Buddha was born at the foot of one. Māhavīra renounced the world under one. Aśoka the Great planted along them arterial roads of his empire to provide welcome shade for weary travellers.
In the Purāṇas it is said to have got its name from a certain evil and cruel Saśoka (‘with-grief’ or ‘he who brings grief’) who came across a meditating sage and, amazed to see the sage did not flee him, felt a sudden repulsion for his behaviour which made him fall at the sage’s feet. The sage advised practice of dharma and Saśoka was eventually reborn as a sorrow-removing tree, the aśoka (‘free of grief’).
The aśoka trees that surround the imprisoned Sītā in Laṅkā are said to destroy grief (‘śoka-nāśana’) in the Rāmāyaṇa, but they are also seen – in the Haṃsasandeśa – as appropriate co-mourners for Sītā in her burning grief.
The aśoka tree cuts across Indian traditions and legends appearing almost always as a sacred and largely benevolent tree. For the girl whose lover is away from home, though, the aśoka serves only as a further torment for her lovesick heart. Flowering at the beginning of vasanta with a large fire-red bloom, it is say the poets a-śoka only in name for it brings grief (śoka) to each pair of separated lovers.
The aśoka puts forth its blossom when struck by the foot of a woman – preferably the lotus-like foot jingling with anklets of a beautiful woman. In this it is one of the most important trees in the dohada tradition. Dohada literally refers to the cravings of a pregnant woman and in this context the desire of trees, just before they bloom, for some kind of contact with a woman. Women can thus trigger their flowering by a sort of ritual that varies for each tree. For instance, a woman need only glance at the tilaka to make it bud, the campaka succumbs to her laugh, the nameru to her voice and the kurabaka to her embrace. The dohada tradition was associated with the festival of spring, vasantotsava. It may also have some connection with the traditional representation of a yakṣī (a type of semi-divine being) holding an aśoka branch which is often found at temple entrances. So strong is this tradition that poets count it a wonder when the aśoka and other dohada trees bloom without the instigation of a woman:
नालिङ्गितः कुरबकस्तिलको न दृष्टो
नो ताडितश्च चरणैः सुदृशामशोकः।
सिक्तो न वक्त्रमधुना बकुलश्च चैत्रे
चित्रं तथापि भवति प्रसवावकीर्णः॥
N’ āliṅgitaḥ kurabakas tilako na dṛṣṭo
No tāḍitaś ca caraṇaiḥ sudṛśām aśokaḥ |
Sikto na vaktram adhunā bakulaś ca caitre
citraṃ tathāpi bhavati prasava-avakīrṇaḥ ||
In Caitra at this time, no pretty girl has embraced the kurabaka, none has let shoot a glance at the tilaka, none has kicked the aśoka with her feet and none has sprinkled the bakula with wine from her mouth – how strange then that even so each tree is bestrewn with blossoms.
8th verse in the vasanta section of the 18th chapter of the Kavirahasya in the Kavyamimamsa – Rājaśekhara
The aśoka has just one synonym, van͂jula, according to the Amarakosa, which is often used for many other trees as well. Monier Williams gives rakta-pallava (‘of red flowers’), piṇḍīpushpa, vicitra (‘multicoloured’), aṅganā-priya (‘beloved of women’) and kankeli as names that refer exclusively to the aśoka. Viśoka, a variation on aśoka with the same meaning (‘griefless’), is also cited. Several other names can be used for the aśoka but are equally used for other trees: hema-puṣpa (‘of golden flowers’), madhu-pushpa (‘of sweet flowers’), piṇḍapusya, kiṅkīrāta, madhuka (‘the sweet one’), śiṃśapā and kankeli.
The name aśoka is still used almost universally across India with only very slight regional variations. In Hindi, Marathi and Bengali, it is the aśok, asok-gāch or āsāphalī; in Gujarati it is the āśupālo or deśi pīla pulano. Tamil knows it as the acōkam and Malayalam as the aśōkam. It also seems to be well known in other South-Asian languages, such as Burmese, Thai, Sinhala and Malay which suggests that its popularity extends far beyond India most probably because of its mythological and religious significance.
In English, it is again simply the aśoka and it is identified as either Saraca Asoca (or Saraca Indica) or Jonesia Asoca.
Rājaśekhara talks of three different types of aśoka: the red (rakta), the blue (nīla) and the golden (suvarṇa). The red variety is evidently the standard aśoka. The golden one – which the name hema-puṣpa seems to refer to and which is also found in the Mālavikāgnimitra – could conceivably be a slightly different shade or possibly an idealised version along the lines of the golden lotuses that grow in the Ganga. But the nīlāśoka, which also appears in the Rāmāyaṇa, Monier Williams in the Vṛkṣāyurveda of Śāraṅgadhara, is more challenging. If anyone can shed more light on this please do.
The botanical description in the Pandanus Indian database of plants is:
An evergreen tree growing throughout India in evergreen forests up to 750 m, leaves pinnate, 30 – 60 cm long, flowers orange-yellow in dense corymbs, very fragrant, fruits flat black pods, leathery, compressed, seeds 4 – 8 per pod, ellipsoid, cut surface of the bark turns reddish on exposure to air.