Maharani Devi

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Maharani Devi (born c. 302-300 BCE, died 242 BCE) (full name: Vidisha Mahadevi Shakyakumari Asandhimitra) was an Empress of the Mauryan Empire as the first and the most beloved wife of Mauryan Emperor Ashoka and the mother of his first born Crown Prince Mahendra and second born Princess Sanghamitra. She is remembered for Sanchi Stupa and is credited with being a major factor for her husband's conversion to Buddhism. She was the only Buddhist Empress of India. Her name literally means goddess in sanskrit.

Early life[edit]

Devi was born between 302-300 BCE at Sanchi as Asandhimitra or Asandhamitta (meaning "Friend of freedom or independence") to an extremely wealthy and influential Buddhist Shakya merchant-banker family of Vaishya caste of the town of Vidishanagari (present day Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh, India).[1] She was however brought up at Vidishanagari. She was said to be a striking beauty with great intellect and a kind, caring, warm and compassionate nature. A devout Buddhist, she was well versed in Buddhist scriptures. She was also trained as a nurse by Buddhist nuns. Not much is known about Devi's family other than that her family migrated to Vidishanagari during the Shakya massacre by Vidudabha. Her family was also distantly related to the Buddha's family, making her a distant relative of Buddha himself. She had two brothers named Bodhigupta[2] and Sumitra[2] as well as a sister who had a daughter who had a son named Bhanduka. Some Buddhist works, however, claim her as a Shakya princess, a view which is often refuted.[3]

Meeting Ashoka[edit]

In 286 BCE, Emperor Bindusara sent his most formidable son, Prince Ashoka to quell a rebellion in Ujjaini (present day Ujjain). On his way to Ujjaini from the Imperial Capital Pataliputra (present day Patna), he halted at Vidishanagari for a while. Vidishanagari was at that time a stronghold of Buddhists, especially its wealthy merchant class all of whom were Buddhists. There, while resting in the garden of a nearby Stupa, he was disturbed by the chatter of passerby women who were taking offerings to the stupa. It was then he saw the leader of the group, Devi and fell in love with her at first sight. He sent his aides to find out all the information they can about Devi and after acquiring it, he approached her father for her hand in marriage. In another version, on Ashoka's arrival, the merchants of Vidishanagari hosted a banquet in his honour. Here, he met and fell in love with Devi who personally attented to his requirements during the banquet. At the end of the banquet, he asked for her hand in marriage from her father. In both versions, Devi's delighted father agreed happily. In both versions, however, he was rejected by Devi. She stated several reasons for this: caste differences (she was a Vaishya while he was a Kshatriya), sectarian differences (she was a Buddhist while he was a Shivaite), her own desire to stay in Vidisha and serve the society and Ashoka's ill temper, sadistic tendencies and political ambition (Ashoka had already by that time built a reputation of being a ruthless and cruel general). According to some Buddhist texts, Devi agreed to marry him only on one condition that he should live a life as disciplined as the Buddha himself. In order to marry Devi, Ashoka converted to Buddhism and became pious in nature. This story has been dismissed by historians since the turning point for Ashoka is taken to be the Kalinga War, and not marriage to Devi. However, Devi's contribution and personal influence over Ashoka is weighed heavily for his conversion.

After being rejected, Ashoka left for Ujjain where he peacefully solved the revolt without a single fight. On his way back, somewhere nearby Vidisha, he was attacked and fatally wounded by assassins sent by his elder half-brother Crown Prince Sushima, who was becoming insecure about Ashoka's rising popularity. While his generals held off and killed the assassins, he was secretly saved by some Buddhist monks from a nearby vihara who took him there and treated his wounds. Incidentally, Devi frequented this vihara and on learning about his injuries, she became his personal nurse. During this phase, Ashoka courted her and Devi finally reciprocated his feelings and accepted his proposal. According to a legend, to distract Ashoka from the pain caused due to the injuries, she used to tell him stories about Buddha and Boddhisattvas. Also, there he learnt the basic principles of Buddhism from the monks and nuns. This was later to form the base of his conversion to Buddhism. After his recovery, Ashoka married Devi, much to the delight of Devi's father. It seems that Ashoka maintained good relations and contact with his first in-laws as he took their help in his later Buddhist propagation.

