Ashoka the Great – Rise of the Mauryan Empire Documentary


The Third Century BC was a notoriously violent
time, filled with titanic clashes and amazing personalities. Alexander’s conquests gave
way to a period of constant warfare amongst his Seleucid, Ptolemaic and Antigonid successors,
while the rising Roman juggernaut began a series of conquests to unite the Italian Peninsula,
and fought its Carthaginian Rival, paving the way for future dominance. India during
this period was also experiencing revolutionary change, which culminated in the rise of the
Mauryan Empire and the reign of Ashoka the Great. This video is sponsored by Imperator: Rome
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support our channel by buying the game via the link in the description! In 326 BC, Alexander the Great crossed the
Hindu Kush mountains and entered India for the first time, calling his veteran army to
a halt at the Indus River, and demanding that two rival kings in the region – Omphis and
Porus – to come to him and submit. Omphis of Taxila surrendered to Alexander, but Porus
of Paurava resisted, and forced Alexander into a climactic battle at the Hydaspes River,
which he won nonetheless. Wishing to conquer all India, Alexander marched
onward, but his army mutinied at the Hyphasis River, and he was forced to withdraw to Babylon.
Their refusal to march on was in part due to rumours of a massive Indian kingdom, possessing
innumerable legions, further to the east. This was the Nanda Empire centered on the
Magadha region, which supposedly fielded a colossal force of 250,000 infantry, cavalry,
chariots and war elephants. Though he had retreated, Alexander’s conquests had destabilised
northern India, a fact which would play a key role in what was to come.
Once the historical shroud falls away once again, we see in 320 BC that it was a man
named Chandragupta Maurya who stood victorious. This Indian conqueror’s origins are not
clear, but less favourable Brahman sources state that he was a shudra – a peasant or
serf – whilst more favourable Buddhist texts designate him as a member of the prestigious
kshatriya – or warrior caste. He likely knew about Alexander’s stunning conquests, and
was given a crash course in ancient warfare, tactics and geopolitics, which he would use
to conquer his own empire. Having gathered followers, he initially attacked
the Nanda Empire’s capital, but failed a few times. Then he changed his tactics and
conquered the northwestern lands, which had been weakened by Alexander, using his subsequent
control of these prosperous regions to cut off supplies to the capital, resulting in
the fall of Nanda dynasty. After he established his realm he fought,
decisively defeated and made an alliance with Seleucus, famously gifting him 500 war elephants
in exchange for peace and the hand of Seleucus’ daughter in marriage. Chandragupta’s successor,
Bindusara, continued his father’s wise domestic and foreign policies, such as his friendship
with Seleucus and his religious tolerance. In addition, he thrust south into the Deccan
plateau and expanded the Empire. It is the second of Bindusara’s three sons
who is the subject of this video – Ashoka, whose eldest brother was Susima, and whose
younger brother was Tissya. It seemed as though the future Mauryan emperor at this point had
no chance of ever inheriting the throne. For one, his mother, Subhadrangi, was a commoner,
while the crown prince and favourite child Susima’s mother was a royal princess. Nevertheless,
Indian princes were often sent to govern faraway provinces, and Ashoka was no different. At
the age of 18, the young Mauryan royal was sent to the cosmopolitan silk road hub of
Taxila to quell a revolt, a task which he supposedly accomplished quickly.
The nature of Taxila as a scholarly and cosmopolitan settlement, where intellectual debates were
often had amongst different faiths, would have improved Ashoka’s knowledge of the
world, as well as making him more tolerant and sophisticated. His next appointment was
at the important city of Ujjaini – capital of Avanti province. The high quality of the
governorship that Ashoka provided is shown by the fact that he was entrusted with this
station – that of administering a crucial region connecting the capital city and the
coast. It was in this new station that Ashoka fell
in love with Devi, the daughter of a trader. Interestingly, she was a member of the ‘Sakya’
clan, the clan of Siddhartha [Sidd’art-ha] Gautama – the Buddha himself. It is widely
thought that she was a Buddhist upon bearing Ashoka his two children: their son Mahendra
and their daughter Sanghamitra. This relatively peaceful life would come to
an end when, in 274 BC, Emperor Bindusara passed away. What happened next is the subject
of much debate, but it is thought that a brief four-year civil war occurred between Ashoka
and his brothers. By acting decisively and swiftly occupying the capital city, and because
he was supported by his father’s ministers, Ashoka reigned victorious over his brother
and was crowned as Emperor in 270 BC – the same year Hannibal Barca was born in Carthage.
