Monthly Archives: April 2008

ASHOKA THE GREAT

It was Chandragupta Maurya the founder of Mauryan dynasty who put an end to the Greek rule in north western part of India and politically united India. Earlier in 322 B.C. he captured Patiliputra by defeating Dhanananda the Nanda ruler and ruled till 298 B.C. After abdicating his throne, he became a Jaina monk and left to Shravanabelagola in Karnataka. He was followed by his son Bindusara who ruled up to 274 B.C. and was followed by Ashoka. 

Ashoka was the greatest among the rulers of India and is called the philosopher King and forerunner of Panchashila. Born to Bindusara and Subhadrangi, Ashoka was the governor of Avanthi before his accession to the throne after the death of Bindusara in 274 B.C. Ceylonese legend says that he killed 99 brothers born of different mothers before becoming the sovereign in which he was helped by a minister Radhagupta. But Ashoka himself makes enquires about the welfare of his brothers, sisters and other relatives later during his rule. This refutes the above said allegations that he killed his brothers. As there is a gap of four years between his accession and coronation, there might have been a struggle for the throne between Ashoka and his eldest brother Susima or Sumana who probably lost the race.

The only political event of great importance during Ashoka rule was the conquest of Kalinga eight years after his coronation. In that war one lakh people were killed and one lakh fifty thousand people were injured. The death and sufferings caused by the war brought about a complete moral transformation in Ashoka’s mind and he decided to give up war altogether. But his active devotion to Buddhism began two and a half years later when he become a member of the Sangha or order of monks and traveled from place to place, displaying energy, which took in the form of visits and gifts to Brahmins, Sramanas ascetics and old people, visiting holy places associated with Buddha like Sarnath, Gaya, Lumbini and Kapilavastu. He used to daily make an offering at the stone at Pataliputra bearing the Buddha’s footprints. Twenty years after his coronation he visited Lumbini and declared the place free of taxes.

His Benevolent Acts

In the 14th year of his rule he appointed officials called Dharmamahamatras, whose duty was to inculcate dharma among the people, readdressing misfortune or wrong and organizing charitable works. He ordered that officials should make a tour of their districts every five years to proclaim dharma and to transact other business.

He had rest houses erected besides the main roads and caused wells to be dug and shady tress planted and issued various regulations to prevent slaughter of animals. Some of the regulations were like this- Animals like bulls, tortoise, geese and parrot should not be killed; forests must not be burned without reasons and living animals must not be fed to other animals. On certain days animals must not be castrated and horses and bullocks must not be branded. He ordered the plantation of medicinal herbs suitable for men and animals.

In his rock edict XV he says that all men are his children and just as he seeks the welfare and happiness of his own children in this world and the next, he seeks the same for all men. He said that officials may have access to him and may report on the affairs of his people at all times and in all places. “No task is more important to me than promoting the well being of all people”, he said. He used to visit the people of rural areas and instructs them in dharma.

Buddhist Council

In 253B.C. Ashoka summoned the third Buddhist council at Pataliputra under the leadership of Moggaliputta Tissa.

The third Buddhist council saw the addition of a third Pitaka called Abhidhamma Pitaka, which contained the philosophical interpretations of the doctrines of the existing two Pitikas, namely Vinaya Pitaka and Sutta Pitaka. The latter two Pitakas were complied during the first Buddhist council held in 483 B.C. at Sattapani cave near Rajgriha.

To spread the message of Buddha, Ashoka sent missionaries like  Madhyantika to Kashmir and Gandhara, Maharakshita to Yavana country, Mahadeva to Mahishamandala, Rakkita to Vanavasa, Dharmarakshita to  Aparanta, Mahadharmarakshita to Maharashtra, Majjima to the Himalaya region, Sona and Uttara to Suvarna Bhoomi and his own children, Mahendra and Sanghamitra to Ceylon. The presence of Ashoka’s envoys even as far as the various Greek Kingdoms is mentioned in the 13th Rock edict like Antichus the  Yona King of Syria, Ptolemy Philadelphus of Egypt, Antigonus of Macedon, Magas of Cyrene and Alexander of Epirus.

Buddhism internationalized Indian culture and the credit for the spread of Buddhism should go to Ashoka who was the first Indian ruler to sent missionaries to spread the message of Buddha across the world.

