Who was the real “Ashoka the Great”?
To those of us whose image of “Samraat” Ashoka (Ashoka the Great) has been shaped by Amar Chitra Katha or the eponymous movie, it will come as a suprise that there may actually have been three different Kings by the name of Ashok and the real history of the “Ashok the Great” may be more complex than hitherto imagined.
I am reproducing below some excerpts from some early but ground-breaking research by Kishore Patnaik which he shared on a Yahoo! group recently…It makes for fascinating reading (emphasis mine).
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…it may be too premature for me to say…(but it appears that) there are three Asokas in the history whose identity has to be established:
1. The Mauryan king Asoka vardhana, as described in Puranas. I am not sure if anything was told about Asoka vardhana by puranas, even though he has ruled the longest in his dynasty
2. The Bauddhist king Asoka(Tissa?) as described in the various Buddhist and Jain works. Clearly, they try to mostly identify Asoka with with Asoka Vardhana but it is possible that the writers are confused since these works were composed centuries after Asoka
3. Priyadarsi, the king of edicts who was supposed to be dear to the gods and of course, just once he calls himself Asoka (in the edict of Maski)
…In any case, we see that all the three kings differ in their nature and dating.
The full name of Asoka Vardhana (the Ashoka of Puranas), a princely name is not mentioned anywhere else – either in non-puranic sources or the edicts. While some buddhist literature does identify the lineage of asoka as mauryan and name his father as bindusara (as did the puranas), largely the name of the father of asoka keeps changing in this literature.
The king of edicts is a totally different person from the Asoka of buddhist literature. That both are buddhists is the only common point.
There is no Kalinga war mentioned in the buddhist literature. The Asoka of Buddhists was a cruel sadist who was brought to the path of Buddhism by various monks as soon as he has taken over or at best, four years after his coronation. After his conversion, Asoka was intolerant of other religions and killed even his own brother, whom he has spared
earlier, suspecting that he is following a heretic Buddha school.
On the other hand, the edicts clearly mention that the king has taken to Buddhism in the 8th year of his coronation, following the war of Kalinga. He was highly tolerant of other religions, advising his people to respect brahmins and he has made donations to ajivakas in the 12th/13th year and perhaps, in 19th year of his coronation, which is much later to his conversion.
The king of edicts is clearly highly tactful and diplomatic, never a sadist. He was a shrewd and ambitious ruler- he annexed Kalinga only to have control of sea faring business routes. He has used religion as a matter of tool to discipline people, most of the important edicts being in the gold bearing areas of India. His repentance may be more
of a farce since the famous edict announcing his remorse was never found in Kalinga or the area around it. Not just this, his hypocracy is clearly mentioned in the likes of edicts where he confesses that he continued to eat meat, even as he entreated others, including the staff and other residents of the Royal palace to convert to vegetarianism.
That most of his tactics are to get the maximum out of trade routes is very obvious. That kings concentrated highly on trade routes is a trade mark of around Guptan kings.
…If you follow the traditionalists’ chronology, we can say that Asoka vardhana was existing much earlier to Greek invasion. Also, the traditionalists identify Sandrocottus with Chandra gupta I. This will make the Asoka of Edicts a king around the times of Guptans, as pointed by his way of dealing.
Thus, clearly Devanam piya/piyadarsi who have inscribed all the famous edicts is not a Mauryan king. There are many other arguments in favor of this statement. which I will keep it for future.
Priyadarsi could not be a Mauryan king for many reasons – one new reason being the Mauryan kings were not in habit of bearing titles…Priyadarsi has never sent missionaries. It is king Ayu (also named Asoka but he is not Mauryan again) who has sent these missionaries in order to spread the relics of Buddha all over the country. That his daughter Bhadrana (the liturgical ‘ Sanghamitra”)also was amongst the missionaries is proved by inscriptions (not those of priyadarsi).
