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Indian relief from Amaravati, Guntur. Preserved in Guimet Museum.jpg
A c. 1st century BCE/CE relief from Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh (India). The figure in the centre may represent Ashoka.
3rd Mauryan emperor
Reign c. 268 – c. 232 BCE[3]
Coronation 268 BCE[3]
Predecessor Bindusara
Successor Dasharatha
Born Pataliputra, modern-day Patna
Died 232 BCE
Pataliputra, modern-day Patna
Dynasty Maurya
Father Bindusara
Mother Subhadrangi (also called Dharma)

Ashoka ( English: /əˈʃkə/; Sanskrit: अशोक; IAST: Aśoka; died 232 BCE)[4] was an Indian emperor of the Maurya Dynasty who ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent from c. 268 to 232 BCE.[5] He was the grandson of the founder of the Maurya Dynasty, Chandragupta Maurya, who had created one of the largest empires in ancient India and then renounced it all to become a Jain monk.[6] One of India's greatest emperors, Ashoka expanded Chandragupta's empire, and reigned over a realm that stretched from present-day Afghanistan in the west to Bangladesh in the east. It covered the entire Indian subcontinent except for parts of present-day Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. The empire's capital was Pataliputra (in Magadha, present-day Patna), with provincial capitals at Taxila and Ujjain.

In about 260 BCE, Ashoka waged a destructive war against the state of Kalinga (modern Odisha).[7] He conquered Kalinga, which none of his ancestors had done.[8] Some scholars suggest he belonged to the Jain tradition, but it is generally accepted that he embraced Buddhism.[9] Legends state he converted after witnessing the mass deaths of the Kalinga War, which he himself had waged out of a desire for conquest. "Ashoka reflected on the war in Kalinga, which reportedly had resulted in more than 100,000 deaths and 150,000 deportations, ending at around 200,000 deaths."[10] Ashoka converted to Buddhism about 263 BCE.[7] He is remembered for the Ashoka pillars and edicts, for sending Buddhist monks to Sri Lanka and Central Asia, and for establishing monuments marking several significant sites in the life of Gautama Buddha.[11]

Beyond the Edicts of Ashoka, biographical information about him relies on legends written centuries later, such as the 2nd-century CE Ashokavadana ("Narrative of Ashoka", a part of the Divyavadana), and in the Sri Lankan text Mahavamsa ("Great Chronicle"). The emblem of the modern Republic of India is an adaptation of the Lion Capital of Ashoka. Ashoka's 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"). His fondness for his name's connection to the Saraca asoca tree, or "Ashoka tree", is also referenced in the Ashokavadana. H.G. Wells wrote of Ashoka in his book The Outline of History: "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 Ashoka shines, and shines, almost alone, a star."


Ashoka's early life

Ashoka was born to the Mauryan emperor, Bindusara and Subhadrangī (or Dharmā).[12] He was the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the Maurya dynasty. Broadly, Chandragupta was born in a humble family, abandoned, raised as a son by another family, then with the training and counsel of Chanakya of Arthashastra fame ultimately built one of the largest empires in ancient India.[13][14][15] Ashoka's grandfather Chandragupta renounced it all, and became a monk in the Jain tradition.[6] According to Roman historian Appian, Chandragupta had made a "marital alliance" with Seleucus; there is thus a possibility that Ashoka had a Seleucid Greek grandmother.[16][17] An Indian Puranic source, the Pratisarga Parva of the Bhavishya Purana, also described the marriage of Chandragupta with a Greek ("Yavana") princess, daughter of Seleucus.[18]

The ancient Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain texts provide varying biographical accounts. The Avadana texts mention that his mother was queen Subhadrangī. According to the Ashokavadana, she was the daughter of a Brahmin from the city of Champa.[19][20]:205 She gave him the name Ashoka, meaning "one without sorrow". The Divyāvadāna tells a similar story, but gives the name of the queen as Janapadakalyānī.[21][22] Ashoka had several elder siblings, all of whom were his half-brothers from the other wives of his father Bindusara. Ashoka was given royal military training.[23]

Rise to power

Approximate extent of Maurya empire under Ashoka. The empire stretched from Afghanistan to Bengal to southern India