Ashoka’s Edicts

On the 12th year of his coronation he ordered the edicts on dharma to be inscribed. His edicts are not teachings of any particular dharma or religious system but the moral law independent of any caste or creed. It prescribes a comprehensive code of conduct embracing the various relations of life like obedience to father, mother, elders, teachers, to pay respect to guru, proper treatment towards to ascetics, servants, dependants, poor, miserable and friends, liberality towards ascetics, friends and relatives, abstentions from slaughter of living beings, restraints of violence towards living beings. By following these morals Ashoka wanted his people to lead a pure life. He caused his inscriptions to be engraved in 4 scripts, Brahmi, Kharoshti, Aramaic and Greek the last two come from South Afghanistan, with a single instance of Aramaic known from Taxila.

There are more than 30 monolithic columns found in places like Topra, Merrut, Allahabad, Lauriya Nandangarh, Rampurva, Sanchi, Sarnath, etc. Each pillar weighed about fifty tons and about sixteen meters high. The pillars erected at Meerut and Topra were transported to Delhi by Sultan Firoz Shah and the pillar erected at Kausambi was transported to Allahabad possibly by Akbar. For the most part however with the change of population centers and the encroachment by jungles, the inscriptions disappeared and their very location was forgotten. The first modern account of a pillar inscription was down by father Tieffenthaler, a Roman Catholic priest who inspected fragments of the Meerut pillar at Delhi in 1756. Asoka’s script was first deciphered by James Princep in 1837.

Builder of Stupas

Tradition credits Ashoka with building 84,000 Stupas all over India and Afghanisthan, but now most of these have entirely perished. Some of these enclosed and enlarged at later times by the people and princes alike, perhaps still exists. The most famous of these is the big Stupa at Sanchi near Bhopal.

A Stupa is a solid domical structure of brick or stone on a round base. It is surmounted by a square box (Harmika) which is further crowned by the parasol or umbrella (Chhatra), the symbol of spiritual sovereignty. Sometimes the Stupa was surrounded by a plain or ornamented railing running all around, having one or more gateways, which were often of highly elaborate pattern and decorated with rich sculptures. The main object of erecting a Stupa was to enshrine some relics of Buddha or of his chief disciples, or of a great Buddhist saint or to commemorate some sacred place or site or important event of the life of Buddha or in the history of Buddhism.

Tradition testifies to Ashoka devotion to the Buddha by his seizure of his relics by opening the Stupas in which they were enshrined and redistributing them among 84,000 Stupas of his own creations the relics were originally in the possession of the Mallas of Kusinara where Buddha died, but they were forced to share the relics with 7 other claimants who made a hostile combinations for the purpose. These seven claimants were Ajatasatru of Magadha, the Lichchhavis of Vaisali, the Sakyas of Kapilavastu, the Bulis of Allakappa, the Koliyas of Ramagrama, a Brahman of Vethadipa and the Mallas of Pava. The war of the relics represented in the Sanchi sculptures was settled by the intervention of Drona, the Brahmin. centuries later, Asoka revived this war on the relics in another form by opening the Stupas in which they were deposited, but failed of his purpose at the Stupa of Ramagrama against the defense of its heroic guardians, the Nagas, the scene is depicted on one of the gateways of the great Stupa at Sanchi showing the emperor approaching in his chariot with his army of cavalry, infantry and elephants.

He caused the caves at Barabara to be excavated and gave them to the Ajjivika ascetics.

His family

Ashoka had an elder brother Sumana or Susima eldest, and Tisya the youngest of his siblings. His wives were Devi or Mahadevi, Karuvaki, the mother of Tivara, Asandhimitra, Padmavati and Tisyaraksita.

Among his sons Mahendra was born to Devi, Tivara to Karuvaki and Kunala to Padmavati. Of his daughters Sanghamitra was born to Devi and another Charumati. Among his son-in-laws, Agnibrahma was the husband of Sanghamitra and Devapala Ksatriya was married to Charumati. His grandsons were Dasaratha, Samprati son of Kunala and Sumana, son of Sanghamitra.

After the death of Ashoka, his ministers placed his grandson, Samprati on the throne of Magadha under strange circumstances. Ashoka had promised 100 crores to the Sangha and had given only 96 crores. Hence he had pledged the kingdom to them in lieu of the balance of four crore. The ministers managed to raise the money, paid it to the Sangha and redeemed the kingdom.

H.G.Wells says-“Among the 1000s of names of monarchs which crowd the columns of history, the name of Ashoka alone shines as a star”.

