Following Ashoka

It almost didn’t happen!

A work trip to Bhubaneshwar and a convenient afternoon flight meant I had the morning to spare. So decided to take use of the car available and follow Ashoka: i.e. go see Dhauli, site of Ashoka’s Kalinga rock edicts and also the purported battlefield on the banks of the Daya river. All well so far. But the driver of the car, probably because of years of training, ended up in this Peace Pagoda thingie below. I was a bit confused because a) while Buddha, Buddhism, etc were on view at this place, this building was not built in the 3rd Century BCE but in the 1960’s CE and b) where were the rock edicts.

As I sat in the car and started moving back, on the side of road saw this characteristic ASI’s blue “Protected Monument” signboard and something “Edict”. I halted the car, got out and there it was.

The driver, a local resident of Bhubaneshwar, son of the soil of Odisha, formerly Orissa, formerly Kalinga had no idea about this. And one could see thousands of people whom he may have brought here to the Buddhist temple (there is a rival Hindu temple also next to it). But unless the tourist knows about this, the driver would not have stopped here

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As I read Romila Thapar’s Early India, and coincidentally I had reached the chapter on Ashoka around the same time as the above trip, the man behind the legend of Ashoka seems more and more enigmatic. An ambitious lad, there is, as Thapar writes, a controversy whether he fought his brothers for the throne or was it a peaceful succession. He did extend the boundaries of the Mauryan empire established by his predecessor Chandragupta and later his father Bindusara. He was quite cruel in battle and it was his cruelty in the Kalinga war that stared at him. On his remorse, which he put as part of the edicts, though not in Dhauli, he says:

“On conquering Kalinga the Beloved of the Gods (Devanampiya Priyadasi – what Ashoka called himself) felt remorse, for when an independent country is conquered the slaughter, death and deportation of the people is extremely grievous to the Beloved of the Gods and weighs heavily on his mind.”

“The participation of all men in suffering weighs heavily on the mind of the Beloved of the Gods.”

(this is from Romila Thapar’s translation of the Major Rock Edict XIII)

The use of the third person “Devanampiya Priyadasi” i.e. Beloved of the Gods Priyadasi (later used by Indira Gandhi) suggests a man filled with ego. Even after taking up Buddhism, moving towards non-violence, he continued to expand his empire and used the length and breadth of his reach to spread Buddhism. He himself, it is said, travelled to all parts of his realm and pillar edicts in Gandhara (Afghanistan), Swat Valley, Karnataka, Junagadh, etc are testimony to that. A megalomaniac maybe.

Whatever he may be, from India’s early history point of view, it was a turning point. The Mauryan Empire was the first real imperial system in the subcontinent and it marked the evolution from clan-based chieftains, minor kingdoms, city-states to large cosmopolitan social systems with the state (the emperor) play a lead role in defining morality, the rules of behaviour, ethics, etc.

If only the driver knew and took everyone there instead of the boring temple.

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