The Buddhist text Divyavadana describes 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, Bindusara's chief advisor, 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 Ujain, the capital of Malwa, as governor.[19]

Bindusara's death in 272 BCE led to a war over succession. According to the Divyavadana, Bindusara wanted his elder son Susima to succeed him but Ashoka was supported by his father's ministers, who found Susima to be arrogant and disrespectful towards them.[24] A minister named Radhagupta seems to have played an important role in Ashoka's rise to the throne. The Ashokavadana recounts Radhagupta's offering of an old royal elephant to Ashoka for him to ride to the Garden of the Gold Pavilion where King Bindusara would determine his successor. Ashoka later got rid of the legitimate heir to the throne by tricking him into entering a pit filled with live coals. Radhagupta, according to the Ashokavadana, would later be appointed prime minister by Ashoka once he had gained the throne. The Dipavansa and Mahavansa refer to Ashoka's killing 99 of his brothers, sparing only one, named Vitashoka or Tissa,[3] although there is no clear proof about this incident (many such accounts are saturated with mythological elements). The coronation happened in 269 BCE, four years after his succession to the throne.[citation needed]

A c. 1910 painting by Abanindranath Tagore (1871–1951) depicting Ashoka's queen standing in front of the railings of the Buddhist monument at Sanchi (Raisen district, Madhya Pradesh).

Buddhist legends state that Ashoka was bad-tempered and of a wicked nature. He built Ashoka's Hell, an elaborate torture chamber described as a "Paradisal Hell" due to the contrast between its beautiful exterior and the acts carried out within by his appointed executioner, Girikaa.[25] This earned him the name of Chanda Ashoka (Caṇḍa Aśoka) meaning "Ashoka the Fierce" in Sanskrit. Professor Charles Drekmeier cautions that the Buddhist legends tend to dramatise the change that Buddhism brought in him, and therefore, exaggerate Ashoka's past wickedness and his piousness after the conversion.[26]

Ascending the throne, Ashoka expanded his empire over the next eight years, from the present-day Assam in the East to Balochistan in the West; from the Pamir Knot in Afghanistan in the north to the peninsula of southern India except for present day Tamil Nadu and Kerala which were ruled by the three ancient Tamil kingdoms.[22][27]

Conquest of Kalinga

While the early part of Ashoka's reign was apparently quite bloodthirsty, he became a follower of the Buddha's teachings after his conquest of Kalinga on the east coast of India in the present-day states of Odisha 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 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 defence; over 150,000 were deported.[28] 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 bereaved.[citation needed]


From the various sources that speak of his life, Ashoka is believed to have had five wives. They were named Devi (or Vedisa-Mahadevi-Shakyakumari), the second queen, Karuvaki, Asandhimitra (designated agramahisī or "chief queen"), Padmavati, and Tishyarakshita.[29] He is similarly believed to have had four sons and two daughters: a son by Devi named Mahendra (Pali: Mahinda), Tivara (son of Karuvaki), Kunala (son of Padmavati]], and Jalauka (mentioned in the Kashmir Chronicle), a daughter of Devi named Sanghamitra (Pali: Sanghamitta), and another daughter named Charumati.[29]

Buddhist conversion

A similar four "Indian lion" Lion Capital of Ashoka atop an intact Ashoka Pillar at Wat U Mong near Chiang Mai, Thailand showing another larger Dharma Chakra / Ashoka Chakra atop the four lions.

Edict 13 on the Edicts of Ashoka Rock Inscriptions reflect the great remorse the king felt after observing the destruction of Kalinga:

His Majesty felt remorse on account of the conquest of Kalinga because, during the subjugation of a previously unconquered country, slaughter, death, and taking away captive of the people necessarily occur, whereas His Majesty feels profound sorrow and regret.[citation needed]

The edict goes on to address the even greater degree of sorrow and regret resulting from Ashoka's understanding that the friends and families of deceased would suffer greatly too.[30]

