Asoka (2001)




Director:     Santosh Sivan.

Starring:     Shahrukh Khan (Asoka),  Kareena Kapoor (Kaurwaki),  Danny Denzongpa (Virat),  Rahul Dev (Bheema),  Hrishitaa Bhatt (Devi),  Gerson Da Cunha (King Bindusara),  Subhashini Ali (Dharma),  Umesh Mehra (Emperor Chadragupta),  Sooraj Balaji (Prince Aryan),  Ajith (Susima),  Shilpa Mehta (Queen, Susima's mother).

India after the age of Alexander the Great, Emperor Asoka (273-232 B.C.)


Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film. 

"The film is the story of one man's journey from a monarch to a monk  An emperor who spread the message of Buddha across the world.  This is a story based on legends.  Some characters, events and places have been fictionalized for greater dramatic appeal.  This film does not claim to be a complete historical account of Asoka's life.  It is an attempt to follow his journey."

Emperor Chandragupta Maurya has embraced Jainism, for which he is abdicating, giving up his throne, his kingdom and his people.  The small boy Asoka complains that grandfather is leaving him.  So he wants to keep grandfather's sword.  Grandfather speaks to the boy telling him that the sword only wants blood.  They should get rid of it before it can do any more harm. He throws the sword into the river.  Grandfather goes away with the pilgrims dressed in all white sheets.  Asoka watches as he goes. 

Asoka finds the sword in the river and is determined to keep it.  While practicing with it, it flies out of his hands and on its descent, it  kills two small birds in their nest.  Asoka remembers what his grandfather said about the sword only wanting blood. 

"Emperor Chandragupta Maurya renounced the  ?   Bindusara further extended the Magadha Empire  But now his reign was coming to an end.  Who would be his successor?  Could it be Susima?  The son chosen by Bindusara was supported by all his brothers including Sugarta.   Or would it be his step brother Asoka?  The man destiny had chosen." 

The Takshila army is mightier than ours. Asoka says Gen. Shivrath hasn't reached it or his brother Susima has not let him reach it.   Asoka says they will not lose, because battles are won with the mind. The Takshila army is advancing.  The Prince tells the General to stop the army by force or deceit.  The Takshila has now been halved and they want to surrender. 

A represetative of Takshila comes to say that the Takshila flags are down and they want to surrender.  Takshila kneels before Magadha.  But the spokesman tries to kill Prince Asoka.  The Prince is able to stop him..  Then he kills the spokesman and his men. 

The guards flirt with a  pretty young woman.  She says Prince Asoka is arriving victorious from Takshila.  One of the guards says that Susima's mother is King Bindusara's favored queen.  The other fellow asks what about Asoka's mother, Queen Dharma?  The first fellow says Dharma is less of a Queen and more of a slave.  Only Prince Susima can assume the throne. 

Asoka does return triumphant.  He goes to see his father.  Father asks where is Susima? 

Susima speaks with General Shivrath.  It was Shivrath who suggested that Asoka be sent to Takshila.  Shivrath had said that Asoka would not return alive.  Susima has Shivrath stripped naked and then gives the order to cut his throat.  Susima talks with an assassin warning him that though he has tried to kill Asoka eleven times,he has never succeeded.   He advises the assassin to kill Asoka when he is bathing in the river.  The assassin tries, but Asoka comes up behind him and grabs him and his sword.  He wants to know who sent him.  Before the man can talk, an accomplice (actually a step-brother of Asoka's) kills the would-be assassin with an arrow to his chest. 

Mother Dharma wants Asoka to leave Magadha.  She gets him to promise he will go, for her sake, if not for his.  Asoka promises.  He then goes to see Susima.  Asoka sits down on the throne and says it belongs to he who has the courage to sit on it.  Step-brother Sugatra tells Asoka to get off the throne.  Asoka reacts as if he will kill Sugatra, but he thinks better of it.  Sugatra challenges him to a duel tomorrow morning. 

Father is disturbed by Asoka sitting on the throne.  He says Asoka may attack him one day.  He asks Dharma to stop Asoka.  But Dharma takes a vow of silence.  Asoka scolds her when he hears about her vow.  Her spokesman says Dharma wants him to go somewhere where he is not known and live there incognito.  Asoka says he will go, but he will not come back, even if his mother asks him to do so.  Asoka rides out.  Susima learns that Asoka has left and concludes that the man is a coward. 