Marriage With Ashoka[edit]

In 286 BCE, a 14–16 years old Devi got married to an 18 years old Ashoka at Sanchi. Being the birthplace of his wife as well as the venue of their wedding, Ashoka loved the town of Sanchi a lot. After they returned to Pataliputra in great splendour, they realised that their marriage had displeased Bindusara, who did not like the fact that his son had married a non-Kshatriya Buddhist. At the Imperial Palace, Devi was constantly humiliated and insulted by the rest of the Imperial family. Due to this, an altercation arose between Ashoka and Bindusara which resulted in Ashoka being appointed the provincial governor of Ujjaini, which happened to be far away from the capital, for permanently. Soon, Ashoka left for Ujjaini with Devi who had by this time developed a deep dislike and fear of state politics.

On reaching Ujjain, Devi got pregnant with Ashoka's first born. At the same time, a sadhu arrived at the Imperial Court and prophesied that Ashoka's first born son through Devi would conquer Lanka. An alarmed Sushima sent assassins to kill a pregnant Devi. There are several versions of what followed next . In one version, Devi, who had recently given birth to twins, was killed while trying to protect them. In another version, Queen Dharma was killed while trying to protect a pregnant Devi. In both versions, a furious Ashoka attacked Pataliputra and massacred his brothers for revenge. Both versions are dismissed by historians as according to historical records, Ashoka did not kill his brothers until 15 years later. In another version, believed to be true, a pregnant Devi was saved by Ashoka who became so furious at this act of his brother that he almost started a war against him. However, he was calmed down by Devi who suggested that he take up this matter with his father. When Bindusara learnt that Sushima had tried to kill a pregnant lady, he threatened him that if he made another immoral move again, he will lose the title of Crown Prince.

In 284 BCE, Devi gave birth to a boy . Ashoka, delighted at getting an heir, named his son "Mahendra" meaning "Conqueror of the World". Two years later in 282 BCE, she gave birth to a daughter. On Devi's request, he allowed her to name their daughter "Sanghamitra" meaning "Friend of the Sangha". According to some texts, however, Mahendra and Sanghamitra were twins born in either 285 BCE or 281 BCE. Mahendra and Sanghamitra grew up in Ujjaini during the peaceful and prosperous governance of their father. During this phase, Devi became popular amongst the people of the entire province as the kind, compassionate and wise Vidisha Devi.

During The Kalinga War[edit]

However, this peaceful time did not last long. In 272 BCE (the fourteenth year of Ashoka's rule as the governor of Ujjaini), Bindusara fell ill and a war broke out amongst his sons over succession to the throne. Ashoka, though not the heir apparent, was invited by the Prime Minister Radhagupta and other ministers to Pataliputra to take over the throne. According to legends, Ashoka then left Devi and their children at Vidisha in her father's care. After he wiped out his brothers, he succeeded to the throne and started a vicious campaign against Kalinga. He then sent for Devi and their children. According to legends, Devi, horrified at the turn of events, sent the children and a letter to Ashoka stating that she is leaving him. Devi then entered a nunnery and disappeared completely and Ashoka spent the rest of his life lamenting the loss of the only woman he truly loved and was loved by.

Historians are however divided on this matter. Some believe that after this, Ashoka married a woman named Asandhimitra, later the Princess of Kalinga Rani Padmavati, sometimes also known as Kaurwaki and kept numerous wives and concubines including Tishyaraksha. This view is without any evidence and thus dismissed.

