Friday, August 23, 2013

Ashoka the Great

Fig.1: You know you're great when your emblem includes multiple lions.
I know there are a lot of rulers out there that are nicknamed "the Great." It's almost like they just give the title away sometimes; I will personally go on a manhunt if I ever seriously hear the words "George W. Bush the Great." But some historic figures are truly deserving of the cognomen (Alexander, Charlemagne, Timur, Peter, Wayne Gretzky) not only for their conquests, but also for the cultural impact they left in the land and/or hockey league they dominated. A little-known and under-appreciated "the Great" tucked away in the forest of ancient history is man named Ashoka, who ruled the Maurya Empire in present-day India. Sure, Ashoka was a beast on the battlefield (and with the ladies, which is a requirement to earn "the Great"), but he is perhaps more revered as a patron of Buddhism, allowing it to become the dominant religion in South and East Asia over the next millennium. Not even Gretzky had that kind of hold over those impressionable Canadians, and that's saying something.

The Maurya Empire was founded 322 years Before Crullers by Ashoka's grandpa, Chandragupta. It is rumored that when Alexander the Great's army reached India, a 14-year-old Chandragupta joined his ranks only to spread rumors about how tough the Indian army was, saying that they were able to stop sword blows with their bare hands, shoot lasers from their eyes, and drink cough syrup without chasing it down with fruit juice or anything! The plan worked, and Alexander's wussy army convinced him to turn back, effectively ending his Godzilla-like rampage throughout Asia. Eventually Chandragupta fought his way to the top, overthrew the ruling Nanda Empire, defeated Alexander's satrapies (governors) in present-day Pakistan, and beat Super Mario Bros.without using any of the warp zones. It's little wonder that he isn't known as "Chandragupta the Great," but I suppose he didn't have that je ne sais quoi to earn that distinction, and was friend-zoned into being just a regular old emperor.

Fig.2: A representation of what Ashoka's Hell was like, 
or the hot tub at your family reunion. One of the two.
Ashoka eventually took the mantle around 269 BC, but it wasn't easy. Two sources claim that Ashoka had to kill 99 brothers in order to become ruler, and another states that he fooled the legitimate successor into falling down a pit filled with burning coals. Worst game of "Hide and Seek" ever! Many ancient historians claim that Ashoka was really tough early on in his reign. He executed ministers who dared to give him bad advice, he burned his harem of hundreds of women after they complained he had rough skin, and didn't allow people to get seconds on Taco Tuesday. He is even rumored to have designed a torture chamber nicknamed "Ashoka's Hell" where people were flogged, pricked, burned, and boiled (fig.2), among other terrible things. Ashoka made a pact with this Chief Torturer (a great title to have on your resumé) that no one who visited his Hell was permitted to leave alive, which was the same principle as when "Deuce Bigalow" was in theaters.

Of course, Ashoka had his fair share of military victories and conquests. He expanded his empire to include the vast majority of the Indian subcontinent, including chucks of territory from present-day Burma, Iran, Afghanistan, and even a summer retreat in Maui. But one piece of territory had always given his predecessors trouble: Kalinga, the furtlie land on the northern part of India's eastern coast. Chandragupta invaded but was repulsed. Ashoka's father, Bindusara, led an army but couldn't consolidate his rule there. His brother, Sushim, asked a Kalingan girl out once, and she gave him a fake number. Ashoka was having none of that. He led an army of (according to his own records) 400,000 soldiers to take care of business in 261 BC. A bloody battle ensued that left (once again, according to that exaggerating Ashoka) 200,000 Kalingans dead, and forced the territory to finally become part of the Maurya Empire.

Fig.3: The size and awesomeness of his empire 
didn't make Ashoka feel better after the 
Battle of Kalinga, not one bit!
Normally, that would be the end of the story. Most military commanders, especially other "the Great"s, would then just move onto the next battle. He came, he saw, he killed a crapton of people, he conquered, what's next? But Ashoka was different. After the battle, he looked around at the thousands of dead bodies that littered the field. He saw the wounded wailing in horrible agony. He saw the nearby river turn red with blood. He saw a double rainbow all the way across the sky, but that did nothing to lighten his mood. The realities of warfare shocked and humbled Ashoka, and he swore never to wage a war of conquest again. And that he didn't. For the remaining thirty years of his reign, India was at peace, which has to be a record for that place. The Maurya Empire (fig.3) halted its expansion, and now focused on the well-being of the people who actually lived inside its borders. Crazy stuff, right?

Ashoka's traumatic reaction to the Battle of Kalinga also convinced him to turn to a certain peaceful religion that originated in northeastern India: Buddhism. Two hundred years after a man with hippie-ish qualities named Siddhartha Gautama taught the ways of the Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths and the Six Geese A-Laying, Buddhism was still a small-time player in the Indian religion game. Ashoka's conversion changed that, and he promoted Buddhism throughout his empire. Evidence for this lies in the "Edicts of Ashoka," a collection of more than thirty discovered engravings on pillars and rock walls meant to brainwash...I mean, inform his subjects on the laws and moral axioms that should be followed. The main point was to live life through dharma: treat people through gratitude and respect, do not engage in unnecessary violence, respect the differences in others, and don't kill any porcupines. That last thing is not just me making a dumb joke; Ashoka really didn't want you to kill porcupines, as well as a few other specifically named animals, like parrots and tortoises. Well somebody has a membership to the World Wildlife Fund!

He also attempted to spread Buddhism beyond the borders of his empire. He sent his son and daughter to Sri Lanka (the island on the southern tip that makes India looks like it's crying like a subcontinental baby) and they successfully converted the populous there. This caused Buddhism to then spread to Sri Lanka's trading buddies in Southeast Asia (modern Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, etc.), so you can easily liken it to a row of dominoes (or, in the case of Southeast Asia, maybe a venereal disease). Ashoka even sent letters and emissaries to the Greek kingdoms in the west, attempting to open their eyes to the teachings of the Buddha. Of course they, being Greeks, had enough philosophies and ideologies to argue about, and didn't need yet another religion to create even more divisions (Christianity would take care of that eventually). Anyway, Buddhism remained a hit in South Asia thanks to Ashoka, and it would slowly spread northeastward to the kingdoms in China, Korea, and Japan as well. Not only was the Buddha's teachings easy to connect with the prevailing Eastern philosophies at the time, he also possessed a certain seductiveness about him (fig.4).

Fig.4: Whoa now, Buddha! Don't give me that "come hither" look!
Buddhism aside, Ashoka's legacy would seemingly end there. Like many others considered "the Great," his empire would begin to crumble upon his death in 232 BC, mostly because his piece-of-junk children weren't nearly as worthy as the loins they came from. His successors were so bad, no one even bothered to keep records of their reigns, and several remain nameless to history! It's like they wanted to spare us of their overall crappiness, to which I say thank you to those Ancient Indian scribes. Nevertheless, the Maurya Empire shrank and shrank until it just covered parts of northeastern India, and the last Mauryan emperor was assassinated (or put out of our misery) in 185 BC. Many historians claim that Buddhists were then persecuted in favor of Hinduism, but luckily for the Enlightened Sultry One, his religion would prevail elsewhere in Asia, and in the minds of teenagers who melodramatically turn to meditation and achieving enlightenment in order to forget about the girl who broke his heart freshman year and went on to date that senior lacrosse player just because he had abs and a car! Sorry, don't know where that came from. Anyway, next time when you're skimming through the Wikipedia page of all "the Greats" out there, take pause at Ashoka (should be easy, since he's tenth alphabetically), before moving on to vandalize the page for James Garfield by saying he was assassinated by Jon Arbuckle. Never gets old!

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