A wise man asks Asoka who is he?  He responds that he's just an ordinary man.    The wise man does not believe it.  He says that his destiny will be to surpass even that of an emperor.  This makes Asoka wonder if this is true. 

The border with Kalinga.  Asoka sees a beautiful woman dancing and singing in a field.   He gets closer to get a better look.  He likes what he sees.  When she is in a river swimming, Asoka enters the waters and they look at each other.  She tells him she doesn't speak to strangers.  She walks away and he follows.  She grabs a stick and places one end against his throat asking him why is he following her?  He says her voice drew him to her.  She declares she is of warrior blood and it could be dangerous for him. 

Asoka learns there is a reward for finding Prince Arya and Princess Kaurwaki.  An arm wrestling champion named Virat challenges the new comer.  Asoka sits down and arm wrestles the fellow.  He distracts the fellow and then wins the contest.  Virat feels cheated, but he has to leave because his wife commands him to come home with her.  One of the impressed onlookers says that Asoka can take over the driving of the bullock cart.  Asoka goes with them. 

At a rest stop Asoka runs into the beautiful woman again.  This time he asks her why she is following him?  This is broken up with the arrival of some bounty hunters.  The hunters grab a piece of the white cloth around her upper body, but she twirls out of it.   They shout:  "Princess Kaurwaki!"  They corner her on a ledge overlooking the waterfall and river.  Asoka comes to the rescue.  He distracts the men and Kaurwaki jumps into the river, followed by Asoka.  He helps her get to shore. 

Asoka talks to her, but then is hit over the head by one of her aides, Gen. Bheema, who thinks the man is a bounty hunter.  Asoka floats face down in the river.  Kaurwaki comes to his rescue.  She takes him to where her brother Arya is in hiding.  She won't leave him, even though the general wants her and Arya to leave with him now.  Kaurwaki and Arya's parents were assassinated. 

Toshali, Kalinga.  Men shout the question where is Arya?  They are mad that the king's assassins roam free and they can't find Arya.  The prime minister says that someone in the senate is responsible for all this, but his name is not known. 

Asoka awakens to see Kaurwaki.  She comes over to him.  He immediately starts flirting with her.  Arya thinks the man is trying to tell his sister a story and he wants to hear it too.  So Asoka starts to tell his story, including his interaction with the princess.  The general says that Arya's supper is ready.  Arya tells Asoka that they are going to Kalinga.  The general then takes the prince and princess to start on their journey again.  They leave Asoka behind.

Asoka is upset and mad.  His employer scolds him for leaving work without permission.  He busts a container over the man's head.  Asoka then watches a pretty woman sing and dance for the group.  Virat jumps up and starts dancing with the woman.  He gets a little too fresh with her, so Asoka jumps up and knocks Virat down. Virat wants to fight Asoka, but Asoka tricks him again and walks away from the fight. 

Bounty hunters descend on the camp of Kaurwaki.  The general tells her to go hide.  As she starts to go, she runs right into Asoka.  Asoka scolds her saying when she left, she did not ever turn around once to look at him.  Kaurwaki starts leaving, but this time she definitely stops to look back.  A big smile comes over Asoka's face. The general has to fight a number of bounty hunters.  While he chases them off, a number of other bounty hunters surround Arya and Kaurwaki.  Again Asoka comes to the rescue.  He fights off the small group of bounty hunters.  Asoka wounds or kills all, but one, who runs away. 

The general asks Asoka where did he learn to fight so well?  Asoka says he is a soldier in the Magadha army.  The general comments that this makes them enemies. 

We learn that it is the prime minister himself who wants the prince and princess of Kalinga killed. 

Asoka teachers Kaurwaki the mastery of the sword.  In the process, he tries to kiss her, but she pushes him back.  Upset at this, Asoka leaves her alone.  He goes to complain to his horse about Kaurwaki.  A young woman hears him and tells him he must be gentle with women.  He must bring flowers and say some words of love.  Asoka practices his love talk until he is interrupted by Virat again.  Virat wants to fight him, but Asoka says not now.  Virat insists.  Asoka warns him that there is someone behind him, but Virat says no more tricks.  So the young woman hits Virat over the head with a big rock.

