Sunday, October 7, 2018

Who was Ashoka?

Sarnath Capital as India's National EmblemOne of his capital now serves as India’s national emblem. Ashoka ruled as the 3rd Mauryan Empiror (r. 268 – 232 BCE), the most recorded in the dynasty’s history. He became a legend for his transformation and benevolence becoming one of India’s most revered rulers.

Early Life

Ashoka was the son of the second Mauryan Emperor Bindusara on date lost in history. He received training worthy of a prince and served as governor of Taxila and Ujjain provinces. In 275 BCE, his father passed away and he had to contend with his elder brother to achieve the throne. From 275 until 268 BCE, it has been suggested that internal strife marred the Empire until Ashoka emerged victorious and began to cement his rule.

Reign of Emperor Ashoka

Apex of Mauryan Empire

The reign of Ashoka in its early years focused in expanding the empire. The lands of the Mauryan Dynasty reached its apex under his rule. As a military commander, he showed ruthlessness and brutality towards opponents.

His campaign, however, ended with the conquest of Kalinga (situated in modern day Orissa) that laid in between the Mahanadi and Godavari Rivers. In 260 BCE, Ashoka marched his vast army of men, cavalry, and elephants against Kalinga obliterating its army and subduing its population. In the course of the conquest, Ashoka brought the death of 100,000 and deported an additional 150,000. The destruction of his war against Kalinga brought tremendous feeling of remorse to Ashoka disheartening the Mauryan Emperor.

Buddhist Ruler

Depressed from the bloody Kalinga campaign, Ashoka found solace in the growing religion called Buddhism. The religion promoted living in righteousness to achieve nirvana. Ashoka converted to Buddhism and the religion’s principle became the core of his rule. Hence, from his edicts, doing of “dhamma” or “dharma” became central. As for the definition of Dhamma. Ashoka said
“Dhamma is good, but what constitutes Dhamma? (It includes) little evil, much good, kindness, generosity, truthfulness and purity.”

In promoting Dhamma, Ashoka made laws and reforms that could be considered as advance and even modern.

Before he made changes in Mauryan Society. He made several changes personally. He gave up hunting. He reduced luxury preferring to live simply. He became vegetarian and gradually stopped eating meat in his curry.

Only then he began to focus on his subject welfare in a way he put it, a father to all his subject he considered his children.

Ashoka Edicts

Much of the knowledge with regards to the reign of Ashoka came from the edicts he had carved in either pillars or rock and erected across the empire. A practice done by the Persians, it became clearly evident with the use of animals as capitals of the pillars. The pillars and rocks revealed Ashoka’s concern to the welfare of his people and desire to explain his rationale in the simplest form. The practice also gave the city an aura of the presence of the authority of Ashoka. Ultimately, it revealed a father’s desire to communicate with his far away children.

Some of Ashoka’s edicts carved into rocks and pillars. About 14 had been found in 7 locations. Meanwhile, 7 pillars had been attributed to Ashoka. Most pillars made from limestone had carvings of edicts written in various language depending on the usage in a region, thus, showing Ashoka’s awareness of his empire’s diversity. The edicts had been carved in Prakit and Kharoshti script. In the regions in the west, Greek and Aramaic had been used. Some pillars had two language allowing modern scholars to understand ancient Indian languages.

Ashoka had his pillars capped with animal decoration. Sometimes a bull or a sphinx ornate the capital of the pillars. Many recognized the capital in Sarnath with 4 lions facing the 4 cardinal direction with an Ashoka wheel carved in its pedestal as the most famous as it became the state emblem of modern day India.

Earliest Welfare State

From his edicts, Ashoka established world’s earliest welfare state. His government showed toleration towards all religion and denounced persecution. They showed consciousness towards nature. They displayed tremendous compassion towards their subjects.

Ashoka and his government wanted to improve the plight of his subjects. He showed equality among all cast and religion within his borders. He promoted women’s welfare and supported the poor. He established hospital for the sick and opened pharmacies to provide easy access to medicine. He also promoted the importation and cultivation of herbal medicine to increase supply.

As a Buddhist, he showed respect for the life of both men and animal. He already began his campaign of animal welfare when he abandoned hunting. He went further by slowly abolishing rituals that involved animal sacrifice. Wildlife protection seemed modern sounding, but Ashoka imposed it about a millennium ago placing a list of animals on its shield. The Emperor also established veterinaries across the empire. He also ordered the planting of banyan trees and groves of mango trees in major routes of the Empire to provide shade for travelers as well as animals and to give food to eat.

