Emperor Ashoka, also known as Ashoka the Great, was one of the most significant rulers in Indian history. His reign marked a turning point in the subcontinent’s history, and his legacy inspires people today. In this article, we will explore the life and legacy of Emperor Ashoka, tracing his journey from a ruthless warrior to a compassionate and enlightened ruler.
Ashoka was born in 304 BCE to the Mauryan emperor Bindusara and his queen, Dharma. He was the grandson of the founder of the Mauryan Empire, Chandragupta Maurya. As a young man, Ashoka was known for his fierce temper and his prowess in battle. He was appointed governor of the province of Avanti by his father, where he continued to hone his military skills.
Ashoka developed into a brave, troublesome, and ruthless young man with a lifelong hunting passion. He allegedly used just a wooden stick to kill a lion. Because of their fear of Ashoka, his older half-brothers persuaded their father to appoint him as a general to the far reaches of the Mauryan Empire.
Ashoka spent two years in exile in the nearby nation of Kalinga because he knew his brothers saw him as a potential heir. While there, he met and later married Kaurwaki, a fisherwoman of common descent.
Rise To Power
After Bindusara died in 272 BCE, a power struggle ensued between Ashoka and his brothers for control of the throne. In a bloody conflict, Ashoka emerged victorious and ascended to the throne of the Mauryan Empire. He was crowned in Pataliputra, the empire’s capital, in 269 BCE.
Throughout the first eight years of his rule, Ashoka nearly constantly went to war with neighboring nations.
A series of military conquests marked Ashoka’s early reign. He expanded the empire’s territory into present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Only the northeastern Indian kingdom of Kalinga, Sri Lanka, and India’s southernmost tip remained out of his reach.
He also launched a brutal campaign against the state of Kalinga, which resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 people. The bloodshed of the Kalinga War deeply affected Ashoka, and he began questioning his actions’ morality.
Ashoka attacked Kalinga in 265 BCE. Even though the ruler of Kalinga had protected Ashoka before ascending to the throne, and it was the country of his second wife, Kaurwaki, the Mauryan emperor amassed the most significant invasion force in Indian history and began his attack. Despite Kalinga’s brave resistance, it was ultimately conquered, and its cities were pillaged.
After personally leading the invasion, Ashoka traveled to the capital city of Kalinga the following morning to assess the devastation. The emperor was appalled by the destroyed homes and the bloodied corpses of approximately 150,000 killed people and soldiers, and he had a religious revelation.
Before that day, Ashoka had been more or less a Buddhist, but the atrocities at Kalinga caused him to commit to Buddhism fully, and he pledged to pursue ahimsa or non-violence.
Source: World History Encyclopedia
Ashoka would not be remembered if he had only promised himself that he would live by Buddhist ideals. Yet he made his plans public for the entire empire to see. Through mandates, Ashoka outlined his goals and policies for the kingdom and prompted people to follow his wise lead.
Several significant reforms and initiatives marked Ashoka’s reign. He issued a series of edicts inscribed on pillars and rocks across the empire, outlining his policies and principles. The decrees covered many topics, including morality, justice, and social welfare. They also emphasized the importance of religious tolerance, and Ashoka encouraged the practice of all religions throughout the empire.
The Edicts of King Ashoka were inscribed on stone pillars 40 to 50 feet high and placed both in the center of Ashoka’s domain and across the Mauryan Empire. There are still dozens of these pillars to be discovered throughout Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Nepal.
With his edicts, Ashoka committed to providing for his people fatherly and assured his neighbors that they did not need to fear him because he would only use argumentation and not force to win them over. Ashoka observed that he had provided the populace with fruit trees, shade, and access to healthcare for all people and animals.
He also demanded respect for all other species, even enslaved people, and prohibited live sacrifices and sport hunting to demonstrate his concern for living things. Ashoka advised his people to adopt a vegetarian diet and forbade the burning of agricultural waste or forested areas that might be home to wild animals. His list of protected species included various creatures, such as bulls, wild ducks, squirrels, deer, porcupines, and pigeons.
Ashoka exercised great accessibility in his rule. He said it’s best to meet with individuals in person. He made numerous travels of his dominion to that goal.
Also, Ashoka made it known that he would stop whatever he was doing and attend to an issue involving imperial business, even if he was eating or sleeping.
In addition, Ashoka gave legal issues a lot of attention. He forgave those who had been convicted of crimes. Ashoka advocated for pardons for the elderly, those with families to support, and those engaged in humanitarian work. He forbade punishments including torture, removing people’s eyes, and the death penalty.
Ultimately, Ashoka promoted respect for all religions while urging his people to live by Buddhist principles. People throughout his empire practiced numerous different religions in addition to the relatively new Buddhism, including Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Greek polytheism, and others. Ashoka set an example of tolerance for his people, and his officials in charge of religion promoted the practice of all faiths.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Conversion To Buddhism
To assist in putting down a rebellion in Ujjain, the previous capital of the Avanti Kingdom, Bindusara brought his son back to Maurya. Although winning, Ashoka was hurt during the battle. To prevent Ashoka’s elder brother, the heir-apparent Susima, from finding out about his wounds, Buddhist monks secretly attended to the prince.
Following the Kalinga War, Ashoka underwent a profound transformation. He renounced violence and embraced Buddhism, becoming a devout faith follower. Ashoka began to govern the empire according to Buddhist principles, promoting non-violence, compassion, and social welfare. He built thousands of stupas, monasteries, and pillars across the kingdom, symbolizing his commitment to the Buddhist faith.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Ashoka’s reign had a profound impact on Indian history and culture. His conversion to Buddhism helped spread the religion throughout the subcontinent, and he played a vital role in developing Buddhist philosophy and literature.
Most of Ashoka’s wives and children are unknown to us, but the twins he had with his first wife—a boy named Mahindra and a girl named Sanghamitra—were crucial in converting Sri Lanka to Buddhism.
His commitment to social welfare and the welfare of his subjects earned him the title of “the Beloved of the Gods.”
Today, Ashoka’s legacy is still celebrated in India and beyond. His mandates continue to be studied and admired for their insights into ancient Indian society and politics. His emphasis on non-violence and religious tolerance continues to inspire people worldwide, and his commitment to social welfare and compassion remains relevant in modern times.
From his enlightenment in 265 until his passing at 72 in 232 BCE, Ashoka the Great governed as a righteous and benevolent ruler. His remains underwent a ceremonial cremation.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Emperor Ashoka was a complex and multi-faceted figure who underwent a profound transformation during his reign. From a ruthless warrior to a compassionate and enlightened ruler, he left an indelible mark on Indian history and culture. His commitment to Buddhism, social welfare, and religious tolerance continues to inspire people to this day, making him one of the most influential figures in Indian history.
The Mauryan Empire survived for 50 years after Ashoka’s demise before gradually fading away. Brhadrata, the final Mauryan monarch, was killed in 185 BCE by one of his generals, Pusyamitra Sunga. Ashoka’s beliefs and his examples persisted through the Vedas and his mandates, which are still visible on pillars today, even though his family did not continue to govern for a very long time after he passed away.