This article provides a biography of Asoka.
Birth and Early Life: Accession:
The romantic hypothesis based on Seleukos entering into a matrimonial alliance with Chandragupta Maurya, Asoka’s grandfather, which according to Sylvain Levi “introduced a Greek Princess in the Mauryan harem” that Asoka was either the grandson or son of the Greek Princess remains unproved.
That he was not the son of the Greek Princess is proved on the evidence of Asokavadana, Divyavadana and Vamsatthapakasini.
While both Divyavadana and Asokavadana give the name of Asoka’s mother as Subhadrangi, daughter of a Brahman of Champa Vamsatthapakasini gives her name as Darma. There is a legend behind the name ‘Asoka’. It is said-that Queen Subhadrangi could not enjoy her rightful position of the royal consort due to some palace intrigue. When she ultimately gained her position as royal consort and a son was born to her she named him Asoka, i.e., no sorrow and when second son was born she called him Vitasoka, i.e., end of sorrow.
Two points, however, emerge for consideration:
(i) If the matrimonial alliance between Seleukos and Chandragupta means a marriage between a Greek Princess and Bindusara, then the palace intrigue in keeping the princess separate from the King (Bindusara) may have some meaning as the princess was of an outlandish origin,
(ii) This may as well somewhat explain the opposition of; some of the brothers of Asoka to latter’s succession to the throne which led to a struggle accounting for the interregnum of four years from 273—269 B.C.
On Bindusara’s death his son Asoka succeeded him and with himbegins a memorable chapter of the history of India. He has been called the ‘Greatest of Kings’ by H. G. Wells and by common consent he has been given the highest place of honour among the Kings and Emperors of the World.
Our knowledge of the history of his reign is based on inscriptions left by him engraved on rocks and pillars which from the very nature of permanence stand unaltered and without any interpolation till today. But although his inscriptions are an excellent source of our information of his reign they do not throw any light on his early life. We have to depend solely upon the Buddhist texts like Divyavadana and the Ceylonese chronicles like Dipavamsa, Maha-vamsa etc.
According to Mahavamsa Asoka while a Prince was appointed as Viceroy at Ujjain. Two later Buddhist texts, the Asokasutra and Kunalasutra state that Asoka was the Viceroy at Taxila. But according to Asokavadana we know that a revolt took place at Taxila during the reign of Bindusara due to the oppressive rule of the local officials and Asoka was sent there to put it down.
This fact is also corroborated by an Aramic inscription found in a house at Sirkap in Taxila: It may be that after the revolt had been quelled Asoka continued to stay at Taxila for some time. This might have led to the confusion in the Buddhist texts Asokasutra and Kunalasutra where Asoka has been stated as the Viceroy of Taxila. Most of the evidences bear out that Asoka was the Viceroy at Ujjain before he became the King.
From Dipavamsa we have information regarding the personal life of Asoka when he was a viceroy at Ujjain. There he fell in love with a daughter of a merchant, named Devi or Vidisamahadevi whom he is said to have married and had two children through her: Mahendra and Samghamitra. Devi continued to remain at Vidisa, when Asoka ascended the throne at Pataliputra, obviously because, she was not of an appropriately high rank to become the Queen.
The Buddhist texts depict Asoka in his early career as a cruel, blood thirsty tyrant for which he earned the epithet of Chandasoka (ferocious Asoka), but after his conversion he became a Dharmasoka (religious Asoka). Asoka is said to have seized the throne on his father’s death by slaying his ninety-nine brothers born of different wives of Bindusara. These are hardly credible and were introduced to glorify Buddhism by drawing a glaring contrast between Asoka’s career before and after conversion into Buddhism.
There is, however, a general agreement on the point that Asoka was not the heir-apparent and that there was a fratricidal struggle after the death of Bindusara and his sons. On the evidence of Divyavadana we know that Bindusara before his death desired to appoint his oldest son Susima as King. But his ministers, particularly his Chief Minister Radhagupta placed Asoka on the throne.
At the time of Bindusara’s death Asoka was the Viceroy of a province, according to some sources Taxila, according to others Ujjain. Mahavamsa mentions Asoka’s slaying of his eldest brother and elsewhere the same work as also Dipavamsa mention that Asoka killed his ninety-nine brothers sparing only Tishya or Tissa the youngest of all.
Asoka’s slaying of his ninety-nine brothers born of different wives of Bindusara can be, without hesitation, dismissed as imaginary. There is no independent evidence of such a struggle. The story must have been introduced by the Buddhist writers to glorify the influence of Buddhism on Asoka showing the contrast between his nature before his becoming a Buddhist and after.
This story is refuted by his inscriptions which mention of not only one brother, but several of them living in the thirteenth year of his reign both in Pataliputra and other towns of his empire whose household were of Asoka’s most anxious care. In his 5th Rock Edict Asoka mentions officers who besides their other duties, had the special function of superintending the welfare of the families of his brothers, sisters and others relatives.
However, from historical standpoint what the Buddhist stories suggest has two distinct matters to be considered, viz :
(i) that there was a fratricidal struggle on the death of Bindusara and Asoka was involved in it and he had to remove all his brothers who opposed his accession to the throne, and
(ii) that the delay that occurred between the year of the death of Bindusara, 273 B.C. and Asoka’s coronation in 269 B.C. was due to the fratricidal struggle and this explains the period of interregnum of four years.