Priyadarsi is from South India, in all possibility from Kolar fields of karnataka. His all important edict recognizing the various provinces of his empire is issued from Suvarna giri, Kolar fieds, Karnanataka.
Kalinga or Orissa was a thriving kingdom of ancient trade. They have adopted Buddhism perhaps from the times of Buddha. For eg.,Vinaya pitttaka, composed before the times of Mauryans, represents Tapussa (or Tapassu) and Bhallika (or Bhalluka or Bhalliya), the two merchant brothers of Utkala as offering the Buddha rice cakes and lump of honey in the eighth week of his enlightenment. The Ariguttara Nikaya commentary adds that the Buddha reciprocated by giving them eight handfuls of his hair which they subsequently enshrined in a magnificent caitya at Asitanjana.
Now, the latest excavations (November 2007) recognize that this is not a mere folktale but true. The scientists recognize that Asitnjana could be either Radhanagar (the ancient capital of Kalinga) or Tarapore, another site of excavations which revealed the names of Tapussu and Bhalliya. Several stupas of ancient origin are found in this region.
According to the commentary of the Theragatha, these two merchants also subsequently visited the Buddha at Rajagriha and by that time Tapassu was renamed as Sotapanna and Devachikaupasaka, and his name has been incorporated in the list of eminent upasakas of Lord Buddha. Bhallika, on the other hand, joined the Sangha and became an arhat. The Pujavaliya text of Ceylon delineates that Tapassu and Bhallika after their conversion visited the east coast of Sri Lanka, where they erected a Chaitya to commemorate their visit.
The ancient text of Buddhists, The Mahcattarisaka Sutta of the Majjahimanikaya speaks of two tribes of Utkala (Orissa) named Vassa and Bhanna as renouncing their earlier faith in Ahetu vada, Akritya vada and Nastika vada in favor of Buddhism.
As per Chinese sources, Buddha had lauded Orissa as one of the twelve suitable places for the attainment of perfection. That Buddhism has received the royal patronage is given in Kalingabodhi Jataka referring to Kalinga II, who has paid reverential honor to the Bodhi tree at Uruvela near Gaya for seven days.
The above liturgical and archaeological evidence amply proves that the Orissa was not only flourishing commercially, especially in maritime trade, but also was traditionally Buddhist in religion.
It is also evident that Kalinga was forming the connection between south and north. All the important trade routes between south India and north India have been developed through Kalinga. An ambitous king like Priyadarsi naturally would want to control this trade route. Hence, the conquest of Kalinga.
It is here that Priyadarsi came into contact with Buddhism. In all probability, he must have seen how obedient and controlled the Kalingan army was, even in the face of a fatal defeat. In other words, he has seen how religion can be used to control masses, to command their total surrender and loyalty. Thus he has cooked up the story of his remorse and presented it all over his empire, which in fact, according to Taranatha, was acquired only after the conquest of Kalinga (Obviously, he grew quite powerful with the commercial support offered by Kalinga) While he has not converted to Buddhism at the time of Kalinga war , though he was genuinely respecting it, was clear from his edicts, there is an aspect to be considered here.
How true was his remorse? We can say his remorse was entirely false and was a tool invented by him to control the masses using religion is amply evident in two ways:
- That he has carried further conquests as evidenced by Taranatha
- That he has erected his story of remorse all over India but not in Kalinga, which clearly shows that he has not converted his so called remorse into action, atleast in Kalinga In fact, he must have seen Kalinga as a milch cow for his further conquests
In fact, he did not free Kalinga from his sovereignty and it was continued to be under his regent Tussa, as the excavations reveal.
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Sh Patnaik is in the process of compiling this research in the form of a book…I, for one, am eagerly looking forward to it…If anyone of you wishes to get in touch with him, please email him at kishorepatnaik09ATgmail.com
P.S. To get a sense of current “wisdom” on Samraat Ashoka, try this Wikipedia link. Finally, below is some more information from Shri Patnaik on the confusion created (inadvertently?) by scholars researching this bit of history:
One of the greatest mistakes of Indian Historiography scholars is identifying Sandrocottus with Chandragupta Mourya.
