How Ashoka The Great Gave Brahmins A Song With Which They Conquered India
(Note: This is the 8th article in the series on the evolution of early religious thought in India, by Dr. Prabhakar Kamath. The previous article in the series can be accessed here. All Dr. Kamath’s previous articles can be accessed from this page where you can also sign up for Dr. Kamath’s RSS feed.)
We all know that Ashoka the Great gave Buddhism the gift of making it the dominant Dharma of India for a thousand years and one of the great World Religions to this day. However, few people know that he gave a wonderful gift to Brahmanism as well. He offered them his personal image of a renegade and fallen Kshatriya as the blueprint on which to base a parable in the form of a beautiful song, the Gita, by which Brahmins conquered back everything they had lost and more. A remorseful Ashoka overwhelmed by sorrow, self-doubt and the horror of war on the battlefield of Kalinga became the model for distraught Arjuna overwhelmed by sorrow, self-doubt and horror of war on the battlefield of Kurukshetra in the parable of Arjuna Vishada. This is a classic example of how Brahmanism used their adversaries themselves to beat them over the head. As we go along, we will study several more examples of such incredible feats by Brahmins in the defense and promotion of their archaic Dharma.
Ashoka Ascends The Throne Of Magadha
In 298 B. C. E. Chandragupta abandoned Brahmanism and became a Sramana of Jainism. He retired to Sramana Belagola in what is today Karnataka State and starved himself to death. His son Bindusara abandoned Brahmanism and embraced Ajivika sect. Bindusara’s son Ashoka usurped the throne of Magadha following the death of his father in 272 B. C. E. even though his older half-brother Susima was ahead of him in line for it. His claim to the throne was based on his assertion that he was a better administrator than Susima on account of his being posted to Taxila and Ujjain for many years during his formative years. That there was a succession struggle between him and his half brothers is suggested by the fact that he was not formally crowned till around 269-68 B. C. E. He killed almost all his half-brothers and exiled his only younger brother. One half-brother escaped to the neighboring kingdom of Kalinga. Sri Lankan legend has it that Ashoka’s path to his throne was liberally stained with “the blood of his hundred brothers.”
Ashoka was no different than any other king during his early years of rule. True to Kshatriya Dharma he was not averse to whatever means necessary to gain wealth and consolidate his power. He was both Dhananjaya (Conqueror of Wealth) and Paranthapa (Scorcher of Foes), the epithets by which Krishna often addressed Arjuna in the Gita to remind him of the true nature of Kshatriya Dharma. There is no evidence that Ashoka was ever engaged in a truly ghastly war before he ascended the throne of Magadha. Apparently his reputation preceded him wherever he went to quell uprisings and the rebels surrendered without a fight.
Carnage Of Kalinga
Eight years after ascending the throne of Magadha, Ashoka attacked Kalinga to his east. The exact reason for this attack is not clear. Perhaps he literally saw Kalinga as a thorn on his side, being the only unconquered kingdom in the north. Legend has it that he was in hot pursuit of his half-brother hiding there. Ashoka considered Kalinga as practically his second home having spent two years there in exile a few years before he came to power, and having married a fisherwoman from that region by the name of Kaurwaki. Being a proud, freedom-loving people, and in a display of extraordinary courage or foolhardiness, Kalingans put up a brave fight against the mighty Maghadan. Ashoka was merciless in wreaking vengeance against his weaker adversary. Sheer bloodbath followed. Legend has it that his wife Devi, a Buddhist at heart, was so horrified by the devastation that she abandoned Ashoka forever.
As the legend goes, Ashoka went to the devastated battlefield to inspect the valiant deeds of his brave soldiers. He did not see any sign of victory. All he saw were heaps of rotting and burning corpses and half-dead bodies of injured people wailing in pain. Severe sorrow and remorse gripped his conscience. Ashoka himself pours out his heart in these words:
Ashoka’s Rock Edict 13: “Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, conquered the Kalingas eight years after his coronation. One hundred and fifty thousand were deported, one hundred thousand were killed and many more died (from other causes). After the Kalingas had been conquered, Beloved-of-the-gods came to feel a strong inclination towards the Dhamma, a love for the Dhamma and for instruction in Dhamma. Now Beloved-of-the-Gods feels deep remorse for having conquered the Kalingas.
