Ashoka the Great: From Cruel King to Benevolent Buddhist
The emperor Ashoka is considered to be one of India’s greatest monarchs, and was the third ruler of the Mauryan Empire. Whilst Ashoka’s conquests pale in comparison to his illustrious grandfather’s, he is widely remembered as a Buddhist ruler, and it was his contributions to Buddhism and morality that made him such a renowned figure in Indian history.
The Immense Mauryan Empire
The Mauryan Empire is estimated to be the largest empire (in terms of land area) in the history of the Indian subcontinent. At its height, the Mauryan Empire occupied not only most of present day India, but also Bhutan, Nepal, and Bangladesh in the east, as well as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and parts of Iran in the west. Much of these conquests were made during the reign of Chandragupta Maurya, the first ruler of the empire - Ashoka’s grandfather.
Statue of Chandragupta Maurya, the first ruler of the Mauryan Empire and Ashoka’s grandfather. ( Public Domain )
A Family Feud with a Throne as the Prize
Ashoka is said to have been born in 304 BC to the emperor Bindusara and Dharmma (a relatively low ranking wife of the emperor.) Apart from one younger brother, Ashoka had several elder half-brothers. According to one legend, Ashoka fought and killed 99 of his brothers in order to inherit the Mauryan throne. Only his younger brother, Vitashoka, is said to have been spared.
From an early age, Ashoka showed great potential to become a successful general and an astute administrator. Despite his prowess, Ashoka’s chances of succeeding his father were slim, due to the fact that he had several elder half-brothers. Nevertheless, Ashoka’s abilities made them suspicious that Bindusara would leave the throne to him, and the brothers began to feel insecure. This was especially true for Susima, Bindusara’s eldest son, who stood to lose the most.
- The Rise of Chandragupta Maurya, and the Golden Age of the Mauryan Empire
- Burnt remnants of ancient city found from era of the Mahabharata
- Indus Valley Civilization Built By Technically Advanced Ancient Tribe
As a result, Susima sought to eliminate Ashoka so as to secure his position. He managed to convince his father to send Ashoka to Taxila (in modern day Pakistan) to quell an uprising. Susima’s plan backfired, however, as Ashoka was welcomed with open arms when he reached the area, and thus put down the uprising without any bloodshed.
Susima then began inciting Bindusara against Ashoka, which resulted in the future emperor being sent into exile for two years. A violent uprising in Ujjain, however, forced Bindusara to call Ashoka back, and he subsequently sent his son to deal with this new uprising instead. Whilst Ashoka succeeded in crushing the uprising, he was injured during a battle. In order to keep the news of Ashoka’s injury hidden from Susima, the prince is said to have been treated in secret by Buddhist monks. Scholars believe that this was Ashoka’s first encounter with the teachings of the Buddha.
In the following year (275 BC), Bindusara fell ill and died. A war of succession was fought between Ashoka and his half-brothers. Ashoka ultimately emerged victorious, and became the third Mauryan emperor.
An Indian relief that may depict Ashoka in the center. From Amaravati, Guntur district, India. ( CC By SA 3.0 )
Beginnings as a Brutal Ruler
It is said that for the first few years of his emperorship, Ashoka was a cruel and brutal ruler. In one legend, for instance, Ashoka decided to test the loyalty of his ministers by ordering them to chop down all the flower and fruit trees, but to leave the thorn trees alone. The ministers were puzzled, and questioned Ashoka’s order. After they questioned the emperor three times, Ashoka flew into a rage and “he unsheathed his sword and cut off the heads of five hundred ministers.”
Another legend speaks of a torture chamber constructed by Ashoka called ‘the beautiful gaol’ or ‘Ashoka’s Hell.’ This building was “lovely from the outside as far as the gate, but inside it was actually a very frightful place.” The construction of the ‘beautiful gaol’ was a request made by Girika, the emperor’s newly-appointed executioner, and it is said that he drew inspiration from the five tortures of Hell.
Two Legends One Change
One legend states that one of Girika’s victims was a Buddhist monk by the name of Samudra. Although he was tortured by Girika, he was unharmed and news of this miracle reached the emperor. Ashoka came to meet Samudra who chastised him and instructed the emperor to build 84,000 stupas in accordance with the Buddha’s prophecy and to guarantee the security of all beings. Ashoka repented, tore down the torture chamber, executed his executioner, and obeyed Samudra’s commands.