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Iron Age India
The Mauryas: Ashoka
by Abhijit Rajadhyaksha, 2 August 2009. Updated 3
Ashoka the Great, as he is known, is not presumed
to have been great for his conquests but for his renunciation of
violence and for laying the foundations of a welfare state which
would serve as an example for centuries to come.
Ashoka was said to have been born at some point around 273 BC. In
1837, James Princep had rediscovered this almost forgotten figure
when he deciphered a script in which Ashoka was referred to as
'Devanampiya Piyadassi' or the 'beloved of the gods'. This was
something that tallied with the Buddhist chronicles of Sri Lanka
which gave details of his early life.
Ashoka served as the governor of Ujjain during the
reign of his father, Bindusara. After Bindusara's death, Ashoka is said to have
seized the throne after a fratricidal war with his ninety-nine
brothers, the most prominent being the eldest, Sushima. His earlier
life seems to have been one of extreme ruthlessness, typical of an
imperialist ruler. But it was the cataclysmic war against Kalinga
which is said to have transformed the personality of Ashoka from a
cruel individual to a pacifist and benevolent king. A transition
from 'Chandashoka' (ferocious Ashoka) to 'Dharmashoka' (the
There is no other king in ancient India for whom so much information
has been unearthed as Ashoka, making him the most familiar name we
have as far as future generations are concerned.
Ashoka's rock edicts
Ashoka left a huge number of inscriptions behind, and these furnish
a wealth of information which was engraved on rocks, monolithic
monuments, and remarkably well-polished stone pillars. The details
on them were mainly about his later life as a king, his reign, his
religion and his ideology. They can be categorised as follows:
Fourteen Rock Edicts found at eight different places: Shahbazgarhi (the seventh edict
to be engraved was on a bowl found at
Peshawar in Pakistan and currently on display in the Prince of Wales
Museum, Mumbai), Manshera (Hazara), Kalsi (Dehradun in Uttarakhand),
Girnar (Junagadh in Gujrat), Sopara (Thana in Maharashtra), Dhauli
and Jaugada (Orissa), and Yerragudi (Kurnool in Andhra Pradesh).
Minor Rock Edicts found in thirteen different places: Roopnath (Jabalpur
in Madhya Pradesh), Bairat (Jaipur in Rajasthan), Sasaram (Shahbad
district, Bihar), Maski (Raichur in Karnataka), Gavimath and
Palkigundu (Mysore, Karnataka), Gujarra (Datia district , Madhya
Pradesh), Ahraura (Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh), Rajulamandagiri (Kurnool
in Andhra Pradesh), and Yerragudi and three neighbouring places in
Chitaldurga district, Mysore.
Seven Pillar Edicts, seven edicts found on a
single pillar (Topra, presently displayed in Delhi). The rest were
found in northern Bihar.
The remaining inscriptions were engraved on
rocks, pillars and cave walls.
Ashoka's Dharma Chakra 'wheel', also the symbol of modern India,
which can be found as far afield as Leshan in western China
The most important of these were the pillar engravings found at
Rumindei (Nepal) which mention Ashoka's visit to the birthplace of
Gautam Buddha at Lumbini. Two short inscriptions written in Aramaic
have also been found at Taxilla and Jalalabad (Afghanistan). A
bilingual inscription written in Greek and Aramaic has been found on
a rock at Shar-i-Kuna (Kandahar, Afghanistan). Four edicts (one in
Kharoshti script derived from Aramaic, which was used in Iran, and
others in, perhaps, Prakrit, with the rest found in the
country being in Brahmi) have been found in Shalatak and Qargha
The thirteenth rock edict gives a vivid account of Ashoka's conquest
of Kalinga (260 BC), after a prolonged war, in which 150,000 people were captured and 100,000 killed and many times that number perished
afterwards. Ashoka was said to have been filled with great remorse
and guilt after witnessing the misery and bloodshed his war had
He sought solace in the peace preached by the Buddhist religion. He
was initiated into the Buddhist fold by the monk, Upagupta. He
remained a disciple for two and a half years, until being formally
inducted in the Buddhist order and becoming a 'Bhikku' (a fully
ordained Buddhist monastic).
Modern India's national emblem is a gift from Ashoka's heritage -
the Dharma Chakra 'wheel' at the centre of the Indian flag.
Ashoka visited the various places which are
considered holy by Buddhists. He is said to have begun the
propagation of the Buddhist doctrines through his specially
appointed officers called 'Dharmamahamatras'.
Ashoka's 'dhamma' (in Prakrit) or 'dharma' (in Sanskrit) is still
considered to be reflecting his character and philosophy.
Dhamma was Ashoka's own invention, according to the historian,
Romila Thapar. It was essentially a code of moral duties, benevolent
acts and a freedom from passions for an individual (referencing
historian L Prasad).
The basic tenets of Ashoka's Dhamma were:
Compassion, liberalism, truth and purity in personal life.
Respect and kindness towards parents, siblings, companions,
friends, elders, teachers, ascetics, the bramhanas, bhikkus, the
disabled, and slaves and servants.
Cruelty towards humans and animals alike was abhorred.
Doing away with anger, envy and pride, and espousing the
pursuance of righteous deeds.
The description on the twelfth rock edict states that the people
should not only tolerate all religions and sects, but also develop a
spirit of reverence for all. Polite speech was encouraged, and
criticism and intolerance was discouraged. Also included was a request
for people to read out religious texts to each other.
He never stressed the metaphysical element of religion, but its
moral and social aspects.