Kaurwaki starts crying because Asoka left her without saying a word to her.  Arya reproaches her for first fighting with Asoka and then crying over fighting with him.  Arya then sees Asoka's horse.  Kaurwaki rushes to find him.  She sings a love song to him, while he pretends disinterest, but soon the two of them are singing and dancing together. 

A messenger tells the general that the prime minister of Magadha has sent him a message. 

Arya gets Asoka to continue his story.  Asoka does, but keeps getting interrupted by Kaurwaki who gives her own version of the story.  Later, Asoka goes out to speak with Kaurwaki in private.  And now he tells her that he loves her.  She repeats his words back to him and says that she is glad he told her he loves her. 

The general comes to Kaurwaki to asks her where has she been?  She says she's been with Asoka.  Bheema says it's not proper for her to be with a common soldier.  She warns him to watch what he is saying because she loves Asoka.  To put her in her place, the general tells the princess that she was found by a fisherman who does not know where she came from.  The king adopted her.  Nobody knows who she is.  This hits Kaurwaki like a bomb. 

Asoka comes to speak to her and asks her what's wrong?  She tells him.  He says this doesn't matter.  He marries her in a simple ceremony. 

A messenger comes to tell Asoka that his mother is very ill and she wants to see him.  Asoka tells Kaurwaki and she urges him to go see her.  She and Arya will wait here for him. 

Asoka finds his mother in good health.  She admits she lied, but she just had to see him.  Asoka tells her he married a beautiful woman, but she does not know who he really is.  This is because he promised his mother not to tell anyone his true identity. 

Arya and the princess are told that the senate thought Arya dead and are about to put another on the throne.  The general takes Arya's necklace and Kaurwaki's ankle bracelet as proof that they are alive and goee to Kalinga.  He leaves Arya and Kaurwaki with a trusted servant. 

Asoka says hello to Susima and his other step-brothers.  He tells Susima that he no longer desires the throne or the crown.  Susima is suspicious of his step-brother.  Asoka goes to see his father.  The Emperor says that he wants Asoka to put down a threatened rebellion in Ujjaini.  Asoka accepts the assignment.  He rides back to tell Kaurwaki. 

The prime minister tells the general to bring Arya quickly, because it will be hard to hold the senate back.  The prime minister sends a man with the general.  The general is ambushed, but gets away after falling down the side of a ravine. The men now move on to find the prince and princess.  They arrive but cannot find the two royals, so they start burning the entire village.  One of the women grabs a boy and runs with him to deliver him to the prime minister's men.  They think she and the boy are the princess and the prince and kill the two immediately. 

Asoka asks the general where Kaurwaki and Arya are?  The general believes the two of them are already dead.  He shows Asoka the jewelry of Arya and Kaurwaki.  Asoka is devastated.  In mourning, who should show up but Virat, who now socks Asoka several times.  But then Virat is taken by Asoka's men.  They are about to cut off Virat's head, when Aoska stops them.  Virat now realizes that he just struck Prince Asoka. 

Bheema imprisons Kaurwaki and Arya in a cave saying he will be back for them.  About Asoka, Bheema tells them his kind never returns.  Arya says that Asoka's horse is here. 

Virat says that, because Asoka saved his life, he will now guard Asoka against any and all harm,  Asoka says he wants to death, not victory.  This shocks Virat.  Virat seems to understand and just asks if the woman was very beautiful?  Yes. 

Kaurwaki and Arya get out of their imprisonment and go in search of Asoka.

Now Asoka wins war after war, undaunted by death.  And each victory brings him closer to the throne.  His mother tells Susimi to stop Asoka at Ujjaini. 

Ujjaini.  Asoka is hit with swords several times and goes to his knees.  But Virat comes to save the day.  He protects Asoka, killing many of those who tried to finish the prince off.  Kaurwaki sees many wounded men returning from the battle.  She asks if anyone knows Pawan (Asoka).  They say no. 

Buddhist Monastery, Vidisa.  The wounded Asoka is brought to a Buddhist Monastery.  Virat is there with him.  Asoka calls out for Kaurwaki.  No one knows the whereabouts of Asoka.  Over time Asoka gets well.  He dreams about Kaurwaki and sings a song to her. 

