Revisiting Asoka- III: Ashoka The Terrible

Ashoka made sure that those around him showed him the respect he demanded through brutal displays of power.

Though Bindusara’s ministers had preferred Ashoka to Sushima and helped him to come to power, they did not  hold him in high regard and were contemptuous of his appearance.

Ashoka himself was very sensitive about his appearance (reflected in his taking up the ironic title of Priyadarshi) and decided to make sure that those around him showed him the respect he demanded through brutal displays of power.

Ashoka ordered that all flower and fruit bearing trees be chopped down, but the thorny ones preserved. This absurd order was an allusion to his own ‘thorny’ skin, as well as an attempt to test the obedience of his ministers. His ministers tried to dissuade him and avoided complying with his orders. Ashoka reissued his orders thrice, and then one last time. He then beheaded everyone the ministers who still disobeyed his order after the fourth repetition

Ashoka was nicknamed as Kamashoka in his initial days, for his maintenance of a harem of 500 women (this number is probably exaggerated). Once, when on a stroll, he came across a beautiful Ashoka tree and was very pleased with the sight of it, as well as to the fact that it was his namesake. After that, he went to his harem and slaked his lusts. The women of the harem did not like having to caress his rough skin (he seems to have had some kind of skin condition, a fact that is also referenced in other places), and so after Ashoka fell asleep, his concubines mutilated the tree, in order to slight him. Ashoka was furious and burned all 500 of them to death.

Ashoka married Asandhimitra (possibly a princess from the vassal kingdom of Asandivat in modern Haryana), a bride suitable to his rank and station, and made her his Chief Queen, a position she would hold until her death thirty years later.

Ashoka married his daughter by Devi, Sanghamitra, to his sister’s son Agnibrahma. The couple had a son named Sumana.

For the first three years of Ashoka’s reign, he continued Bindusara’s patronage of Brahmins, feeding sixty thousand of them. Ashoka’s father and mother were both Ajivikas, and hence he was most definitely raised as one.

Ashoka made attempts to destroy the Bodhi Tree and other Buddhist shrines prior to his conversion.

As per Charles Allen-

The Northern tradition speaks of both Ashoka and his queen as heretics who attempted to destroy the Bodhi tree, with Ashoka using his troops to destroy other sites associated with the Buddha. This seems unlikely for a man whose first wife was a Buddhist, but it may represent his indifference to his senior queen’s overt hostility towards Buddhism.

From Ashoka, The Great by M. H. Syed-

Yuan Chwang records the tradition of Ashoka and his Queen, in succession, making determined efforts to destroy the Bodhi Tree.

Ashoka slowly grew increasingly dissatisfied with the behaviour of the Brahmins he used to feed daily, and began scouting for alternatives, meeting representatives of all faiths.

One day he saw a young monk, Nigrodha passing under his window, and was drawn to his calm demeanour. He called him into the palace and met with him. Nirgodha turned out to be the son of Sushima, his step brother, whom Ashoka had killed in the process of his ascent to the throne. After questioning Nirgodha on various points of doctrine and listening to a discourse by him, Ashoka adopted Buddhism.

After this, the sixty thousand Brahmins who are recipients of his patronage were replaced with Buddhist monks.

Ashoka’s Chief Queen Asandhimitra was an important influence in moving Ashoka closer to his new faith, as per a few legends-