Legend says that 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. The lethal war with Kalinga transformed the vengeful Emperor Ashoka to a stable and peaceful emperor and he became a patron of Buddhism. According to the prominent Indologist, A. L. Basham, Ashoka's personal religion became Buddhism, if not before, then certainly after the Kalinga war. However, according to Basham, the Dharma officially propagated by Ashoka was not Buddhism at all.[31] Nevertheless, his patronage led to the expansion of Buddhism in the Mauryan empire and other kingdoms during his rule, and worldwide from about 250 BCE.[32] Prominent in this cause were his son Mahinda (Mahendra) and daughter Sanghamitra (whose name means "friend of the Sangha"), who established Buddhism in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).[33]

Ashokan Pillar at Vaishali

Death and legacy

Ashoka's Major Rock Edict at Junagadh contains inscriptions by Ashoka (fourteen of the Edicts of Ashoka), Rudradaman I and Skandagupta.

Ashoka ruled for an estimated 36 years and died in 232 BCE.[34] Legend states that during his cremation, his body burned for seven days and nights.[35] After his death, the Mauryan dynasty lasted just fifty more years until his empire stretched over almost all of the Indian subcontinent. Ashoka had many wives and children, but many of their names are lost to time. His chief consort (agramahisi) for the majority of his reign was his wife, Asandhimitra, who apparently bore him no children.[36]

In his old age, he seems to have come under the spell of his youngest wife Tishyaraksha. It is said that she had got Ashoka's son Kunala, the regent in Takshashila and the heir presumptive to the throne, blinded by a wily stratagem. The official executioners spared Kunala and he became a wandering singer accompanied by his favourite wife Kanchanmala. In Pataliputra, Ashoka heard Kunala's song, and realised that Kunala's misfortune may have been a punishment for some past sin of the emperor himself. He condemned Tishyaraksha to death, restoring Kunala to the court. In the Ashokavadana, Kunala is portrayed as forgiving Tishyaraksha, having obtained enlightenment through Buddhist practice. While he urges Ashoka to forgive her as well, Ashoka does not respond with the same forgiveness.[25] Kunala was succeeded by his son, Samprati, who ruled for 50 years until his death.[citation needed]

The reign of Ashoka Maurya might have disappeared into history as the ages passed by, had he not left behind records of his reign. These records are in the form of sculpted pillars and rocks inscribed with a variety of actions and teachings he wished to be published under his name. The language used for inscription was in one of the Prakrit "common" languages etched in a Brahmi script.[37]

In the year 185 BCE, about fifty years after Ashoka's death, the last Maurya ruler, Brihadratha, was assassinated by the commander-in-chief of the Mauryan armed forces, Pushyamitra Shunga, while he was taking the Guard of Honor of his forces. Pushyamitra Shunga founded the Shunga dynasty (185-75 BCE) and ruled just a fragmented part of the Mauryan Empire. Many of the northwestern territories of the Mauryan Empire (modern-day Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan) became the Indo-Greek Kingdom.[citation needed]

King Ashoka, the third monarch of the Indian Mauryan dynasty, is also considered as one of the most exemplary rulers who ever lived.[38]

Buddhist kingship

The Khalsi rock edict of Ashoka, which mentions the Greek kings Antiochus, Ptolemy, Antigonus, Magas and Alexander by name, as recipients of his teachings.

One of the more enduring legacies of Ashoka was the model that he provided for the relationship between Buddhism and the state. Emperor Ashoka was seen as a role model to leaders within the Buddhist community. He not only provided guidance and strength, but he also created personal relationships with his supporters.[39] Throughout Theravada Southeastern Asia, the model of rulership embodied by Ashoka replaced the notion of divine kingship that had previously dominated (in the Angkor kingdom, for instance). Under this model of 'Buddhist kingship', the king sought to legitimise his rule not through descent from a divine source, but by supporting and earning the approval of the Buddhist sangha. Following Ashoka's example, kings established monasteries, funded the construction of stupas, and supported the ordination of monks in their kingdom. Many rulers also took an active role in resolving disputes over the status and regulation of the sangha, as Ashoka had in calling a conclave to settle a number of contentious issues during his reign. This development ultimately led to a close association in many Southeast Asian countries between the monarchy and the religious hierarchy, an association that can still be seen today in the state-supported Buddhism of Thailand and the traditional role of the Thai king as both a religious and secular leader. Ashoka also said that all his courtiers always governed the people in a moral manner.[citation needed]