The Mauryan Emperor also ordered digging of more wells and water sheds. He had canals carved into landscape to improve irrigation and ultimately food production. He also built rest stop in an interval along major routes for travelers to stay in during the night.

In all, Ashoka wanted to create a harmonious peaceful society through the practice of Dhamma. He also fostered good relation between his subjects by reminding them of the importance of respect.


Ashoka ruled over a vast empire. In order to promote his dhamma edicts, he needed an efficient administration to oversee it. He also had to exert tremendous effort to maintain the empire’s unity.

Much of the administration of the empire had been laid out by the previous Mauryan Emperors influenced by the teachings of political thinker Kautilya and his work Arthashastra. The Empire had been divided into 4 provinces each ruled by a prince or a governor appointed by the Emperor.

Ashoka assumed the title of Cakravartin or Universal Ruler, a title widely used by later rulers in Indian history. It also showed Ashoka’s devotion into becoming a true righteous Buddhist emperor. As the father of the Empire, he urged his officials putting compassion of his subjects’ welfare a paramount priority. He also allowed his officials to disrupt him from his activities to hear reports about his subject’s conditions. To see the real situation of his subjects, he travelled much of the year, about 10 months, throughout the Empire instead of staying in the capital Pataliputra. He also appointed dhamma mahamatras or dhamma ministers to ensure the enforcement of his policies and report of the condition of his subjects.

Foreign Affairs

Ashoka’s devotion to the dhamma extended beyond domestic affairs to cover the Maurya Empire’s diplomatic relations with its neighbors. Following the bloody aggressive campaign against Kalinga, Ashoka renounced war and promoted peace with its neighbors.

He sent diplomatic missions to Greek kingdoms in the west. Maurya missions went to the courts of Antiochus II Theos of the Seleucid Empire, Ptoloemy II Philadelphus of Egypt, Antigonus II Gonatas of Macedonia, Magas of Cyrene and a confusing Alexander, which either the ruler of Epirus or Corinth.

Ashoka extended friendship with his neighbors within the subcontinent too. He sent missions for cordial relations with Nepalese rulers and most noteworthy the King of Sri Lanka King Tissa. Ashoka’s relation with Tissa became close to the point that Ashoka sent his son Mahendra and daughter Samghamitra to Sri Lanka to be Buddhist missionaries to propagate the religion.

Patron of Buddhism

As an Emperor who placed Buddhist principles in his leadership style, it did not came a surprise that Ashoka supported the development of the religion. He helped in its organization and proselytization that led to the construction of temples and stupas which later developed into one of the most beautiful structures in the country.

Ashoka convened the Third Buddhist Council in Pataliputra. In the council, he pledged his support in the spread of the religion to all directions of the Empire. Part of this resulted to the travels of Ashoka’s son and daughter to Sri Lanka. It also led to the standardization of scriptures and the organization of the Buddhist monks putting discipline and credibility in the ranks.

Under the patronage of Ashoka, Mauryan Empire also saw the erection of marvelous temples, stupas, and monasteries that continued to dazzle even to this day. Thousands of Buddhist structures sprang across the Empire. An example included the Maabodhi Temple Complex and the Sanchi Stupa that displayed the sophistication and intricacy of Ancient Indian art. Today, the mentioned structures became UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Later years

Ashoka ruled the Mauryan Empire for 37 years until his demise 232 BCE. He left a legacy of legendary benevolence based on the edicts he had left. He also presided over the largest extent of the Empire and spread of Buddhism within and without the subcontinent. 50 years after his death, however, the Empire he so took care fell and smaller feuding kingdoms once again ravaged the subcontinent.

See also:

Sen, Amulya Chandra. “Ashoka.” In Encyclopedia of Britannica. Accessed on September 2, 2018. URL:

"Asoka.Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 2 Sep. 2018 <>.

General References:
Upshur, Jiu-Hwa Lo. “Ashoka.” In Encyclopedia of World History. Edited by Marsha Ackermann et. al. New York, New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2008.

Stein, Burton. A History of India. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd., 2010.

Walsh, Judith. A Brief History of India. New York, New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2011.

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