Ashoka also practiced what he preached. He stopped consuming meat,
prohibited the killing of animals, birds in the palace, or anything
during hunting expeditions. He stopped animal fights and encouraged
festivals and religious fairs.
One of Ashoka's edict pillars
He also convened the 'Third General Council' of Buddhists at his
capital, Patliputra, to settle their internal differences and
proceed with a more unified progression of Buddhism. It was presided
over by the monk, Mogaliputta Tissa. It deputed missionaries to
neighbouring and far off countries like western Asia, Syria (the
court of Antiochus II Theos), Egypt (the court of Ptolemy II
Philadelphus), Ceylon (his son Mahendra and daughter Sanghamitra
were sent to the royal court of Ceylon, modern Sri Lanka), Macedonia
and Greece (the court of Antigonus II Gonatas), Magas of Cyrene, and
the court of Alexander of Epirus.
Ashoka followed the basic structure of administration set up during
the rule of Chandragupta Maurya. However Ashoka stressed 'humanism and dedication to his subjects' in
his administration and which was to be the hallmark of his reign.
He categorically instructed his officers to apprise him of the
people's problems whenever and wherever they wanted. He sincerely
believed that being a monarch was only a means of public service
rather than anything else. His subjects were his children and their
king was their benevolent patriarch.
A special officer, the 'Vrajabhumika', was appointed to be in charge
of public utility works.
Orders were given to the high-serving officials that they should
maintain a strict vigil on their subordinates so as to ensure the
regular performance of their duties.
As mentioned in the book by Romila Thapar, during Ashokan times,
"Land revenue was of two types. One being the tax on the area of the
land cultivated and the other on the assessment of the produce. Ashoka's
inscription at Lumbini, commemorating the birthplace of Buddha,
speaks of 'Bali' and 'Bhagga' which may have been these two taxes.
Interestingly, he exempts the people of Lumbini from the first, but
continues to impose a tax on their produce. The assessment varied from
region to region and the sources mention a range from one sixth to a
quarter of the produce of the land. It was generally based on the
land worked by each individual cultivator and also the quality of
land. A reference to 'pindakara' - a heap of taxes - could suggest a
tax collected jointly from a village. The treasury was entitled to
tax shepherds and livestock breeders on the number and produce of
the animals. Taxes on other activities referred to by the general
term 'kara' were also levied. A tax of a different kind, 'vishti',
was paid in labour for the state and is therefore translated as
unpaid labour (UK English), or corvée (US English). 'Vishti'
pertains more to the individual than the other taxes. At this period
it is mentioned often in the context of craft production, where
craftsmen provide a stipulated amount of free labour to the state".
The Ashoka Stupa, a massive rock which is
covered in inscriptions, rests inside this protective building at Kalsi.
The stupa was erected in the third century BC as one of a large
number of inscriptions left by the emperor in order to spread
his message of peace
Security and law and order were also strictly maintained during the
Ashokan period of rule. It was decided that the death penalty was to
be carried out three days after judgement being delivered, and there
were also dates fixed for granting amnesty.
All people were considered to be the same in the eyes of law,
irrespective of their religion, sect or class. The 'Rajukas'
(revenue settlement officer), were given judicial powers to
facilitate a quick dispensation of justice.
The Ashokan empire was governed by its many 'viceroys' seated at
their provincial capitals: Suvarnagiri, Toshali, Taxilla and Ujjain.
The empire was mainly the inheritance of his predecessors, barring
Kalinga which Ashoka conquered in 260 BC. It extended right down to
the south, excluding the independent Tamilian kingdoms of the
Cholas, Cheras, Pandyas , Satyaputras and Tamraparnis of Sri Lanka
(with whom Ashoka maintained friendly relations as mentioned in the
chronicles of the island, 'Dipavamsa' and 'Mahavamsa'. There is also
mention of Ashoka gifting the Sri Lankans the branch of the Bodhi
tree under which Buddha achieved salvation).
Emperor Ashoka died in around 232 BC. He was succeeded by seven
Mauryan kings down the line, the last being Brihadrata who was
killed by his Brahmin commander-in-chief, Pushyamitra, who then
established the Sunga dynasty.
H G Wells once wrote about Ashoka: "It is not every age, it is not
every nation, that can produce a king like this type. Ashoka still
remains without a parallel in the history of the world".
Post Ashoka kings
321-301 BC Chandragupta Maurya
232-224 BC Dashratha - He was a successor to Ashoka
as Ashoka's son Kunala was blinded in a palace conspiracy. Dashratha
was the nephew of Kunala and ruled for eight years. He dedicated
three caves at Nagajuni to the Ajivika sect. Dashratha was succeeded
by Kunala's son, Samprati.
Samprati - ruled for nine years. He converted to Jainism
(his grandmother Padmawati was also a Jain). He propagated Jainism
and is credited with the founding of many Jain temples.
Salisuka - According to the Gargi Samhita he was a cruel
Brihadrata - the last Maurya king. During the reign
of Brihadrata there were invasions by the Indo-Greek king
Demetrius, who captured what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan, Panchala, Saketa, Mathura
and Pataliputra. Brihadrata was killed by his minister, Pushyamitra
Sunga, who established the Sunga dynasty in Magadha, eclipsing the
An Ashoka-type column on a 25 paise coin from the Mumbai mint of
Altekar, A S - State and
Government in Ancient India, Motilal Banarasidas Publishers Ltd
Majumdar, R C - Ancient India, Motilal
Banarsidass Publishers Ltd, 1987
Prasad, L - Studies in Indian History,
Cosmos Bookhive, Gurgaon, 2000
Thapar, Romila - Penguin History of India,
Volume 1, Penguin Books, London, 1990