Asoka Maurya and the fall of the Empire, c. 300 – 180 BCE.
In which the Indians, having founded an empire, experiment with organised religion.
He who had once held the world in the palm of his hand, died with no more than half a plum to his name.
Asoka Maurya, a colossus in global, Indian, and Buddhist history, occupies a similar position in Buddhism to that of the Roman emperor Constantine (the first to proclaim tolerance for Roman Christians) in Christianity. Buddhist writers generally present Asoka as a wicked monster redeemed and turned into an angel only by Buddhism. Therefore, I’ll make a distinction between religious and non-religious sources in this essay.
“Asoka Maurya.. occupies a similar position in Buddhism to that of the Roman emperor Constantine in Christianity”.
My aim here is to present Asoka as a human, and not as an apotheosized figure as most school textbooks do. I argue that far from being the Perfect Human Being that he is generally assumed to be, the real figure is far more compelling. The first part of this post discusses his traumatic formative years. An interlude of sorts discusses in further detail the immensity of his vision, with a word-picture of which I am rather proud. The third section discusses the culture of South Asia at the time and anticipates future changes. The fourth traces the fall of the Mauryas, Edward Gibbon style.
Finally, for a life as dramatic, eventful and eventually tragic as Asoka’s, there is an inexplicable paucity of great artwork (excepting Hutchinson’s excellent Story of the Nations, and the excellent work of the Sri Lankan artist Prasanna Weerakkody, who graciously provided the featured image for this essay). While it’s something I aim to eventually address with my own work, I apologize in advance for the preponderance of black and white imagery.
Asoka the Terrible: 304-260 BCE
Propaganda aside, Asoka Maurya (ironically, the name means “Without Sorrow“), born to the emperor Bindusara “Slayer-of-Foes” Maurya, grandson of the conqueror Chandragupta Maurya, did not seem destined for greatness at birth. He was short and not particularly good-looking, with rough skin that made him the laughing stock of the royal maidens. His mother was not of great rank compared to the emperor’s other queens. Nor was he the eldest son, for there were a number of older half-brothers better qualified (in age and paternal affection) to be next in line for the throne.
He is not likely to have led a life with plenty of parental affection. This manifested, like with so many neglected children, in a myriad of generally debauched habits, including cruelty to captured enemies, a general addiction to hunting, and supposedly even some twisted S&M including the burning of members of his harem.
“The emperor, apparently, saw potential in this dissolute son.”
The emperor, apparently, saw potential in this dissolute son and selected him for advancement (or, possibly, humiliation?). He was dispatched to be the governor of the western provincial capital at Ujjayini (Ujjain), while his elder half-brother and heir-apparent Susima Maurya was dispatched to the grand northern capital at Takshasila (Taxila). Asoka distinguished himself through astute negotiations with the disaffected populace of his province, securing it for his father. (I should probably also mention that he took the daughter of a local merchant as a lover and fathered two children.) Susima, however, ended up causing a revolt which the aging emperor managed to put down.
Asoka’s time at Ujjain was to prove in retrospect the happiest of his life, for terrible news soon came to him from his network of friendly merchants and travellers. The old emperor, it was rumoured, was dead. Prince Susima, as heir apparent, had been summoned to quietly assume power before the news could spread, and he was on his way to the imperial capital, Pataliputra,with an army.
Asoka moved quickly. Leaving behind conjugal happiness in the pursuit of power, he collected a small force of loyal troops and marched for the capital at speed, while sending messages promising favour and advancement to the ministers of the empire. When Susima arrived at the city, perfumed, bedecked and prepared for his coronation, he found Asoka’s banners flying from the walls and his half-brother sitting on an elephant in front of the ceremonial gate, surrounded by the imperial guard and his troops. Infuriated, he threw caution to the winds and charged his own elephant towards the upstart. Seconds before he made contact, the ground gave way and he fell into the pit of live coals that Asoka had prepared and concealed in front of his position.
“When Susima arrived.. perfumed, bedecked, and prepared for his coronation, he found Asoka’s banners flying from the walls.”