After he had ascended to the throne, Ashoka continued a policy of expansion and conquest.
One of the reasons for this persistent policy of warfare was that, in this period, all Indian
rulers wished to be regarded as the chakravartin – the king of kings by their royal rivals.
Practical and economic reasons were also important, as taxes were the Mauryan Empire’s main
source of revenue. The more land a king conquered, the more taxes he gained. However, the more
administrative and military expenses would also pile up, leading to an endless cycle
of violence. So it was that in the year 262 BC, the massive
Mauryan army marched into the Kingdom of Kalinga. Their past successes would likely have made
them confident of an easy victory, but the king and his army faced a tough, grinding
conflict against a doggedly courageous enemy. It is said that Ashoka eventually won the
war not because Kalinga surrendered, but because the carnage was so terrible. After the final
battle, the victorious monarch stood amongst his dead and dying foes on the battlefield.
Most monarchs would have simply rejoiced in the grim victory, but Ashoka, in this moment,
felt horror and remorse; it ended up being the key moment of his life.
Supposedly, ‘One hundred and fifty thousand were there from captured, one hundred thousand
were slain and many times that died’ from famine and disease. More than just being horrified
by the direct results of the devastation he had wrought, Ashoka also was acutely aware
of the tragedy that struck those left behind – the young sons left without a fathers and
poor mothers who had been robbed of their sons, their families and loved ones.
The educated and sensitive Ashoka appears to have been made truly aware of the real
cost of war, even admitting publicly what no victorious ruler ever had before, that
he felt ‘remorse on having conquered Kalinga’, declaring that ‘even one-hundredth or one
thousandth part of those who were slain, died or captured in Kalinga is considered regrettable
by the Beloved of the Gods’. This was clearly not the same man speaking who had annihilated
his brother and had seized the throne by blood. Rather, it was a changed man, finally admitting
to his mistakes and thinking on the futility and tragedy of war. Henceforth, said the king,
he was not going to be provoked into bearing arms again, and also dedicated his life and
huge wealth towards building a society where people lived by the rules of virtue and good
moral behavior. This abrupt change of heart gradually led
Ashoka to the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama – the Buddha – who had preached the same values
of peace, nonviolence and benevolence two centuries earlier. Ashoka had likely known
of Buddhism from an early age, as his wife was an adherent of the Buddha’s teachings
and the faith was popular with certain segments of the population. However, he was the first
king in history to convert to this apparently revolutionary religion.
Contrary to what popular legends depict, Ashoka did not instantly convert to Buddhism after
his change of heart on the field of war, but thoughtfully and practically chose a slow
path which would benefit both him and the welfare of his subjects. Particular care was
taken to remain tolerant of the two other dominant Indian religions – the Hindu Brahmanic
faith and Jainism. In one of his major edicts, carved on a rock, he stated that should one
blame other religions, or over-glorify one’s own religion, they are instead doing harm
to it, an act which should not be done. He began to study under Buddhist monks and,
two years later, was accepted into the Sangha, the Buddhist Order. His tutor was a monk named
Bhikku Upagupta of Mathura, who took the king on a pilgrimage of all the important sites
in their shared faith, such as: Lumbini, where Siddhartha Gautama had been born, Bodh Gaya,
where he had achieved enlightenment, Sarnath, where he had delivered his first lecture,
and Kushinagar, where he had died and gained Nirvana.
At all of these places and more, Ashoka erected pillars and carved rocks with his edicts and
royal orders. These proclamations were routinely read out to the illiterate population by the
empire’s officials, and appeared to be personal messages from Ashoka himself, clearly in his
own words. It is also as though the king’s voice speaks to us 2,500 years later when
we read them today. His change in faith also changed his role
as the king. Rather than desiring material gain which so many kings had in the past,
he now sought that his ‘children obtain every kind of welfare both in this and the
next world’, and dictated that reporters could come to him with the people’s business
wherever he might be, at whatever time. Despite all of this piety and benevolence,
we must always keep in mind that Ashoka was an emperor above all else, not a religious
teacher or a philosopher. He had the duty of running an Empire, and this was not always
a job which led to peaceful outcomes. There was a serious danger that once Ashoka’s
supposed pacifism had been announced, the provinces would rebel and neighboring kings
would invade, sensing weakness in the Mauryan leadership. However, the Emperor, while he
had given up on aggressive conquest, would reluctantly but fiercely defend his empire,
and refused to disband his army. Every rebellion would still be put down brutally, and any
foreign invader would be met with devastating military force, a fact which he made clear.