The Mahâvamsa (20.2) specifies that she (Asandhimittâ) was a faithful follower of the Buddha and that she passed away in the thirtieth year of Asoka’s reign, much to the latter’s chagrin. The commentarial tradition adds that she became a stream-enterer before she died. Later Theravâda traditions, however, were to go beyond these simple points and expand on her story in a significant way. In particular, her tale was more fully developed and her merits magnified in three texts: a 9th- 10th century (?) chronicle, the so-called Cambodian or Extended Mahâvamsa; a 14th century (?) Pali collection of tales, the Dasavatthuppakarana (see Ver Eecke 1976: 45-54 (text), 50-59 (Fr. trans.); and a 15th century Thai cosmological text, the Trai Bhumi Kathâ. These sources begin by reworking slightly the story of Asoka’s gift of honey to a pratyekabuddha in a previous life, adding to it an accessory gift of a piece of cloth made by Asandhimittâ to the same pratyekabuddha. They then relate a long tale that may be summarized as follows: One day, King Asoka, whose tremendous merits resulted in his being daily provided with all sorts of luxuries and foodstuffs [including sugarcane] brought from Lake Anotatta by the gods, saw Asandhimittâ enjoying a heavenly piece of sugarcane. Jokingly, he mocked her for consuming what she had not karmically earned. “How is it” he teased, “that you have come to drink this smooth juice that is sweet as honey?” This teasing upset her: she felt that he thought that she had no merit of her own, and so, in a pout, she replied that everything she enjoyed was due solely to her own good merits. Now it was time for Asoka to get upset. “Oh, is that so?” he replied, and he demanded, as a test of her merit, that she procure him sixty thousand monastic robes by the next day so that he could make an offering to the community of monks. Now Asandhimittâ was at a loss as to what to do. In the middle of the night, however, the guardian god, Kuvera, came to her and told her to fear nothing, for in a past life she had made an offering of a piece of cloth to a pratyekabuddha and, as a result, her merit was great. He then gave her a magical polished lacquer ball from which she could endlessly pull out pieces of cloth fit for making monastic robes. And indeed, the following day, miraculously (or rather karmically), she was able to dispense from this single ball 60,000 robes, which Asoka presented to the Sangha. Asoka was tremendously impressed by this. Henceforth, Asandhimittâ became his favorite queen, and he went so far as to offer her his own sovereignty, which, however, she declined. But this favoritism occasioned the jealousy and ill will of Asoka’s sixteen thousand other wives. In order to silence these jealous concubines, Asoka ordered another test of Asandhimittâ’s merit. He had sixteen thousand (presumably 16,001) identical cakes baked, one of them containing his royal seal. He then asked all of his wives, including Asandhimitta, to choose a piece of cake and to break it in two. They all did so, one by one, Asandhimitta getting the last piece left, but such was her worthiness that it was the one that contained the royal seal. Again, however, she declined the sovereignty that this implied (see Strong 1994: 1 16ff). Clearly this is a story designed to proclaim the great merit of the queen, but, in one version of the tale at least, her merit is operative on Asoka in even more significant ways; in the Trai Bhûmi Kathâ, Asandhimitta, having impressed her husband with her merit, proceeds to preach a sermon to him, encouraging him to turn towards Buddhism by listening to the Dharma, to observe the precepts, and to undertake the construction of the 84,000 stupas. In other words, it is Asandhimitta here who not only marks Asoka’s turn to the dharma, but who actually becomes the one responsible for making him into a dharmic king. And he announces to her: “from now on into the future I will listen to your words concerning what is wrong and what is right; when you who have merit speak to me, I will listen to everything you say.” (Reynolds and Reynolds 1982: 188).

Ashoka’s younger brother Vitashoka, also known as Tissa (Dhammapala’s Thereagatha Commentary treats Vitashoka and Tissa as separate individuals, but most historians regard them as the same person) was prejudiced against Buddhism and Buddhist monks and was an admirer of Brahmin ascetics. He also broke laws and oppressed the people, abusing his position as Ashoka’s vice-regent, secure in the belief that he could not be harmed because of his high birth and relationship to the Emperor.

On receiving complaints about his brother, Ashoka instructed his ministers to convince Vitashoka to sit on the throne in his absence. They did so by telling Vitashoka that they wanted to see how he, the heir to the throne would look sitting on it. Ashoka then suddenly appeared in the room and pretended to be furious at Vitashoka’s act, and imprisoned him, saying that he would be executed within seven days (in another version of the story, Ashoka tells the women of his harem to seduce his brother and then accuses him of illicit conduct).

In prison, Vitashoka reflected upon the ephemeral nature of life and riches and became a Buddhist monk. Ashoka had never intended to have his brother executed, only to teach him a lesson, and had not intended that his brother take the extreme step of becoming a monk either and tried to persuade him otherwise,but Vitashoka had made his decision, and was ordained as a monk. Ashoka’s children by Devi, Mahendra and Sanghamitra, followed soon after.

