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The Kalinga War: A Change of Heart?

A Psychological Analysis on Attitude Change



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Image Credits: indiathedestiny.com

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Priyanka Giri


Over centuries, the world has witnessed several acts of warfare and history has not failed to fill its pages with endless stories about these incidents. Some of these have even inspired the study of different concepts in the field of Psychology. For example, from Hitler’s leadership qualities, to Western cult phenomena and social experiments, there is sufficient literature, documentaries and cinema that analyse these landmark events psychologically.

From Indian history, the gruesome war in the east-central region of India during the reign of the Mauryan Empire ought to make it to this list. The Kalinga War that began in 261 BC impacted millions and changed the heart of one of India’s most powerful rulers, Ashoka the Great.

From a psychological lens, the war can be considered as an example to understand attitude changes that individuals experience throughout their lifetime. Attitudes refer to a set of thoughts and beliefs that an individual develops towards another individual, group or situation. Throughout one’s life, these attitudes can change in multiple ways - an individual can form a new attitude, or modify their existing attitudes. This is known as attitude change.

The Kalinga War that began almost eight years after Ashoka ascended the throne was one of the bloodiest battles in Indian history. In an attempt to conquer the south-eastern and southern parts of India, which would result in the Mauryan Empire becoming the largest empire in the country, Ashoka waged war against the ruler of Kalinga in 261 BC. However, the battle concluded with the massacre of more than one lakh people.

In Ashoka’s own words, as inscribed on the Rock Edict 13, and translated by Dr. Bhandarkar, Carmichael Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture at Calcutta University, “One hundred and fifty thousand persons were thence carried away captive, one hundred thousand were there slain, and many times that number died.” The edict further states how Ashoka was no longer able to tolerate the death and captivity of people and hence chose to give up the idea of warfare. He started following Buddhism and wished for peace, joyfulness and security for all living creatures. Emperor Ashoka’s renouncement of warfare and adoption of non-violence and Dharma is certainly an example of attitude change. However, the two concepts of congruent and incongruent attitude change can be understood based on two narratives that exist about the Kalinga War.

Narrative 1: The Kalinga War caused a change of heart

(Incongruent Attitude Change)

This is the most popular version of the story, narrated in historical records, educational curricula and evidenced by Ashoka’s edicts and inscriptions. A powerful emperor who believed in conquest by force and war, who was close to ruling one of the largest empires in the country, was so deeply impacted by the massacre of the Kalinga War that he decided to sacrifice warfare and adopt Dhammaghosa (conquering the hearts of people through Dharma).

After sacrificing warfare, Ashoka began spreading the message of Dharma - a way of life that was based on values such as truth, compassion, and humanity through his rock edicts and pillar inscriptions. Several reforms were introduced, such as the establishment of universities in Takshashila, Nalanda and Ujjain, as well as monasteries in Pataliputra, now Patna. Furthermore, veterinary hospitals were established to protect animal life, and animal sacrifice was forbidden. Drinking and meat-eating saw a decline and the concept of vegetarianism gained popularity.

He also funded the development of rest houses for pilgrims and sent missionaries to different parts of the world to spread the Buddhist Dharma and to establish diplomatic relations with different kingdoms. For example, he sent his own son, Mahendra, and daughter, Sanghamitra, to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to spread Buddhism.

If this narrative is analysed from a psychological point of view, the emperor’s initial, positive attitude towards warfare eventually changes to a negative attitude. This is an example of incongruent attitude change where an individual’s attitude changes in a direction opposite to their initial attitude towards any situation.

Narrative 2: The Kalinga War only strengthened Ashoka’s pre-existing belief in Buddhism

(Congruent Attitude Change)

According to a not-so-popular version of the Kalinga War story, emperor Ashoka had already become a follower of Buddhism almost two years before the Kalinga War. During his time as the Governor of Ujjain, he is believed to have married Devi, the daughter of a local merchant in Ujjain, who was a Buddhist and greatly influenced Ashoka.

According to 'The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History', a book by Sanjeev Sanyal, an Indian historian and economist, Ashoka is said to have killed those who insulted Buddhism and threatened other tribal groups in Kalinga of further violence if they dared to resist his conquest. Also, none of Ashoka’s edicts and inscriptions clearly indicate his adoption of Buddhism after the war. And, the rock edict that expresses Ashoka’s remorse towards the horrors at Kalinga is in fact believed to be located near Kandahar in Afghanistan, far away from the site of the battle itself.

If this narrative is analysed from a psychological point of view, the emperor’s initial, positive attitude towards Buddhism might have simply become stronger after experiencing acts of insult against Buddhism in Kalinga which in turn increased Ashoka’s resolve to spread Buddhism. Hence, after the war, Ashoka began vehemently spreading the message of peace and tolerance through his inscriptions, missionaries, the establishment of universities and introducing lifestyle changes. This is an example of congruent attitude change where an individual’s attitude changes in the same direction as their initial attitude towards any situation.

From a point of view of historical accuracy, it might take years of research to discover the most authentic version of the Kalinga War. However, the current evidence is helpful enough to try and decipher the psychological aspects of one of Indian history’s greatest battles.


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