Asoka was the third King of Maurya dynasty (322-180 BC). He fought a bloody war, killed and enslaved four hundred thousand men, annexed Kalinga, and a year later turned Buddhist. What led to his transformation? My novel cracks this mystery. Thereafter, he went on to institute far reaching democratic reforms. He has shaped today’s India more than any other leader: religious tolerance, compassion for life, preference for peace over wars and violence, and vegetarianism. He also championed universal medical care and animal rights. H. G. Wells called him the greatest king in world history. Considering his contribution to world history and culture (leaving aside Buddhism for he is responsible for spreading across the world), it is incredible that people know so little about Asoka. Because he gave up the Vedic religion (now Hinduism) and became a Buddhist, the Brahmans, the creators of Vedic religion and the only class that was entitled to education, tried to neglect his achievements and bury his works and his memory. by his own country. No wonder he is unknown in the West. Belated recognition was given to him after the independence of India. The Lion Capital of his famous Sarnath stupa is now the national emblem of India and its wheel appears on India’s flag. But a few symbols cannot undo two thousand years of injustice. As a result, few even in India know about Asoka’s achievements.
Indian history (as written by the British) labeled Asoka as just a “Buddhist King” who converted to Buddhism because he could not withstand the bloodshed in war. Asoka’s every edict contradicts this inference, and so does the circumstantial evidence: the royal tradition, and the warrior tradition of Kshyatriya caste in which he was born, and then the character of the Vedic religion of which he was an adherent. Asoka had killed his brothers for the throne and put down an uprising in Taxila (now in Pakistan)—he had enough blood on his hands. Significantly, neither history nor modern psychology support the inference that human beings give up their religion due to bloodshed in war. If killing could lead to conversion, Buddhist monasteries would have been packed with kings and generals after every war. Is that what history shows us?
So why did Asoka give up his religion? Modern psychology suggests he must have lost a dearly loved one in or around the time of war, and his own emotional pain connected him to the suffering of war-survivors. His own loss of happiness made him realize that happiness was the most important thing to human beings, and that his war-glorifying religion had inflicted untold misery on hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. The revelation was life-altering. A visionary, and an ambitious ruler, Asoka steered his countrymen away from the caste divisions, hatred and violence of his religion and embraced the universal moral and human values of peace, kindness and religious tolerance. To him, the purpose of religion was to make men spiritual—and not wealthy and powerful by grabbing others land. It did not escape his attention that his people could be united only by sharing common social values of amity and fairness. Taking his cue from Buddhism, he governed his people by humanistic values: equality, social justice, religious tolerance, and free medical care for all (in 3rd century BC!!); he created the conditions which make happiness possible for all—the conditions that democratic nations strive to provide today. His reign was one of uninterrupted security and peace.
Perhaps, it is no exaggeration to say that two thousand years before America’s Declaration of Independence, Asoka– in his own way and limited by the conditions of his times– ruled by the same values. He kept religion separate from the State; without knowing the word ‘secular’, he endeavored to create a secular state. He did not talk about Buddha or Buddhism in his edicts. Though he wanted people to convert to Buddhism, his purpose was to liberate them from the chains of the caste system and the endless Vedic rituals—which Charvak, an astute ancient philosopher, called a device for “the lazy Brahmins to make a living.” Asoka allowed slaves to buy their freedom; if a female slave had a child by her master, he ordered that both mother and the child were to be set free. Lincoln would have applauded this practice– if not Jefferson. Hinduism today is different from the Vedic religion largely because Asoka made Buddhism a mainstream religion of India. In the following centuries, in order to survive, Hinduism folded Buddhism into its own belief-system—that explains the disappearance of Buddhism from the land of its birth. By his sheer energy and determination, Asoka turned Buddhism from an obscure, regional sect into a world religion. He is the St. Paul of Buddhism. But Buddhism for him was not a religion but a spiritual system that opened closed Vedic religion followers’ minds to human condition. At least for the next thousand years after Asoka.
For all his achievements, a biography of Asoka is not possible because the Brahmans tried to bury his works. In 3rd century BC, no historical records were kept. Only the Brahmin caste was entitled to education—and this continued for centuries—but the Brahmins had no time for or interest in the nation’s history and much less time for Asoka who was viewed as a traitor to his religion. They spent their time in pursuit of wealth, flights of fancy, and in writing one religious treatise after another–the Upanishads–to keep their stranglehold on the masses–which led to India’s decline–and slavery to foreign powers–in the coming centuries.
What little we know about Asoka has come down to us from the Buddhist literature or his pillar-edicts. The Buddhist literature, like all religious literature, is mostly myth-making. However, the following broad facts are undisputed: Asoka was born a prince; he put down an uprising in Taxila; his first wife was the daughter of a merchant; he was governor of Ujjain; he killed his brothers for the throne; his coronation came three years after the accession; eight years after his coronation, he attacked Kalinga (Orissa), the war was fought at Dhauli, he killed hundreds of thousands of men–(a fact he later lamented in an edict); about one year after the conquest, he converted to Buddhism; built pillars and stupas across India; published edicts on rocks and pillars; sent Buddhist missionaries throughout India, and to several foreign countries including Ceylon and Burma and Central Asia; he helped in the codification of Theravada Buddhism; and his son–a Buddhist monk– converted the King of Ceylon to Buddhism.
But for his edicts, Asoka would be lost to history. The edicts were his personal diaries and tools of governance that reveal the man. And what a man! It is that man that the novel attempts to reveal. He is for all ages. His insights into religion—and his views on human happiness and about the obligations of a State to its citizens–are as relevant today as in his times. Asoka’s writings have a personal and modern feel–as if he talking to us, as if he is speaking our language. A born leader, he revolted against the oppression of masses and violence by the rulers; he forbade the use of coercion and tried to prevent miscarriage of justice and arbitrary imprisonment without fair trial. And he rebelled against dogmatic religions that divided the people to maintain their grip on power. Surprisingly, the Republican Party in America has been doing what the Brahmans did in India before Christ–divide the society to keep its grip on power. Asoka’s solution was a secular state based on equality and social justice, and on moral social values: kindness, religious tolerance, and universal healthcare.
Asoka’s Empire. Except for four small states in South, the territory over which Asoka ruled would today include India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Kashmir region, and Afghanistan. His empire would not be equaled in size by any other Indian ruler for two thousand years—until the British empire was established. In his time, Asoka’s empire was the largest and the mightiest in the world. His court included a Greece ambassador.