Ashoka the Great (r. 268-232 BCE) was the third king of the Mauryan Empire (322-185 BCE) best known for his renunciation of war, development of the concept of dhamma (pious social conduct), and promotion of Buddhism as well as his effective reign of a nearly pan-Indian political entity. At its height, under Ashoka, the Mauryan Empire stretched from modern-day Iran through almost the entirety of the Indian subcontinent. Ashoka was able to rule this vast empire initially through the precepts of the political treatise known as the Arthashastra, attributed to the Prime Minister Chanakya (also known as Kautilya and Vishnugupta, l. c. 350-275 BCE) who served under Ashoka's grandfather Chandragupta (r. 321-c.297 BCE) who founded the empire.
Ashoka means “without sorrow” which was most likely his given name. He is referred to in his edicts, carved in stone, as Devanampiya Piyadassi which, according to scholar John Keay (and agreed upon by scholarly consensus) means “Beloved of the Gods” and “gracious of mien” (89). He is said to have been particularly ruthless early in his reign until he launched a campaign against the Kingdom of Kalinga in c. 260 BCE which resulted in such carnage, destruction, and death that Ashoka renounced war and, in time, converted to Buddhism, devoting himself to peace as exemplified in his concept of dhamma. Most of what is known of him, outside of his edicts, comes from Buddhist texts which treat him as a model of conversion and virtuous behavior.
Ashoka walked across the Kalinga battlefield, looking upon the death & destruction, & experienced a profound change of heart.
The empire he and his family built did not last even 50 years after his death. Although he was the greatest of the kings of one of the largest and most powerful empires in antiquity, his name was lost to history until he was identified by the British scholar and orientalist James Prinsep (l. 1799-1840 CE) in 1837 CE. Since then, Ashoka has come to be recognized as one of the most fascinating ancient monarchs for his decision to renounce war, his insistence on religious tolerance, and his peaceful efforts in establishing Buddhism as a major world religion.
Early Life & Rise to Power
Although Ashoka's name appears in the Puranas (encyclopedic literature of India dealing with kings, heroes, legends, and gods), no information on his life is given there. The details of his youth, rise to power, and renunciation of violence following the Kalinga campaign come from Buddhist sources which are considered, in many respects, more legendary than historical.His birthdate is unknown, and he is said to have been one of a hundred sons of his father Bindusara's (r. 297-c.273 BCE) wives. His mother's name is given as Subhadrangi in one text but as Dharma in another. She is also depicted as the daughter of a Brahmin (the highest caste) and Bindusara's principal wife in some texts while a woman of lower status and minor wife in others. The story of the 100 sons of Bindusara is dismissed by most scholars who believe Ashoka was the second son of four. His older brother, Susima, was the heir apparent and crown prince and Ashoka's chances of ever assuming power were therefore slim and even slimmer because his father disliked him.
According to one legend, Bindusara provided his son Ashoka with an army but no weapons; the weapons were provided later by supernatural means.
He was highly educated at court, trained in martial arts, and was no doubt instructed in the precepts of the Artashastra – even if he was not considered a candidate for the throne – simply as one of the royal sons. The Artashastra is a treatise covering many different subjects related to society but, primarily, is a manual on political science providing instruction on how to rule effectively. It is attributed to Chanakya, Chandragupta's prime minister, who chose and trained Chandragupta to become king. When Chandragupta abdicated in favor of Bindusara, the latter is said to have been trained in the Arthashastra and so, almost certainly, would have been his sons.
Sign up for our free weekly email newsletter!
When Ashoka was around the age of 18, he was sent from the capital city of Pataliputra to Takshashila (Taxila) to put down a revolt. According to one legend, Bindusara provided his son with an army but no weapons; the weapons were provided later by supernatural means. This same legend claims that Ashoka was merciful to the people who lay down their arms upon his arrival. No historical account survives of Ashoka's campaign at Taxila; it is accepted as historical fact based on suggestions from inscriptions and place names but the details are unknown.Having succeeded at Taxila, Bindusara next sent his son to govern the commercial center of Ujjain which he also succeeded in. No details are available on how Ashoka performed his duties at Ujjain because, as Keay notes, “what was thought most worthy of note by Buddhist chroniclers was his love affair with the daughter of a local merchant” (90). This woman's name is given as Devi (also known as Vidisha-mahadevi) of the city of Vidisha who, according to some traditions, played a significant part in Ashoka's attraction to Buddhism. Keay comments:
She was not apparently married to Ashoka nor destined to accompany him to Pataliputra and become one of his queens. Yet she bore him a son and a daughter. The son, Mahinda, would head the Buddhist mission to Sri Lanka; and it may be that his mother was already a Buddhist, thus raising the possibility that Ashoka was drawn to the Buddha's teachings [at this time]. (90)
According to some legends, Devi first introduced Ashoka to Buddhism, but it has also been suggested that Ashoka was already a nominal Buddhist when he met Devi and may have shared the teachings with her. Buddhism was a minor philosophical-religious sect in India at this time, one of the many heterodox schools of thought (along with Ajivika, Jainism, and Charvaka) vying for acceptance alongside the orthodox belief system of Sanatan Dharma (“Eternal Order”), better known as Hinduism. The focus of the later chronicles on Ashoka's affair with the beautiful Buddhist Devi, rather than on his administrative accomplishments, can be explained as an effort to highlight the future king's early association with the religion he would make famous.
