When Buddhism reached Karnataka
R H Kulkarni By
Karnataka, a land of rich tradition and culture, has thousands of monuments that attest to its ancient saga of heritage. Buddhism was one of the earliest religions in the region with lots of activity there starting from the 3rd century BCE. Interestingly, Karnataka has more than half-a-dozen inscriptions of Mauryan emperor Asoka. The Sri Lankan Buddhist chronicle Mahavamsha has records about Asoka’s Buddhist missionaries in the region.
The spread of Buddhism resulted in the construction of memorials like stupas and viharas. Sannati is a small village in Gulbarga district on the north bank of River Bhima, a tributary of River Krishna. Archaeological excavations were conducted by Karnataka’s Directorate of Archaeology in Sannati and by the Archaeological Survey of India at the Ranamandala and Kanaganahalli sites. The ASI excavation at Kanaganahalli near Sannati unearthed the remains of a large stupa, along with a good number of sculptures that were strewn around.
First-ever sculpture of Emperor Asoka with
his name inscribed, in Karnataka’s Sannati
The stupa at Sannati was known as the Shakya Maha Chaitya. The stupa, likely to have been initially built during Asoka’s reign and later renovated by Satavahana kings, is today almost in ruins, but sculptures and inscriptions found here attest to the vibrant Buddhist art and culture in the region. Excavations at Sannati have contributed many Buddhist sculptures, including inscribed historical figures of Asoka and Satavahana kings, depictions of the Jataka tales and miracles of the Buddha. The discovery of an Asokan slab edict followed by the finding of his portrait is an important contribution to the historical records of Indian art. In the sculptural depiction, the emperor with his queen and attendants are carved on a slab, which has an inscription identifying him that reads Raya Asoka (Raja Asoka). It is the first-ever sculpture of Asoka with his name inscribed.
There is another interesting sculpture depicting the revival of the Bodhi Tree by Asoka. The emperor is shown as paying obeisance to the tree and the artist has rendered it with great naturalism. It is believed that Asoka also visited a place called Suvarnagiri in Karnataka. It should be reminded here that the riddle of Devanampriya and Asoka was solved by the Asokan edict at Maski in Karnataka’s Raichur district. It revealed that Devanampriya (the beloved of the Gods), a name found in many early Mauryan inscriptions, was an epithet of none other than Asoka.
Asoka and the revival of the Bodhi Tree
The birth narratives of the Buddha are among the most interesting sculptures in Sannati and are the best of their type. They commence with the dream of his mother Mayadevi. The appearance of a white elephant confirms the conception of a child. It also symbolically attests to the arrival of the Buddha on earth. It is followed by the interpretation of the dream, the nativity scene, presentation of the child to Vriksha Yaksha Shakyavardhana, his departure renouncing the palace life, the defeat of Mara, Buddha’s enlightenment, his first sermon at Sarnath Deer Park, his miracles and sermons to his followers, and the panel narrative finally culminates with the great departure—mahaparinirvana. There are also narratives depicting the distribution of the relics of the Buddha to his followers and the celebration of his departure in the tushita heavens.
Birth scene of Buddha
The Jataka stories such as Chaddanta, Mriga, Suta Soma and Vidurapandita have been delineated on sculptural slabs. All these slabs served as decorative veneering to the drum and platform of the stupa. The Jataka tales narrate the incidents of the previous lives of the Buddha as Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva is a pious person who would always help others. In Shaddanta Jataka, the Bodhisattva was born as an elephant with six tusks. The Queen of Kashi wanted to have the tusks chopped so that she could get them and the Shaddanta elephant would die. A hunter was appointed to get the tusks. In the narration, the artist has carved the elephant with six tusks within the herd. The hunter was unable to cut the tusks as they were heavy. The elephant, having known the intentions of the hunter, helps him cut the tusks and gives him a sermon.
The Sannati stupa also has symbolic and anthropomorphic forms of the Buddha. These depict the Manusha Buddhas, all carved by an artist from Vidarbha. The Buddha is depicted with symbols such as nagamucchalinda (serpent with five or more hoods), elephant, swan, dharmachakra and empty throne with cushions. The slabs are decorated with architectural motifs and flora and fauna, which form part of the festoons and garlands. The Sannati stupa has the maximum number of inscriptions among all stupas (more than 700 inscriptions), and they refer to varied subjects including donors and patrons. Sannati, besides its Buddhist association, is presently known for Sri Chandralaparameshwari, a Shakta deity in a 9th century CE temple.
Buddhist art in Karnataka made its beginning at Sannati and spread its style all over the ancient region. Banavasi in Uttara Kannada district is another place that has a rich association with Buddhism. The Banavasi Kadamba and Badami Chalukya dynasties too patronised Buddhism, but it was at a rather low key. The rich sculptural tradition of stone carvings gave a new dimension to Karnataka’s art history.
