I am currently wading through a humungous hardback edition of a book on Ashoka which is over 1000 pages. I started reading it over six months back while I was working. It has been a while since I moved to Chennai to pursue my post graduation but I am yet to finish that book. This does not mean that it is boring, it is just so hugeee to even a voracious reader like me that I am still 500 pages away from completing it.

Anyway what I wanted to talk about is not so superficial as the size of a book.

I am still not certain about my religious beliefs in spite of being in my early 20s. Though I was born a Hindu, going to a Catholic school with a church and masses to attend had left me with a fascination for Christianity. To this already simmering mixture, the third ingredient, Arya Samaj was added. When I switched schools in secondary, I joined DAV (Dayanand Anglo Vedic) where for the first time in my life I was exposed to more Hinduism. It is ironic that being a Hindu I did not even know the Gayatri Mantra but with both parents working, Sundays were all about catching up and religion was the last topic one would discuss with a growing child. So it was in school that I did everything from singing bhajans to being exposed to Moral Science lectures where the Arya Samaj and its philosophies were introduced to us.

I went with the flow and read a lot. What I liked about Arya Samaj were their forward thinking ideals. It is not a separate religion of course, just a group of people who believed that Hinduism has to be rid of evils like caste system and the practice of untouchability. It was formed in the late 1800s as an answer to those Hindus who wanted to study science and be more liberal, yet retain their religious identity. Here is where Ashoka comes in. How? I’ll explain.

When Ashoka ascended to the throne o f the Mauryan Empire, Vedic Hinduism was at its peak. Vedic I say because it was a very different version of modern Hinduism. Rituals were prescribed as a solution for all problems. The religion was at its brutal best with religious sacrifices being the norm. Animals and humans alike were ruthlessly slaughtered to please the God. Society followed the varna system strictly. It was in this society that Ashoka threw his weight behind Buddhism just like Arya Samaj threw its weight behind revisiting Vedas to purge Hinduism of its ills. Now you see the parallel?

But why would a Mauryan prince bother with religion?

He did so to be a better leader and consolidate his reach. His legacy has not faded away even 2000 years after his death. He still remains the only ruler to have ruled an area that stretched from modern day Afghanistan in the West to present Bengal.

What is it as a ruler that he saw which aroused his interest in religion as a tool of control for such a vast and diverse empire? Also why the fascination with Buddhism in particular?

As a ruler Ashoka understood one fact…