The second view, supported by historical evidence and majority of historians is that Devi joined at Pataliputra after his coronation but due to his expansionist policies as well as his fratricide, they underwent a strain in their otherwise peaceful and loving relationship. This strain further escalated after Mahendra and Sanghamitra left home to become Buddhist monk and nun. It is also believed that the Imperial Court, especially Radhagupta, was hostile towards her due to her caste as well as religion. Soon, Ashoka invaded Kalinga and waged a massive war against them. According to legends, Devi tried to stop Ashoka by going to Kalinga and pleading with him but on seeing the horrors of the war, she left him. She returned to Vidisha and rejected his efforts to bring her back. During this phase, she served at the Buddhist viharas but was never ordained as a nun. Ashoka, infuriated at being rejected and abandoned, took several concubines which included the defeated Princess of Kalinga Rani Padmavati and the daughters of chieftains he had earlier defeated (This can be proved by the ages of his other children as they were born within the same year). His relationship with his concubines was extremely fraught and most of them hated and feared him, some even openly such as Padmavati and several others whom he burnt down alive for insulting him .

After the Kalinga War[edit]

After the realisation of the intensity of his crimes and conversion to Buddhism, he abandoned his concubines physically and emotionally by sending them back their father's palaces. He, however, continued acknowledging them his concubines as a token of having fathered children on them. It is believed that Devi was deeply hurt by this act of infidelity (Buddhists were strictly monogamous) and refused to return to him even after repeated pleas and apologies. However, about two and a half years after Ashoka's conversion, it seems that they finally reconciled and Devi returned as the Empress, this time receiving due respect from the Imperial Court. Following her return, Ashoka became vigorous about Buddhism and started funding stupas and other structures as well as charity. Within weeks of her return, Padmavati died, leaving Kunala, a toddler, motherless. Devi then adopted Kunala as her own, bringing him up with great love and care. Due to this, she is often mistaken to be his birth mother. Kunala's inclination towards Buddhism as well as pacifist nature is attributed to her. She also took Charumati (a daughter of Ashoka through another concubine) under her wings and trained her in nursing.

The most important of the buildings built by Ashoka was the Sanchi Stupa. When Ashoka was to build a final resting place for Buddha's ashes, he chose Devi's birthplace Sanchi as the venue, though it was a place which did not have any connection with Buddha whatsoever. The hill, Chaityagiri, on which the stupa was built was renamed Vidishagiri (meaning "the hill of Vidisha Devi") by Ashoka in honour of his most beloved wife. Devi herself oversaw the construction of the stupa which was to become the oldest stone structure in India as well as the largest stupa of its time. Nearby, Ashoka erected a 12 meter high pillar in Devi's honour. The pillar today is in ruins with only its top and base surviving. The middle believed to have mentioned Devi and their children is missing or destroyed. The top part contains the "four lions" structure which is the national emblem of India.

The Mahavihara was constructed at Sanchi nearby the Sanchi Stupa in 254 BCE. Believed to be Devi's main residence, it was the first Buddhist edifice in the world, the largest of its time. There are different versions of who built it. Some texts describe that it was built by Ashoka for Devi, some say that it was built by Mahendra for his mother while some others claim that Devi built it for her son. The Mahavihara mostly functioned as a monastery but was also a centre of learning and a hospital. The Mahavihara, which today lies in ruins, is believed to have seven storeys, beautiful gardens, an infirmary and a huge library.

Not much is known about Devi later life other than the fact she repeatedly shifted between Pataliputra, Ujjaini, Vidisha, Besnagar and Sanchi for Buddhist works. During this phase, she is believed to have taken a servant named Tishyaraksha under her service. Tishyaraksha's brilliance impressed her and she taught her nursing and dancing.

After much pursuance from Devi, Ashoka finally agreed to send Mahendra to Lanka as being the first born heir who abdicated the throne, his life was under considerable danger. In 254 BCE, before leaving for Lanka, Mahendra took the blessings of his mother who was at that time in Besnagar and she took him to Sanchi to show him the completed stupa. Mahendra finally left for Lanka in 250 BCE along with Tishya, Sumitra, Agnibrahmi, Sumana, Bhanduka and several others. In 245 BCE, after his success at converting the Lankan king to Buddhism, he sent for Sanghamitra. Ashoka was however reluctant to let his daughter go overseas and only with great effort on Devi's part did he agree. In 244 BCE, Tishya and Sumitra died and both Ashoka and Devi grieved at their deaths.