Ashoka’s Famous Dwandwam
What Ashoka meant was, “If this is my Dharma, what then is Adharma?” This sight of devastation of men and materials made him sick and he cried the famous Dwandwam-ridden monologue:
“What have I done? If this is a victory, what’s a defeat then? Is this a victory or a defeat? Is this justice or injustice? Is it gallantry or a rout? Is it valor to kill innocent children and women? Do I do it to widen the empire and for prosperity or to destroy the other’s kingdom and splendor? One has lost her husband, someone else a father, someone a child, someone an unborn infant…. What’s this debris of the corpses? Are these marks of victory or defeat? Are these vultures, crows, eagles the messengers of death or evil?”
Ashoka’s Obsession With Karmaphalam Of War
The horror of this ghastly war was a life-altering experience for Ashoka. Apparently he had severe flashbacks of the tragedy till the very end of his life. It is very possible that this war, instigated by his desire to kill one of his surviving half-brothers, brought up to the surface repressed guilt over killing his own siblings to gain his throne during the struggle for succession ten years earlier. Modern psychiatrists would certainly diagnose him as suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, a serious anxiety disorder often seen in soldiers severely traumatized by the horror of war. As if to atone for his horrible deeds he let his sorrow and remorse known to all his subjects personally, by designated messengers, and by means of his Rock Edicts. He explained the horrible consequences (Karmaphalam) of any war:
Ashoka’s Rock Edict # 13: Indeed, Beloved-of-the-gods is deeply pained by the killing, dying and deportation that take place when an unconquered country is conquered. But Beloved-of-the-gods is pained even more by this – that Brahmans, ascetics, and householders of different religions who live in those countries, and who are respectful to superiors, to mother and father, to elders, and who behave properly and have strong loyalty towards friends, acquaintances, companions, relatives, servants and employees – that they are injured, killed or separated from their loved ones. Even those who are not affected (by all this) suffer when they see friends, acquaintances, companions and relatives affected. These misfortunes befall all (as a result of war), and this pains Beloved-of-the-Gods.
Philosopher-King And A Transformational Figure
Ashoka became a philosopher-king, who ruled by being an example of rectitude and selfless service to the people. He embraced the basic principles of Buddhism. Ashoka’s Dharma was based on the principles of non-violence, tolerance, piety, mercy, kindness, generosity, truthfulness, forgiveness, purity, gentleness, goodness and peaceful coexistence of all religions. He made known Buddha’s philosophy to the population across the land by a cadre of special agents known as Mahamatra, Yukta, Rajjuka and Pradesika. In the manner of newly converted zealots, he even sent emissaries to foreign countries to spread the message of Dhamma. He discouraged people from killing animals for food and sacrifices, and even burning kernel of grains. He declared that good behavior earns fruits here on earth and hereafter far better than performing Yajnas. He had his edicts carved in stone all over his kingdom. In these edicts, he spoke plainly in their own language. He made sure that all people across his vast empire knew exactly what he thought and what he expected of them.
How Brahmins Avenged Ashoka The Great
Ashoka vastly underestimated the weed-like sustaining power of Brahmanism. Brahmins hated Ashoka and everything he stood for. In their eyes he was a renegade and fallen Kshatriya. To them a Kshatriya, who grieves on the battlefield, suffers self-doubt and worries about the consequences of war, is unmanly and cowardly. Since they could not resort to their usual cloak and dagger methods of getting rid of him, Brahmins’ invented a stealth weapon to destroy him and promote their own Dharma: A parable in the form of a beautiful song. The palm leaf became their bow, the quill became their arrow, and a song became the arrowhead. Like a haunting song of a Bollywood movie, everyone could easily remember and sing it. They inserted this brief parable into the body of the ever-expanding Mahabharata epic, which by now was very popular with the masses, like its serial would be on television 2250 years later. In this parable, known as Arjuna Vishada, (Arjuna’s sorrow, despondency, dejection) the brave and noble Kshatriya prince Arjuna suddenly becomes distraught just as the Great War was about to begin on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, and he wishes to abandon his Kshatriya Dharma out of compassion for his ninety-nine cousins and one brother, close relatives, friends, Gurus and elders. In contrast to Ashoka, however, Arjuna redeems himself by surrendering to Varna Dharma after being shamed, scolded and lectured to by prince Krishna.
