoka at Kandahar
(Shar-i-kuna). (3rd century BC).

When it became clear that it was only a matter of time before India
would become free of British rule, some leaders of the freedom
movement such as Jawarharlal Nehru decided to create a lineage for
their socialist leanings. The problem was that India’s ancient
political texts did not easily lend themselves to this. For instance,
the Arthashastra, the treatise written by Chandragupta’s mentor
Chanakya, advocates the main role of the State as ensuring defense,
internal security and the rule-of-law; a strong but limited state. It
is clearly not a manifesto for the weak but all-pervasive Nehruvian

This is when the emerging class of socialist Indian politicians
stumbled upon Ashoka’s inscriptions. Ashoka clearly speaks of
government intervention in the day-to-day lives of his subjects.
Indeed, he literally speaks of a nanny State in one of his
inscriptions: “Just as a person feels confident having entrusted his
child to an expert nurse thinking ‘the nurse will keep my child well’;
even so the Rajjukas have been appointed by me for the welfare and
happiness of the people…..”. [4]

After independence, academic historians were encouraged to further
build up the legend of Ashoka the Great in order to provide a lineage
to Nehru’s socialist project and inconvenient evidence about him was
simply swept under the carpet. However, a post-socialist reading of
Ashoka’s inscriptions gives us a very different view of his supposedly
welfarist policies. For instance, he created a large cadre of “dhamma
mahamatas” who were supposed to ensure that all subjects adhered to a
code of conduct, including several stipulations on what people should
eat. We have a modern term for such officials – religious police. It
is no surprise that Ashoka’s empire collapsed around him.

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. I’m much more concerned that modern Indians have
been so easily taken in by a narrative that is almost certainly false.

(Sanjeev Sanyal is an economist, urban theorist and the best-selling
author of Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s

1 Ashoka, Charles Allen, Little Brown 2012.

2 A History of Ancient & Medieval India, Upinder Singh, Pearson Longman 2009

3 The Legend of King Asoka: The Study and Translation of
Asoka-vadana, by John Strong, Princeton University Press 2003

4 Ashoka, Charles Allen, Little Brown, 2012

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