According to the legends mentioned in the 2nd-century CE text Ashokavadana, Ashoka was not non-violent after adopting Buddhism. In one instance, a non-Buddhist in Pundravardhana drew a picture showing the Buddha bowing at the feet of Nirgrantha Jnatiputra (identified with Mahavira, 24th Tirthankara of Jainism). On complaint from a Buddhist devotee, Ashoka issued an order to arrest him, and subsequently, another order to kill all the Ajivikas in Pundravardhana. Around 18,000 followers of the Ajivika sect were executed as a result of this order.[20][40] Sometime later, another Nirgrantha follower in Pataliputra drew a similar picture. Ashoka burnt him and his entire family alive in their house.[40] He also announced an award of one dinara (silver coin) to anyone who brought him the head of a Nirgrantha heretic. According to Ashokavadana, as a result of this order, his own brother was mistaken for a heretic and killed by a cowherd.[20] However, for several reasons, scholars say, these stories of persecutions of rival sects by Ashoka appear to be clear fabrications arising out of sectarian propaganda.[40][41][42]

Historical sources

Ashoka was almost forgotten by the historians of the early British India, but James Prinsep contributed in the revelation of historical sources. Another important historian was British archaeologist John Hubert Marshall, who was director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India. His main interests were Sanchi and Sarnath, in addition to Harappa and Mohenjodaro. Sir Alexander Cunningham, a British archaeologist and army engineer, and often known as the father of the Archaeological Survey of India, unveiled heritage sites like the Bharhut Stupa, Sarnath, Sanchi, and the Mahabodhi Temple. Mortimer Wheeler, a British archaeologist, also exposed Ashokan historical sources, especially the Taxila.[citation needed]

The Kandahar Edict of Ashoka, a bilingual inscription (in Greek and Aramaic) by King Ashoka, discovered at Kandahar (National Museum of Afghanistan).

Information about the life and reign of Ashoka primarily comes from a relatively small number of Buddhist sources. In particular, the Sanskrit Ashokavadana ('Story of Ashoka'), written in the 2nd century, and the two Pāli chronicles of Sri Lanka (the Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa) provide most of the currently known information about Ashoka. Additional information is contributed by the Edicts of Ashoka, whose authorship was finally attributed to the Ashoka of Buddhist legend after the discovery of dynastic lists that gave the name used in the edicts (Priyadarshi—'He who regards everyone with affection') as a title or additional name of Ashoka Maurya. Architectural remains of his period have been found at Kumhrar, Patna, which include an 80-pillar hypostyle hall.[citation needed]

Edicts of Ashoka -The Edicts of Ashoka are a collection of 33 inscriptions on the Pillars of Ashoka, as well as boulders and cave walls, made by Ashoka during his reign. These inscriptions are dispersed throughout modern-day Pakistan and India, and represent the first tangible evidence of Buddhism. The edicts describe in detail the first wide expansion of Buddhism through the sponsorship of one of the most powerful kings of Indian history, offering more information about Ashoka's proselytism, moral precepts, religious precepts, and his notions of social and animal welfare.[43]

Ashokavadana – The Aśokāvadāna is a 2nd-century CE text related to the legend of Ashoka. The legend was translated into Chinese by Fa Hien in 300 CE. It is essentially a Hinayana text, and its world is that of Mathura and North-west India. The emphasis of this little known text is on exploring the relationship between the king and the community of monks (the Sangha) and setting up an ideal of religious life for the laity (the common man) by telling appealing stories about religious exploits. The most startling feature is that Ashoka’s conversion has nothing to do with the Kalinga war, which is not even mentioned, nor is there a word about his belonging to the Maurya dynasty. Equally surprising is the record of his use of state power to spread Buddhism in an uncompromising fashion. The legend of Veetashoka provides insights into Ashoka’s character that are not available in the widely known Pali records.[25]

A punch-marked Coin of Ashoka[44]
A silver coin of 1 karshapana of the empire Maurya, period of Ashoka Maurya towards 272-232 BC, workshop of Mathura. Obv: Symbols including a sun and an animal Rev: Symbol Dimensions: 13.92 x 11.75 mm Weight: 3.4 g.