As to the first, it may be pointed out that, there is no independent evidence to show that there was such a fratricidal struggle in which so many of his brothers had been done to death by Asoka. This must have been a fabrication of the Buddhist writers to show the contrast of Asoka’s wickedness and piety before and after his conversion into Buddhism. Only point that has emerged as a historical fact is Asoka’s supersession of the claim of his eldest brother Susima.
With regard to the delay between the accession and coronation, most scholars have accepted it as historical, particularly in view of Asoka’s dating of the events of his reign from his coronation in all his inscriptions. But no satisfactory explanation has been given for this unusual course, and it is a mere gratuitous assumption that the long delay may have been due to disputed succession involving much bloodshed as Smith suggests.
The Ceylonese chronicles simply state that Asoka’s coronation took place four years after he had won for himself the undivided sovereignty. This naturally raises a presumption that his sovereignty might have been disputed in parts of the empire. Asoka’s grandson Dasarath also dated the events of his reign from the date of his coronation. Most of-the scholars except Dr. D. R. Bhandarkar accept the view that there was a gap between Asoka’s accession and coronation although no valid reasons have been adduced for it.
The whole controversy over the legend of slaying of ninety-nine brothers and all that, boils down to one probability that there was a contest for the throne in which Asoka had succeeded against the claims of his step-brother Susima, the eldest of the sons of Bindusara, with the help of Radhagupta the Chief Minister of Bindusara.
On his coronation Asoka assumed the title of Piyadasi, i.e., Priya-darshi, meaning of gainly looks. The fullest appellation by which Asoka styled himself is Devanampriya Priyadarsi Raja. He did not call himself Asoka, his personal name, except in the Maski Edict which sets at rest the question of identity of the Priyadarsi.
Asoka’s Family and Family Life:
Some members of Asoka’s immediate family have been mentioned in various sources. Asoka had several queens, the exact number is not known to us.
There are references to at least three queens in chronicles and Buddhist texts like Mahavamsa, Divyavadana, etc. Asoka’s Chief Queen for most of his reign was Asandhimittra who died four years before Asoka’s death. On the death of Asandhimittra, Tissarakkha was raised to the position of the Chief Queen It is said that this queen had a very great influence on Asoka, wherefrom a modern scholar suggests that she might have been married by Asoka late in his life, obviously on the assumption that young wives have always exercised undue influence on aged husband.
The second queen of Asoka was Karuvaki, mother of Trivara mentioned in the Queen’s edict. Another Queen referred to in the Divyavadana as his third wife was Padmavati who was the mother of the crown prince Kunala also called Dharma-vivardhana. Fa-Hien also mentions Dharmavivardhana as the son of Asoka who was the Viceroy at Gandhara. From Rajatarangini we have the reference to another son of Asoka, named Jalauka, and a third Tivara born of queen Karuvaki.
Asoka had two daughters, Samghamitra and Carumati. Fa-Hien’s writing in the fourth century A.D. and following him Hiuen-Tsang two centuries later mentions Mahendra as brother of Asoka. But as we have already seen, Mahendra was the son of Asoka born of Devi of Vidisa, the beautiful daughter of a merchant.
From all this, it is reasonable to believe that although a Buddhist he had a number of queens as well as ‘left handed’ wives as is evidenced from his mention of avarodliana, i.e., harem. Asoka’s reference to devikumaras besides his sons Aryaputras as distinguished from devikumaras, though his queens might have been born of his wives other than his queens.
About Asoka’s private life and habits we have very little information. From Rock Edic VI we have some indirect reference to how lie would abide his time when he had no official business to attend to. Evidently, therefore, remarks Dr. Bhandarkar in analysing the information found in the Rock Edict VI when Asoka had no business to dispose of, and of course, was not asleep, he was, to be found at his capital either regaling in the dining hall, engaged with the inmates of his harem, chatting in his retiring cabin, or inspecting the royal stud, or enjoying a horse ride or beguiling his time in the orchard.
About his tastes and fascinations, we have a little bit of information, from his first Rock Edict where form we know that even when he was carrying out his programme of stopping slaughter and injury to Jiving beings he permitted only two peacocks and one deer to be killed for his royal dish, the killing of deer was not being very regularly done. This gives us an idea of the food that gratified his royal palate.
As a King, before his conversion into Buddhism, Asoka seems to have done what the kings of ancient India would do. He feasted and amused his subjects, for which purpose he followed the celebration of Samajas. The Samajas were of two kinds, one for entertaining the people in a banquet, the chief item of food was meat.
The other Samaja was one in which dancing, music, wrestling etc. were performed in an amphitheatre. Hunting was also a part of the entertainment in this kind of Samajas. The Samajas as Nilkanta Sastri mentions were unquestionably a diplomatic mode of keeping the people pleased and satisfied. But such Samajas were all stopped after Asoka began to preach his Dhamma.
The Kalinga War:
Asoka had given ample evidence of his ability as a soldier and a statesman even before becoming the king. He was the Viceroy of Ujjain and when there was a rebellion in Taxila and the situation went out of hands of Susima, his eldest brother, who was the Viceroy there, Asoka was sent there to quell the rebellion.
