British gold mining engineer C. Beadon did not, in his wildest dreams, think he would soon be creating history when he went for a stroll around the hillocks of Maski in Raichur district’s Lingsugur taluk. Way back in 1915, on January 26, he chanced upon a minor edict on a boulder in a cavern. Historians and scholars of India and abroad were thrilled over the discovery because, for the first time, it revealed beyond doubt that the “Devanampriya” (Sanskrit, meaning “The Beloved of the Gods”) and Priyadarsi (Sanskrit, meaning “He Who Looks On With Affection”) referred to in a number of ancient edicts across the country was none other than the legendary Mauryan emperor Ashoka (or Asoka) the Great, one of the world’s most remarkable rulers.
Numerous stories about a great emperor called Ashoka appear in ancient Vedic literature, the Asokavadana, Divyavandana, and Mahvamsa. For many years, westerners considered them to be mere legend. They did not connect the Vedic ruler Ashoka, grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, to the stone pillars inscribed with edicts that are sprinkled all around the edges of India. The pseudonym “devanampriya” found in a number of edicts had, till the British engineer found the Maski edict, remained a mystery. Research scholars struggled hard to unearth the mystery but met with no success.
The Maski edict in Prakrit language, carved in Brahmi script and dated 256 BCE, changed the very course of historians and experts’ understanding of ancient Indian history. The Maski edict clearly told the world that it was Ashoka who had had the inscriptions carved under the name “Devanampriya”. The inscription has a mention of “Devanampriya Asoka”.
A few years later one more edict was found at Gujarra in Madhya Pradesh that also shows the Name “Asoka” in addition to the usual “Devanampriya Piyadasi”.
Ashoka’s edicts made during his reign are dispersed in more than thirty places throughout the areas of modern-day Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan and represent the first tangible historical evidence of Buddhism.
Ashoka was born in 304 BCE to the Mauryan emperor Bindusara and his queen, Dharmā (or Dhammā). He was the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the Mauryan dynasty. It is from his mother’s exclamation “I am now without sorrow” upon his birth that Ashoka got his name. His name “aśoka” means “painless, without sorrow” in Sanskrit (the a privativum and śoka “pain, distress”).
Ashoka was given the royal military training knowledge. He was a fearsome hunter, and according to a legend, killed a lion with just a wooden rod. He was very adventurous and a trained fighter, known for his skills with the sword.
Bindusara’s death in 273 BCE led to a fratricidal struggle over succession. Ashoka managed to become the emperor by getting rid of the legitimate heir to the throne by tricking him into entering a pit filled with live coals. His coronation occurred in 269 BCE, four years after his succession to the throne.
Ashoka is said to have been of a wicked nature and bad temper. He submitted his ministers to a test of loyalty and had 500 of them killed. He also kept a harem of around 500 women. When a few of these women insulted him, he had the whole lot of them burned to death. He also built an elaborate and horrific torture chamber, which was like a hell on Earth. This torture chamber earned him the name of Chand Ashoka (Sanskrit), meaning Ashoka the Fierce.
While the early part of Ashoka’s reign was apparently quite bloodthirsty, he became a follower of the Buddha’s teaching after his conquest of Kalinga on the east coast of India in the present-day states of Orissa and North Coastal Andhra Pradesh. His 13th inscription (Rock Edict No. 13 [S. Dhammika]) tells us:
Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, conquered the Kalingas eight years after his coronation. One hundred and fifty thousand were deported, one hundred thousand were killed and many more died (from other causes). After the Kalingas had been conquered, Beloved-of-the-Gods came to feel a strong inclination towards the Dhamma, a love for the Dhamma and for instruction in Dhamma. Now Beloved-of-the-Gods feels deep remorse for having conquered the Kalingas.
Indeed, Beloved-of-the-Gods is deeply pained by the killing, dying and deportation that take place when an unconquered country is conquered. But Beloved-of-the-Gods is pained even more by this — that Brahmans, ascetics, and householders of different religions who live in those countries, and who are respectful to superiors, to mother and father, to elders, and who behave properly and have strong loyalty towards friends, acquaintances, companions, relatives, servants and employees — that they are injured, killed or separated from their loved ones. Even those who are not affected (by all this) suffer when they see friends, acquaintances, companions and relatives affected. These misfortunes befall all (as a result of war), and this pains Beloved-of-the-Gods.
It is even said that in the aftermath of the Battle of Kalinga, the Daya River running next to the battle field turned red with the blood of the slain. As the legend goes, when Ashoka was walking through the grounds of Kalinga after his conquest, rejoicing in his victory, he was moved by the number of bodies strewn there and the wails of the kith and kin of the dead. This sight made him sick and he cried the famous monologue:
What have I done? If this is a victory, what’s a defeat then? Is this a victory or a defeat? Is this justice or injustice? Is it gallantry or a rout? Is it valor to kill innocent children and women? Do I do it to widen the empire and for prosperity or to destroy the other’s kingdom and splendor? One has lost her husband, someone else a father, someone a child, someone an unborn infant… What’s this debris of the corpses? Are these marks of victory or defeat? Are these vultures, crows, eagles the messengers of death or evil?
The brutality of the conquest led Ashoka to adopt Buddhism. His conversion occurred around 260 BCE, and he used his position to propagate the relatively new religion to new heights, as far west as ancient Rome and Egypt.
After his conversion, Ashoka came to be known as Dhammashoka (Sanskrit), meaning “Ashoka, the follower of Dharma”. He defined the main principles of dharma (dhamma) as nonviolence, tolerance of all sects and opinions, obedience to parents, respect for the Brahmans and other religious teachers and priests, liberality towards friends, humane treatment of servants, and generosity towards all. These principles suggest a general ethic of behavior to which no religious or social group could object.
During the remaining portion of Ashoka’s reign, he pursued an official policy of nonviolence (ahimsa). Even the unnecessary slaughter or mutilation of animals was immediately abolished. Wildlife became protected by the king’s law against sport hunting and branding. Limited hunting was permitted for consumption reasons but the overwhelming majority of Indians chose by their own free will to become vegetarians. Ashoka also showed mercy to those imprisoned, allowing them leave for the outside a day of the year. He attempted to raise the professional ambition of the common man by building universities for study, and water, transit, and irrigation systems for trade and agriculture. He treated his subjects as equals regardless of their religion, politics, and caste. He is acclaimed for constructing hospitals for animals and renovating major roads throughout India. The kingdoms surrounding his, so easily overthrown, were instead made to be well-respected allies.
Some critics say that Ashoka was afraid of more wars, but among his neighbors, including the Seleucid Empire and the Greco-Bactrian kingdom established by Diodotus I, none could match his strength. Therefore, his new policies were most likely not for geopolitical reasons.
Asoka died in 232 BCE in the thirty-eighth year of his reign.
- “The Edicts of King Asoka”, an English rendering by Ven. S. Dhammika. Access to Insight, 5 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/dhammika/wheel386.html. Retrieved on 14 January 2013.