Stories writ in stone
The Maski edict found nearly a century ago is important because it changed experts’ understanding of Indian history. The edict revealed beyond doubt that ‘Devanampriya’ was none other than the legendary Mauryan emperor, Ashoka the great, writes Srinivas Sirnoorkar
British gold mining engineer C Beadon did not, in his wildest dreams, think he would soon be creating history when he went for a stroll around the hillocks of Maski in Raichur district’s Lingsugur taluk. Way back in 1915, on January 26, he chanced upon a minor edict on a boulder in a cavern. This triggered a debate on the use of the title ‘Devanampriya’ found in a number of edicts across the country. Historians and scholars of India and abroad were thrilled over the discovery, because, for the first time, it revealed beyond doubt that ‘Devanampriya’ was none other than legendary Mauryan emperor Ashoka, the great.
The Maski edict in Prakrit language, carved in Brahmi script and dated 256 BC, changed the very course of historians and experts’ understanding of ancient Indian history. The pseudonym ‘devanampirya’ found in a number of edicts had, till the British engineer found the Maski edit, remained a mystery. Research scholars struggled hard to unearth the mystery but met with no success. The Maski edict clearly told the world that it was Ashoka who had got the inscriptions carved under the name ‘Devanampriya’. The inscription has a mention of ‘Devanampriya Asoka.’
What it is all about
The inscription remains a dharma shasana, an edict exhorting people to follow the tenets of Buddhism. Though the inscription is dated around 256 BC, it took over 2,100 years for it to see the light of the modern world. For over two millennia, it has withstood the vagaries of weather and onslaughts of nature. It has become increasingly difficult to protect and preserve this rare edict. It is already reported that a number of prehistoric finds in the Maski hillocks have been vandalised by miscreants and treasure hunters.
The inscription kills several birds with a single stone. Apart from associating the title ‘Devanampriya’ with Ashoka, the inscription suggests the spread of Mauryan rule up to the Krishna valley of north-eastern Karnataka.
Some historians believe that Ashoka must have attached some special significance to the region because he chose to reveal his name only in this inscription and nowhere else. It is also said that Ashoka had sent his emissaries including his kith and kin to Sri Lanka to spread Buddhism, apart from making a visit to Maski.
The inscription also makes one believe that Prakrit was the widely spoken language and Brahmi was a well-understood script in ancient Karnataka. Above all, it suggests that Buddhism was an important religion of the time.
Maski town situated on the banks of the river by the same name must have been a developed town with a vibrant civilisation and culture. Politically, economically and industrially, Maski must have been a prominent place.
One may also surmise that the town was a major urban centre in the remote past as is evident from the traces of iron and gold workings covering large parts of the region. It is one of the most important prehistoric sites in India, and various kinds of neolithic implements and artifacts, megalithic burials, graves containing funerary urns made of burn clay, vast traces of ancient metallurgy in the form of ash mounds, etc have been found. The abundant beads found here indicate that Maski was famous for its bead industry centuries before and was a major bead exporter to the West.
In spite of such a glorious past and the town’s position on the historical and heritage map of India, Maski remains largely unknown because no efforts whatsoever have been made to preserve, protect and promote not only the inscription but also other prehistoric finds and artifacts. Experts feel there is a need to carry out more excavations and conduct extensive research in and around Maski to uncover some more fascinating aspects of ancient and prehistoric times.
A reconstruction of the edict reads thus: “For two and a half years I am a lay worshipper of Buddha. (For more than)…I have gone to…the Sangha…I have gone to…Before in Jambudvipa…now they have become mixed…This purpose is even able to be attained by a lowly person who is joined with dharma. It is not only to be seen that a high person might attain this. It is to be said to a lowly person and a high person…Doing thus…Thus (it will be) long standing and will increase (up to) one and half.” The edict is highly fragmented.
A few years later one more edict was found at Gujarra in Madhya Pradesh with the name of the King Ashoka.
This excerpt from a book demolishes Ashoka’s reputation as pacifist
Chandragupta abdicated in 298 BC (or 303 BC according to another source) in favour of his son Bindusara who ruled till 273 BC. Bindusara had inherited an empire that was already very large — from Afghanistan to Bengal. He seems to have extended the realm further south till the empire covered all but the southern tip of the peninsula. For the most part, his rule seems to have been peaceful except for a few rebellions. He also seems to have maintained diplomatic and trade links with the kingdoms carved out from Alexander’s empire.