The predecessor of Sandrocottus was Xandremes (who can be easily identified Chandramasi, the unpopular Satavahana ruler). Sandrocottus himself was Chandragupta, who has murdered Chandramasi and usurped the kingdom. His forefather was named Gupta, meaning the protected alluding to his low caste. Probably an artisan. The Greek records identify the father of Sandrocottus as a barber , towards whom the Queen was amorous. This need not be in doubt since the name Ghatotkacha, father of CG I not only indicates a name of lower birth but also a person with great capabilities, especially physical strength. If the Queen of an unpopular and perhaps, old king has loved him, it may be no wonder.
The son of Sandrocottus was Sandrocyptus.
Max Mueller could not synchronize the names ” Xandremes, Sandrocottus and Sandrocryptus” with “Nanda, Chandra gupta Maurya and Bindu sara”. Hence, he denied the existence of Xandremes and postulated without evidence that both Sandrocottus and Sandrocryptus are one and the same.
The name Sandro cryptus not only synchronizes with the name of Samudra gupta , the valiant son of CG I but also, the title of allitrochades or Amitrochates (meaning slayer of enemies) perfectly suits his image as a valiant and ruthless warrior, as described in the Prasasthi epigraphy.
However, it is clear that the kingdom of Guptas did not sustain for long. It is not correct to say that CG II is the son of Samudra gupta and he has taken over the reins of Gupta Kingdom after SG. There are many kings between Samudra gupta and CG II. Samudra gupta’s father CG I has taken over the kingdom around 321 bce whereas it is clearly chronicled that CG II has driven away the Sakas in 58/57 bce. To support this, there are many names of kings mentioned in the liturgical history as well as in numismatics. All these names were tried to be shown as other names of already known kings, which has taken place due to the shrinkage of Indian chronology. For eg., we do not know who is Kacha, who came after Samudra Gupta , nor Chandra prakasa as mentioned by Vamana nor Chandra who claimed on the Allahabad Pillar that he expanded his kingdom to Bengal. There are many more such names about whom we know nothing nor we are in a position to fix their chronology.
After Samudra Gupta, his son Rama (Chandra)Gupta or Sarma (Chandra)Gupta, who has married Dhruva Swamin could not continue on the seat of pataliputra. He was driven away to the west by one Kalyana varma whose victory was chronicled in a drama called Kaumudi mahotsavam. Ramachandra gupta has taken over at Ujjain but he had to surrender his wife to the foreign rulers in order to keep his seat, as described in Kavya mimamsa by Raja sekhara In shame, Sarma gupta or Ramachandra gupta has retired to Himalayas and hence, Dhruvaswamini has continued the rule. Her son was Govinda gupta also seemed to have ruled for sometime.
During this time that Priyadarsi has come into forefront.(Priyadarsi could not be a Mauryan king for many reasons – one new reason being the Mauryan kings were not in habit of bearing titles, whereas all the kings CGM, Bindusara and Asoka were shown as bearing titles) He has corrected two mistakes that have been committed by Samudra gupta : one, in spite of his various Jaitra Yatras, SG did not bother about them strategically. He did not have a particular control over the trade routes. Priyadarsi has seen to it that he had a great control over trade routes. In fact, the Kalinga conquest was primarily for this purpose, to have a control over road and sea routes. Second mistake of SG was to lose contact with people in general. In spite of his great ness, SG has inscribed his eulogies in Sanskrit, which were not understood by common man. Priyadarsi has seen to it that not only his inscriptions were in prakrit, a language known to the common man but also he has ensured that all these inscriptions are read aloud to the gatherings at frequent intervals. He has also cleverly used the tool of religion in order to control the general masses.