Mahavamsa -The Mahavamsa ("Great Chronicle") is a historical poem written in the Pali language of the kings of Sri Lanka. It covers the period from the coming of King Vijaya of Kalinga (ancient Odisha) in 543 BCE to the reign of King Mahasena (334–361). As it often refers to the royal dynasties of India, the Mahavamsa is also valuable for historians who wish to date and relate contemporary royal dynasties in the Indian subcontinent. It is very important in dating the consecration of Ashoka.[citation needed]

Dwipavamsa -The Dwipavamsa, or "Dweepavamsa", (i.e., Chronicle of the Island, in Pali) is the oldest historical record of Sri Lanka. The chronicle is believed to be compiled from Atthakatha and other sources around the 3rd or 4th century CE. King Dhatusena (4th century) had ordered that the Dipavamsa be recited at the Mahinda festival held annually in Anuradhapura.[citation needed]


Caduceus symbol on a punch-marked coin of the Maurya Empire in India, in the 3rd-2nd century BCE.

The caduceus appears as a symbol of the punch-marked coins of the Maurya Empire in India, in the 3rd-2nd century BCE. Numismatic research suggests that this symbol was the symbol of king Ashoka, his personal "Mudra".[45] This symbol was not used on the pre-Mauryan punch-marked coins, but only on coins of the Maurya period, together with the three arched-hill symbol, the "peacock on the hill", the triskelis and the Taxila mark.[46]

Perceptions and historiography

The use of Buddhist sources in reconstructing the life of Ashoka has had a strong influence on perceptions of Ashoka, as well as the interpretations of his Edicts. Building on traditional accounts, early scholars regarded Ashoka as a primarily Buddhist monarch who underwent a conversion to Buddhism and was actively engaged in sponsoring and supporting the Buddhist monastic institution. Some scholars have tended to question this assessment. Romila Thappar writes about Ashoka that "We need to see him both as a statesman in the context of inheriting and sustaining an empire in a particular historical period, and as a person with a strong commitment to changing society through what might be called the propagation of social ethics."[47] The only source of information not attributable to Buddhist sources are the Ashokan Edicts, and these do not explicitly state that Ashoka was a Buddhist. In his edicts, Ashoka expresses support for all the major religions of his time: Buddhism, Brahmanism, Jainism, and Ajivikaism, and his edicts addressed to the population at large (there are some addressed specifically to Buddhists; this is not the case for the other religions) generally focus on moral themes members of all the religions would accept. For example, Amartya Sen writes, "The Indian Emperor Ashoka in the third century BCE presented many political inscriptions in favor of tolerance and individual freedom, both as a part of state policy and in the relation of different people to each other".[48]

However, the edicts alone strongly indicate that he was a Buddhist. In one edict he belittles rituals, and he banned Vedic animal sacrifices; these strongly suggest that he at least did not look to the Vedic tradition for guidance. Furthermore, many edicts are expressed to Buddhists alone; in one, Ashoka declares himself to be an "upasaka", and in another he demonstrates a close familiarity with Buddhist texts. He erected rock pillars at Buddhist holy sites, but did not do so for the sites of other religions. He also used the word "dhamma" to refer to qualities of the heart that underlie moral action; this was an exclusively Buddhist use of the word. However, he used the word more in the spirit than as a strict code of conduct. Romila Thappar writes, "His dhamma did not derive from divine inspiration, even if its observance promised heaven. It was more in keeping with the ethic conditioned by the logic of given situations. His logic of Dhamma was intended to influence the conduct of categories of people, in relation to each other. Especially where they involved unequal relationships."[47] Finally, he promotes ideals that correspond to the first three steps of the Buddha's graduated discourse.[49]

Interestingly, the Ashokavadana presents an alternate view of the familiar Ashoka; one in which his conversion has nothing to do with the Kalinga war or about his descent from the Maurya dynasty. Instead, Ashoka's reason for adopting non-violence appears much more personal. The Ashokavadana shows that the main source of Ashoka's conversion and the acts of welfare that followed are rooted instead in intense personal anguish at its core, from a wellspring inside himself rather than spurred by a specific event. It thereby illuminates Ashoka as more humanly ambitious and passionate, with both greatness and flaws. This Ashoka is very different from the "shadowy do-gooder" of later Pali chronicles.[25]