Ashoka was still at Ujjain when Taxila rebelled again and Bindusara this time sent Susima. Susima was still engaged in the campaign when Bindusara fell ill and ordered his eldest son's recall. The king's ministers, however, favored Ashoka as successor and so he was sent for and was crowned (or, according to some legends crowned himself) king upon Bindusara's death. Afterwards, he had Susima executed (or his ministers did) by throwing him into a charcoal pit where he burned to death. Legends also claim he then executed his other 99 brothers but scholars maintain he killed only two and that the youngest, one Vitashoka, renounced all claim to rule and became a Buddhist monk.
The Kalinga War & Ashoka's Renunciation
Once he had assumed power, by all accounts, he established himself as a cruel and ruthless despot who pursued pleasure at his subjects' expense and delighted in personally torturing those who were sentenced to his prison known as Ashoka's Hell or Hell-on-Earth. Keay, however, notes a discrepancy between the earlier association of Ashoka with Buddhism through Devi and the depiction of the new king as a murderous fiend-turned-saint, commenting:
Buddhist sources tend to represent Ashoka's pre-Buddhist lifestyle as one of indulgence steeped in cruelty. Conversion then became all the more remarkable in that by `right thinking' even a monster of wickedness could be transformed into a model of compassion. The formula, such as it was, precluded any admission of Ashoka's early fascination with Buddhism and may explain the ruthless conduct attributed to him when Bindusara died. (90)
This is most likely true but, at the same time, may not be. That his policy of cruelty and ruthlessness was historical fact is borne out by his edicts, specifically his 13th Major Rock Edict, which addresses the Kalinga War and laments the dead and lost. The Kingdom of Kalinga was south of Pataliputra on the coast and enjoyed considerable wealth through trade. The Mauryan Empire surrounded Kalinga and the two polities evidently prospered commercially from interaction. What prompted the Kalinga campaign is unknown but, in c. 260 BCE, Ashoka invaded the kingdom, slaughtering 100,000 inhabitants, deporting 150,000 more, and leaving thousands of others to die of disease and famine.
Afterwards, it is said, Ashoka walked across the battlefield, looking upon the death and destruction, and experienced a profound change of heart which he later recorded in his 13th Edict:
On conquering Kalinga, the Beloved of the Gods [Ashoka] felt remorse for, when an independent country is conquered, the slaughter, death, and deportation of the people is extremely grievous to the Beloved of the Gods and weighs heavily on his mind…Even those who are fortunate to have escaped, and whose love is undiminished, suffer from the misfortunes of their friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and relatives…Today, if a hundredth or a thousandth part of those people who were killed or died or were deported when Kalinga was annexed were to suffer similarly, it would weigh heavily on the mind of the Beloved of the Gods. (Keay, 91)
Ashoka then renounced war and embraced Buddhism but this was not the sudden conversion it is usually given as but rather a gradual acceptance of Buddha's teachings which he may, or may not, have already been acquainted with. It is entirely possible that Ashoka could have been aware of Buddha's message before Kalinga and simply not taken it to heart, not allowed it to in any way alter his behavior. This same paradigm has been seen in plenty of people – famous kings and generals or those whose names will never be remembered – who claim to belong to a certain faith while regularly ignoring its most fundamental vision.
It is also possible that Ashoka's knowledge of Buddhism was rudimentary and that it was only after Kalinga, and a spiritual journey through which he sought peace and self-forgiveness, that he chose Buddhism from among the other options available. Whether the one or the other, Ashoka would embrace Buddha's teachings in so far as he could as a monarch and establish Buddhism as a prominent religious school of thought.
The Path of Peace & Criticism
According to the accepted account, once Ashoka embraced Buddhism, he embarked on a path of peace and ruled with justice and mercy. Whereas he had earlier engaged in the hunt, he now went on pilgrimage and while formerly the royal kitchen slaughtered hundreds of animals for feasts, he now instituted vegetarianism. He made himself available to his subjects at all times, addressed what they considered wrongs, and upheld the laws which benefited all, not only the upper class and wealthy.
This understanding of Ashoka's post-Kalinga reign is given by the Buddhist texts (especially those from Sri Lanka) and his edicts. Modern-day scholars have questioned how accurate this depiction is, however, noting that Ashoka did not return the kingdom to the survivors of the Kalinga campaign nor is there any evidence he called back the 150,000 who had been deported. He made no effort at disbanding the military and there is evidence that military might continued to be used in putting down rebellions and maintaining the peace.
All of these observations are accurate interpretations of the evidence but ignore the central message of the Artashastra, which would have essentially been Ashoka's training manual just as it had been his father's and grandfather's. The Artashastra makes clear that a strong State can only be maintained by a strong king. A weak king will indulge himself and his own desires; a wise king will consider what is best for the greatest number of people. In following this principle, Ashoka would not have been able to implement Buddhism fully as a new governmental policy because, first of all, he needed to continue to present a public image of strength and, secondly, most of his subjects were not Buddhist and would have resented that policy.
Ashoka could have personally regretted the Kalinga campaign, had a genuine change of heart, and yet still have been unable to return Kalinga to its people or reverse his earlier deportation policy because it would have made him appear weak and encouraged other regions or foreign powers toward acts of aggression. What was done, was done, and the king moved on having learned from his mistake and having determined to become a better man and monarch.
