At the times when the world was driven mainly by conquest and religion was making a mark on lives of people, India was being carved at the hands of its rulers. Numerous dynasties at different periods had strongholds on India, but only few were strong enough to leave a permanent mark on the glorious past of the nation, like the Mauryan dynasty.
The most noteworthy ruler of the Mauryan dynasty was Ashoka the great. He was born to King Bindusara and his queen, Dharma. According to many a source, the birth of this warrior King was preordained by Buddha himself. Buddha in his story ‘The Gift of the Dust’ had foretold that Ashoka would be born and would bring the whole world under one roof of Buddhism.
The rise of Ashoka as the king of the Mauryan Empire saw a voracious and cunning beginning. After the death of his father, Bindusara, Ashoka managed to become the king instead of his brother Sushim. It is believed that he tricked Sushim to enter a pit full of live coals. According to a famous legend mentioned in the ‘Dipavamsa’, the oldest historical record of Sri Lanka, he killed ninety nine of his half blood brothers sparing only one named Tissa. Ultimately, the ambitious Ashoka was crowned in 270 B.C; little did history know its pages were going to be written in the most significant way by this dynamic ruler.
King Ashoka ruled India for almost forty successful years of his lifetime, precisely from 269 B.C to 237 B.C. Such was his thirst for conquest that he won most of the present day India, unhampered by his opponents who couldn’t stand in the way of his supremacy. His kingdom stretched from present-day Pakistan in the west to the Indian state of Assam in the east and northern Kerala and Andhra in the south. He was an invincible warrior king, the only one from his dynasty to conquer the kingdom of Kalinga after a fierce war.
As a person, Ashoka was known to be very cruel, fierce and short tempered. He put to test the loyalty of his ministers and had almost five hundred of them killed when they failed. He kept a harem of around five hundred women. Once when some of these women insulted him, he burnt alive the whole lot of them. The construction of ‘Hell on Earth’- a torture chamber that was extremely horrific and dreadful was associated with him being called as ‘Chand Ashoka’ (Ashoka the Fierce). Over the next eight years after ascending the throne, he expanded his kingdom like an insatiable ruler and his hunger to win did not seem to end.
The most vital of his conquests was the conquest of the kingdom of Kalinga, the present day Orissa. It was a state deep rooted in its sovereign and democratic principles. In ancient India, the concept of Rajdharma or the duty of the rulers to win kingdoms and ultimately rule them all their lives was dominant. Kalinga, a state with outright democratic functionality was uncommon. To win this only untouched part of India, Ashoka waged war against Kalinga. The brutal and powerful army of Ashoka faced a stiff resistance but Ashoka’s army was too good to be defeated. More than thousands of men and women were deported and lakhs killed.
It was victory was beyond political supremacy. This was a war that had begun an inner turmoil in him which eventually changed the course of his life. The bloodshed, burnt houses, heaps and piles of the dead made him sigh in distress and he was devoid of the pleasure of victory. Walking in the battlefield, paving way through the corpses, he could see how the stories of thousands of people had come to a brutal end. His mere existence in flesh and blood disgusted him as he looked at the earth covered in red and his morale broke into pieces. His thirst for conquest had ended abruptly, for his own good. It was then that he recited his famous monologue:
Do I feel heroic about killing innocent children and women? Do I do it to quench my thirst of conquest or to shatter other’s kingdom and splendor? Someone has lost her husband, someone else a father, someone an unborn infant and someone a child…. What’s this debris of the corpses? Do they signify my victory or a shameful defeat? These vultures, crows and eagles herald death or evil?
The brutality of his own self had challenged his own conscience and he was in utter depression over the course of events that were happening around him. A spiritual transformation resulted in him embracing Buddhism, and a new righteous and loving King Ashoka was born. Buddhism was a religion that advocated non violence, love, truth, tolerance and vegetarianism. So influenced was he by Buddhism, that he propagated Buddhism throughout his kingdom and as far Egypt and Rome. He was the one to initiate the spread of Buddhism with serious efforts.
In the later years of his rule, Ashoka ruled like an angelic ruler. He became an epitome of mercy for everyone in his kingdom, humans as well as animals. He curbed amateur hunting, mutilation of his subjects and treated the prisoners with compassion. No bias was shown against subjects belonging to any religion and everyone was treated equally by him. He built universities to improve the literacy rate in his kingdom and built irrigation systems in order to boost trade.
He created a never seen before legacy of Buddhist Kingship. It was a model of ruler ship that he propagated widely. According to this model, ruler ship of a king who supported and earned an approval from a Buddhist Sangha was encouraged. This Buddhist Kingship made the political as well as religious hierarchy acceptable and feasible to the masses. Following the footsteps of Ashoka, various other kings funded construction of monasteries and stupas in their kingdoms. They supported the guidance of the monks in administrating their kingdoms and solving serious issues. This was yet another effort of Ashoka to take monarchy to different levels.
To commemorate his rule and his strong belief in Buddhism, Ashoka constructed magnificently sculpted pillars and boulders on which he inscribed selective actions and teachings. His love for such architectural structures made sure that his unusual trail in Indian history was strongly left behind.
The most noteworthy of his architectural work is the Ashoka Pillar at Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh. The monument made in sandstone, signifies the visit of the emperor to Sarnath in the 3rd century B.C. The Ashoka Pillar has a four lion capital (Ashokmudra) that symbolizes his imperial rule and the Buddhist Kingship. It is also the national emblem of India. The Ashoka Chakra (the wheel of Ashoka) is a depiction of the Dharmachakra or the wheel of religious duty. It has been widely inscribed on numerous relics of the Mauryan emperor but most prominently on the Ashoka Pillar at Sarnath. Today, it is visible at the centre of Indian flag.
Only ten of the pillars constructed by Ashoka having inscription are intact today. They have an average height of forty to fifty feet and weigh around 500 tons each. All these stambhs were known to be carved at Chunar towards the south of Varanasi. They were dragged to the destination where they were to be erected.
Famous constructions credited to Ashoka are:
The Ashoka Pillar: This is the most magnificent construction done by Ashoka in 3rd century B.C. The monument is made in sandstone and signifies the visit of the emperor to Sarnath.
The Sanchi Stupa: It was constructed around the 3rd century B.C in Sanchi, a small village in Madhya Pradesh. There are several Buddhist monuments in this location and it is an important Buddhist pilgrimage place.
The Dhamek Stupa: It is located at Sarnath in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. It is a huge stupa along with several other monuments and was built in 249 B.C by Ashoka. It is the most massive structure in Sarnath with a height of 43.6 meters and a diameter of 28 meters.
The Mahabodhi Temple: This is the temple where Buddha attained enlightenment. It lies in Bodh Gaya, 96 kilometers away from Patna, the capital of Bihar. To its western side is the holy Bodhi tree. This temple was built by Ashoka in 250 B.C and is constructed in brick. The highest tower here is 55 meters tall.
The Barabar caves: These are the oldest surviving rock cut caves in India. They date back to the 3rd century B.C. Most caves have two chambers and are carved entirely in granite. There are Jain and Hindu sculptures also here.
The Nalanda University: A stupa in the memory of Sariputta, one of the two chief male disciples of Buddha, was built in the Nalanda University by Ashoka.
The Bharhut Stupa: The Bharhut stupa is located in Satna district of Madhya Pradesh. It was established in the 3rd century B.C by Ashoka.
The Deorkothar Stupa: This stupa lies 5 kilometers northwest of village Katra in Rewa district of Madhya Pradesh. This is yet another stupa credited to King Ashoka and was established in 3rd century B.C.