To begin with Asoka followed the footsteps of his illustrious grandfather Chandragupta Maurya and launched upon a career of conquest and aggression. The Buddhist text Divyavadana mentions his conquest of Svasa (Khasa) country. But the only conquest referred to in his edicts took place in the ninth year of his coronation.
In the thirteenth year of his reign and eight years after his coronation Asoka made war against Kalinga, modern Orissa including Can jam and included it into the Magadhan Empire. The conquered country was formed into a viceroyalty with its headquarters at Tosali. Parts of Kalinga were within the dominions of the Nanda Kings, the reconquest of Kalinga, therefore, was necessitated by its having severed connection with Magadha after the fall of the Nandas.
If we go by the story of a general revolt under Bindusara during which Taxila revolted, it is not unlikely that Kalinga like Taxila remarks Dr. H. C. Raychaudhuri threw off the allegiance of Magadha during the reign of that monarch. But Dr. Raychaudhuri also mentions the evidence of Pliny, who based his work on Megasthenes’ Indika, that at the time of Chandragupta Kalinga was an independent kingdom with an army of 60,000 foot soldiers, 1,000 horsemen arid 700 elephants which was in Procint of War. Thus the evidence of Pliny belies the presumption of a revolt by Kalinga during the time of Bindusara for it was already independent during Chandragupta’s time.
We now turn to the probability of Kalinga becoming independent after the fall of the Nanda rule in Magadha. According to R. S. Tripathy confusion occasioned by the overthrow of the Nanda rule by Chandragupta was taken advantage of by Kalinga and became independent. Dr. Tripathy remarks that Chandragupta Maurya’s pre occupation in setting the newly acquired soverigntly and building up the administration left no time at his disposal to turn to the conquest of Kalinga.
A pertinent question that still remains is why Asoka instead of trying to conquer the Chola and the Pandya countries which his father tried to subdue proceeded to conquer Kalinga. Andhra which lay South of Kalinga had been conquered by Bindusara but when he proceeded to conquer the Chola and the Pandya countries, Kalinga an ally of the Cholas and the Pandya’s attacked Bindusara from the rear and became the cause of Bindusara’s failure.
Thus Kalinga was an enemy of the Mauryas both because its breaking away from the Magadhan empire and particularly because of the turning into an ally of the countries Bindusara wanted to conquer. Kalinga as Nilkanta Sastri remarks became a thorn in the body politic of his (Asoka’s) dominions. It was, therefore, perhaps supremely imperative to reduce Kalinga to complete subjection. This reasoning of Dr. Bhandarkar is, however, regarded as speculative by Nilkanta Sastri.
The major cause for the conquest of Kalinga was its military strength. We have seen how Pliny described the military strength of Kalinga. R. C. Majumdar remarks that Kalinga was a populous and powerful state. It had thrived on maritime trade. Thus wealth both human, and material accounted for the strength of the country and her spirit of independence has been demonstrated by her assuming independent status after taking advantage of the confusion consequent upon the overthrow of the Nandas and her jealous guarding of independence by not allowing Bindusara to conquer her allies, the Cholas and the Pandyas.
The huge casualties of the war as described in the Rock Edict XIII with one hundred fifty thousand taken prisoners, hundred thousand slain and as many number dead bear out hugeness of the army of Kalinga and its highly populousness. Obviously, the Kalinga King must have added to his army strength between the time of Megasthenes and that of the Kalinga War.
For such a strong country remaining in procint of war on the border of his dominions could certainly not be a matter of indifference to any emperor. Asoka, therefore, felt the need of subjugating Kalinga. The conquest and annexation of Kalinga left Asoka free to carry out his policy of conquest of Chola and Pandya countries to complete the conquest of the whole of the Indian peninsula.
But soon after the Kalinga War Asoka became a Buddhist. For a year Asoka was lukewarm but thereafter he began strenuous efforts for promoting the Dhamma for his mind was fired by ennobling aspiration of becoming supreme on earth not through territorial conquests but through conquest of Dhamma and which stood for love, humanity and nonviolence.
Extent of Asoka’s Empire:
The conquest of Kalinga marks the end of an era in the history of Magadha as also of India. It closed the career of imperial conquests begun with Bimbisara’s conquest of Anga. While it ended the era of Magadhan imperial expansion, it marked the beginning of an era of peace and social progress, of brotherliness and religious propaganda, and consequent military inefficiency and political stagnation. The era of Digvijaya was over and the era of Dhammavijaya was to begin.
It is worthwhile to consider the final expansion that the Maurya Empire had reached Asoka’s conquest of Kalinga. We have a fair idea of the extent of the Maurya Empire under Chandragupta and his son Bindusara. It extended from Herat in the north-west to Mysore and Nellore district of Madras. Under Bindusara Andhra was annexted to the Maurya Empire. It was under Asoka that Maurya Empire reached its apogee in expanse.
About the extent of Asoka’s empire we have more precise knowledge than we had about the Maurya Empire under his predecessors. Our knowledge is derived from two sources, namely, the find spots of Asoka’s edicts and the references in the inscriptions themselves.
The peculiarity with Asoka’s Rock Edicts is that they are found on or about the frontiers of his dominions. Again, whereas the Rock seems to be engraved in the capitals of outlying provinces, the Minor Rock Edicts are mostly found at places which separate his territory from those of independent or semi-independent neighbours.