Ashoka's response to warfare and the tragedy of Kalinga was the inspiration for the formulation of the concept of dhamma. Dhamma derives from the concept, originally set down by Hinduism, of dharma (duty) which is one's responsibility or purpose in life but, more directly, from Buddha's use of dharma as cosmic law and that which should be heeded. Ashoka's dhamma includes this understanding but expands it to mean general goodwill and beneficence to all as “right behavior” which promotes peace and understanding. Keay notes that the concept is equated with “mercy, charity, truthfulness, and purity” (95). It is also understood to mean “good conduct” or “decent behavior”.
After he had embraced Buddhism, Ashoka embarked on pilgrimages to sites sacred to Buddha and began to disseminate his thoughts on dhamma. He ordered edicts, many referencing dhamma or explaining the concept fully, engraved in stone throughout his empire and sent Buddhist missionaries to other regions and nations including modern-day Sri Lanka, China, Thailand, and Greece; in so doing, he established Buddhism as a major world religion. These missionaries spread Buddha's vision peacefully since, as Ashoka had decreed, no one should elevate their own religion over anyone else's; to do so devalued one's own faith by supposing it to be better than another's and so lost the humility necessary in approaching sacred subjects.Buddha's remains, before Ashoka's reign, had been placed in eight stupas (tumuli containing relics) around the country. Ashoka had the relics removed and is said to have decreed the construction of 84,000 stupas throughout the country, each to have some part of the Buddha's remains inside. In this way, he thought, the Buddhist message of peace and harmonious existence between people and the natural world would be encouraged further. The number of these stupas is considered an exaggeration but there is no doubt that Ashoka did order construction of a number of them, such as the famous work at Sanchi.
Ashoka died after reigning for nearly 40 years. His reign had enlarged and strengthened the Mauryan Empire and yet it would not endure for even 50 years after his death. His name was eventually forgotten, his stupas became overgrown, and his edicts, carved on majestic pillars, toppled and buried by the sands. When European scholars began exploring Indian history in the 19th century, the British scholar and orientalist James Prinsep came across an inscription on the Sanchi stupa in an unknown script which, eventually, he came to understand as referencing a king by the name of Devanampiya Piyadassi who, as far as Prinsep knew, was referenced nowhere else.
In time, and through the efforts of Prinsep in deciphering Brahmi Script as well as those of other scholars, it was understood that the Ashoka named as a Mauryan king in the Puranas was the same as this Devanampiya Piyadassi. Prinsep published his work on Ashoka in 1837 CE, shortly before he died, and the great Mauryan king has since attracted increasing interest around the world; most notably as the only empire-builder of the ancient world who, at the height of his power, renounced warfare and conquest to pursue mutual understanding and harmonious existence as both domestic and foreign policy.
Why was Ashoka called the Great Ashoka?
ASHOKA or better known as the Emperor Ashoka The Great was a Mauryan King. During his initial days Ashoka was very cruel, and is believed to have killed his half brothers in order to get the throne. As a result he began to be called as a Chand Ashoka, meaning brutal Ashoka.
Also Know, why is Ashoka considered the greatest Mauryan king? Ashoka was called as Ashoka the great due to the following reasons: His actions in the administration and management of State reflect piety. Love, magnanimity, high moral discipline and ethical conduct in his personal as well as public life.
Similarly one may ask, what was special about Ashoka as a ruler?
Emperor Ashoka the Great (sometimes spelt Aśoka) lived from 304 to 232 BCE and was the third ruler of the Indian Mauryan Empire, the largest ever in the Indian subcontinent and one of the world's largest empires at its time. He ruled form 268 BCE to 232 BCE and became a model of kingship in the Buddhist tradition.
Why was Ashoka a great king?
Considered by many to be one of India's greatest emperors, Ashoka expanded Chandragupta's empire to reign over a realm stretching from present-day Afghanistan in the west to Bangladesh in the east. Ashoka waged a destructive war against the state of Kalinga (modern Odisha), which he conquered in about 260 BCE.
A Family Feud with a Throne as the Prize
Ashoka is said to have been born in 304 BC to the emperor Bindusara and Dharmma (a relatively low ranking wife of the emperor.) Apart from one younger brother, Ashoka had several elder half-brothers. According to one legend, Ashoka fought and killed 99 of his brothers in order to inherit the Mauryan throne. Only his younger brother, Vitashoka, is said to have been spared.
From an early age, Ashoka showed great potential to become a successful general and an astute administrator. Despite his prowess, Ashoka’s chances of succeeding his father were slim, due to the fact that he had several elder half-brothers. Nevertheless, Ashoka’s abilities made them suspicious that Bindusara would leave the throne to him, and the brothers began to feel insecure. This was especially true for Susima, Bindusara’s eldest son, who stood to lose the most.
As a result, Susima sought to eliminate Ashoka so as to secure his position. He managed to convince his father to send Ashoka to Taxila (in modern day Pakistan) to quell an uprising. Susima’s plan backfired, however, as Ashoka was welcomed with open arms when he reached the area, and thus put down the uprising without any bloodshed.
Susima then began inciting Bindusara against Ashoka, which resulted in the future emperor being sent into exile for two years. A violent uprising in Ujjain, however, forced Bindusara to call Ashoka back, and he subsequently sent his son to deal with this new uprising instead. Whilst Ashoka succeeded in crushing the uprising, he was injured during a battle. In order to keep the news of Ashoka’s injury hidden from Susima, the prince is said to have been treated in secret by Buddhist monks. Scholars believe that this was Ashoka’s first encounter with the teachings of the Buddha.
In the following year (275 BC), Bindusara fell ill and died. A war of succession was fought between Ashoka and his half-brothers. Ashoka ultimately emerged victorious, and became the third Mauryan emperor.