To his own subjects he also remained an almost stern, father-like figure, benevolent and
caring but willing to inflict severe punishment if necessary – though his engravings almost
appear to plead with his people not to force him to inflict these penalties. For example
the ‘forest people’, or ‘Adivasi’, were told that despite Ashoka’s remorse,
he still had the power and will to punish them for their injustices if necessary. They
should, he said, ‘be ashamed of their wrongs’ lest they be killed. Overall, historian A.L.
Basham stated that while Ashoka could seemingly be a bit naive, he was still indefatigable,
strong willed and imperious. Ashoka also worked hard to change the attitude
of his subjects; not to force Buddhism onto them, but to spread his universally ‘right’
values. The Emperor, who had previously enjoyed pleasure trips of hunting and had wielded
a mighty sword, now went on dhammayatras, or pious pilgrimage tours, during which he
visited holy sites and met his subjects. He frequently talked to local people to make
sure they were happy, and would hear their compliments or complaints about local officials.
In this way he was the first Indian king to think of the welfare of the poor, rather than
just using them for tax revenue. As he stated, ‘the finest conquest is the conquest of
Right, and not Might.’ The values he sought to spread were known
as Ashoka’s dharma, a complex term which essentially were rules of good behavior in
this particular context. For example, Ashoka wished that people should be obedient to parents
and teachers, should behave properly towards holy men, relatives, servants, friends and
the poor, and should be kind and generous to the old and vulnerable. Nonviolence towards
all living creatures, be they humans, birds or animals was practiced. One edict in particular
goes into detail about how the Imperial kitchens will no longer slaughter vast amounts of animals
for food. In addition to preaching these noble virtues
to his people, Ashoka also sought to try his best to live by the same tenets. This was
exemplified by his thoughtfulness in the construction and renovation of infrastructure. He ordered
that shade trees be planted along roads for shelter from the sun and rains, that mango
groves be planted in order to provide food, and that watering places be dug to quench
a traveler’s thirst. In 253 BC a great gathering of Buddhist monks
was held at Pataliputra, hosted by the king himself. At this, the third Buddhist council,
a momentous decision was taken to send teams of bhikshus, Buddhist monks, to other foreign
kingdoms in order to spread the teachings of the Buddha. These missionaries are said
to have reached as far as Kashmir, Gandhara, the Greek Hellenistic kingdoms, North Africa,
Burma and Sri Lanka. One of the travellers was a man named Dharmarakshita, and is designated
as a ‘Yona’, or ‘Ionian’ in the texts, so it is possible he was a Greek convert.
The most famous missionary of the period however, was Prince Mahendra – Ashoka’s firstborn
son. In 249 BC, Mahendra journeyed to Sri Lanka – then called Tamraparni – at the invitation
of King Devanampiya Tissa, an admirer of Ashoka and a man who wished to learn more of Buddhist
principles. The subsequent mission to this realm was so successful that it gradually
became a Buddhist country and remains so even today. Such was the legacy of Ashoka the Great.
When he died in 232 BC, he was 72 years old, and had reigned for 38 glorious years. Though
his death would instigate the long decay of his earthly Mauryan Empire, which fell after
another half century, Ashoka had ruled over the largest indigenous empire in Indian history
with wisdom, efficiency and most importantly, compassion. Buddhism in the 21st century is
a world religion because the first steps to spread it to the world were made by Ashoka
himself. Gradually, as the centuries progressed after
Ashoka’s death, the faith travelled along the Silk Roads as far as Tibet, China and
even Japan, despite its decline in the predominantly Hindu land of its birth. Writer H.G. Wells
stated that ‘Ashoka shines and shines brightly like a bright star’ among the thousands
of other kings and majesties ‘even unto this day’. We have more stories to tell, so make sure
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