Thus the find spots of his Rock Edicts and Minor Rock Edicts, give us almost a full picture of the extent of his empire. Now as we move from the east and proceed westwards noting the find-spots of his edicts we first come across that near the Bay of Bengal engraved in a village calledDhanli Bhubaneswar. One version of this edict is found inscribed in the town of Jaugada in the Ganjam district of the Madras Presidency.
Both these versions of the Rock Edicts were put up in the newly conquered province of Kalinga which was the south-eastern limit of Asoka’s empire. Towards the north a third copy of Asoka’s Ronk Edicts has been found near Kalsi in the Dehra Dun district. Two versions of the Rock Edicts have been found inscribed one at Mansera in the Hazara district and another at Shahbazgarhi in the Peshwar district in the North-Western Frontier Province.
Moving towards the South along the Western coast one version has been discovered at Junagarh in Kathiawar and another at Sopara in the Thana district. One set of the fourteen Rock Edicts of Asoka has been found at Yerragudi in the Kurnool district of the Madras Presidency. Mr. Lewis Rice discovered three copies of the Minor Rock Edicts of Asoka at three places in the Chitaldurg district in Mysore.
From the find spots of the Rock Edicts of Asoka on the bordering areas of his dominions we get a fairly precise idea of his empire extending to the Bay of Bengal in the east, the northern districts of Mysore in the south, the Ganjam in the South-east, to the North-Western Frontier Province, to the Himalayan region in the north and to Kathiawar and Bombay towards the West. Thus we may say that the empire of Asoka extended from the Himalaya in the north to Madras in the south and from the North-Western Provinces in the west to Bay of Bengal in the east.
Now turning to the evidence contained in the body of the Edicts we may find out what places have been named therein as within the dominions of Asoka. Asoka’s Rock Edicts II and XIII give us the names of his frontager kings. Towards the north-west outside India reference is to Anitiyoka Yona Raja, i.e., the Yavana King Antiochus II of Syria whose kingdom bordered on the limits of Asoka’s empire towards the north-west. This quite fits in with the indigenous and the Greek evidences that Seleukos made over Kabul, Kandahar, Makran and Herat to Chandragupta Maurya.
Towards the south the Kingdoms on the borders of Asoka’s empire were those Cholas, Pandyas, Keralaputra and Satiyaputra, and beyond India towards the south Tambapamni i.e., Ceylon.
Asoka mentioned the following places as within his empire: Magadha, Pataliputra, Khalatikaparvata, Kosami, Lumminigama, Kalinga, Atavi, Suvarnagiri, lsila, Ujjaini, Tahshasila.
From the Greek source we know that Gangaridae, i.e., Bengal was within the empire of Asoka. From Hiuen-Tsang’s record and Kalhana’s Rajatarangini it is known that Kashmir was included in the dominions of Asoka.
In Rock Edicts V and XIII Asoka refers to the outlying provinces of his kingdom. These are Yonas, Kambojas, Gandharas, Rastrika-Petenikas, Bhoja-Petenikas, Nabhaka-Nabhapamtis, Andhras and Parimdas. Except Nabhapamtis and Parimdas, it has been possible to identify all these places.
Yonas have been identified with the Greek Colony of Nysa which lay between the Kabul and the Indus. Kambojas have been identified with the province to the South of Kashmir. Gandhara was a province of Asoka’s empire with Taxila as its capital. The Rastrikas were the occupants of Nasik and Poona districts, and the Bhojas the occupants of Thana and Kolaba districts of Bombay and parts of Madhya Pradesh and Hyderabad.
According to Senart the names mentioned in the Edicts have been placed in a definite order. If this is accepted then Nabhaka-Nabhapamtis were somewhere in Baluchistan, and Parmidas as the name follows Andhras, it must have been somewhere in the easternmost part of Asoka’s empire. This view is taken by both Hultzch and N. K. Sastri.
In the Cambridge History of India (Vol. I) Rapson mentions the above areas to be under the sphere of influence of Asoka’s empire. Some Scholars take these to be feudatory (Hida raja) states under Asoka. But as Dr. Bhandarkar points out, it was due to a misreading and misinterpretation of a phrase in Rock Edict XIII that they were regarded as, feudatory chiefs.
But the Girnar version of the same edict has proved beyond doubt that these were all subject peoples of Asoka. Dr. Roychaudhuri also points out that the fact of Asoka’s appointing Dhamma Mahamatras in these places and peoples prove beyond doubt they were the subjects of his empire.
If we compare the extent of Asoka’s empire as we understand from the external evidence, that is the evidence of the find spots of Asoka’s Edicts, with the internal evidence, that is, the evidence furnished by the inscription and other recorded sources, we get a dear and precise idea of the extent of Asoka’s empire. It comprised whole of India except Kamrupa, i.e., Assam in the east and the Tamil States in the extreme south and upto the borders of the kingdom of Antiochos of Syria towards the north-west.