A pretty woman named Devi puts herself in front of Asoka's bow and arrow in order to protect a peacock.  Asoka releases the arrow and it lands in a tree a couple of inches from her head.  She tells her grandmother that Prince Asoka has become so vicious.  Everyone is afraid of him, but not her, she says.  She agrees to an arranged marriage.

Word arrives to Susimi that Asoka is alive in Ujjaini.  He sends Sugatra out to kill Asoka.

The wedding of Devi is about to take place, but she says she forgot to apply the herbal ointment to Asoka's wounds and rushes out.  Sugatra dresses as a woman and starts to feed the poisoned soup to Asoka, when Devi arrives and pushes him out of the way.  When Sugatra tries to kill Asoka with a weapon, Devi fights with him and somehow Sugatra is killed.  Asoka is save now, but the groom and his family now refuse to marry Devi.  And, once rejected like this, who will marry Devi?  So Asoka marries Devi.  But, of course, he still thinks of Kaurwaki. 

Devi tells her husband that she knows that only Kaurwaki lives in his heart, that she cannot take her place.  He says it's not love that lives in his heart, but pain.  Asoka also is upset because, he asks, where was he when Kaurwaki needed him the most? 

Kaurwaki floats down river on a raft.  On the raft a woman sings a song.  Kaurwaki remembers some of the good times she had with Asoka.  Meanwhile, Devi dances for Asoka.  Kaurwaki starts singing the song.  On land again she continues asking questions about the whereabouts of Pawan (Asoka).  Kaurwaki's path actually crosses that of Devi.  Devi has ordered food for everyone of the needy at the palace.  Arya and Kaurwaki are two of those in need. 

Asoka returns to Magadha with Devi.  Arya and Kaurwaki watch the procession.  Bheema arrives to take the two royals away.  Kaurwaki refuses to go with him, so Bheema just grabs Arya.  Arya protests, saying he wants to stay where he is, but Bheema is not listening.  Kaurwaki is torn between Pawan (Asoka) and Arya.  She decides to go with Arya and just misses seeing Asoka.  

The Emperor is upset that Asoka married a Buddhist girl.  He gives the order to have Asoka return to Ujjaini.  This, of course, upsets Dharma.  Meanwhile, Bheema brings in Arya and Kaurwaki to the senate.  The prime minister is very shocked, thinking that they were dead.  Bheema now says it was the prime minister who tried to have the prince and princess killed.  The senators say that the prime minister will be sentenced to death. 

Asoka is beating up on a man who sided with Susumi.  Devi distracts him from his excessive cruelty by telling Asoka that she is going to have a son.  He is very pleased, but he goes back to beating his prisoner again.  This upsets Devi a great deal.

The Emperor is dying.  Susumi expects to be the next Emperor, but someone says it probably will be Asoka, because his son would succeed him.  Susumi only says a son born of a Buddhist mother cannot claim the throne.  Susumi himself cannot produce a child.  He gets the fortune-teller to say that Asoka's son will die. 

Susima sends assassins to kill Devi.  The fortune-teller stabs Dharma and then himself.  Devi lives on.  Asoka rushes over to see his mother, but she cannot speak to him now.  He tells mom that if she dies, he will destroy everything.  She dies.  And now Devi gets his grandfather's sword that calls out for blood, as always.  Devi tells him not to go and that she won't let him touch their child if he has the hands of a killer.  Asoka just pushes her out of the way. 

Asoka goes to kill Susima, but can't strike the blow.  Susima suspects that Asoka can't kill his siblings, so he tells Asoka to kill him.  Asoka cannot, but Virat can.  When Susima raises his weapon to kill Asoka, Virat throws a spear that lands in the chest of Susima.  Now Asoka tells Virat to kill all his brothers.   The order is carried out and Asoka is proclaimed Emperor.  And some talk of the "Evil Emperor". 

Devi tells Asoka that she is leaving. Asoka says she is not.  She says she will leave. 

Asoka is killing people who don't know where Sugatra is.  He now goes on the warpath and expands the Mauryan kingdom.  Kalinga gives asylum to Sugatra and that brings down the wrath of Asoka.  Kalinga remains defiant.  Asoka says to burn the houses of the people and their agricultural fields.  Virat is shocked at just how far Asoaka will go.  Bheema wonders if this Asoka is some kind of cruel monster.  So he says he will kill Asoka. 

