Ashoka – The Transition from Mass-Murder Maniac to Apostle of Peace.


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?

About wanderlust

just your average books-and-music person who wants to change the world.
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22 Responses to Ashoka – The Transition from Mass-Murder Maniac to Apostle of Peace.

  1. Logik says:

    Ashoka [ asoka] seen in a different light. nice.
    True, Kalinga seen as a turning point seems weird for someone with a whole list of wars to his name, but that was probably the break-point. Maybe he felt a little remorse each time he went at war with someone.
    He was known to be a good ruler before Kalinga itself.Remember the lines about him being benevolent, and that he had trees put up on both sides of the road n all that. [ History would have been boring, if these bits of trivia had not been made up].
    If the state’s sole religion is Buddhism,and everyone follows it, then the secular issues don’t come into picture at all, right?

    Buddhism: modern AOL. too much. A relief camp eh..

  2. harish says:

    Very very interesting post. The AOL analogy seems very appropriate.

    If only our history textbooks were even remotely objective, we would have had people thinking like you.

    Amartya Sen is basically like any other Indian leftist. But he feigns that he is an unbiased person who is liberalism personified. Atleast that’s the impression I got when I read ‘Argumentative Indian’.

  3. Well-wisher says:

    Er, he only said they were not Hindu. I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing he didn’t say they were secular as well. Also, Buddhism makes a lot of sense to me: any religion that preaches moderation (even in moderation) gains a tiny little brownie point over one that preaches righteous war. Also, I don’t think Buddhism talks about the existence of a God as such, it seems to focus mainly on the achievement of enlightenment and/or salvation. Again, one more brownie point. You made a few good points about Ashoka, although they can all be easily countered.

    Oh, and what you need is not leftist, rightist, liberal or any other ideology, but the right ideology. The optimal/near-optimal solution, as it were. And for that, you need respect and a commitment to find the truth, and resolve to settle for nothing less.

  4. wanderlust says:

    @logik:
    yeah, possible kalinga was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
    india back then wasn’t full of only buddhists. there were ajivakas (ashoka was one), tantriks, greeks and lots of others.
    my point was, today, a country having an official state religion is hardly called secular… i mean, would people accept india being a hindu republic?
    @harish:
    >>If only our history textbooks were even remotely objective, we would have had people thinking like you.
    final year jobless is also a way to get people thinking like this 🙂
    @well wisher:
    the comment was made in context of the “saffronization” of textbooks.
    it’s good to know about your religious beliefs, but i’m wondering what relevance they have here. AOL makes a lot of sense to me, too… but that wasn’t the point of this post.

    yeah, the points i made can easily be countered. they are all conjecture. i mean… no one knows what happened two thousand-three thousand years back.. for all you know, maybe ashoka had an illegitimate son who fought for kalinga and died.

    where does the question of left and right turn up here? if you meant harish’s comment, i guess he was merely voicing his opinion on amartya sen and his ideology.

  5. Siri says:

    Hmmmm. Rather convincing analysis it is. Hmmm
    Personally, I thought the movie was nonsense.

  6. ish says:

    Neat post this. There can be a million different things that could have happened and you never know, y’know. Anything could be true, anything could be false. Some people chose to accept what movies show them and what books tell them. Some others like you believe in thinking about them rationally. Come to see of it, most things that are history books tell us are not mostly true because I for one always feel that they ever glorify things to make our heroes look great and us look fair and stuff like that. So yeah, good to hear a different opinion that pretty much seems to make sense to me. Cheers.

  7. wanderlust says:

    @siri:
    yeah, surely it was total nonsense. maybe they stayed faithful to the story or something, but i’ll have to say it was badly made.
    @ish:
    you can’t grudge people for accepting what is told to them about history na… hardly anyone even bothers about history anyway… and even lesser people bother so much that they apply thought process to these things… considering it doesn’t seem to matter much anyway.
    history textbooks are written by the winners. the ncert textbooks all talk about the freedom movement with gandhi as the focal point. gandhi is never critically analyzed… it has been ingrained in us to take all he did as good. Oh, yes, some rebels criticize him, but that isn’t a critical evaluation… it’s just another offshoot of the Idol that is gandhi… any idol has its dissenters.
    non-violent ashoka seems to me to be a moral story for kids.