In the space of four years Asoka consolidated the empire and defeated all other claimants. His grandfather had conquered North India, and his father, the South; the ambitious, brash new emperor needed an equal achievement. Kalinga (Orissa) had never truly submitted to the authority of the Mauryan emperors, and its position as an independent port on the eastern coast threatened Mauryan dominance of sea trade. Asoka, therefore, determined to conquer it and set forth with a massive army.
The conquest of Kalinga is infamous not only due to its portrayal in Buddhist sources but also due to Asoka’s own well-documented regret at its outcome. He was victorious, but only at a terrible cost. Hundreds of thousands of people supposedly died, and what portions of the population were still alive at the end of it were uprooted and scattered across the empire to permanently extinguish all possibility of rebellion.
If it was any consolation to the dead, it was to prove, one way or another, a turning point in the history of the world, for the unthinkable happened: Asoka the Terrible called for peace and an end to war in his empire.
Interlude: The Idea of Empire
The Kalinga war had ended with a sobering realisation for the emperor: clearly the amount of military force required to keep together the tremendous patchwork of client states, directly administered territory, and tribes that composed the empire was simply unsustainable. The borders and administration needed to be consolidated; more importantly, his subjects needed to have something to unify them, something more than the threat of force. And so he turned, like Constantine would centuries later, to a spiritual movement, and adapted it to an imperial power structure.
“…He turned to a spiritual movement, and adapted it to an imperial power structure.”
South Asia was not lacking for interesting religious sects. Asoka’s own grandfather, it will be recalled, was a Jain; his father Bindusara professed adherence to the Ajivika sect (which held that there was no free will and that all was preordained). The cities of the Gangetic plain were in the immense intellectual ferment that always seems to accompany the economic success which washes away older systems of production. Imagine, for a moment, the crowds of Buddhist monks in saffron robes and Jain monks in white robes begging for alms in Pataliputra, while an atheist and Brahman debate in the marketplace; nearby a Greek merchant with a retinue of Bactrians burns incense in a temple of the demigod Vasudeva, who he sees as a form of Hercules. A Persian prayer-house next door is home to a fire altar where merchants pray to the immortal deity Ahura Mazda. The riverbank of the Ganga, a brisk walk away, is thickly populated with people performing their morning ablutions and praying for the remission of their sins, while naked ascetics tell them that all religion is folly since everything that one does is preordained anyway.
“Imagine, for a moment, the crowds of Buddhist monks in saffron robes and Jain monks in white robes begging for alms in Pataliputra..”
Of the bewildering variety available to him, the vessel that the emperor chose was Buddhism, a spiritual creed which ignored the older Brahminical caste system and preached the cessation of earthly suffering and the attainment of enlightenment via the control of desire. It already had a network of monasteries across the subcontinent, with bands of preaching monks who would make a great mouthpiece. Furthermore, Buddhism was inherently a religion of peace and was immensely popular with the wealthy mercantile classes, who were ostracized in the Brahminical system. Asoka therefore called a great Buddhist council at Pataliputra, which expelled heretics and established a single “orthodoxy”. By bestowing them with immense endowments, opening monasteries, building monuments at their holy sites, and funding successful proselytization abroad (especially, as we shall see, in China), Asoka quickly propelled Buddhism to the status of a world religion.
However, it is doubtful how devoted a Buddhist Asoka actually was. None of his edicts explicitly mention that he was Buddhist. In addition, Asoka’s concept of Dhamma, to which his edicts refer a number of times, is a political concept that is clearly meant to secure the loyalty of a multitude of subject peoples – a lowest common denominator, as it were, that all his subjects could get behind. Having decided upon a foundation for the empire, Asoka had his words, his vision, and his accomplishments carved into great rocks and pillars that he caused to be set up across his dominions: the world’s first great propagandist.
“The Beloved of the Gods, King Priyadarsin, speaks thus… the sound of the drum has been replaced by the sound of the Dharma!“
His words speak to us from centuries away as clear as the day he wrote them. There is no trace of courtly grammar and stiffness in what he says: he sounds, as he claims, like a father speaking to his children; oddly human, and a bit of a do-gooder despite all he had been through in life. Asoka Maurya was indeed one for the ages.
Asoka the Peaceful: 260 – 232 BCE
So we finally arrive at what I’ve been promising my eager readers for the last couple of weeks: a discussion of the culture and administration of South Asia under the Mauryas.