Bheema starts killing the guards around Asoka.  Asoka is taking a bath and is covered in soap.  As Bheema raises his blade to strike, he sees that Asoka is none other than Pawan.  A guards jumps Bheema, but Bheema overpowers him.  Just then another guard throws a spear that lands in Bheema's back.  He rushes out, gets on his horse and rides away.  Sugatra next attacks Asoka, who grabs the man and forces his head under the water.  He tells Sugatra:  "The Magadha flag will tower over blood-stained Kalinga."  He then stabs Sugatra in the face with his own knife. 

Kaurwaki arrives just as Bheema dies.  The men and women of Kalinga vow to fight against Asoka.  One of the women is Kaurwaki. 

Virat has had too much killing.  He will fight Asoka in order to stop him.  The two men fight and Asoka wins, but he does not kill his friend. 

Banks of the river Diya, Toshali.  Without the presence of Asoka, the two armies fight each other.  The Kalinga army pretends to run lie cowards, but then launch a big counter-attack on the army of Ashoka.  Kaurwaki  leads part of the army.  And in battle she kills a number of men.  She even kills Asoka's commander. They appear to be winning, but then Asoka arrives and attacks.  In the battle Kaurwaki suddenly see Asoka.  She can't believe her eyes.  She shouts out with:  "Pawan!"  As he fights many enemy, Kaurwaki is hit in the back.  She drops to her knees and then falls to the ground.     

Arya learns that they have lost.  He rushes out to fight. Asoka learns from Vitasoka that he has a son and a daughter: Mahendra and Sanghamitra. But Vitasoka will not tell him where Devi is.  Asoka says he has won and Vitasoka says:  "Yes, you have.  You have won the tears of widows, the cries of orphans and enflamed bodies.  You have won it all." 

Many of the Kalingans are turned into slaves.  Asoka finds his white horse that he gave to Kaurwaki.  He hears that she was on the battlefield.  So now he searches the battlefield.  He sees women crying over the dead.  He looks among the female dead for Kaurwaki.  He sees heads, arms and legs cut off.  A man begs for water, but he will not accept any from Asoka.  Asoka finds Kaurwaki alive, but she says he will have to fight her.  She tells him:  "The war is not over.  You have to kill me too."  And she tells him he is not Pawan, but Asoka.  Asoka begs her to forgive him.  She asks him why did he not return to her?  She waited for him for so long.  She starts crying.  Arya appears suddenly asking Pawan where was he?  Asoka took all of his land.  Asoka promises that the land will be his.  The boy holds out his and falls over.  Three arrows stick out of his back.  Both Kaurwaki and Asoka cry over the dying boy.  The boy dies. 

A Buddhist monk comes over to them.  Asoka reproaches himself for winning it all, but also destroying it all.  So what did he win?  He says he will begin now a journey of love, peace and nonviolence.  He then throws his grandfather's sword of blood back into the waters from whence it came. 

"After the Kalingi war (260 BC), Asoka realized that the had only conquered corpses.  He set forth on a journey to conquer the hearts of people through love.  Asoka transformed from evil Asoka to a man who embraced Buddhism.  The young flame of Buddhism was carried across the world from Sri Lanka to as far as Egypt and Macedonia through his own children, Mahendra and Sanghamitra.  In 256 BC he erected fourteen Rock Edicts, which speak of his moral and spiritual convictions even thousands of years after his death.  Less than fifty years after Asoka's reign, the Magadha Empire collapsed but what continued to endure is his immortal humanistic ideology."


Good film. It's a long one, but still keeps the interest level up.  It follows a lot of the history dealing with Asoka's climb to the emperorship and his reign.  One of the biggest rewrites of history is that Asoka fought against his beloved Kaurwaki in the war for Kalinga.  In the end the bad emperor turns into the good emperor with the help of the teachings of Buddhism.  Seeing the thousands of corpses, the weeping women and children, plus the large-scale devastation wrought by Asoka also helps Asoka turn toward non-violence.  Shahrukh Khan was good as Asoka and  Kareena Kapoor was good as Kaurwaki.  Kareena Kapoor also is very beautiful and interesting to watch.

 Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:

322 – the Mauryan Empire founded by Chandragupta Maurya, who had overthrown the Nanda Dynasty and rapidly expanded his power westwards across central and western India taking advantage of the disruptions of local powers in the wake of the withdrawal westward by Alexander the Great's Greek and Persian armies.

322-180 BC  --  reign of the Mauryan Empire. 

322–293 BC – Chandragupta Maurya, Indian king, Mauryan Empire.

321-185 B.C. – reign of the Maurya Empire of ancient India ruled by the Mauryan dynasty.

By 320 BC – the empire had fully occupied Northwestern India, defeating and conquering the satraps left by Alexander. At its greatest extent, the Empire stretched to the north along the natural boundaries of the Himalayas, and to the east stretching into what is now Assam. To the west, it reached beyond modern Pakistan, annexing Balochistan and much of what is now Afghanistan, including the modern Herat and Kandahar provinces.

The Empire was expanded into India's central and southern regions by the emperors Chandragupta and Bindusara, but it excluded a small portion of unexplored tribal and forested regions near Kalinga (modern Orissa).

304 BC  --  birth of the future Ashoka the Great, to Bindusara and Queen Dharma. 

298-272 BC – Bindusara (born 320 BC) was the second Mauryan emperor.  He had two sons, Susima and Ashoka.  His successor was Ashoka the Great. 

Ashoka command several regiments of the Mauryan army. This made his oldest stepbrother Susima very jealous of Ashoka, So Susima persuaded Bindusara to send Ashoka to quell an uprising in Taxshila, a city in the north-west District of Pakistani Punjab regionl Prince Susima was the Governor of Taxshila.

Taxshila was mismanaged by Susima himself and this led to the formation of different militias, which, in turn, caused a great deal of unrest. Ashoka and his army went into Taxshila and the army was welcomed by the revolting militias. The uprising ended without a conflict.

Susima gets his father Bindusara to send Ashoka into exile. Incognito, Ashoka went to Kalinga. In Kalinga he fells is loves with a fisher woman named Kaurwaki. (She later became his second queen and had a daughter named Tivala.)

Two years later.  Bindusara calls Ashoka out of exile to put down a revolt in Ujjain.  His generals quelled the uprising. Ashoka was wounded and had to go into hiding so that Susima could not get at him. Buddhist monks and nuns took care of Ashoka. This is where he learned the teachings of the Buddha. One of his nurses, Devi, was his personal nurse and the daughter of a merchant.

After getting well, Ashoka married Devi. Bindusara was mad that Ashoka married a Buddhist, so he sent Ashoka back to Ujjain. There Ashoka was the governor.

Devi was about to deliver his first child.

272 BC – Bindusara dies. 

Prince Susima plans to have the unborn child killed by having Devi killed.  The assassin who came to kill Devi, ends up killing Ashoka's mother instead. 

Ashoka is busy with wars and conquering the lands of other rulers that he becomes known as Ashoka the Terrible. 

269 BC --  Ashoka becomes the king. 

269-232 BC -- reign of Ashoka. 

For the next eight years Ashoka expanded his empire. 

265-263 – the Kalinga War. Kalinga is on the east coast of India in the present state of Orissa.  At first Ashoka’s forces were routed by Kalinga's commander-in-chief. Ashoka responds with the greatest invasion in Indian history until then. The whole of Kalinga is plundered and destroyed. About 100,000 people are killed thousands of men and women are deported.

Following the Kalinga War, Ashoka becomes a Buddhist.  He is disturbed by the brutality of what he did to Kalinga itself. 

260 BC – around this time, Ashoka makes Buddhism his state religion. He propagates the Vibhajjavada school of Buddhism.

During the remaining portion of Ashoka's reign, he pursues an official policy of nonviolence.

232 BC   --  death of Ashoka.

232-224 BC – reign of Emperor Dasaratha Maurya.

224-215 BC – reign of Emperor Samrat Samprati of the Maurya dynasty.

215-202 BC – reign of ruler Salisuka of the Mauryan dynasty.

202-195 BC – reign of King Devavarman Maurya of the Mauryan empire.

195-187 – reign of King Satadhanvan Maurya of the Mauryan dynasty.

187-180 BC – Brihadratha Maurya, last ruler of the Mauryan dynasty.



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