Maurya Empire – Emperor Ashoka the Great


Ashoka the Great, was an Indian emperor of the Maurya Dynasty who ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent from ca. 269 BC to 232 BC.[1] One of India’s greatest emperors, Ashoka reigned over most of present-day India after a number of military conquests. His empire stretched from present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan in the west, to the present-day Bangladesh and the Indian state of Assam in the east, and as far south as northern Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. He conquered the kingdom named Kalinga, which none of his ancestors had conquered starting from Chandragupta Maurya. His reign was headquartered in Magadha (present-day Bihar). He embraced Buddhism after witnessing the mass deaths of the Kalinga War, which he himself had waged out of a desire for conquest. He was later dedicated to the propagation of Buddhism across Asia and established monuments marking several significant sites in the life of Gautama Buddha. Ashoka was a devotee of ahimsa (nonviolence), love, truth, tolerance and vegetarianism. Ashoka is remembered in history as a philanthropic administrator. In the history of India, Ashoka is referred to as Samraat Chakravartin Ashoka– the “Emperor of Emperors Ashoka”.

His name “aśoka” means “painless, without sorrow” in Sanskrit (the a privativum and śoka “pain, distress”). In his edicts, he is referred to as Devānāmpriya (Pali Devānaṃpiya or “The Beloved Of The Gods”), and Priyadarśin (Pali Piyadasī or “He who regards everyone with affection”).

Early life

Ashoka was born to the Mauryan emperor Bindusara and his queen, Dharmā [or Dhammā]. He was the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, founder of Mauryan dynasty. Ashokāvadāna states that his mother was a queen named Subhadrangī, the daughter of Champa of Telangana. Queen Subhadrangī was a Brahmin of the Ajivika sect. Sage Pilindavatsa (aias Janasana) was a kalupaga Brahmin[3] of the Ajivika sect had found Subhadrangī as a suitable match for Emperor Bindusara. A palace intrigue kept her away from the king. This eventually ended, and she bore a son. It is from her exclamation “I am now without sorrow”, that Ashoka got his name. The Divyāvadāna tells a similar story, but gives the name of the queen as Janapadakalyānī.[4][5]

Ashoka had several elder siblings, all of whom were his half-brothers from other wives of Bindusāra.

He had been given the royal military training knowledge. He was a fearsome hunter, and according to a legend, killed a lion with just a wooden rod. He was very adventurous and a trained fighter, who was known for his skills with the sword. Because of his reputation as a frightening warrior and a heartless general, he was sent to curb the riots in the Avanti province of the Mauryan empire.[6]

Rise to power

English: A map of the Maurya Dynasty, showing ...

Image via Wikipedia

Maurya Empire at the age of Ashoka. The empire stretched from Afghanistan to Bangladesh/Assam and from Central Asia (Afghanistan) to Tamil Nadu/South India.

The Divyavandana talks of Ashoka putting down a revolt due to activities of wicked ministers. This may have been an incident in Bindusara’s times. Taranatha’s account states that Chanakya, one of Bindusara’s great lords, destroyed the nobles and kings of 16 towns and made himself the master of all territory between the eastern and the western seas. Some historians consider this as an indication of Bindusara’s conquest of the Deccan while others consider it as suppression of a revolt. Following this, Ashoka was stationed at Ujjayini as governor.[5]

Bindusara’s death in 273 BC led to a war over succession. According to Divyavandana, Bindusara wanted his son Sushim to succeed him but Ashoka was supported by his father’s ministers. A minister named Radhagupta seems to have played an important role. Ashoka managed to become the king by getting rid of the legitimate heir to the throne, by tricking him into entering a pit filled with live coals. The Dipavansa and Mahavansa refer to Ashoka killing 99 of his brothers, sparing only one, named Tissa,[5] although there is no clear proof about this incident. The coronation happened in 269 BC, four years after his succession to the throne.

Early life as Emperor

Ashoka is said to have been of a wicked nature and bad temper. He submitted his ministers to a test of loyalty and had 500 of them killed. He also kept a harem of around 500 women. When a few of these women insulted him, he had the whole lot of them burnt to death. He also built hell on earth, an elaborate and horrific torture chamber. This torture chamber earned him the name of Chand Ashoka (Sanskrit), meaning Ashoka the Fierce.[5]

Ascending the throne, Ashoka expanded his empire over the next eight years, from the present-day boundaries and regions of Burma–Bangladesh and the state of Assam in India in the east to the territory of present-day Iran / Persia and Afghanistan in the west; from the Pamir Knots in the north almost to the peninsular of southern India (i.e. Tamil Nadu / Andhra Pradesh).[5]

Conquest of Kalinga

Main article: Kalinga War

While the early part of Ashoka’s reign was apparently quite bloodthirsty, he became a follower of the Buddha’s teaching after his conquest of Kalinga on the east coast of India in the present-day states of Orissa and North Coastal Andhra Pradesh. Kalinga was a state that prided itself on its sovereignty and democracy. With its monarchical parliamentary democracy it was quite an exception in ancient Bharata where there existed the concept of Rajdharma. Rajdharma means the duty of the rulers, which was intrinsically entwined with the concept of bravery and Kshatriya dharma. The Kalinga War happened eight years after his coronation. From his 13th inscription, we come to know that the battle was a massive one and caused the deaths of more than 100,000 soldiers and many civilians who rose up in defense; over 150,000 were deported.[7] When he was walking through the grounds of Kalinga after his conquest, rejoicing in his victory, he was moved by the number of bodies strewn there and the wails of the kith and kin of the dead.