An Indian relief that may depict Ashoka in the center. From Amaravati, Guntur district, India. ( CC By SA 3.0 )
Ashoka Family Tree
Ashoka the Great was born in 304 BC to Emperor Bindusara. Bindusara was the son of Emperor Chandragupta Maurya the founder of Maurya dynasty. He was the 3 rd Emperor of Maurya dynasty and ruled Indian Subcontinent from 262-238 BC(36 years reign). He died at age of 72 in 238 BC. Ashoka’s mother was a Brahmin and her name was Shubadrangi or Dharma. Ashoka had many names associated with him like Samraat Chakravartin (emperor of emperors), Devanampriya (the beloved of god), Priyadarshin (He who regards everyone with affection). His empire extended from present day Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan to India till Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. Here are a few facts on Ashoka and his family
Father: Emperor Bindusara
Mother: Shubadrangi or Dharma(in south) a commoner Brahmin
Sushim – Elder step brother
Vitashok – Real brother (younger)
He had many more brothers and sisters but details not known
First wife – Devi was a Buddhist nurse and daughter of a merchant in Vedisagari. She was mother of his elder son and daughter Mahendra and Sangamitra. She was not made chief Queen as she was a commoner.
Second Wife – Kaurawaki was a fisherwoman and mother of Ashoka’s second son Tivala, Ashoka credits her with changing his lifestyle and embarking on welfare measures for his citizens in his edicts. She was his favourite Queen as her’s is the only name on Ashoka’s edicts.
Third Wife and Chief Queen – Asandhimitra the chief Consort of Ashoka, she remained childless but was Empress of Mauryan Empire for more than 30 years, She was given title Agramahishi means chief Queen and his chief advisor. She died in 240 BC. Ashoka was deeply aggrieved by her death.
Fourth Wife – Padmavati mother of Kunala the future heir and second son of Ashoka
Fifth Wife – Trishyaraksha was also a chief Queen later after Asandhamitra’s death. She died in 238 BC. She was a maid of Asandhamitra and vowed Ashoka using her dancing skills. She was also responsible for making his heir Kunala blind. She committed suicide. Ashoka was so enamored by her that he made her chief Queen although she was a commoner maid.
Mahendra born in 285 BC and became a Buddhist monk at the age of 20
Tivala(or Tivara) was the viceroy of Takshila, he died before Ashoka
Kunala was the natural heir to Ashoka but was blinded at a young age by his step mother Trishyaraksha. His mother Padmavati died when he was an infant and Ashhoka’s Chief consort Asandhamitra brought him up like her own son Jaluka
Sangamitra born in 282 BC and became a Buddhist monk like her brother Mahindra
Charumati was a daughter of Ashoka through his cocubbine but adopted by Asandhamitra
Dasaratha who became Emperor after Ashoka
Sumana son of Sangamitra
Samprati son of Kunala and the Emperor after Dasaratha
This is not an exhaustive list and will be updated when data will be available
Ashoka was born in 304 BC and I am married to Emperor Bindusara. Ashoka has many siblings. He was a very intelligent and fearless child. He also received military training in his early life. When he was just 18 years old, Avanti was appointed viceroy. He is married to Vedisa-Mahadevi Shakya Kumari. Mahadevi gave birth to Mahendra (son) and Sangamitra (daughter).
Meanwhile, there was a big upheaval in Taxila and the situation was out of control. He summoned Ashoka and demonstrated his skills thereby successfully suppressing the rebellion.
The Ashoka before and after Kalinga War
He was one of the only powerful rulers in the history of the world who tried to conquer in a moral way. His huge stone pillar was once lost by the restraint of time, but now he is resurrected from the earth and tells the story of a complicated person. , Once bloodthirsty, then calm. A man who transformed Buddhism from a small philosophical sect to a global religion.
But can his entire legacy be made up? Ancient propaganda is still working today.
We will explore all of these and more in a double story about the life and legacy of “Ashoka the Great”.
Before Ashoka was his grandfather Chandragupta, a man that rose up from humble origins as a shepherd and overthrew the Nanda Empire with the help of his tutor and advisor Chanakya. He set up the Maurya Empire, which under his rule expanded over most of modern-day India. Chandragupta expanded in the territory that was only just recently conquered by Alexander the Great and then solidified this conquest by defeating one of Alexander’s successor, Seleucus, in war.
Having established one of the greatest empires in Asian and World history, Chandragupta decided to renounce it all and spend the end of his life as a Jain monk, or so says the Jain legend. His son Bindusara inherited an empire that stretched from Persia to Bengal and Bindusara probably has one of history’s oddest origin stories. According to Buddhist legend, one of Chandragupta’s swivels was 7 days away from giving birth. Alongside this event, Chanakya had kindly been putting small amounts of poison in Chandragupta’s food. So that he would develop a tolerance. Chandragupta, unaware of this, shares some of his meal with his wife. Just as she put food in her mouth, Chanakya entered the room and saw that disaster was happening.
Knowing that she would die Chanakya without missing a beat, chops off her head and performs an emergency C-Section to save the heir. Proving to the world that Chanakya is clearly the most metal advisor of all time. Child in hand Chanakya notices that it needs a few more days of cooking and so he slaughters a goat every day and places the child inside of it for 7 days. The child is then “born” and named Bindusarathe word for spotted because he was covered in spots of goat’s blood. Now that story is almost completely irrelevant to the tale at hand. But I couldn’t let you continue to exist not knowing it.