Remorseful Ashoka Becomes The Model For Despondent Arjuna
- Whereas, according to the legend, Ashoka had to get rid of “ninety-nine half-brothers and one real brother” to inherit his father’s kingdom, Arjuna had to get rid of ninety-nine cousins and one brother to regain his father’s kingdom.
- Whereas Ashoka spent thirteen years in exile before ascending his throne, Arjuna spent thirteen years in exile before waging the war to gain back his throne.
- Whereas Ashoka inspected the carnage on the battlefield after the war, Arjuna inspected the battlefield before the slaughter began (BG: 1: 21-25).
- Whereas Ashoka lamented over killing innocent people living in his enemy’s kingdom, Arjuna’s despaired over having to kill his own people who had turned against him, living in his own lost kingdom (BG: 1:26-27, 33).
- Whereas Ashoka suffered from severe posttraumatic stress disorder after witnessing the slaughtered enemies on the battlefield, Arjuna suffered a massive panic attack (BG: 1:28-30) anticipating the slaughter of his enemies on the battlefield.
- Whereas Ashoka suffered from severe remorse and sorrow on the battlefield after the war, Arjuna suffered from severe despondency and sorrow before the war (BG: 1: 27, 47).
- Whereas Ashoka suffered from severe Dwandwam of mind while inspecting the carnage on the battlefield, Arjuna suffered from severe Dwandwam while inspecting the enemy arrayed against him on the battlefield (BG: 1:31-36).
- Whereas Ashoka expressed horror over the consequences (Karmaphalam) to himself and the society as a result of war, Arjuna expressed fear of serious consequences (Karmaphalam) to himself (1:36-37, 45) and to Brahmanism (1:38-44) that might result from the war.
- Whereas Ashoka expressed that killing people was Adharma and felt enormous remorse for doing so, in his distraught state of mind Arjuna thought that killing his own people was Adharma for which he would incur great sin (1:36, 45).
- Whereas Ashoka gave up violence and embraced nonviolent Dharma after the war, Arjuna threatened to give up violence and embrace nonviolent Dharma before the war (1:46, 2:5).
Prince Krishna As The Counterforce To The Buddha
In this allegorical parable, Arjuna’s discomfiture on the battlefield gives prince Krishna, as the defender of Brahmanism and counterforce to the Buddha, the opportunity to give him a sound scolding and a crash course on the fundamentals of Varna Dharma. Note here that in the story of Arjuna Vishada, Krishna is merely a wise prince of Yadava tribe, somewhat like Chanakya in temperament. Like Chanakya he is not averse to trickery and scheming to achieve his goals. To him ends should justify means. He is not yet the Upanishadic Guru (2:7), Lord of beings of the Upanishads (4:6-8), or Parameshwara (11:3) of the Bhagavathas. These stepwise enhancements in Krishna’s stature were made later on by anti-Brahmanism revolutionaries for the purposes of using him to overthrow Brahmanism. From the beginning to the end of the Arjuna Vishada parable, Krishna is equal in stature to Arjuna. The only difference is, whereas in the beginning Arjuna was tainted (Chyuta) due to his Ahamkara (I, me and mine), Krishna remained Achyuta (untainted) from the beginning (1: 21) to the end (18: 73).
The Original Gita: The Essence Of The Varna Dharma
Now prince Krishna delivers his lecture to sorrowful Arjuna: Your dejection is unmanly, shameful, Unarya, heaven barring, cowardly and is indicative of a feeble heart not befitting a Kshatriya noble (2:2-3). Nothing should be more desirable to a Kshatriya than a righteous war (2:31). You should look at it as an unsought opportunity to gain heaven (2:32). Victorious you would inherit your kingdom; dead you would go to heaven (2:37), which means there is no loss of attempt either way. If you gave up fighting, people would mistake it for cowardice and your peers and enemies alike would forever hold you in contempt; such a situation is worse than death (2:34-36). Thus forfeiting your duty and honor, you would incur sin (2:33). None can ever refrain from performing his Dharma-bound Karma, as one is totally helpless in the face of Gunas of Prakriti (3:5). One’s Ahamkara makes one think he is the doer (3:27). Even wise people conform to the dictates of their Guna; what is the point of resisting it? (3:33). When even the Devas are subject to the Gunas and Karma, how could you not be? (18:40). When you give up your Ahamkara and perform your duty as per your Guna, you would not incur sin even if you kill your own people (18:17) because it is not Adharma to do so. If you still refused to perform your duty due to your Ahamkara, you should remember that by the dictates of your Guna and Karma, you would helplessly perform your duty even against your own will (18:59-60). Remember that one’s own Dharma performed however imperfectly is better than performing another’s Dharma perfectly; for, dying in another’s Dharma is full of fear of going to hell (3:35). As regards the evil of animal sacrifices, all Dharmas are attended with evil of one kind or another, like fire is enveloped with smoke; that is no reason to abandon it (18: 47-48).