Death[edit]

Devi's death is put down to the year 242 BCE. She died at the age of 58–60 years of unknown causes. Her death was followed by intense national mourning as well as issuing of official orders of charity which record her as "the beloved chief consort of Ashoka and a strong believer of the Sambudha". But it is the aftermath of her death which most remembered. Ashoka was emotionally shattered at his beloved's death (he did not share much of an emotional relationship with his other queens as those had only political value and a physical basis only). He became a recluse and gave up materialistic pleasures of life. He stopped visiting his harem completely (which was resented by another concubine, Tishyaraksha, who had originally been a maid of Devi while she was the empress[4]) and started fanatically donating almost everything he had to the Mahavihara. He also became physically weak due to grief which led to frequent spells of illness, thus frequent absences from the Imperial Court. This created a power vacuum in the court which led to Tishyaraksha seizing power (She had medically served Ashoka in his illness and as a reward, had asked sovereignty for a week, something which Ashoka granted rather reluctantly). This was followed by Kunala's blinding and subsequent fall of the Mauryan dynasty.

Contributions[edit]

According to eminent historian Alex von Tunzelmann, "Devi was Ashoka's first and most favourite wife, and the intellectual inspiration behind his conversion to Buddhism".[5] Unique and most illustrious amongst the Mauryan queens and empresses, Devi is regarded as the only Buddhist Empress of Indi. She carried the title Samragyi or Mahadevi (The Mauryan queens were called devi's and Devi, as the empress, was called mahadevi (meaning great queen)). Though Devi is mostly and popularly associated with being the nun empress, it is actually not proven that she was a nun or that she had left Ashoka. This view is supported by the recent findings and eminent historians such as Krishna Swarup Saxena and Benimadhab Barua that suggest that Devi was the same person as Asandhimitra who was believed to be Ashoka's chief queen at Pataliputra. In spite of this controversy, Devi has the distinction of being his only wife for about twenty five years (286 BCE - 261 BCE), a rare feat considering the fact that royals of that era were mostly polygamous. As the empress consort, she had ruled for about twenty six years (268 BCE - 242 BCE). Some historians including have claimed that Devi was actually the only wife (dharmapatni) of Ashoka and the rest of his "wives" were only concubines (uppatni) or keeps (rakshita). This view has some evidence supporting it but is often dismissed. An anonymous historian had claimed that Devi couldn't become the queen as she was not Ashoka's wife but only a lover as the Dipavamsa does not mention a wedding. This claim has been proved wrong and dismissed as nearly all other texts of that era mention her as his wife and in the Mahanama, the venue of the wedding is stated to be Sanchi. While many modern interpretations state that Tishyaraksha was raised to the rank of chief queen four years after Devi's death, the original story in Ashokavadana state that she was given sovereignty for a week as a reward for curing Ashoka. This is in accordance to the fact that only one person i.e. the dharmapatni or the lawfully wedded wife of the emperor can become the empress (samragyi/mahadevi/aggamahisi) during his reign and that the position remains vacant even after her death and can be filled only by the wife of the next emperor.

Devi is famous in her own right, apart from being Ashoka's wife and empress. She had colossal amount of influence over her husband and was important and active in the Imperial Court. She was immensely popular amongst the general public, thus earning her several names and titles. She also received the largest amount of funds amongst Ashoka's harem, which accounted for about 50% of the funds allocated to the queens. Most of these funds went to charity, setting up of hospitals and centres of learning, and Buddhist propagation and activities. She is credited with the Mahastupa at Sanchi, the Mahavihara at Sanchi, the Vaishya Tankari at Ujjain and numerous other activities and buildings including what is believed to be the first veterinary hospital in the world. She is, however, most famous for being the base of Ashoka's conversion to Buddhism.