Like many Indian emperors and goats, Bindusara (Bindusara) has many different children and many different women.
Among them was Ashoka. We are told that his mother was not very high on the imperial food chain and so Ashoka, one of the youngest of around 100 brothers, wasn’t paid any special attention. The fact that he had a weird pumpkin head, a fiery temper, and some strange skin disease didn’t warm his father much too him either. But as a son of the Emperor, he received a princely education and soon stood out amongst his brothers. Bindusara had no time for this exceptional son of his.
He had already decided that his son Sushima was to be his heir and competition was not welcome. Ashoka was sent away to put down rebellions the fringes of the Empire in order to keep him away from the court so he couldn’t build connections with scheming ministers. After excelling at crushing revolts, Ashoka was stationed as governor of Ujjain, far from the Imperial Capital at Paliputra.
These efforts to stunt his son’s promise proved fruitless, as on Bindusara’s death in 272 BC Ashoka rushed to the capital and seized the throne for himself and won the support of his father’s ministers who found Sushima to be too disrespectful. Sushma, deprived of his royal inheritance and disliked by the men that once served his father soon faced the wrath of Ashoka. He was burned alive in a pit of coals. This may be a myth, but what we know for certain is that a bloody civil war kicked off as Ashoka slaughtered all remaining claimants to the throne in a violent 4 years of chaos.
His shrewdness and ruthlessness won him an Empire and he crowned himself in 269 BC. All dissent was crushed, opposition swept aside, and rebels imprisoned all of which earned him the name Ashoka the Fierce. Even though he ruled the largest Empire in Indian history, Ashoka grew frustrated at the existence of an independent kingdom just south of his capital, the Kingdom of Kalinga. God, that’s a fun name to say. Kalinga was a prosperous state with far-reaching trade connections, rich ports, and a strong navy. This alongside the fact that even his brilliant grandfather, Chandragupta, could not conquer it, made Kalinga an irresistible prize for Ashoka the Fierce.
Soldiers were readied, spears sharpened, elephants captured and trained. In the 9th year of his reign, 261 BC, the campaign commenced. The Kalingans had an impressive army and offered stiff resistance, on the banks of the Daya River, tens of thousands of soldiers smashed against one another, swords clashed against armor, thousands of horse hoofs beat the earth kicking up dust breaking spears and helmet underfoot, as elephants charging throughlines of panicked men caused chaos and madness, their roars drowned by the cacophony of battle noises.
Ashoka, in the thick of the mayhem, struck down Kalingan after Kalingan with his signature brutality. As the hours dripped by the corpses of man and beast began to pile up on each other. The Kalingans were crushed, 100,000 men dead. 150,000 taken as prisoners and there on the battlefield, the victorious Ashoka walked among the corpses, the death caused by his order.
Entering the city he watched as orphans and women wept, as families frantically tried to salvage what was left, and countless innocents now destitute. Kalinga was crushed, and as his men praised their great conquering emperor, Ashoka thought to himself “If this is victory, what then is a defeat” Join me on the next episode where we’ll see Ashoka transform into the man that Orson Welles claimed shinned alone like a star in history and examine whether any of it is true.
Confronted by the destruction he had caused, there amongst the corpses and broken shields, Ashoka the Fierce seems to have melted away, a once violent and fiery mind, quenched. In order to cope with his sorrow Ashoka turned to Buddhism, at this point in world history more of a philosophical sect than anything resembling a religion.
A shoka was mainly inspired by Buddhism, but may also be inspired by other philosophies that were circulating throughout India at that time, advocating peace, respect and spirituality.
Following his effective however bloody success of the Kalinga nation on the east coast, Ashoka denied furnished victory and embraced an approach that he called “triumph by dharma” ( i.e., by standards of right life ).
So as to increase wide exposure for his lessons and his work, Ashoka made them known by methods for oral declarations and by etchings on rocks and columns at appropriate locales. These engravings—the stone orders and column proclamations (e.g., the lion capital of the column found at Sarnath, which has become India’s national symbol), generally dated in different long stretches of his rule—contain explanations with respect to his musings and activities and give data on his life and acts. His articulations rang of bluntness and earnestness.
As indicated by his own records, Ashoka vanquished the Kalinga nation (present-day Orissa state) in the eighth year of his rule. The sufferings that the war delivered on the crushed individuals moved him to such regret that he repudiated equipped triumphs. It was as of now that he came in contact with Buddhism and embraced it. Under its impact and incited by his own unique personality, he set out to live as per, and lecture, the dharma and to serve his subjects and all mankind.
Ashoka more than once proclaimed that he comprehended dharma to be the vivacious act of the sociomoral excellencies of trustworthiness, honesty, sympathy, tolerance, kindheartedness, peacefulness, accommodating conduct toward all, “little sin and numerous great deeds, ” non extravagance, non acquisitiveness, and non injury to creatures. He talked about no specific method of strict ideology or love, nor of any philosophical conventions. He talked about Buddhism just to his coreligionists and not to other people.
Toward every single strict group, he embraced an arrangement of regard and promised them full opportunity to live as indicated by their own standards, yet he additionally encouraged them to endeavor for the “increment of their internal value.” Moreover, he urged them to regard the doctrines of others, acclaim the valid statements of others, and forgo intense antagonistic analysis of the perspectives of others.