HISTORY IS MORE THAN A NARRATIVE

Today there is a general feeling among the masses that history is of no relevance and if one has to survive in this competitive world one should be equipped with some skills. One acquires a skill to get a job to earn a livelihood whereas one obtains knowledge to gain wisdom. Historical awareness helps us gain wisdom, the ultimate of human knowledge.

Thousands of hectares of land with virgin forests and animal life are submerged in order to erect dams to irrigate land and grow food and to produce electricity for human consumption. Animals are tortured and experimented in order to produce medicines and cosmetics for human use. Plants and animals are consumed as food. All this is done on the presumption that born with superior intelligence, man is superior to other creatures and that everything exists only for the fulfillment of his needs. In this context, history can claim preeminence over other branches of knowledge as it deals with the study and development of man in his attempt to become a civilized living being.

Today the study of history is indispensable if contemporary society is to solve the problems facing it, especially so in India. In our country, the lack of interest in studying history may be due to various factors. One reason may be the severe poverty. People are more concerned in acquiring a skill so as to get a job for their livelihood. Yet another reason may be the attitude of our political and religious leaders, who fearing that their hold over the masses will be loosened once historical consciousness are developed by them, deliberately see that the awareness and progress of historical studies is stunted or written to suit their ideology.

It is mainly due to neglect of the study of history that our country is facing political chaos. There is definitely a link between lack of historical awareness and poverty of a nation. From history we learn that India had a tradition of despotic rule. When the British introduced elective principles during their rule in India, only those who paid taxes and were educated were eligible to take part in the elections. The British wanted to introduce parliamentary form of government in a phased manner as they felt Indians lacked experience in working under that system. (All countries having democratic form of countries introduced universal franchise in a phased manner over a period of time). But in India after 1947 all restrictions were removed and the illiterate and ignorant masses devoid of political education and historical awareness, influenced by temporary material gains, failed to cast their votes wisely, resulting in political instability. This in turn led to stagnation of economic activity, unemployment, illiteracy and poverty.

Progress of a country can take place only if there is intelligent leadership at the top. Patriotism, spirit of sacrifice and wisdom are the qualities, which our statesmen should possess in order to run the government. These qualities are obtained only through the study of history. For our cream of bureaucracy, the I.A.S. officers, a good knowledge of history would offer them valuable guidance in taking decisions most needed under adverse circumstances and during difficult situations. If at all our policy planners in the ministry of External Affairs have stumbled in maintaining good relationship with our neighbouring countries like China, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, it is mainly due to their lack of knowledge about the history of those nations.

One ridiculous practice followed by our military establishment is the celebration of the anniversary of their different regiments, which were raised during the British rule. The Indian army under the British was a mercenary one which helped them establish hegemony over India. Instead of feeling ashamed of their past association with them, they proudly flaunt their British connection which is nothing but a failure on their part to grasp historical truths. Regarding the aversion of the Indian youth to join the armed forces, it is not due to low salary but a lack of patriotism, the result of neglecting a study of history.

If an analysis is made to ascertain what led the countries of Europe towards industrialization and development, we find that it was possible only due to Renaissance. This later resulted in the Industrial revolution, first in England and then in other parts of Europe. Again, renaissance was possible due to the study of Greek and Roman Classics, which included history. This helped them develop critical thinking, reasoning and provided inspiration for their intellectual development and scientific progress.

History is the documentation of the progress made by the mankind in various fields, hence students of various faculties benefit from its study. For instance a student of modern medical science can learn a lot by studying the history of Ayurveda and Acupuncture. This would also equip him/her with different methodologies for treating ailments if situation requires. A student of Civil engineering or Architecture will be immensely benefited by the study of the city planning and drainage- system, which had evolved in Saraswathi-Sindhu Civilization, so also the study of various monuments that has stood the ravages of time. The preservation of dead bodies by using chemicals by ancient Egyptians show the progress made by them in the field of Chemistry. Similarly the Iron Pillar near Delhi though installed several centuries ago has not rusted until now. This shows the advanced knowledge, which our predecessors had.

History according to Allen Nevins is not merely a narrative of the past but a bridge connecting the past with the present and pointing the road to the future. A society without history is like a man without memory. Self-respect, patriotism, lofty ideals in life, social and political consciousness are some of the characters imbibed by the study of history. A study of history helps us understand the growth and development of several ideas and institutions, about our culture and customs, broadens our outlook and gives a meaning to our life. It is high time that history occupies it rightful place among the various disciplines of knowledge.