We’ve read it in the history books. We’ve even watched a movie about it. We’ve heard it over and over and over again.
That the Kalinga war brought about remorse for Emperor Ashoka and he took on Buddhism and changed his life.
Think about it. This man who has seen it all, blood, gore, blue murder. The ruthless soldier he was. This man who’s killed a hundred of his brothers… cold-blooded fratricide. Suddenly sees a river of blood and feels remorse, ably aided by a Buddhist monk. Turns his life around. And goes on to become India’s greatest emperor.
SRK’s movie makes it out that Ashoka turned ruthless on losing Kaurwaki. And that his wife Devi was Buddhist; she hated violence, so that probably aided his transformation.
I’m no historian, but I find it very, very hard to believe the bit about the change of heart. I mean, people are averse to even changing their stand in a Group Discussion… what would institute such a change of heart in a man who had nothing to lose with violence?
Maybe he was not a ruthless homicidal fratricidal maniac after all? Maybe he was a victim of his circumstances?
I guess the fratricide was necessary for self-preservation… you are no favourite son of your father; you have an older brother in that position, but you are more adept and skilled than all your hundred-odd brothers put together. Older brother obviously feels threatened by you, and tries to form an alliance to do away with you… does your practising ahimsa come of any avail there?
Then you’re the emperor; you quite obviously have a duty to conquer new lands. Okay, let’s say you live and let live there; but your neighbours aren’t obviously as nice – they’ll wage war against you the first chance they get. They’ll make mischief in your kingdom the first chance they get. They want your throne, your crown, your vast lands. What do you do? They don’t subscribe to Ahimsa…. come on, even the Nanda kings who followed Jainism weren’t above war. And you have weaker territories on the outback of your kingdom which will quite easily be conquered by the stronger kingdoms down south… (not so sure about this), they aren’t buffer zones, they are your empire’s Achilles’ Heel… you need to keep your people safe from marauders who wouldn’t for the heck of them know how to take care of the place even half as well as you do… wouldn’t you agree war and conquest is inevitable in this context?
But you conquer the last behemoth. You have no more dangers around you. Unless you were a raving mass-murdering maniac (which we can’t say Ashoka was), you would want to sit back and relax after years on the road. What are laurels but to rest on? And any sensible emperor knows he has to consolidate his empire after the initial growth phase; that can’t last forever now, can it? And you can’t keep your kingdom in a constant state of war… your people will revolt (and your enemies might make them) if they constantly see their taxes being diverted to pay for expensive wars. This is no small fear in a kingdom as large as his.
And now, my friends, it is safe, even prudent to practice non-violence. And advocating the same… maybe the latter-day equivalent would be the US preaching to third-world countries about the dangers of global warming, and heralding the coming of Tata Nano to be the worst thing that could happen to the world already choked by pollution and exhaust. Ashoka was an astute emperor, probably the wisdom of Chanakya had been passed on to his proteges who were now Ashoka’s advisors.
What about the Buddhist legend, you ask? Maybe it’s precisely that; a Buddhist legend. Maybe Buddhism back then was today’s equivalent of the Art of Living. Now AOL claims that Sri Sri Ravishankar has given a lecture at the UN, but I read this on another blog that just about anyone can, and it’s not of much consequence anyway.
Maybe his meeting with a Buddhist monk was merely incidental, and it gained coverage and was used for evangelism purposes after Ashoka decided to go into Phase Two of his royal plans – roughly today’s equivalent of Seema Ramchandani quitting Viva! to become an AOL teacher, or Rhea Pillai talking about how AOL helped her get back to living after her marriage ended.
So maybe it was prudence that made Ashoka a nice man. With such a large kingdom to manage, the last thing he would have wanted is some religion-based riot in some corner of his kingdom that slowly spread to the rest of the place… hence the secularism. Or maybe it was simply hard-wired in him to provide good governance, be tolerant and kind, and all the past violence was just a matter of necessity in the circumstances, and his religious leanings had nothing at all to do with it; success has many fathers. Failure has none, as we see… would anyone dare to say in this age of political correctness that Aurangzeb was what he was because of his religion?
Amartya Sen once made a quote in context with secular education and the communalization of history that was like “The two greatest emperors of India have not been Hindu“. One, I guess, was Akbar, who followed Din-E-Elahi. The other was Ashoka, who was supposed to be a Buddhist. I have one question for Mr. Sen: Ashoka was the first one to proclaim an official State Religion – Buddhism. How secular would you say that was, Mr. Sen?