To spread his message Ashoka issued an order to have enormous stone pillars and slabs dragged across his realm and erected at important locations. Upon these edicts his words were carved, informing his people of their emperor’s change of heart and his desire that he and they live righteous and good lives. He emphasized non-violence, respect for all religions, and what could be called rights for all humans and animals. This was a huge project, writing was new to India at this time along with huge stone constructions. These pillars would not only awe citizens but even needed government officials to be stationed nearby just to read them aloud. Making it the first kind of mass communication in India. And you can feel genuine personality seep from these rocks. For example, Rock Edict 13 contains an actual confession of remorse about Kalinga. And the text is pretty interesting.
Its content is this: “When an unconquered country is conquered, it is true that God’s beloved suffers deeply from the pain of killing, death and deportation.
But what makes this beloved God even more painful-living in these countries and respecting superior Brahmins, ascetics, and residents of various religions
Mothers and fathers, elders, behave well and have a strong loyalty to friends, acquaintances, companions, relatives, servants and employees, causing them to be injured, killed or separated from their loved ones.
Even those who are not affected by (all this) feel pain when they see friends, acquaintances, peers and relatives affected.
All these unfortunate things (due to the war) came, which caused the suffering of God’s loved ones. “These laws are not only a way for Ashoka to plead guilty, but also
It is also a way of spreading the emperor’s newly discovered pacifist philosophy. War affects not only combatants but all members of society.
Therefore, after a successful campaign, most rulers would have planned their next campaign and feast, but Ashoka began to carry out radical reforms.He would repay his debt to humanity. Hospitals were built across the land. Special botanical gardens were constructed to ensure a steady supply of medicine.
Roads were built, wells were dug, and trees planted to provide shade to weary travelers. Veterinary clinics were established, meat was banned on certain holidays, and the mistreatment of animals now carried a heavy sentence. Even though he embraced Buddhism, Ashoka did not push it to his people. Who mainly follows Brahmanism is a kind of primitive Hinduism. Ashoka insisted on tolerating all religions.
To quote another sentence again: “Who praises his religion for the excessive dedication and condemns others with the idea of ”beautify my own religion” will only damage his religion.
Therefore (contact between religions) is good. “And many of these reforms seem to be real.
We don’t hear of anymore conflict during Ashoka’s reign. While Rome and Carthage were beating each other to bloody pulps in the Mediterranean, Ashoka’s Empire maintained friendly relations with its fellow Indian Kingdoms to the south and the Greeks and Iranians in the West.
Under Ashoka’s rule, India entered a glittering golden age, his pillars acting as the prime example. These pillars measured between 12-15 meters tall and weighed up to 50 tons. They are how we rediscovered the legacy of Ashoka.
On the land that later became Hindu, the Buddhist emperor was almost forgotten, until the English and Indian scholars deciphered the text that was only discovered at the time. Pillar, transforming Ashoka from a random name in the history of Indian rulers to a special character we know today?
Of all of Ashoka’s stone works the most famous is probably the Lion Capital at Sarnath. Made of perfectly cut sandstone and polished so well that from a distance it appears to be shining metal. It is a fantastic example of the architecture that flourished under Ashoka. It even impressed foreign states hundreds of years later, and thousands of kilometers away inspiring replicas as far afield as WatUmong in Thailand.
When India became an independent republic on the 26th of January 1950 it was Ashoka’s 4 lions from Sarnath that were chosen as the new nation’s symbol on that very same day. Ashoka reigned for a peaceful 36 years and died in 232 BC, had he not left the pillars behind we may never have known of his spectacular reign. Because after his death his empire would crumble in about 50 years and would be overthrown by a non-Buddhist dynasty.
Records of his deeds were only maintained by Buddhist monks who all but disappear from India in the coming centuries. If Ashoka was so great and his rule so enlightened why did succeeding rulers not follow in his peaceful footsteps, why was he all but forgotten. It has been argued by some that his rule might not have been as enlightened or peaceful as we think and may all just be ancient propaganda. It should be noted that at this time and even today, the Indian subcontinent is a massive hodge-podge of different religions, peoples, and ethnicities. The empire Chandragupta conquered and Ashoka expanded was one of the most diverse in the world. So was Ashoka just some Machiavellian type character that spotted the practicality of adopting a peaceful facade in order to stitch together his divided population?
Is his conversion compliance pillar just a trick to make people perform well?
I’m a fan of looking at history sideways and trying to see the other side of common narratives so let’s give it a try. Even though he didn’t go to war again during his reign, Ashoka did still maintain an active military and on one of his edicts even make a clear threat towards the forest peoples living on his border.
He promised that if they did not accept his peace, violence would occur.
When we saw the earlier confession of sin, King Ashoka did not return the Kalinga’s land to him, and his repentance decree was not placed near Kalinga. I think it is necessary to pay attention to all these contents, because Ashoka is sometimes portrayed as flawless.
But looking at the sources we do have he comes off as an extreme realist. He saw the carnage at Kalinga and decided to try ruling in another way. Instead of crushing dissent, he would encourage diversity and cooperation instead. By pushing for respect, tolerance, and generosity tried to persuade society to function rather than force it too. Which was a very modern way of thinking fora ruler of the ancient world.
Most sources we have on Ashoka are Buddhist and he’s probably the most important person in Buddhism after well…the Buddha. The reason for this is because after his conversion Ashoka dispersed missionaries across Asia, Africa, and Europe. Spreading the religion out of India and creating a global religion, a legacy that continued long after his pillars had sunk into the Earth. The life of Ashoka and his peaceful aspirations is one of the greatest sources of inspiration for Indians today.