Due to the lack of information or even mention of her in ancient texts and edicts of Mauryan era from the mainland India and surprisingly huge amount of information from Buddhist texts from Sri Lanka, historians believe that despite upholding Buddhist traditions, the later Mauryan kings continued to discriminate against her due to her caste and therefore even refuse to acknowledge her very existence. It is also believed that Lanka, free from the rule the Mauryas

As the unquestionable love of Ashoka's life, Devi's romance and marriage with Ashoka is extensively described in Dipavamsa, Mahavamsa, Ashokavadana, Mahabodhivamsa, Samantapasadika, The Pali Chronicles and numerous other Buddhist texts and historical books.

Samrat Ashok Technological Institute, Vidisha (SATI) is Grant-in-Aid autonomous college located in Vidisha, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. It was established on 1 November 1960, by Maharaja Jiwajirao Education Society. The Institute was named after Emperor Ashoka the Great and was set up in Vidisha, the childhood home of his Empress consort Devi.

Other Names[edit]

Since she was born into a Shakya clan, she was also known as Shakya Kumari meaning "Daughter of Shakya clan", Shakya Mahadevi meaning "Empress from Shakya clan", Shakya Devi meaning "Devi of Shakya clan" or "godess/queen of Shakya clan" and Shakyani meaning "Shakya girl". As she was brought up at Vidisha, she was also known as Vidisha Devi (name variations: Vidisa Devi, Vedisa Devi, Bidisha Debi) meaning "Devi of Vidisha" or "godess/queen of Vidisha", Vidisha Mahadevi meaning "Empress from Vidisha" and sometimes simply Vidisha. It is believed that the birth name of Devi was Asandhimitra (Sanskrit) or Asandhmitta (Pali) meaning "Friend of Freedom or Independence".[4](Earlier, it was believed that Asandhimtra was another wife and a chief queen of Ashoka but the view has been dismissed due to earthing of new historical evidences).[6][7][8]

In Popular Culture[edit]

Devi plays an important role in modern artistic adaptions concerning Ashoka, playing the role of his love interest and wife in them.

  • Aśoka - Bollywood movie - played by Hrishita Bhatt
  • Amar Chitra Katha - : Ashoka the Great - graphic novel
  • Dreams And Realities - non-fictional novel - By R. Suryanarayanan
  • The odyssey of Emperor Ashoka Maurya: Kalinga war to universal peace - semi fictional play By Manmath Nath Das
  • The beloved of Gods: A novel of Ancient India - semi fictional novel- By J Ford

References[edit]

  1. ^ Age of The Nandas and Mauryas
  2. ^ a b Chandragupta Maurya And His Times By Radhakumud Mookerji
  3. ^ Archaeology of Vidiśā (Daśārṇa) Region By K. K. Tripathi
  4. ^ a b Ashoka the imperial patron of buddhism
  5. ^ Historian Alex von Tunzelmann on the accuracy of Askoa film
  6. ^ Early history of Jammu region By Raj Kumar
  7. ^ Twayne's Rulers and Statesmen of the World Series, Volume 3
  8. ^ Ancient Indian history By Nagindas H. Sanghavi, Laju Mansharamani
  • Historian Alex von Tunzelmann on the accuracy of Askoa film [1]
  • Ashoka The Great Biography [2]
  • Asoka [3]
  • Ashoka New World Encyclopedia [4]
  • Ashoka Life History [5]
  • WINNOWED: Book review "Ashoka" by Charles Allen [6]
  • Ashoka [7]
  • Sanchi [8]
  • Early history of Jammu region By Raj Kumar [9]
  • Archaeology of Vidiśā (Daśārṇa) Region By K. K. Tripathi [10]
  • Twayne's Rulers and Statesmen of the World Series, Volume 3 [11]
  • Ancient Indian history By Nagindas H. Sanghavi, Laju Mansharamani [12]
  • Chandragupta Maurya And His Times By Radhakumud Mookerji [13]
  • Ashoka the imperial patron of buddhism [14]