  8. ish says:

    Yeah, exactly what I’ve been trying to say. The NCERT’s seem like they are merely worshiping Gandhi. Ok, he was a great guy agreed but he must have made his mistakes somewhere. Nobody is perfect but we don’t believe in talking about that other facet of his life. We believe that if it ends well, it’s all good and we can always hide certain facts because we want people to respect Gandhi. It’s fine, really, but not the truth always.

  9. Monkey says:

    You should really be the spokesperson of the BJP or something. Would do a world of good to that party.
    But still, you are not as rightwing-ed as you would have us believe. It’s a gut feeling. As is this other one. That you would do excellent if you joined the Left. I have no rational explanations for either of these; they are merely instinct things. I could be absolutely wrong, but there, I’ve said it.

  10. wanderlust says:

    @ish:
    the problem i find with idolworshipping Gandhi is that you don’t question his acts, explore their real significance… you either love him or hate him. there is no middle path.
    @monkey:
    my right leanings, or leanings of any kind are subject to change… i’m right-leaning now because conservatism and slow change spread over a period of time and the need to stick to our “superstitious beliefs and religious traditions” strike me as the things that would most definitely work… that’s because indian traditions are conducive to the ideals of rational thought, development… and general “whatever works”. now if i were in a regressive country with no development, lots of poverty etc etc, i would probably have put my faith in the Leftist idealogy. leftist idealogy strikes me as counterintuitive and counterproductive. Indian Right strikes me as more back-to-the-basics.. guaranteed to work better.
    spokesperson for the BJP sounds good, but you need to be a sultan of spin and be able to talk to the masses at their own level, to do a world of good to that party… which i most definitely am not and can not.

  11. The post is interesting read and a refreshing opinion.
    Why should any textbook say explicitly about the failures of any great person? This is my comment regarding Gandhi. His political power, practice of Ahimsa, struggle within himself or with his colleagues keeps him way apart from the rest of the leaders of his time. At his time majority of Indians treated him as God. His acceptance and his ideas acceptance during his time makes him single unifying factor in the freedom struggle. Why should any text book which teaches to young people concentrate on his failures.

    Does any other nations text books teaching to children mention the personal shortcomings of their fathers of nations? What purpose does it serve?

  12. wanderlust says:

    @vamsi poondla
    firstly, was venerating and sainting gandhi the way they did necessary? they made him out to be some infallible person so much that people do not objectively analyze him.
    every textbook talks about gandhi being assassinated. Does any textbook give the reasons why gandhi was assassinated? are they invalid reasons? certainly not.
    many emperors and kings have both their strengths and shortcomings listed in textbooks – a popular question format in exams is “list the positives and negatives in the rule of so-and-so”. Why not Gandhi too? Why should he be an idol? He was only human, and there were definitely a lot of other reasons india got freedom other than his movements. The contribution of Bose and Azad Hind Fauj are neglected portions of history. How many kids even know there was something called Azad Hind Radio?
    History textbooks need to have the truth… doctoring of history is of no good in the long run, and can be dangerous and counterproductive.

  13. Rakumi says:

    Taken from Asoka’s Edicts: http://www.cs.colostate.edu/~malaiya/ashoka.html

    ” Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, conquered the Kalingas eight years after his coronation.[25] One hundred and fifty thousand were deported, one hundred thousand were killed and many more died (from other causes). After the Kalingas had been conquered, Beloved-of-the-Gods came to feel a strong inclination towards the Dhamma, a love for the Dhamma and for instruction in Dhamma. Now Beloved-of-the-Gods feels deep remorse for having conquered the Kalingas.

    Indeed, Beloved-of-the-Gods is deeply pained by the killing, dying and deportation that take place when an unconquered country is conquered. But Beloved-of-the-Gods is pained even more by this — that Brahmans, ascetics, and householders of different religions who live in those countries, and who are respectful to superiors, to mother and father, to elders, and who behave properly and have strong loyalty towards friends, acquaintances, companions, relatives, servants and employees — that they are injured, killed or separated from their loved ones. Even those who are not affected (by all this) suffer when they see friends, acquaintances, companions and relatives affected. These misfortunes befall all (as a result of war), and this pains Beloved-of-the-Gods.