In 274 BC, Bindusara suddenly fell ill and died. The crown prince Sushima was away fending off incursions on the northwestern frontiers and rushed back to the imperial capital Pataliputra, present-day Patna. However, on arrival he found that Ashoka, one of his half-brothers, had taken control of the city with the help of Greek mercenaries. It appears that Ashoka had Sushima killed at the eastern gates. The crown prince may have been roasted alive in the moat! This was followed by four years of a bloody civil war in which Ashoka seems to have killed all male rivals in his family. Buddhist texts mention that he killed ninety-nine half-brothers and only spared his full brother Tissa. Hundreds of loyalist officials were also killed; Ashoka is said to have personally decapitated five hundred of them. Having consolidated his power, he was finally crowned emperor in 270 BC.
All accounts agree that Ashoka’s early rule was brutal and unpopular, and that he was known as ‘Chandashoka’ or Ashoka the Cruel. According to mainstream textbook narratives, however, Ashoka would invade Kalinga a few years later and, shocked by the death and destruction, would convert to Buddhism and become a pacifist. The reader will be surprised to discover that the popular narrative about this conversion is based on little evidence. Ashoka would invade Kalinga in 262 BC whereas we know from minor rock edicts that Ashoka had converted to Buddhism more than two years earlier. No Buddhist text links his conversion to the war and even Ashoka’s eulogists like Charles Allen agree that his conversion predated the Kalinga war. Moreover, he seems to have had links with Buddhists for a decade before his conversion. The evidence suggests that his conversion to Buddhism was more to do with the politics of succession than with any regret he felt for sufferings of war.
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The Mauryans were likely to have followed Vedic court rituals (certainly many of their top officials were Brahmins) but had eclectic religious affiliations in personal life. The founder of the line, Chandragupta, seems to have had links to the Jains in old age while his son Bindusara seems to have been partial to a heterodox sect called the Ajivikas. This is not an unusual arrangement in the Dharmic (i.e. Indic) family of religions. This eclectic approach remains alive to this day and lay followers of Dharmic religions think nothing of praying at each other’s shrines. You will find many Hindus at the Golden Temple in Amritsar just as the streets of Bangkok are full of shrines dedicated to the Hindu god Brahma. The coronation of the king of Thailand is still carried out by Brahmin priests.
It is likely that when Ashoka usurped the throne, he was opposed by family members who had links to the Jains and the Ajivikas. He may have responded by reaching out to their rivals, the Buddhists, for support. The power struggle may even explain his invasion of Kalinga. The mainstream view is that Kalinga was an independent kingdom that was invaded by Ashoka but there is some reason to believe that it was either a rebellious province or a vassal that was no longer trusted.
We know that the Nandas, who preceded the Mauryas, had already conquered Kalinga and, therefore, it is likely that it became part of the Mauryan empire when Chandragupta took over the Nanda kingdom. In any case, it seems odd that a large and expansionist empire like that of the Mauryas would have tolerated an independent state so close to its capital Pataliputra and its main port at Tamralipti. In other words, Kalinga would not have been an entirely independent kingdom under Bindusara — it was either a province or a close vassal. Something obviously changed during the early years of Ashoka’s reign and my guess is that it had either sided with Ashoka’s rivals during the battle for succession and/or declared itself independent in the confusion.
Whatever the real reasons for attracting Ashoka’s ire, a large Mauryan army marched into Kalinga around 262 BC. The traditional view is that the two armies met on the banks of the river Daya at Dhauli near modern Bhubaneswar. It is possible that Dhauli was the site of a skirmish but recent archaeological excavations point to a place called Yuddha Meruda being the site of the main battle followed by a desperate and bloody last stand at the Kalingan capital of Tosali.
The remains of Tosali were discovered only recently by a team of archaeologists led by Debraj Pradhan, a humble and affable man who has made some extraordinary discoveries about Odisha’s ancient past. The site is at a place called Radhanagar, a couple of hours’ drive from Cuttack. It is situated in a broad fertile plain watered by the Brahmani river and surrounded by low hills. Surveying the beautiful valley from one of the hills, one is overwhelmed by a feeling of eternity — rice fields, fish ponds, coconut palms, mango trees, and thin wisps of wood smoke rising from village huts. Other than a few power transmission towers, the scene is perhaps close to what it would have looked to Mauryan generals planning their final assault.
The remains of the city’s earthwork defences suggest that Tosali was built in the middle of the plains; arguably a poor choice as the city’s defences would have been better served if they were wedged more closely to one of the hills. Archaeologists have only excavated a small section of the walls but have found it riddled with arrowheads; a blizzard of arrows must have been unleashed by the Mauryan army. The Kalingans never stood a chance. Ashoka’s own inscriptions tell us that a 100,000 died in the war and an even larger number died from wounds and hunger. A further 150,000 were taken away as captives.