His biggest lie is not only that he avoided violence after a huge victory.
But through how bizarre the events that happened in the history of the world, and how his inner changes really made us think about all the other people we learn and respect in the history of the world.
Is Ashoka commendable for changing or is everyone else condemnable for not doing so? These are the history of the fun question throws at us. There are thousands of stone columns spread across our world heralding the likes of the Akkadians or Romans crushing so and so rebellion or enslaving so and so city but only Ashoka’s pillars stand-alone, speaking of kindness. Kalinga was crushed, and as his men praised their great conquering emperor, Ashoka thought to himself “If this is victory, what then is a defeat”
372 Words Short biography of king Ashoka — ‘The Great’
Indian history reveals the heroic deeds of great men. One bright star of Indian history was the first emperor to follow the principles of Ahimsa, Love and Peace. My hero is none other than the Emperor Ashoka-The Great.
The grandson of Chandragupta and the son of Bindusar, Ashoka was brought up in Patliputra. In 273 BC he ascended the throne of the Mauryan Empire, founded by Chandragupta, with a desire to expand his kingdom and unite India under his only rule. He began his conquests winning each war like a brave soldier.
The Kalinga war in 261 BC changed him completely. Seeing the great loss of lives and wealth he pledged never to wage war in future. The main factor that changed his heart was the self-immolation of a dancing woman from Kalinga who died fighting for him.
He devoted the rest of his life to the promotion of peace. He inspired people to be truthful, loving and dutiful. Though he adopted Buddhism and made it the state religion, he believed in religious tolerance. He also sent the priests to the neighboring kingdoms for the spread of Buddhism. The numerous inscriptions found on the rocks and pillars tell us about his religious edicts.
He worked for the welfare of his subjects. He made new laws, appointed ministers and made justice common for all the sections of the society. All the social services were provided to the people.
The improvement of roads and construction of shelter homes for the travelers led to the development of trade. In order to prevent cruelty to animals he banned animal slaughter throughout his kingdom. He devoted his life to the service to humanity and their well-being.
Art and sculpture also flourished under his rule. Even today, the Stupas at Gaya, Sarnath and Sanchi reflect his fine taste of architecture. The Ashok Chakra and the Lions of the iron pillar hold their importance in our national flag and stamps. These two symbols always remind us of Ashoka’s greatness.
Ashoka was a man of high learning. He had a strong character. He maintained friendly relations with the neighboring kingdoms. He was the most respected Emperor who won the hearts of all his subjects. He really was “The Great”.
Ashoka the Great in the History of Liberty
Addison Hodges Hart, a retired pastor and university chaplain, offers in The Ox-Herder and the Good Shepherd a wonderful exercise in comparative religion, examining the common ground that can be found in spiritual practice between Christianity and Buddhism. Hart focuses on the ten ox-herding icons of Zen, originating in China by the master Kakuan and accompanied by his verse and prose commentary. Hart, then, adds his own Christian perspective on the spiritual journey depicted and described by Kakuan, highlighting in the end his emphasis that outer acts of compassion require a prior, inner transformation.
One such person who was inspired by an inner, spiritual conversion not only to “outer acts of compassion” but also to build a freer and more virtuous society was the Indian Emperor Ashoka.
But in all that I have been able to cite from classical literature, three things are wanting: Representative Government, the emancipation of the slaves, and liberty of conscience. There were, it is true, deliberative assemblies, chosen by the people and confederate cities, of which, both in Asia and in Europe there were so many Leagues, sent their delegates, to sit in federal councils. But government by an elected parliament was, even in theory, a thing unknown. It is congruous with the nature of Polytheism to admit some measure of toleration. And Socrates, when he avowed that he must obey God rather than the Athenians, and the Stoics, when they set the wise man above the [civil] law, were very near giving utterance to the principle. But it was first proclaimed, and established by enactment, not in polytheistic and philosophical Greece, but in India, by Asoka, the earliest of the Buddhist kings, 250 years before the Birth of Christ.
Tantalizingly, this is all that Acton says about Ashoka (=”Asoka”). Who was he? Why does Acton single him out?
Ashoka Maurya, also known as Ashoka the Great, lived from 304-232 BC. He was an emperor of the Maurya dynasty in India from 269-232, and he united nearly all the Indian subcontinent, in part through military conquest. Nevertheless, records he has left — the fourteen “Rock Edicts,” among others — show that early on in his reign he had a profound religious conversion that led to a change of heart.
Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi [confirmed to be another name for Ashoka in 1915], conquered the Kalingas eight years after his coronation. One hundred and fifty thousand were deported, one hundred thousand were killed and many more died (from other causes). After the Kalingas had been conquered, Beloved-of-the-Gods came to feel a strong inclination towards the Dhamma, a love for the Dhamma and for instruction in Dhamma. Now Beloved-of-the-Gods feels deep remorse for having conquered the Kalingas.
The “Dhamma” he refers to is the dharma (or “teaching”) of Buddhism. His inscriptions represent perhaps the oldest hard evidence of Buddhism in the world.
Regarding “Representative Government,” Ashoka writes in his sixth Rock Edict,
In the past, state business was not transacted nor were reports delivered to the king at all hours. But now I have given this order, that at any time, whether I am eating, in the women’s quarters, the bed chamber, the chariot, the palanquin, in the park or wherever, reporters are to be posted with instructions to report to me the affairs of the people so that I might attend to these affairs wherever I am.
He also mentions here a “Council” made up of these “reporters” of “the affairs of the people.” I am not quite sure that qualifies as “Representative Government,” but it does at least seem to be a step in the right direction.