    There is no country, except among the Greeks, where these two groups, Brahmans and ascetics, are not found, and there is no country where people are not devoted to one or another religion.[26] Therefore the killing, death or deportation of a hundredth, or even a thousandth part of those who died during the conquest of Kalinga now pains Beloved-of-the-Gods. Now Beloved-of-the-Gods thinks that even those who do wrong should be forgiven where forgiveness is possible. ”

    It seems he really became more interested in Buddhist philosophy after the war or at least he wanted people to know that he was interested in Buddhism.

    But it was not like their was any ‘conversion’ from Hinduism to Buddhism. Buddhism was just one philosophy among many and it was perfectly OK for people to claim to be a Bhahman (so Hindu my modern definition) and a Buddhist at the same time.

  14. mays says:

    What if , all this was not just a political propaganda.
    What if the transformation as we know it was more than just a realization of ahimsa.

    What if piyadasi simply decided to support the force which forged his kingdom from the day chandragupta maurya was freed from his slavery at the cowherd by a mysterious entity called chanakya , who mission as we know was ‘ to reestablish dharma ( this is nothing to do with hindutva or the meaning of dharma as we know it commonly now). We see the same word as the reigning principle in asokan empire. what if this has a connection.

    There is a long lost legend which speaks about nine entities or the nine knowledge sources of ancient india.

  15. wanderlust says:

    @rakumi:
    I was going to say that doesn’t completely rule out the possiblity it was simply political propaganda… but I guess mays said it before me, and said a lot more than i would have.

  16. ava says:

    Akbar converted because the was a illiterate Muslim ruling HIndus and Buddhists who were quite advanced in thinking as compared to today. India’s civilization was partly destroyed by Islamic invasions. This is a fact of history. Not to say that Hindusim was not a rigid caste based religion that excluded peoples- this is a fact of history. Any attempts to change this fact by the likes of BJP or attempts to show that Islam was capable of adapting to India and becoming tolerant by the leftist likes of Amartya Sen is a distortion of history. The Muslim rule enervated India and it never attained its pre- Islamic glory just like Iran. Ask any educated Iranian and they will tell you Islam messed up their culture. So we should be thankful that the British came along and although they also looted and plundered, at least they estabslished institutions that enabled the contact between the East and West again. India is just recovering from 1000 years of slavery- let us hope that it can again engage in dialogue witht he WEst as it was doing before Islam shut it off and Columbus had to sail the world because Europe no longer knew were India was because of Muslims. Those people were lucky to be between East and West and just copy and do not contribute to civizization. But they take credit for everything. Even the copying of the Greek texts were done by the first generation of converted Zoorastrians.

  17. ava says:

    Akbar converted because the was an illiterate Muslim ruling HIndus and Buddhists who were quite advanced in thinking as compared to today. India’s civilization was partly destroyed by Islamic invasions. This is a fact of history. Not to say that Hindusim was not a rigid caste based religion that excluded peoples- this is a fact of history. Any attempts to change this fact by the likes of BJP or attempts to show that Islam was capable of adapting to India and becoming tolerant by the leftist likes of Amartya Sen is a distortion of history. The Muslim rule enervated India and it never attained its pre- Islamic glory just like Iran. Ask any educated Iranian and they will tell you Islam messed up their culture. So we should be thankful that the British came along and although they also looted and plundered, at least they estabslished educational institutions that enabled the contact between the East and West again. India is just recovering from 1000 years of slavery- let us hope that it can again engage in dialogue witht he WEst as it was doing before Islam shut it off and Columbus had to sail the world to find India because Europe no longer knew were India was because of Muslims. Islam stopped dialogue between East and WEst. Those people were lucky to be between East and West and just copy and do not contribute to civizization.But they take credit for everything. Even the copying of the Greek texts were done by the first generation of converted Zoorastrians, I just read about this so I was confirmed that Arabs have controbuted nothing to civilization. The Persians have them some culture and enriched their primitive war like religion.

  18. Doug Rosbury says:

    While you’re criticising someone who is not here to defend himself you are
    being unconscious of the fact that you are doing something that you would
    never allow someone else to do. Your task is to learn to mind your own business and to leave others the hell alone, not to set yourself up as an authority on how others should live(or should have lived) Their lives.—Doug Rosbury

  19. wanderlust says:

    going by your argument, we are also worshipping someone who is not here to laugh at us revering him.
    you dont have to read or follow what i say about how to live. it’s my opinion, and this is blogosphere, im free to express what i feel. keep away if it hurts you to think.