Administration of the Empire under Asoka:
The empire of the Mauryas even under Chandragupta was vast enough to admit its being easily administered. Under Asoka the empire reached its utmost expansion covering almost the whole of the Indian sub-continent. An empire so vast and made up of parts so widely separated as Herat, Orissa and Mysore need a Hercules to administer it effectively and keeping it together in those days of distant past. Asoka, therefore, continued the policy of decentralisation of the administration as it existed under his grandfather and father making certain changes in its functioning.
Asoka perhaps had a Deputy or Uparaja like his brother Tissa to assist him. Besides the Uparaja there were the Yuvaraja, i.e., the Crown Prince and Agramatya, i.e., the Chief Minister Radhagupta to help him in carrying out the administration of the empire. He also shared his administration with the Princes, the Kumaras or Aryaputras as they were called, who were appointed viceroys in the outlying provinces of the empire.
Asoka’s inscriptions mention four such viceroys ruling at Ujjaini, Taxila, Suvarnagiri and Tosali. The Buddhist text Divyavadana mentions Prince Kunala as viceroy at Taxila. Kunala was also known as Dharmavivardhana, referred to in the Chinese traveller Fa-hien’s account.
The empire was divided into viceroyalties under which were governorships. Obviously the Viceroyalties were divided into divisions, called Pradeshas and the Governors called Pradeshikas in the inscriptions. According to N. K. Sastri the empire was divided into a number of Janapadas or Provinces which were subdivided into Pradesas or divisions, each Pradesa was again divided into aharas or districts and aharas into Visayyas or talukas.
There was hierarchy of officials beginning from the Viceroy downwards such as governors or Pradeshikas, and rajukas, or district officers; below the Rajukas came the Purushas, who were of three different ranks. Yuktas were district officers who kept accounts assisted by the Upa-Juktas.
In the separate Kalinga Edicts there has been reference to three Kumaras one in charge of each of the provinces such as Janapadas of Ujjaini, Taxila and Tosali (in Kalinga). In the fourth province with Suvarnagiri as its capital, the Viceroy is called Arya-putra in the Minor Rock Edict I.
The word Aryaputra, as N. K. Sastri says refers to Yuvaraja or the Crown Prince in this case. All the viceroys did not have same measure of autonomy. N. K. Sastri remarks “we notice some differenced with regard to the degree of authority they exercised in their provinces”.
Whereas the Kumara of Tosali ruled over Kalinga jointly with mahamatras subject to the control of the King himself. Mahamatras were high officials who worked under the Kumaras as in the cases of the Rumaras of Ujjaini and Taxila but were joint rulers with Kumara at Kalinga.
Asoka’s inscriptions mention a few other categories of Officers such as Stryadhyaksha-Mahamatras, Vajrabhumikas and Anta-mahamatras. According to N. K. Sastri Anta-mahamatras appear to be high officials who accompanied Asoka’s envoys to foreign countries.
It is worthwhile to mention that the Viceroys had an official hierarchy modelled on that of the imperial government at the centre and were enjoined by the emperor to follow the same procedure in regard to circuit as was followed by the central government.
Asoka had a Parishad or Council, which he refers to in two of his edicts. In the 3rd Rock Edict the Council appears to act in a subordinate way, for it was being merely expected to order the Yuktas to register the new administrative measures adopted by Asoka. In the 6th Rock Edict the Council appears to have much greater authority.
It appears empowered to discuss King’s policy in his absence and suggests change or it may discuss emergent matters referred to it by the King. In such cases the decisions of the Council had to be reported to the King without loss of time. But the final decision rested with the King; this shows that the Council was more or less an advisory body.
It may, however, be mentioned that the Council in which powerful minister like Radhagupta would be present its decision could not possibly be altogether ignored by the King. It may also be mentioned that King’s control over the Council was gradually increased with appointment of new Councillors who were chosen by the King himself and such they were persons who were in favour of his policy.
In provincial administration the Council of Minister had much greater power than its central counterpart and it acted, in fact, as a check on the power of the Prince and when occasion would demand, they could have direct contact with the King. At times the King would send direct orders to the ministers bypassing the Prince. The Mahamatras in the viceroyalties would be appointed by the King himself on occasions.
Asoka took punctilious care to see that justice was meted out to the people without any delay or injustice. In his separate Edict ad1-dressed to the mahamatras, Asoka emphasized the importance of just behaviour and impartial justice and cautioned them against weaknesses like anger, fatigue, laziness, impatience, etc., which might prejudice a judgment.
The jurisdiction in the urban areas was in the charge of the mahamatras and that in the rural area in the hands of the rajukas.. In the Maurya penal system fine was the prevalent (punishment. Those who could not pay the fine might accept bondage in lieu. Capital punishment was also practised.
In spite of Asoka’s conversion to Buddhism in extreme cases death penalty) would be given. Although Asoka was not in favour of capital punishment he did not do away with the practice. This was obviously an instance of Asoka’s prudent statecraft which triumphed over his ideals.
Asoka kept himself informed of everything that was going within his dominions through Pulindas and Pativedakas, i.e., the special reporters who had access to the king at all places and all hours. Asoka’s system of espionage was not so complex as to be found in Kautilya’s Arthasastra. His reporters were not secret people, they were known to the population and the administration and they went from place to place and made reports to the king.
Character of His Government:
In one way Asoka’s administration ushered in a new form of administration. Till we reach the Maurya period the system of government in India was of diverse nature comprising in it kingship, small republics and confederation of smaller states. But it was under the 1st Maurya king that a centralised monarchy based on political union of a vast area of the country had emerged.
