Thursday, 29 March 2012

Emperor Ashoka versus King Venkatadari

The story of the Emperor Ashoka's supposed remorse at the destruction of life caused by his attack on the Kalinga kingdom, and his resulting conversion to Buddhism, is well known.

Not as well known is the story of Venkatadri, which I mention below.

But before I turn to that, I should remind readers of my skeptcism regarding the Buddhist version of the Ashoka story (above): I stated, in my INDIAN SPIRITUALITY that Ashoka's turn to Buddhism was more comprehensible as an attempt to free himself from the overweening power that Vedic priests had acquired by that stage in our history. If he simply wanted to express remorse, he could have devoted himself more actively to the Vedic religion in which he was brought up - as indeed Venkatadri did in relation to his own tradition (as I discuss in Venkatadri's story, to which I turn now).

Venkatadri (or, more properly, Vasireddy Venkatadri Nayudu, who lived from 1783–1816) was a member of the Vasireddy Clan. This clan had ruled, with possible interruptions, small parts of coastal Andhra Pradesh, from AD 1413. Venkatadri was the last ruler from this clan. As far as I can tell, there is no record of why he died or of what happened to the kingdom after him, though descendants of the clan still exist and have produced distinguished inviduals, such as writers, film-makers, and a Vice Chancellor of Andhra University.

Venkatadri had a retinue of several thousand men, 300 horses, 80 elephants, 50 camels and uncounted bullock carts. The magnificence of his palaces at Amaravati, Chebrolu, Chintapalli and his town-house in Guntur became subjects of folklore.

Supposedly famous for his benign rule, Venkatadri was a patron of the arts and literature, and his name is principally remembered today because he built, renovated or extended numerous temples in the Krishna river delta (Amaravati, Chebrolu, Mangalagiri, Ponnuru...). More than a hundred richly gilt brass pillars, over 30 feet high, were erected in his name at various shrines. Daily, he fed hundreds of Purohits. He often distributed shawls, gold and jewels among learned sadhus. The sums he spent on festivals, sacrifices, fire offerings and marriages became legendary. Several times, he distributed his own weight on gold or silver to Brahmans (the priestly caste)).

But his benignity apparently did not extend to all the people he ruled. Legend has it that, during his reign, the Chenchu forest-dwelling were raiding villages around Amaravati (there is no mention of why they were doing so - if history is any guide, they would have been prompted to do so because their forests were being felled and their lands occupied by the expansion of Amravati - and it is extremely unlikely that they could have put up any effective resistance against an army as powerful as Venkatadari must have commanded; anyway, the rest of the story suggests that it is made-up justification for eliminating the resistance of the Chenchus).

Venkatadri invited about 600 (another version of the legend says about 1000) of the leading Chenchu men to a luncheon, with the premeditated intention of having them murdered.

The village where this incident took place is today called Narukulapadu ('Naruku' in Telugu apparently means 'to axe' or 'to chop' - though, in Sanskrit "Naraka" is "Hell" - and Chavupadu ('Chavu' apparently means death in Telugu)).

As in the case of Ashoka, after this incident, Venkatadri became remorseful at what he had done. Unlike Ashoka, however, Venkatadri went to Amaravati and devoted his entire life, time and revenues to temples that were devoted to Lord Siva.

There is no record of whether the clan had traditionally worshipped Lord Shiva or another of our deities (though Shiva is not a Vedic god). So, in the absence of any mention of any related matter (presumably if the clan had within living memory worshipped another god that would have been mentioned somewhere), we can only surmise that the clan had worshipped Lord Shiva for at least a considerable amount of time.

In other words, while Ashoka rejected his ancestral Vedic ways (and even forbad Vedic worship in his kingdom), Venkatadri kept his ancestral faith and simply became more devoted to it.

Strikingly, neither Ashoka nor Venkatadri made any reparations to the people they had wronged.

The Chenchus are, even today (perhaps because of their memory of the betrayal by Venkatadri) among the most retiring of tribal groups in India, and among the most reluctant to respond to any blandishments that are offered by the Government of India or others to enter mainstream "civilised" life.

No comments:

Post a Comment