  20. Lisa Karuna says:

    Enjoying this blog, coming to you out of the blue from a non-Indian background in Canada.
    Writing a book for children in the West on King Ashoka.
    Book is NOT about Buddhism – however,
    I came to know about King Ashoka because of my exposure to the history of the trajectory of Buddhism across geography through the ages, and my encounters with teachers and practitioners, from Taiwan to China to Tibet to Japan to Australia- who also know the history of Ashoka’s time (as well as the legends- which are colourful but quite distinct from the historical transmissions of the councils during Ashoka’s reign) as passed on through the order of monks and nuns which has gone – mostly- unbroken since the Buddha’s time.
    It is a fact that much of this transmission has to do with the work of Ashoka, the councils during his reign and his emissaries and I am grateful for this. (Actualy the history and migratory path is really really fascinating – I would say for any adventurer or lover of philosophy/anthropolgy/history/travel/Dharma)

    My greatest challenge with the book is, of course, as aptly raised in this discussion: How to handle his transformation??? So, pleased to see this discourse.

    Where to start? We can look at what he did before and what he did after. There is pragmatism in sending humanitarian aid to Greece and Egypt (jewels) who were in famine during the time of Ashoka’s reign (?)Question: would someone else have marched in and conquered them?. There is pragmatism in setting up environmentally protected areas and dissuading the excessive hunting and consumption of animals – or – is there? How many leaders of how many countries today would wholeheartedly endorse that? Would that really have won him brownie points in his day or made him enemies among those who now had to change their ways? – perhaps abolishing the mal treatment of prisoners, elderly, orphans and slaves was a thing of political expedience – hm – politically expedient in what way???…. I wonder, fascinated. Of course this is not a complete picture.

    The change of heart, which is what fascinates me the most, is certainly a fundamental premise of the Buddha’s Dharma. That inherently, we are good (indeed, not originally sinful). Conditions arise and according to our skill, our predispositions and the severity of those conditions, we are the owners and choosers of the intentions and actions which follow. Even the worst of the worst can change and justice in this world would be restorative. In the West we always see things in black and white- and restorative justice has taken a backseat if it ever made it to the front. But many of the Eastern teachings which I believe we need more exposure to – tell us that things are not so neatly black and white, good and evil, our side your side…is that being lost in the place of its source???

    What is so great about King Ashoka is that he was terrible but he changed his course. And if he hadnt had that change of heart, a vast amount of good would NOT have been done. Moreover, for people like me who are extraordinarily grateful to have access to the Buddha’s teachings (and indeed much of the heritage of India’s sages), we may never have had access to them to this day, had it not been for King Ashoka.

    Good on you for a more honest and thorough investigation. I hope to see more! And to inform my book so that it has the right impact without embellishing too far- as I truly believe the truth to the story is worth telling- precisely because people can change, and nasty destructive policy / philosphical directions- do not have to be accepted as inevitable in this small world.

    (I am reading Ghandi’s definitive writings published by Oxford and indeed some of it does not stand the test of time. 😉 But interestingly Ghandi admits this throughout the book – in various quotes throughout his life, that his ideas may change as his awareness and experiences change…)

    Are the forces of our time such that we are collectively – East and West extinguishing faith in ahimsa?

  21. wanderlust says:

    Firstly, it’s “Gandhi”. the spelling you use has different meanings in indian languages.

    nice to see such a long comment.
    in my opinion, the only reason we know so much about ashoka is the preserved buddhist legends and records, which were spread so far and wide that total extermination was not possible. it is also possible that since these tales travelled far and wide and also because buddhism was a proselytizing religion, some of these good acts were exaggerated.
    what is to show only ashoka did good? i think indica by megasthenes should also be perused to put ashoka in perspective. it was a golden age in chandragupta maurya’s period as well.
    and no one really knows much about chandragupta and samudragupta of the gupta dynasty, do they? they were hindu, hence no glowing buddhist accounts.

    ahimsa… ha, the idea sounds brilliant, but it does not spell peace all over. highly overratted, IMO. The Tibetans were a warlike race who proudly defended their region. When they had vanquished all enemies, they converted to buddhism and over centuries forgot how to wage war. and now you see the condition they are in.

    The safest form of ahimsa you can practice is “hiss, don’t bite”. anything softer reeks of stupidity.

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