Under Asoka this unity was further extended. Asoka desired a complete control over the country and it was under him that a centralised empire on such a vast scale was established in India. As set forth in the political treatise Arthasastra every detail of the organisation and administration of the State was aimed at giving the final control into hands of the king.
According to the traditional concept of Indian kingship of the time the supremacy of the king’s authority was meant for protection of social usages and for the welfare of the people. To serve these purposes king’s law might even supersede sastra. This gave a tremendous increase in the power of the king but under Asoka this centralised authority took the shape of paternalism.
The previously held idea of the king being a protector, remote from the affairs of his subjects, gave way to the belief that he had complete control over all spheres of social and political life. All men are my children ‘defined Asoka’s attitude to his subjects and welfare of the subjects became the basic character of his government.
His Conversion into Buddhism:
Asoka till his conversion into Buddhism had the traditional devotion of the Hindu kings to gods, and goddesses. The Kashmir Chronicler Kalhana identifies his favourite deity as Siva. Born and brought up in the splendour of the Maurya imperial atmosphere, he took pleasure in hunting, gambling and war. He had no scruple in slaughter of men and animals. Like other Princes of royal blood he had no hesitation in defeating the claim of his eldest brother to the throne.
Even if we reject the claim of the Buddhist texts and Ceylonese traditions that he had killed his ninety-nine brothers except the youngest as a fabrication, his struggle for the) throne with the help of the Chief Minister cannot be brushed aside. All this shows him in the true colour of the section of an imperial, house. Even his war of conquest of Kalinga was in complete conformity with his imperial ambition.
But the Kalinga War which took place in the ninth year of his coronation and terrible carnage that it resulted in, and the untold miseries that it brought in its train appalled Asoka. The sight of miseries and bloodshed in the sanguinary campaign touched him too deep in his heart and roused in him a deep feeling of remorse and sorrow.
In his own words in his inscription (R. E. XIII) he says:
Thus arose His Sacred Majesty’s remorse for having conquered the Kalingas, because the conquest of a country, previously unconquered, involves the slaughter, death and carrying away captive of the people. That is a matter of profound sorrow and regret to His Sacred Majesty.
Acting upto his feelings of remorse and sorrow, Asoka abstained from aggressive war for the rest of his life. To seathe the sword at the moment of success which would have definitely led to further success by way conquest of the Tamil countries which his father had attempted but failed, is a unique experience in history of imperialism. It was at this time that Asoka came under the influence of Buddhism which stood for peace and non-violence.
For about two years and a half Asoka remained a lay disciple after which he formally joined the Buddhist Order and became a Bhikshu. He then began to exert himself strenuously for the propagation of Buddhism in which he found solace and peace of mind.
As a monk he visited the holy places connected with the life of Buddha. He first visited Sambodhi, i.e., Bodhgaya the place where Buddha became Sambuddha or enlightened one. Later he visited Lumbini Park, the Bethelhem of Buddhism, and the birth place of Buddha, where an inscribed pillar still stands to commemorate the emperor’s visit. In these visits he was led by his preceptor Saint Upagupta. In due course Upagupta led his royal disciple to Kapilavastu, Sravasti and Kushinagar.
Asoka combined the functions of an emperor and a Buddhist zealot. He even dressed himself in the robe of a monk and at times retired to a monastery after making suitable arrangement for the administration of his empire. What with the elevating intercourse with the Samgha, i.e., monastery and the enthralling sanctity attaching to this place, he became completely transformed and forthwith developed into a zealot. Almost like Charlemagne of, the Holy Roman Empire of Europe Asoka also adopted the position of the head of both Church and State during the last twenty years of his reign.
His Administrative Reform:
Asoka’s conversion had its effects both upon internal and external policies of the government. In the fourth Rock Edict and the Kalinga Edict Asoka expressed his unhappiness about several matters in which maladministration in the provinces was a major one. To remove the maladministration Asoka adopted some measures of administrative reforms.
He instituted two kinds of circuits (anusamyana), quinquennial and triennial of state officials like Yutas, Rajukas, Pradesikas and Mahamatras. The Yutus, Rajukas and the Pradesikas had to go on tour of the different parts of the country every five years. According to H. C. Raichaudhuri their circuit or tour was mainly for propaganda work.
But they had also to look after, supervise and check the work of administration in different parts of the country. The circuit (Anusamyana) of the Mahamatras was triennial and was specially instituted for the purpose of checking miscarriage of justice, arbitrary imprisonment and torture in the outlying provinces, like Kalinga, Ujjaini and Taxila.
Asoka also created a number of new posts such as Dhamma Mahamatras and Dhamma-Yutas. The Dhamma-Mahamatras were given the protective mission among the people of all sects, the Brahmanas, Jainas, Yavanas, Kambojas, Gandharas, Rastikas and all Aparantas. They were also appointed among the servants, masters, wealthy, the helpless, and the aged for freeing them from the wordily cares and propagation of the Law of Piety.
They were also employed to grant remission of penalties or execution on the merits of the case. They were also to consider the motive behind the crime and if they found sufficient grounds might even release the convicted person. If the person was of advanced age, or committed the crime on instigation or had dependent children they might as well be released by such Officers.