The story of Vitashoka possibly is a sanitised account of a failed coup by Vitashoka, or of his forced exile as punishment for his misconduct.

As Charles Allen remarks-

His younger brother became vice-regent, a position he abused before being made to see the error of his ways by Ashoka and resigning his office to become a Buddhist hermit – a convoluted story that may be the glossing over of the enforced exile of a beloved but troublesome younger brother.

As the number of people executed by Ashoka continued to grow,Ashoka’s prime minister Radhagupta became worried that Ashoka would become unpopular. Hence  Radhagupta counseled Ashoka that it was not appropriate for the monarch to execute people himself, as Ashoka was doing, and that continuing to do so would make him unpopular. He suggested that Ashoka appoint a royal executioner.

An extremely cruel young man named Girika was found and appointed for the task. Girika used to take pleasure in bullying his peers and torturing animals, and readily agreed to take up the job of an executioner.

Girikaa asked Ashoka for a building exclusively devoted to the art of execution. And so a building was built, with a beautiful exterior, and instruments of torture inside. It was named ‘Ashoka’s Hell. Girika asked that he be allowed to execute anyone who entered the building, and no one be allowed to leave the building alive, a request Ashoka granted.

Girika soon became notorious, and came to be called ‘Chandagirika’ or Girika the Terrible, a nickname to  match that of his Emperor, who had come to be known as Chandashoka, or ‘Ashoka the Terrible’

Some time later, a monk named Samudra arrived in Pataliputra. He entered Ashoka’s Hell by mistake, drawn in by its beautiful exterior. Girika arrested and imprisoned him. Ashoka had found one of the women of the royal household conversing with a youth, and had sent her to Girika. She was executed before Samudra’s eyes. On seeing this, Samudra attained enlightenment and became an arhat, and when Girika began to torture Samudra, the young monk reacted to the torture with equanimity, and even supposedly performed a few miracles. A crowd began to gather, and the Emperor himself came to watch.

The monk gave Ashoka a discourse, and Ashoka came to regret his behaviour. Girika then claimed the right to execute Ashoka, pointing out that Ashoka had entered the building, and therefore Girika was entitled to kill him, as per Ashoka’s own order. Ashoka pointed out that Girika himself had entered the building prior to him, and ordered Girika to be taken away and executed, and he building demolished.

The Chinese travelers Fa Hein and Xuanzang both report having visited the ruins of the execution chamber, and there still exist ruins that are identified as the remains of Ashoka’s Hell.

The Kalinga War

As we have seen above, Ashoka was already a Buddhist before the Kalinga War. A more detailed discussion of this can be found here, with evidence.

Some have argued that the Kalinga War was not a war between two kingdoms, but a brutally put down revolt.

As per the Buddhist chronicler Taranatha, Chankya served both Chandragupta Maurya and Bindusara, and made the Mauryas, engineered the destruction of the rulers of sixteen kingdoms, and made the Mauryas the master of ‘all the territory between the eastern and western oceans’. This would obviously require the control of Kalinga too, and thus it it would imply that Kalinga was already a part of the Mauryan Empire when Ashoka ascended to power. (Chandragupta likely did not conquer the South, so the Southern conquests most probably happened under Bindusara).

Also, Tamil Chronicles refer to an invasion of the Tamil lands by “Vamba Moriyar’ ie. the upstart Mauryas’ described as ‘Vadugar’ or northerners aided by local allies, which was ultimately foiled by a mountain which the  chariots of the Mauryan army could not cross 9or possibly driven back after a battle at the mountain). This most probably happened in the reign of Bindusra. It is highly unlikely that the Mauryas would launch an invasion of the deep south and yet tolerate an independent state (Kalinga) so close to the heartland of their Empire.

As Sanjeev Sanyal says here

We know that the Nandas, who preceeded the Mauryas, had already conquered Kalinga and, therefore, it is likely that it became part of the Mauryan empire when Chandragupta took over the Nanda kingdom. In any case, it seems odd that a large and expansionist empire like that of the Mauryas would have tolerated an independent state so close to its capital Pataliputra and its main port at Tamralipti. In other words, Kalinga would not have been an entirely independent kingdom under Bindusara – it was either a province or a close vassal. Something obviously changed during the early years of Ashoka’s reign and my guess is that it had either sided with Ashoka’s rivals during the battle for succession and/or declared itself independent in the confusion.