Buddhist conversion

As the legend goes, one day after the war was over, Ashoka ventured out to roam the city and all he could see were burnt houses and scattered corpses. This sight made him sick and he cried the famous monologue:

What have I done? If this is a victory, what’s a defeat then? Is this a victory or a defeat? Is this justice or injustice? Is it gallantry or a rout? Is it valor to kill innocent children and women? Do I do it to widen the empire and for prosperity or to destroy the other’s kingdom and splendor? One has lost her husband, someone else a father, someone a child, someone an unborn infant…. What’s this debris of the corpses? Are these marks of victory or defeat? Are these vultures, crows, eagles the messengers of death or evil?

The brutality of the conquest led him to adopt Buddhism, and he used his position to propagate the relatively new religion to new heights, as far as ancient Rome and Egypt. He made Buddhism his state religion around 260 BC, and propagated it and preached it within his domain and worldwide from about 250 BC. Emperor Ashoka undoubtedly has to be credited with the first serious attempt to develop a Buddhist policy.

Ashokan Pillar at Vaishali

Prominent in this cause were his son Venerable Mahindra and daughter Sanghamitra (whose name means “friend of the Sangha”), who established Buddhism in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He built thousands of Stupas and Viharas for Buddhist followers. The Stupas of Sanchi are world famous and the stupa named Sanchi Stupa was built by Emperor Ashoka. During the remaining portion of Ashoka’s reign, he pursued an official policy of nonviolence (ahimsa). Even the unnecessary slaughter or mutilation of animals was immediately abolished. Everyone became protected by the king’s law against sport hunting and branding. Limited hunting was permitted for consumption reasons but Ashoka also promoted the concept of vegetarianism. Ashoka also showed mercy to those imprisoned, allowing them leave for the outside a day of the year. He attempted to raise the professional ambition of the common man by building universities for study, and water transit and irrigation systems for trade and agriculture. He treated his subjects as equals regardless of their religion, politics and caste. The kingdoms surrounding his, so easily overthrown, were instead made to be well-respected allies.

He is acclaimed for constructing hospitals for animals and renovating major roads throughout India. After this transformation, Ashoka came to be known as Dhammashoka (Sanskrit), meaning Ashoka, the follower of Dharma. Ashoka defined the main principles of dharma (dhamma) as nonviolence, tolerance of all sects and opinions, obedience to parents, respect for the Brahmans and other religious teachers and priests, liberality towards friends, humane treatment of servants, and generosity towards all. These principles suggest a general ethic of behaviour to which no religious or social group could object.

Some critics say that Ashoka was afraid of more wars, but among his neighbors, including the Seleucid Empire and the Greco-Bactrian kingdom established by Diodotus I, none could match his strength. He was a contemporary of both Antiochus I Soter and his successor Antiochus II Theos of the Seleucid dynasty as well as Diodotus I and his son Diodotus II of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. If his inscriptions and edicts are well studied one finds that he was familiar with the Hellenic world but never in awe of it. His edicts, which talk of friendly relations, give the names of both Antiochus of the Seleucid empire and Ptolemy III of Egypt. The fame of the Mauryan empire was widespread from the time that Ashoka’s grandfather Chandragupta Maurya defeated Seleucus Nicator, the founder of the Seleucid Dynasty.

Words on Ashoka

  • For eight and twenty years Asoka worked sanely for the real needs of men. Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousnesses and serenities and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Asoka shines, and shines, almost alone, a star. From the Volga to Japan his name is still honoured. China, Tibet, and even India, though it has left his doctrine, preserve the tradition of his greatness. More living men cherish his memory to-day than have ever heard the names of Constantine or Charlemagne.
    • H. G. Wells, in The Outline of History (1920)
  • In the history of the world there have been thousands of kings and emperors who called themselves “their highnesses,” “their majesties,” and “their exalted majesties” and so on. They shone for a brief moment, and as quickly disappeared. But Ashoka shines and shines brightly like a bright star, even unto this day.
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About Sumukh Naik

Namaste! Greetings from India! I am Author of 'Age Of Hiblisk', voracious reader & Human Resources professional. I like to keep things simple, very down to earth and believes in the message of spreading love and peace. My blogs are a reflection of the world around me. Please visit www.facebook.com/AgeOfHiblisk for more details 'Age Of Hiblisk' (Hardcopy / Kindle ) can be purchased at DISCOUNTED rates from: www.amazon.com / www.amazon.in www.apkpublishers.com (For Indian and Non Indian residents) www.flipkart.com I also define myself as a 'Soul Explorer'
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13 Responses to Maurya Empire – Emperor Ashoka the Great

  1. Amit Kumar says:

    I don’t like Ashok because he was very cruel.I think Chandragupt maurya the great was greater than Ashok.In history only cruel king got named as great.If historian said the Akbar as the great then why not Chandragupt the first emperor in Indian history said as the great

  2. P.savitri says:

    It is very interesting history to known.

  3. That’s a great article on The Great Mauryan Emperor Ashoka.
    But You forget to mention the Ashoka Pillar that he ordered to construct in Lumbini, Nepal, the birthplace of Lord buddha.

  4. Great Article. (y)
    Commendable job done !

  5. me says:

    just to let everyone know that it is word for word from wikipedia

  6. jenney says:

    your article is good please add the story’s of ashoka

  7. alok kumar says:

    i really liked to know about emperor ashoka. great work my friend. keep it on

  8. YouBihar says:

    Great article on Ashoka.

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