Dhamma-Mahamatras were further engaged everywhere in the imperial dominions or indeed in the whole world (Prithivi) as known to the Mauryas, among the Dhamma-Yutas with regard to the concerns of the Law, the establishment of the Law and the business of alms giving. This shows that Asoka appointed a new class of officers called Dhamma-Yutas for looking after the Law of Piety and alms giving. The border countries were placed under the special care of the Avutikas, a new class of officials.
Asoka who was anxious to keep himself fully informed of the affairs of the State, whether there was any delay in public affairs, specially in the work of the Mahamatras, gave special direction to the Pativedakas, i.e., reporters to report to him immediately whenever any urgent or important matter was committed to the Mahamatras or discussed in the Parishad.
From the Kalinga Edicts and the Sixth Rock Edict it is clearly understood how Asoka himself kept an watchful eye on the Mahar matras, especially on those who were entrusted with the administration of justice in cities.
He granted much freedom to the Rajukas in their function of awarding honours or penalties so that they might perform their duty with fullest freedom and without any fear. The Rajukas were placed over many hundred thousands of people. Grant of this freedom of action was made only to the Rajukas who obviously enjoyed much respect and confidence of Asoka.
In order that there might be uniformity in penalties and procedure, he ordered that all condemned prisoners awaiting capital punishment must be given a respite of three days during which they might appeal to the higher authorities for pardon or prepare themselves for the other world.
Asoka also issued regulations legally restricting the slaughter or mutilation of animals on certain occasions. He also effected jail deliveries almost once in every year. Twenty-five jail deliveries were ordered upto twenty-seventh year of his coronation.
Change in Foreign Policy:
Asoka’s conversion to Buddhism had its immediate effects on the foreign policy of the country. He declared that it would be a matter of great regret to him if a thousandth part of the sufferings, death and maiming that took place in the Kalinga War were to come upon his people.
Asoka assured the un-subdued peoples of the countries on the frontiers of his dominions that they should not be afraid of him, they should trust him and would receive happiness and not sorrow (Kalinga Edict I). He even assured them that lie would bear any wrong done to him, so far as it could possibly be borne with.
He eschewed war and declared that the chiefest conquest was not the conquest by arms (Digvijay) but conquest by righteousness (Dhamma-Vijaya). Thus traditional Maurya policy of imperial expansion through wars of conquests was reversed and a policy conquering the hearts of the frontagers through friendliness, love, and peace was adopted instead.
In pursuance of his policy of no-war Asoka declared with a feeling of exultation that the reverberation of his war drums (Bherighosa) has been converted into reverberation of Law of Piety (Dhammaghosa). Not content with eschewing war himself, he banned war of conquests by the sons and grandsons even. He declared: From now my sons and grandsons should not go in for any conquests (Putre papotra me asu navam vijayam ma vijetavyam).
In strict conformity with his profession Asoka in practice as well made no attempt to annex the frontier kingdoms of the extreme south such as Chola, Pandya, Satiyaputra, Keralaputra, Tambapamni (Ceylon) which he could have done in a trice should he so desired. The same policy he pursued in regard to the realm of Amtiyoko Yonaraja who has been identified with Antiochos II Theos, King of Syria and Western Asia.
On the contrary, he followed a policy of extreme friendliness in his relations with them. Asoka’s friendly relations were not confined to the front-agers only, but also kingdoms beyond. He had cordial friendly relations with Ptolemy II Philadelphos of Egypt, Magas of Cyrene in North Africa, Antigonas Gonatas, King of Macedon and Alexander of Epirus.
He sent his envoys to these countries for propagation of the Law of Piety and as H. C. Raichaudhuri remarks, Buddhism doubtless, made some progress in Western Asian countries. But the Greeks apparently were not much impressed by the doctrine of non-violence. They seemingly remained friendly towards India for they were aware that Asoka’s strong arm, in spite of his repentance, possessed the power to punish and as soon as Asoka was dead the Yavanas once more pounced upon the Kabul Valley, the Punjab, and Madhyadesa and threw these areas into confusion.
Asoka’s missions seem to have attained greater success in the South. In the Tamil countries of the South, Ceylon as well as in Suvarnabhumi the Law of Piety and through it the culture of India had an abiding influence.
We have a clear and precise idea about the constituents o£ Asoka’s Dhamma from the attributes he mentions that fall under the term as well as the specific practices thereof.
In the 2nd and seventh Pillar Edicts Asoka mentions the qualities that constitute his Dhamma. These are: Sadhave or bahukayane, i.e., much good, apasinave, i.e., freedom from depravity, day a, i.e., mercy, dane, i.e., liberality, Sache i.e., truthfulness, Sochaye i.e., purity and madave, i.e., gentleness. Asoka also left indication of how these virtues could be practised or put into action.
The enumeration of duties in this connection which vary slightly in difference inscriptions are as follows: Daya means anarambha prananam and avihisa bhutanam, i.e., non-slaughter of animate beings and non injury to creatures. Dane means liberal behaviour towards friends, acquaintances and relatives, also towards Brahmanas and Sramanas.
Madave means hearkening to parents, elders, seemly behaviour to friend’s relatives, acquaintances, Brahmanas and Sramans. By Sadhava or Kayana he means work of public utility and refers to his own doings in this regard, such as planting of trees by roadside, digging of wells and inns for travelling public.