According to the official storyline, Ashoka was horrified by his own brutality and became a Buddhist and a pacifist. But, as we have seen, he was already a practicing Buddhist by then, and from what we know of his early rule, he was hardly a man to be easily shocked by the sight of blood. The main evidence of his repentance comes from his own inscriptions. It is very curious, however, that this ‘regret’ is mentioned only in locations far away from Odisha (such as in Shahbazgarhi in north-western Pakistan). None of the inscriptions in Odisha express any remorse; any hint of regret is deliberately left out.
The Ashokan inscriptions at Dhauli are engraved on a rock at the base of a hill. Almost all tourists drive right past it to the white coloured modern stupa at the top of the hill. So I found myself alone with the inscriptions and the translations put up by the Archaeological Survey of India. What will strike anyone reading them is how they specifically leave out any sign of regret. The silence is deafening.
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If Ashoka was genuinely remorseful, he would have surely bothered to apologize to the people whom he had wronged. Far from it, he doesn’t even offer to free the captives. Even the supposedly regretful inscriptions include a clear threat of further violence against other groups like the forest tribes who are unequivocally ‘told of the power to punish them that Devanampriya possesses in spite of his repentance, in order that they may be ashamed of their crimes and may not be killed’. This is no pacifist.
It is likely that Ashoka was using his inscriptions as a tool of political propaganda to counter his reputation for cruelty. As with the words of any politician, this does not mean he changed his behaviour. Moreover, many of the inscriptions are placed in locations where the average citizen or official of that time would not have been able to read them. Several historians including Nayanjot Lahiri have wondered about this. Is it possible that some of the inscriptions were really meant for later generations rather than his contemporaries?
The Buddhist text, Ashoka-vadana, tells us of more acts of genocide perpetrated by the emperor many years after he supposedly turned pacifist. These were directed particularly at followers of the Jain and Ajivika sects; by all accounts he avoided conflicts with mainstream Hindus and was respectful towards Brahmins. The Ashoka-vadana recounts how Ashoka once had 18,000 Ajivikas in Bengal put to death in a single episode. If true, this would be the first known instance of large-scale religious persecution in Indian history (but, sadly, would not be the last).
This is not the only incident mentioned in the text. A Jain devotee was found in Pataliputra drawing a picture showing Buddha bowing to a Jain tirthankara. Ashoka ordered him and his family to be locked inside their home and for the building to set alight. He then ordered that he would pay a gold coin in exchange for every decapitated head of a Jain. The carnage only ended when someone mistakenly killed his only surviving brother, the Buddhist monk Vitashoka (also called Tissa). The story suggests frightening parallels with modern-day fundamentalists who kill cartoonists whom they accuse of insulting their religion.
Supporters of Ashoka may claim that these incidents are untrue and were inserted into the story by fundamentalist Buddhist writers in much later times. While this is entirely possible, let me remind readers that my alternative narrative is based on exactly the same texts and inscriptions used to praise Ashoka. Perhaps the same scepticism should be evenly applied to all the evidence and not just to portions of the text that do not suit the mainstream narrative.
In addition to the references of his continued cruelty, we also have reason to believe that Ashoka was not a successful administrator. In his later years, an increasingly unwell Ashoka watched his empire disintegrate from rebellion, internal family squabbles and fiscal stress. While he was still alive, the empire had probably lost all the northwestern territories that had been acquired from Seleucus. Within a few years of Ashoka’s death in 232 BC, the Satvahanas had taken over most of the territories in southern India and Kalinga too had seceded.
As one can see, Ashoka does not look like such a great king on closer inspection but a cruel and unpopular usurper who presided over the disintegration of a large and well-functioning empire built by his father and grandfather. At the very least, it must be accepted that evidence of Ashoka’s greatness is thin and he was some shade of grey at best. Perhaps like many politicians, he made grand highminded proclamations but acted entirely differently. This fits with the fact that he is not remembered as a great monarch in the Indian tradition but in hagiographic Buddhist texts written in countries that did not experience his reign. He was ‘rediscovered’ in the nineteenth century by colonial era orientalists like James Princep. His elevation to being ‘Ashoka the Great’ is even more recent and is the result of political developments leading up to India’s independence.
After Independence, it appears academic historians were further encouraged to build up the legend of Ashoka the Great in order to provide a lineage to Jawaharlal Nehru’s socialist project and inconvenient evidence was simply swept under the carpet. This is not so different from how the medieval Ethiopians created a Biblical lineage for the Solomonic dynasty. A few Western writers like Charles Allen have patronizingly written how ancient Indians were somehow foolish to have had little regard for a great king such as Ashoka. On a closer look, it appears that they knew what they were doing. What is more worrying is how easily modern Indians have come to accept a narrative based on such minimal evidence.