Prince Krishna then goes on to explain the distinct duties of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras as per the Varna Dharma in 18:42-44, and declares that only by performing one’s own Varna Dharma could one attain perfection (18:45). He follows this lecture by asking Arjuna if his teaching had removed his ignorance engendered by his Ahamkara (18:72). A shamed, humbled and browbeaten Arjuna meekly affirms, claims that he has regained his memory of his Dharma, and he no longer suffers from panic and doubt. He thanks Achyuta (one who is not tainted) for his grace (18:73). Now you know the historical context of the Original Gita.
The Original Gita Becomes Manifesto of Varna Dharma
This brief parable of Arjuna Vishada in the form of a song, then known simply as the Gita, became Brahmanism’s Manifesto of Varna Dharma and clarion call for Kshatriyas and people of all classes not to abandon their Dharma, and to return to the fold of Brahmanism if they had already done so. Ashoka’s Edicts carved in solid rocks were no match to Brahmanism’s Song seared on the impressionable and confused minds and malleable brains of generations of Hindus. Brahmanism has hung on to this Manifesto of Varna Dharma, Ashoka’s great gift, with dear life for 2250 years. Even though anti-Brahmanic forces (The Upanishadists and Bhagavathas) made two successive attempts to overthrow Brahmanism by interpolating hundreds of anti-Brahmanic shlokas into the Original Gita, Brahmanism managed to neutralize them by launching its own counterrevolution in the text. Brahmins hid both anti-Brahmanic revolutions by masterful editing of the text; by adding counterrevolutionary shlokas; and by obfuscation, misinterpretation, and misrepresentation of the true intent and spirit of the revolutionary shlokas. Due to these socio-religious revolutions and counterrevolutions, over the centuries the 76-shloka long Original Gita bloated to 700-shloka long incoherent and disjointed collection of contradictory shlokas, which came to be known as the Bhagavad Gita. The fact that Sanskrit language is extremely complex, and that there were not many non-Brahmins who had mastery over it, helped them in this process. People’s irrational respect for anyone wearing saffron clothes also contributed to acceptance of any Brahmanic statement, however ridiculous, without critical scrutiny. Besides, in a highly shame-oriented society, anyone questioning Brahminic interpretation of shlokas could risk being accused of suffering from the delusion of Ahamkara. That fear was enough to silence any inquisitive mind.
Ashoka’s Pyrrhic Victory
As for Ashoka the Great, for all his heroic efforts to cleanse Brahmanism of its worst aspects, his name disappeared into the dustbin of history for over two thousand years until it was discovered in Buddhist literature of Sri Lanka less than one hundred years ago. Indians honored him rather belatedly, and that too only after foreigners did so first, by adopting his Lion Capital as the Emblem of Republic of India and his Chakra (Wheel of Righteousness) as the centerpiece of India’s flag. Be assured, you will be hard put to find politicians (modern day Kshatriyas) or bureaucrats (modern day Brahmins) in India who follow the principles of Ashoka’s Dhamma. Hindus have perfected the art of paying lip service to all those myriad of people who tried to reform Brahmanism -Upanishadists, Bhagavathas, Buddha, Ashoka, Kanakadasa, and Gandhi- while continuing to do exactly what they have been doing for over three thousand five hundred years: Preoccupation with Jati, Kula, Yajna, Pooja, gods, rituals, temples, Swamis, astrology and whatnot.
In my next article I will reveal how some bold Upanishadists launched a revolution to overthrow Brahmanism by using the Original Gita itself as the vehicle.
(To be continued)
Dr. Prabhakar Kamath, is a psychiatrist currently practicing in the U.S. He is the author of Servants, Not Masters: A Guide for Consumer Activists in India (1987) and Is Your Balloon About Pop?: Owner’s Manual for the Stressed Mind.