And Kailash Chandra Dash says here,
This rock edict states the term abijita  which has been taken by the historians for Kalinga which wasnot conquered in the pre-Ashokan phase.This view needs reconsideration in this respect. In the edict the repentance of Ashoka was followed by a general statement which actually does not refer to Kalinga. It onlystates about the nature of an unconquered country. It states;
While one is conquering an unconquered country(abijita), slaughter, death and deportation of people(Jana) are taking place there. This was deplorable.
But even more deplorable than this by Devanampriya was the slaughter or deportation of Brahmanas or Sramanas or other sects or householders who are living and among whom the following are practised: obedience to those who receive high pay ,obedience to mother and father,obedience to elders, proper courtesy to friends, acquaintances, companions and relatives, to slaves and servants in that unconquered country.
After this statement on unconquered country in general in a vicious war Ashoka`s edict states about Kalinga again. It stated that therefore even the hundredth part or the thousandth part of all those people who were slain, who died and who were deported at that time in Kalinga would now (when the edict was inscribed) be considered very deplorable by Devanampriya. Historians generally combine these passagesas the context for Kalinga and claim Kalinga as an unconquered kingdom before Ashoka.
As a matter of fact according to the edict any unconquered country when conquered such slaughter and deportation usually had taken place; but this was deplorable. But for Kalinga living beings were affected. Therefore Prana is used for Jana. These verses explain that Kalinga was conquered in the pre-Ashokan phase but for some other reasons it was again conquered by Ashoka. This view also corroborates with the statement in Hatigumha inscription of Kharavela which states that Kalinga was under the control of Nandaraja.

It is probable that Kalinga was a vassal state that broke away during the succession struggle after Bindusara’s death or otherwise disobeyed Ashoka.

As per folk legends of fishing communities in Orissa and Telugu literature (Sources: here and here), the cause of the war was a beautiful fisherwoman named Karuvaki, who married the crown prince of Kalinga. The king of Kalinga (possibly a vassal before he rebelled) and crown prince were killed during the war, and Ashoka married Karuvaki and made her one of his queens.

The legend, in fact, suggests that Ashoka’s infatuation with Karuvaki was responsible for the Kalinga War. Thus one can speculate that Ashoka might have demanded Karuvaki from her wedded husband, and the vassal king of Kalinga refused to hand over his daughter-in-law, thus causing the war. Of course, the proof for this is very scanty, and such a heinous accusation against Ashoka cannot be made lightly, so in the absence of real proof, this remains mere speculation.

Sculptures possibly depicting this legend have been found at Ranigumpha (the Queen’s cave) near Bhubaneshwar in Orissa.
There was indeed a queen of Ashoka named Karuvaki, named in what is called the ‘Queen’s Edict‘. Karuvaki (called the second queen of Ashoka in the Queen’s Edict), and her son Tivala, are the only queen and son of Ashoka mentioned by name in his Edicts.

There has been a lot of speculation as to who Karuvaki was, whether she was one of Ashoka’s queens known from written sources (Asandhimitra, Padmavati and Tishyarakshita), or whether she was the fourth queen of Ashoka, distinct from the above.
Many historians identify Karuvaki as Tisyarakshita, whom Ashoka married after Asandhimitra died, but Ashoka made Tisyarakshita his Chief Queen, whereas the Queen’s edict refers to Karuvaki as Ashoka’s second queen.

In my opinion, Karuvaki was Padmavati, the mother of Ashoka’s heir Kunala, and Tivala was another name of Kunala (which is why Karuvaki’s name is given as Karuvaki, mother of Tivala). This would make Karuvaki Ashoka’s second queen both in rank and chronological order.


Aśoka’s Wives and the Ambiguities of Buddhist Kingship

Toward a Theory of Buddhist Queenship: The Legend of Asandhimitta

The article has been reproduced from author’s blog with permission.

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