Unlearning Our History Lessons

Ashoka the great, Nepolean the great, Alexander the great, Samudragupta the great and not to forget the great Khan of  the Mangol empire Chengiz Khan- what is common among these?  Each one of them was a great warrior who killed and decimated his enemies. But Ashoka had one more distinction for his claim to glory. As all of us studied in our school texts, he became a Budhist after the bloody Kalinga war and became a pacifist overnight seeing his own brutality. But is this narrative of history true? This is now being questioned by Sanjeev Sanyal, a best selling author. He says after Bindusara’s death, Ashoka killed Bindusara’s son and crown prince in Pataliputra. He also killed all but one of his 99 half brothers and in fact became a Budhist for political reasons a few years before the Kalinga war. His conversion to Budhism was related to the politics of succession and had nothing to do with the Kalinga war. Even after the Kalinga war, where about 100,000 people were killed, Ashoka was not repentant. He went on to kill his religious adversaries like Jains and Ajivikas. Thus he was a mere usurper who became an emperor by violence and went on to expand his empire through bloody wars. He was also cruel with people following other faiths and like all bad kings tried to plant false evidence through inscriptions in distant places to counter his reputation for cruelty.

If all this is true, then, does Ashoka now become an Antihero? Can we now denounce him as Ashoka, the cruel(Chandashoka). If so, what will we do with Ashoka Chakra which adorns our national flag?

Somehow our historians accept emperors fighting wars and expanding their empires and declare them as great. However, they cannot accept a usurper to the throne as a hero. Wars were always glorified by historians. A ruler is expected to keep expanding his empire and historians would thrust greatness on them. We have come a long way from an era where one’s greatness is evaluated by the number of wars fought and won. No one can get away today saying – I came, I saw, I conquered, like the great Julius Caesar did. However, one can certainly get away saying – I came, I saw and as I was looking on innocently, someone attacked me and I counter attacked and killed him. However, in today’s world economic imperialism has replaced political imperialism. The logic of Julius Caesar is perfectly acceptable in building Business empires. Businessmen have to either grow or perish. And when they grow it’s okay to kill a thousand competitors!

Talking of violence and wars, the evolutionay psychologist Steven Pinker describes, in one of his books, how the standards of violence have changed over time. Even as  recently as the early 20th century, a hereditary member of the British House of lords complained: PM Lloyd George had created new lords solely because they were self-made millionaires. When asked, how did his ancestors become a lord, he replied: with the battle-axe, sir, with the battle-axe!

Shakespeare, echoing the values of his time, says in one of his dramas: You ought not to mix up murder with war.. It’s puzzling that it’s wicked to kill one person but glorious to kill a thousand.


Published in: on August 14, 2016 at 5:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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