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As the emperor looked down from the hillock, his senses were assailed by the devastation all around. The enemy was fierce, but his own forces had been fiercer. They had taken the Kalingan army head on, and as he had foreseen, the victor was the one with the larger army.

He had conquered… there was no longer any doubt of the outcome of the battle. Even as he watched, his soldiers were herding the few remaining Kalingan soldiers towards the forest where they would dig graves for the dead of both sides, as well as for themselves.

This was one of the strategies used by the emperor to maintain control over his vast empire – a dead enemy soldier was always preferable to a live one – an enemy soldier left alive today could kill twenty of your own tomorrow.

Today, there were dead soldiers aplenty. The ground was littered with bodies of dead and dying soldiers and the air was filled with their cries of pain. As he walked around the hillock followed by his generals, a sudden gust of wind brought up the stench of congealing blood. Immediately, one of the courtiers proffered a perfumed piece of silk to the emperor, but was spurned with an impatient gesture.

The emperors’ attention was focused on the small river below the hillock. The setting sun and the blood from the many bodies floating in the water made it appear as though it was a river of blood; born not from some mountain stream, but from the ambition of rulers like himself.

The sudden shock of realization that he was responsible for the carnage all around took his breath away for a moment. Thousands of men had died. Thousands of lives had been snuffed out just because he had decreed that Kalinga should form a part of his empire, because his country needed the ports and the agricultural produce.

It was at this moment that he realized that this had to change. He was getting tired of all these campaigns anyway, and the death of so many able bodied young men was depleting his nation’s strength.

By now his empire was already so vast that it would require all his energies just to govern it – and ruling a clutch of conquered nations was much more difficult than conquering them in the first place. While the sword could subdue, it certainly could not govern. A ruler needed to be more than just a good soldier. He had to be perceived to be a statesman, to be just, to be kind and gentle.

Now, his subjects held him in awe for his prowess on the battlefield, but when the time for battles was done, he needed to be seen as a great ruler, and this gory battlefield was the best place to effect this transformation. And he remembered another royal personage whose teachings could provide the matter to fill the vacuum that would be created when the war machine was dismantled.

Calling for his generals, he asked how many soldiers had been killed or were seriously wounded. On hearing the figure, he fell silent and turned away from them.

One of the first things he had learnt as a child was that to get something, you might need to put on an act. As he grew older, he had realized the value of keeping strict control over his expressions and he learnt and constantly practiced showing one emotion while he actually felt another.

In another age maybe he would have been acknowledged as a great actor, but today, as his courtiers saw tears flowing from his eyes when he turned back towards them, they all felt that they could hear his heart breaking with remorse and grief, over the death of so many men.

Softly, he announced that this was the end of the bloody wars that had marked his reign till now. Every soldier lying on the field below had left loved ones who would be shattered on hearing the news of his death… to hear that he would no longer return.

He, the emperor, could no longer bear the burden of causing so much grief. From now on, he said, he would follow the path of peace, the path laid down by the Buddha.

Awed by what appeared to be a magical transformation, his courtiers and generals hailed his decision, and promised then and there that they too would follow their king.

They did not notice that the emperor faltered for a fraction of a second when he let a glimmer of a smile slip through.

Then, in the fast fading light, emperor turned towards the river and proclaimed, “From this day on, let this river be called Daya, a reminder to future generations that in the end, it was compassion that conquered the great emperor Ashoka”.

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