Posted on 26-09-2009
Filed Under (History, India, Politics & Propaganda) by Rashtrakut

Many successful rulers and administrators have often failed to grasp the importance of good public relations.  As a result, an otherwise competent or successful tenure in office has been marred by rising unpopularity. Others have excelled far too well on the propaganda side of governance until the inevitable disclosure that the emperor wore no clothes. Very few rulers have managed to find a fine blend of the two and the very success of the public relations campaign makes an honest appraisal difficult.

This is the first in a series of appraisals of rulers through history and whether their reputations are deserved, undeserved or over inflated.

The Emperor Ashoka is a fine example of this. The Wikipedia entry on his life contains a list of the usual platitudes about his reign and how his reign was a golden age of peace and prosperity. The only problem is that almost all the extant data of his reign comes from pillars and rock inscriptions placed by Ashoka across his vast empire. The third Mauryan emperor knew the value of propaganda.

The story of Ashoka can be simply told. Vain arrogant prince carves a bloody path to the throne after the death of his father. Launches an aggressive campaign against a neighboring state. Dismayed by the extent of violence caused by his bloody victory he renounces war and rules according to the Dharma.

It is an inspirational story and one that has resonance through the ages. But without independent third party corroboration we will never know how much of it is true.

To begin with the outlines of the story are surprisingly similar to a previous Magadhan king and contemporary of Buddha – Ajatashatru. Ajatashatru usurped his father’s throne and killed him. He then launched a long and bloody war against his mother’s home, the Licchavi republic of Vaishali and other neighboring states. The legacy of that war was a new capital of Pataliputra (modern Patna), built to better oversee military operations. Somewhere along the way tormented by his crimes he sought out the Buddha and found peace. Conversion of the most powerful monarch in India and bringing him to the path of righteousness was a major coup for the Buddhist Sangha. Absent other sources, it is unclear how much the Ashoka tale borrowed from that of Ajatashatru.

The tales of Ashoka’s vices before his conversion including the scale of devastation of Kalinga also seem to bear the hallmarks of religious propaganda – the wretched convert brought to the light. We do not know whether Kalinga suffered devastation on a scale similar to that inflicted on Iran by the Mongols. The effects do not appear to have been as long lasting. Within 50 years after Ashoka’s death the Kalingas were vying for imperial power (depending on the dating of Kharvela).

What we do know was that Ashoka was an enthusiastic proselytizer. He sent missionaries as far west as Greece and his children were sent to (successfully) convert Sri Lanka. However, we do not know is whether the assertions on his inscriptions reflected ground realities or simply pious declarations of intent.

Ashoka failed to successfully preserve the realm created by his father and grandfather. It is customary to blame the weakness of Ashoka’s successors (and a possible civil war) for the rapid disintegration of the Mauryan empire. However, the speed at which the empire fell apart suggests that the seeds of disintegration were sowed in Ashoka’s reign.

Within 5 years after his death the Satavahanas under Simuka would be independent and most of the Deccan appears to have been lost. It is unclear as to how rapidly the rest of the empire fractured but effective authority soon after Ashoka’s death was probably limited to the Magadhan core of the empire.

The scale of this disintegration appears eerily parallel to the collapse of the Mughal Empire following the death of Aurangzeb. While he had been an otherwise competent ruler, Aurangzeb’s bigotry drove large parts of his realm to revolt and his successors could not handle the social and political upheaval he created. Absent other sources we do not know whether Ashoka’s aggressive proselytizing created the embers of revolt that ultimately consumed his successors. What we do know is that the last Mauryan emperor, Brihadrata would be assassinated by his general Pushyamitra – a Brahmin.

The death of Ashoka brought political upheaval and 50 years later the invasion of Demetrius I of Bactria. It is not surprising that later ages, particularly the Buddhist chroniclers who spewed venom on Pushyamitra, would present the relative peace of Ashoka’s reign as a golden age. It is possible that the yearnings for the lost “golden age” and the absence of any other independent contemporary records made it possible to gloss over the deficiencies of Ashoka’s reign and exaggerate his accomplishments.

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