As is well known, India, as a country, boasts a civilization that goes back thousands of years in time. It ranks right up there in the pantheon of the giants of ancient times, namely: China, Egypt, Greece, Persia, Rome … And, as such, it has made significant contributions to the advancement of knowledge and civilization in the world. Here, we particularly think of the advances made in the sciences, philosophies and mathematics.
Emperor Ashoka of India was the third Emperor of the Maurya Empire, which then stretched over a large chunk of India: from what is to-day Afghanistan in the west to Bangladesh in the east with its capital at Pataliputra. Emperor Ashoka ruled from 268 to 232 BCE. The Maurya dynasty was founded by his grand-father, King Chandragupta, who was succeeded by his son, Bindusara, whom Ashoka succeeded at his death. Ashoka had two other brothers and dozens of half-brothers. However, King Bindusara’s personal choice as his successor was NOT Ashoka but his elder brother, Prince Sushim. Prince Ashoka, who was an astute warrior and a born leader in his own right, was preferred by the Emperor’s influential Minister Radhagupta, who chose him as his father successor, which, understandably, led to a war of succession with his brothers. Ashoka defeated them all and claimed the throne for himself as the third Mauryan Emperor. He would rule till his death in 232 BCE.
Most of the information about Emperor Ashoka’s life and reign comes to us from his Bhrami Edicts that were generally inscribed on tall columns or pillars erected across cities to convey his edicts and messages on Buddhism, which he had embraced after the horrendous carnage, deaths and great sufferings caused to human life not only to his enemies at the Battle of Kalinga but even to his own people in spite of his final triumph. These gigantic pillars mounted with a sitting lion at the top, are precious relics of Emperor Ashoka’s passage on earth – a tradition no doubt copied from the Persians. They provide relevant information about him and are among the earliest inscriptions of ancient India and about Buddhist legends. That method was like communicating directly with his people. His messages were carved in Prakrit language and written in Bhrami script. These inscriptions are important as they “throw light on the career of Ashoka, his external and domestic policies.”
Indeed, as inferred before, Emperor Ashoka was so appalled by the sufferings and pain he saw following his battlefield victory at Kalinga (to-day Orissa), that he vowed to renounce violence forever and embrace the teachings of Prince Siddharta Gautham, the Buddha – a ‘Prophet’ of love and peace, who had risen in India and attained ‘enlightenment’ after years of penance and became known as Gautama, the Buddha or the “Enlightened One” and a foremost promoter of love and peace.
After Emperor Ashoka embraced Buddhism as a religion, it certainly got a boost in India and in the neighbouring countries notably Sri Lanka and other South Asian countries. Indeed, Emperor Ashoka, as a true follower of Buddha, would spare no effort to spread the Buddhist message far and wide, and which found positive responses in several countries of South-East Asia. In fact, Ashoka would be the first ruler in history “to ban slavery, the death penalty, animal cruelty and deforestation.” He was also among the firsts to promote gender equality and religious education.” And that was centuries before the advent of the C.E. era!
During his father’s reign, Prince Ashoka was appointed Governor of Ujjain in Central India. As Governor, he was reported to have suppressed serious revolts by the army there and also in Taxshila which helped to highlight his traits as a leader. And, during the eighth year of his reign, in 260 BCE, he embarked on a long and bloody war to conquer the kingdom of Kalinga, which he did – finally! However, the destruction, misery and death the war caused in Kalinga shocked even Ashoka, who swore to reject violence in all forms forever and become a devotee/pujari of peace and non-violence — which became his “dharma.” He would devote himself from then on to the propagation of his “dharma”, which amounted to “love and righteous conduct”.
As a matter of fact, Emperor Ashoka’s message of love would become the riding themes of his Edicts as inscribed in his columns or pillars and on polished rocks, which have survived time and to-day are living proofs of his reign and rule as a great Indian sovereign. These pillars are found spread over India – more particularly in Orissa and at Vaishali in Bihar. They represent ‘written’ accounts of his time as a ruler, who left his mark on history.
It is also interesting to observe that for centuries, Emperor Ashoka was thought to be “a legendary figure” and that he never actually existed. As a matter of fact, his existence as a “real historical King” was long forgotten until the decipherment of the Bhrami script in the 19th Century. Historians connected the titles of “Priyadasi” and “Devanampriva” mentioned in the Edicts of Ashoka of Buddhist legends and came to establish without any doubt that the title in those Edicts referred to an “actual living person” – a fact, that was confirmed by old scripts found in Sri Lanka and other South Asian countries with a strong Buddhist presence. The title “Priyadasi” referred to none other than “King Ashoka – the Great.” Thus, Ashoka’s reputation as “one of the greatest Indian Emperors of ancient India was established.” The ‘legendary Emperor Ashoka’ regained his legitimate place not only in India’s history but also in the world. It is a fact that most known historians, who have written about World History, have not failed to mention King Ashoka: the Great in their book. A notable example is British author, H. G. Wells, who devoted a full chapter to the ancient Emperor of India in his “A Short History of the World.”
Moreover, in 1947, when India emerged as a free country on the world stage, it validated the Emperor’s strong connection with ancient India, and, as a tribute to him, free INDIA chose his iconic symbol: “the four lions standing back to back and symbolizing the four noble Truths of Buddhism, supporting the Wheel of Moral Law, notably ‘Dharmachakra’ (*) as the national Emblem of Free India and the ’chakra’ (wheel) formed the core of its national flag.
Indeed, there was no doubt that a charismatic and iconic character like Emperor Ashoka would not leave the nabobs of India’s movie industry – Bollywood – untouched and that they would, sooner or later, attempt to bring his era and life to the big screen. As a matter of fact, in 2001, Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) and his Dreamz Production House produced a movie with the collaboration of ace Cinematographer, Santosh Sivan, who also served as Director, on the early life of Emperor Ashoka. It was, after all, a ‘modest’ but praise-worthy effort to re-create the era of the early days of Ashoka, the warrior prince.
Popular Bollywood star, Shah Rukh Khan himself led the cast as Emperor Ashoka. The movie was reportedly shown, beside India and the Asian countries also in the Middle East as well as in Canada, USA and Europe – notably in England, France, Germany and was reportedly well-received. So far, it has been the only attempt made by Bollywood to bring on celluloid the life of the great warrior monarch, who became a celebrated Buddhist devotee of peace and love.
Emperor Ashoka’s Maurya dynasty collapsed soon after his demise because of weak successors who were incapable of holding his vast kingdom together.
(*) “Emperor Ashoka’s Lions stand on a circular abacus, decorated with the dharma chakras alternating with four animals in profile: a horse, a bull, an elephant and a lion. The architectural bell below the abacus is a stylized upside-down lotus.” (Sarnath Museum pamphlet).