Firstly, the empire itself was divided into five provinces with relatively independent governors directly responsible to the emperor, akin to the Persian system of Cyrus the Great. Modern Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Punjab, the Gandhara Province, were administered from the great university city of Taksashila, connected to the imperial capital at Pataliputra by the Uttarapatha, an extremely important (and ancient) highway now known as the Grand Trunk Road. At the border of South Asia and the Greek kingdoms of Bactria, Gandhara became home to the beautiful school of art of the same name, which fused Indian, Greek and Persian elements. The universities of the province had been responsible, about a century earlier, for the codification of Sanskrit grammar under the great teacher Panini. (It is only after Panini’s work that Sanskrit truly takes on its name, meaning “refined, artificial” as opposed to other dialects, collectively called Prakrit, meaning “coarse, natural”). Gandhara was a highly cosmopolitan and prosperous province, with Indian, Greek, and Afghan subjects, as evidenced by Asoka’s trilingual inscriptions there.
Further south was the Western Province, with its urban centers concentrated around Ujjain, though the Mauryas claimed suzerainty over client states as far away as Balochistan, Gujarat and Sindh (the lack of concentrated urban centers may be inferred from the relative lack of Asokan inscriptions, as one may reasonably assume that Asoka only ordered an inscription if he considered that there would be people to read it). This province, already prosperous with trade, had further attention lavished on it by Asoka, who set up religious endowments on every imperial tour.
South of the Narmada was the Deccan Province with its capital at Suvarnagiri in Karnataka. A sphere of Mauryan territory surrounded by vassal tribes and chiefdoms (such as the Satavahanas in Andhra), Asoka’s promulgation of Buddhism was to become immensely important there once the province broke free in the declining years of the empire.
Heading north along the East coast, we arrive at the province of Kalinga: Asoka’s largest addition to the empire. Administered from Tosali, in his edicts in the area Asoka repents for the bloodshed and violence he caused but never says that the conquest of Kalinga itself was wrong. Nor does he allow the displaced peoples to return to their homeland. So yet again we see the contradictions inherent in this figure: his words are that of one who genuinely believes in his ideas of good and evil. In one edict he brags, with childlike innocence, that he’s cut down on the amount of meat consumed in the palace; yet at the same time he is no fool. Regretfully he must maintain, just in case, his iron grip on the empire.
Mauryan imperialism until Asoka was in keeping with the spirit of the times: namely, the control of as much territory as it could get. After Kalinga, however, what set it apart from its contemporaries in China and the Greco-Mediterranean world was not only its long peace but also the benevolence of the state: Asoka’s stated tolerance, philanthropism and infrastructure investment. Compare this to China, which had just formed its own first empire under the infamously cruel Qin Shi Huangdi, who burnt books and established a highly extractive centralised bureaucracy (which became the defining feature of Chinese imperialism); or the Mediterranean, which the successors of Alexander had carved up among themselves, and where they were now carving up each other with incessant wars.
In terms of its treatment of women, the Mauryan empire was quite similar to other contemporary states. What few sources we have of the time mention only the Mauryan queens and princesses, who were generally seen as childbearers, connivers, or models of virtue. Like in almost every Indian state, there was apparently no limit to royal polygamy: always an indicator of misogyny. In the Buddhist Sangha, of course, nuns or “bhikkhunis” were respected, but could not participate in the great theological debates of the time which resulted in the Theravada and Mahayana schools of Buddhist philosophy.
A singular oddity, which became a sort of Indian tradition, is that Mauryan imperial bodyguards were exclusively female. Perhaps, considering the regicidal behaviour of the Praetorian Guard in Rome centuries later, it was a wise decision.
Racism at least in urban centers is not attested to, but Asoka’s paternalistic, patronizing attitude to tribal vassals is evident from his inscriptions. It is unlikely that caste counted for too much in an empire whose founder might have been from a tribe of peacock-tamers: “Mayura” is Sanskrit for “peacock”. The social conditions needed for the solidification of caste and dogma did not yet exist, though the Buddhist Sangha, at least, had already departed alarmingly from the teachings of the Buddha.