I am yet to confirm “emancipation of the slaves” under his reign, but Ashoka does go out of his way to advocate for respectful treatment of all people, including servants. He writes in his seventh “Pillar Edict,”
Whatever good deeds have been done by me, those the people accept and those they follow. Therefore they have progressed and will continue to progress by being respectful to mother and father, respectful to elders, by courtesy to the aged and proper behavior towards Brahmans [=priests] and ascetics, towards the poor and distressed, and even towards servants and employees.
The impression seems to be that including “servants and employees” was exceptional.
Regarding “liberty of conscience,” we can say that Ashoka unequivocally endorsed freedom of religion. He writes about this in several places as well, including this from his seventh Rock Edict:
Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart. But people have various desires and various passions, and they may practice all of what they should or only a part of it.
With regards to “self-control and purity of heart,” Ashoka repeatedly commends the love and practice of virtue to his subjects in all their relationships. He outlawed human and animal sacrifice and had a special regard for the well-being of all living things in his kingdom.
In the end, we can see that here too, like Addison Hodges Hart’s exploration of the ten Zen ox-herding icons in The Ox-Herder and the Good Shepherd, there is some significant common ground between Buddhism and Christianity on the subject of a free and virtuous society as well, in some historical expressions at least. No doubt Ashoka has been a bit romanticized in the past. It is difficult to tell how great a man really was when he himself is one of the primary sources we have of his greatness. Nevertheless, I would love to see more in-depth research conducted and popularized regarding the history of Eastern religions and liberty in the future, including, of course, Buddhism and the legacy of Ashoka in India and beyond.
You can read many of the edicts of Ashoka the Great and learn more about him here.
And if you have any interest in comparative religion, don’t miss my review of The Ox-Herder and the Good Shepherd at Ethika Politika here.
Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.
Tending to earthly needs
In addition to his edicts, Ashoka built stupas, monasteries, and other religious structures at noteworthy Buddhist sites, such as Sarnath. He was not an unworldly ruler, however. He efficiently managed a centralized government from the Mauryan capital at Pataliputra. A large bureaucracy collected taxes. Inspectors reported back to the emperor. Irrigation expanded agriculture. Familiar hallmarks of ancient empires, excellent roads were built connecting key trading and political centers Ashoka ordered that the roads have shade trees, wells, and inns.
After his death, Ashoka’s merciful style of governance waned along with the Mauryan Empire itself. His reign slipped into the realm of legend, until archaeologists translated his edicts two millennia later. In their time, those edicts helped unify a vast empire through their shared messages of virtue, and they propelled the expansion of Buddhism throughout India.
Sarnath, pillar of faith
Ashoka’s most famous pillar was erected at Sarnath, in the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India. The site is revered among Buddhist pilgrims as the spot where the Buddha gave his first sermon and shared his Four Noble Truths.
The pillar’s exquisitely carved capital, more than seven feet tall, is divided into three sections. Its base is a lotus flower, a Buddhist symbol. A cylindrical abacus features carvings of a horse, a lion, a bull, and an elephant at the compass points of the cardinal directions, with dharma wheels evenly spaced in between. At the top stand four powerful lions, also facing the four cardinal directions and thought to represent Ashoka’s power over all the land. The capital was adopted as the national emblem of India in 1950 and is depicted on several of the country’s coins and banknotes.
Founded between the sixth and early fourth century B.C. by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha or “enlightened one,” Buddhism soon spread through India and much of Asia. Buddha introduced the concept of peace through inner discipline. His meditations told him that suffering came from desire for sensory pleasures. Therefore, he laid out an Eightfold Path to inner holiness: right view, right aspiration, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right-mindedness, and right concentration.
He taught that through meditation, discussion, humility, and denial of a self, a person could achieve a perfect, peaceful state known as nirvana. As years passed, increasing numbers of Buddhist monks fanned out across Asia, acting as missionaries to promote the faith.
Ashoka the Terrible and Ashoka the Great
Who was Ashoka the Terrible and how did he turn into Ashoka the Great?
How much of his story is realistic and how much an idealization due to his conversion to Buddhism and the understandable kick that the said religion took out of it's icon emperor?
Interesting source The Unknown Ashoka by Pradip Bhattacharya - the Sanscrit "Ashokaavadaana" a C1st AD story, that talks about Ashoka's early life, which reveals a cruel and sadistic character /like burning his 500 wives alive for they playing a harmless joke on him, and ordering a Chamber of Tortures, called "the Paradisal Hell" created, that housed all possible torturing devices/, and his conversion, that has nothing to do with Kalinga, which is not mentioned at all. Really, this source doesn't even mention that Ashoka was from the Maurya dynasty, but talks about his way of spreading Buddhism, namely, by using his emperial powers to execute 1800 followers of a rival Buddhist sect.
In another part of the story, he is tricked by queen Tishyakarshitaa, who forges a decree according to which the citizens of the city of Takshashila were supposed to blind his son Kunaala, who was send there to quench a rebellion. They didn't want to do that, being afraid, but Kunaala insisted so, because he was so obedient to his father. Later, on learning the truth, Ashoka got Tishyakarshitaa burned alive and the citizens of the city of Takshashila exterminated. Kunaala was the hero in the story, because he pleaded with his father not to punish the queen, and prayed to Buddha, after which his vision was miraculously restored which didn't prevent Ashoka from taking his revenge on the queen and on the city of Takshashila.