Establishment of healing arrangements for both men and animals, etc. also fall under Sadhava or Kayana. These are all on the positive side of Asoka’s Dhamma which one had to perform but there is also a negative side where one has to refrain from doing certain things. These are apasinava which mean freedom from asinava, i.e., sins like cruelly, anger, conceit and envy.
Asoka also recommended self-examination and introspection to the followers of his Dhamma. He discouraged religious intolerance and stressed the virtue of Samavaya, i.e., concord among peoples of different religions. He clearly pointed out that those who out of attachment to their own religion disparage the religion of others, in fact, do much harm to their own religion. Thus Asoka’s Dhama is a comprehensive moral code, comprising positive as well as, negative duties as well as warnings against falling victim to normal weakness such as religious bigotry or intolerance.
Now let us turn to the summum bonum or the ultimate end for which the Dhamma was to be practised. Even here his Edicts come to our help. In the 6th Rock Edict Asoka says that all his efforts are directed towards making his people happy in this world and in order that they may attain Svarga heaven in the next world.
He also compares this world and the world hereafter by use of the terms hidata, palata, or hida-lokika, pala-lokika. In one place he mentions that performance of Dhamma begets endless merit in the next world and enables men to attain Svarga, i.e., heaven.
Nature Asoka’s Dhamma:
The very simple character of the Dhamma taught by Asoka was not in full conformity with Buddhism to which he had been converted. This has led Prof. Fleet to remark that Asoka’s Dhamma was Raja-dharma that is a code of conduct and duties prescribed for the kings.
Asoka’s Dhamma that is not the duties prescribed for the kings and rulers but a code of conduct and duties for the people to follow for the leading righteous life and to attain happiness in this world and heavenly bliss in the life hereafter.. V. A. Smith is of the opinion that Asoka’s Dhamma had few, if any, distinctive features.
The doctrine he preached was essentially common to all Indian religions. Smith also points out that the only difference of Asoka’s Dhamma with Hindu religion is a tinge of Buddhism, rather saturation with ethical thought which lies at the basis of Buddhism. Prof. F. W. Thomas also does not regard Asoka’s Dhamma to be Buddhism as it does not mention the Four Grand Truths or the “Eightfold Path or the word Nirvana”.
Thus these scholars, namely, Smith and Thomas think the non-sectarian and the non-distinctive are not reconcilable with Buddhism. But scholars like Sinart are of the opinion that teachings of Asoka were in some points consistent with Buddhism and his inscriptions reveal the Buddhism of the time of Asoka which was purely moral doctrine and without dogmas or abstract theories.
Dr. Bhandarker, however, does not agree to this view and observes that Asoka’s inscriptions do not portray those of Buddhism of his time. A modern scholar says, “If Dhamma was an attempt at preaching Buddhism it would have been inevitable for Asoka to have added that lay person should also pay special attention to the words of Buddhist monks and preachers. But Asoka’s explanation of what he means by the Dhamma indicates that it was a secular teaching. For Asoka’s Dhamma was a way of life, the essence of which he had called from the teachings of various thinkers known to him and probably his experience of life”. Bhandarkar is of the opinion that most scholars do not remember that Buddhism always consisted of two parts—one for the monks and the nuns and the other for the householder and what Asoka taught was the latter form of Buddhism.
Prof. B. M. Barua pointed out the institute called gihivinaya, i.e., institute for the householder and that Asoka was preaching the duties of the householders. The virtues like daya, dane; sache, sochaye, etc. are also found in the Digha-nikaya of the Buddhist scriptures. Even Asoka’s Dhamma-mangalas have been taken from Buddhist Sutta-nipata.
In the twelfth Rock Edict Asoka’s exhortation to the people not to disparage other’s religions is a development that is found in sutta-nipata. Prof. R. K. Mookerjee thinks that in his personal religion, Asoka was a Buddhist and the one he preached was different from Buddhism. Dr. Bhandakar refutes the opinion of Prof. R. K. Mookerjee and concludes that Asoka’s Dhamma was Buddhism and he was a Buddhist.
About the nature of Asoka’s Dhamma it must be mentioned that he never discussed any metaphysical doctrines nor did he refer to Cod or Soul but simply asked people to have control over their passion, to cultivate purity of life and character in inmost thoughts, to be tolerant to others’ religion, to abstain from killing and injuring animals and to have regard for them, to be charitable to all, to behave with decorum to parents, teachers, friends and ascetics, to treat slaves and their servants kindly, and aboveall to tell the truth.
N. K. Sastri is of the opinion that Asoka was a Buddhist and the Dhamma he preached was not that simple piety which is common to all religions, as Smith thinks, but specific code of moral duties laid down for the lay followers of Buddhism. It was Buddhism for the householders simplified and made practical for the common people to follow.
A modern scholar observes that from a study of Asoka’s Dhamma it is clear that the ideas that he tried to communicate were socio-religious. Tolerance and humanism, non-violence and concord were the virtues that he wanted his subjects to inculcate. Long period of thirty years free from war was no mean achievement of Asoka and its peace permitted the realisation of the values of Dhamma he sought to settle in the minds of his people.