Finally, we arrive at the imperial capital province of Pataliputra itself, consisting of the lush, wealthy Gangetic valley. The province was directly administered, in true Chanakyan style, with every functionary from ministers to spies. (Something that is not taught in schools is that the Mauryan state ran brothels, where the prostitutes would loyally report everything they heard to the imperial spymasters). This great city on the Ganga was the jewel of almost every succeeding pan-Indian empire for hundreds of years. An immense parallelogram, 1.5 miles by 9 miles, the city walls were pierced by 64 gates and washed by the holy Ganga. The imperial palace occupied pride of place: seven hundred years later, a Chinese Buddhist monk, Fa Hsien, who paid a visit to the homeland of Buddhism (perhaps Asoka would have been proud?), was awed by the immense ruins of the place and was convinced it had been built by spirits. Now all of it lies in silt at the bottom of the Ganga, slumbering.
Decline and Fall : 238 – 180 BCE
Buddhist sources, for understandable reasons, claim that Asoka in his old age continued to give away all the resources of the empire to the Sangha. Worried, his ministers cut off his access to the treasury. The old man retired to his quarters, but he had already given away all his possessions. All that was left was a plum, of which he had had a bite for breakfast. He told his servant to make it into a stew and serve it to a monk; and, happy at last, the old emperor smiled and died.
The real story, however, is rather more complex.
In his declining years, Asoka was much plagued by palace intrigues. His favourite son and heir presumptive, Kunala, had been blinded supposedly by one of the emperor’s jealous young wives. Meanwhile, older and more distant relatives, in charge of various provinces, played a game of their own, supporting one heir, and then another. Kunala’s son Dasaratha was chosen as a compromise candidate but was emperor only in Pataliputra. In the West his cousin Samprati Maurya ruled from Ujjain; his uncle Jalauka declared himself King of Kashmir; another cousin, Virasena Maurya, declared independence in Gandhara and went to war with the Greek kingdoms that had recently broken free of Seleucid rule in Bactria.
In the South the Satavahana dynasty of Amaravati (Andhra Pradesh), who had been loyal to Asoka, broke free and set out to conquer the Deccan territories. Kalinga, of course, did not remain loyal for long either. It appears that without a ruler of Asoka’s charisma, there was little to hold the empire together, despite the efforts of Asoka’s Dharma. The lack of a truly central bureaucracy and uniform set of laws (especially governing succession) was something for which every Indian empire henceforth would inevitably pay a price. Yet the feudal system had its own merits: as a fierce sense of independence grew in every region; local cultures, languages and art bloomed into splendour, as I’ll show in my next post.
“The lack of a truly central bureaucracy and uniform set of laws… was something for which every Indian empire henceforth would inevitably pay a price.”
Meanwhile the authority of the emperors continued to decline at a tremendous pace. Virasena Maurya of Gandhara had angered the Indo-Greek kingdoms, who stormed into Punjab and raided ever deeper into the Gangetic heartland. The last emperor, Brihadratha Maurya, was defeated by the brilliant general King Demetrius “Aniketos”(“The Undefeated”), and his prestige never recovered. His commander-in-chief, the Brahmin general Pusyamitra Sunga, assassinated him during a military parade.
Thus did the first great imperial Indian dynasty pass into dust and the myth-smoke.
In my next article I’ll discuss India’s Age of Paradox: without an imperial power, the subcontinent was still flourishing and ALIVE like it had never been before. What is it about the lack of paternalistic centralism that helps us prosper? Stay tuned to find out!
Prequel: Gloria Maurya, or, Mauryan Glory
- Thapar, R. (1973). Aśoka and the Decline of the Mauryas. Oxford University Press.
- Allen, C. (2012). Ashoka: The Search for India’s Lost Emperor. Hachette UK.
- Keay, J. (2011). India: A History. Revised and Updated. Grove/Atlantic, Inc..
- Thapar, R. (2015). The Penguin history of early India: From the origins to AD 1300. Penguin UK.
- Basham, A. L., & Rizvi, S. A. A. (1956). The Wonder that was India. Sidgwick and Jackson.
- Featured image: “Maha Bo” Embassy Gift of the Sri Maha bodhi by Emperor Ashoka of India to King Devanampiyatissa of Lanka, by Prasanna Weerakkody. 8’x4’ feet, Acrylic on canvas.Sri Lankan High Commission in Delhi, India. Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/prasannaweerakkody.paintings/?fref=ts