Much of the knowledge about Ashoka comes from the several inscriptions that he had carved on pillars and rocks throughout the empire. All his inscriptions present him as compassionate and loving. In the Kalinga rock edits, he addresses his people as his "children" and mentions that as a father he desires their good.[50] These inscriptions promoted Buddhist morality and encouraged nonviolence and adherence to dharma (duty or proper behaviour), and they talk of his fame and conquered lands as well as the neighbouring kingdoms holding up his might. One also gets some primary information about the Kalinga War and Ashoka's allies plus some useful knowledge on the civil administration. The Ashoka Pillar at Sarnath is the most notable of the relics left by Ashoka. Made of sandstone, this pillar records the visit of the emperor to Sarnath, in the 3rd century BCE. It has a four-lion capital (four lions standing back to back), which was adopted as the emblem of the modern Indian republic. The lion symbolises both Ashoka's imperial rule and the kingship of the Buddha. In translating these monuments, historians learn the bulk of what is assumed to have been true fact of the Mauryan Empire. It is difficult to determine whether or not some events ever actually happened, but the stone etchings clearly depict how Ashoka wanted to be thought of and remembered.[citation needed]

Focus of debate

Recently scholarly analysis determined that the three major foci of debate regarding Ashoka involve the nature of the Maurya empire; the extent and impact of Ashoka's pacifism; and what is referred to in the Inscriptions as dhamma or dharma, which connotes goodness, virtue, and charity. Some historians[who?] have argued that Ashoka's pacifism undermined the "military backbone" of the Maurya empire, while others have suggested that the extent and impact of his pacifism have been "grossly exaggerated". The dhamma of the Edicts has been understood as concurrently a Buddhist lay ethic, a set of politico-moral ideas, a "sort of universal religion", or as an Ashokan innovation. On the other hand, it has also been interpreted as an essentially political ideology that sought to knit together a vast and diverse empire. Scholars are still attempting to analyse both the expressed and implied political ideas of the Edicts (particularly in regard to imperial vision), and make inferences pertaining to how that vision was grappling with problems and political realities of a "virtually subcontinental, and culturally and economically highly variegated, 3rd century BCE Indian empire. Nonetheless, it remains clear that Ashoka's Inscriptions represent the earliest corpus of royal inscriptions in the Indian subcontinent, and therefore prove to be a very important innovation in royal practices."[51]

Legends of Ashoka

Until the Ashokan inscriptions were discovered and deciphered, stories about Ashoka were based on the legendary accounts of his life and not strictly on historical facts. These legends were found in Buddhist textual sources such as the text of Ashokavadana. The Ashokavadana is a subset of a larger set of legends in the Divyavadana, though it could have existed independently as well. Following are some of the legends narrated in the Ashokavadana about Ashoka:

1) One of the stories talks about an event that occurred in a past life of Ashoka, when he was a small child named Jaya. Once when Jaya was playing on the roadside, the Buddha came by. The young child put a handful of earth in the Buddha’s begging bowl as his gift to the saint and declared his wish to one day become a great emperor and follower of the Buddha. The Buddha is said to have smiled a smile that “illuminated the universe with its rays of light”.[52] These rays of light are then said to have re-entered the Buddha’s left palm, signifying that this child Jaya would, in his next life, become a great emperor. The Buddha is said to have even turned to his disciple Ananda and is said to have predicted that this child would be “a great, righteous chakravarti king, who would rule his empire from his capital at Pataliputra”.

2) Another story aims to portray Ashoka as an evil person in order to convey the importance of his transformation into a good person upon adopting Buddhism.[53] It begins by stating that due to Ashoka’s physical ugliness he was disliked by his father Bindusara. Ashoka wanted to become king and so he got rid of the heir by tricking him into entering a pit filled with live coals. He became famous as “Ashoka the Fierce” because of his wicked nature and bad temper. He is said to have subjected his ministers to a test of loyalty and then have 500 of them killed for failing it. He is said to have burnt his entire harem to death when certain women insulted him. He is supposed to have derived sadistic pleasure from watching other people suffer. And for this he built himself an elaborate and horrific torture chamber where he amused himself by torturing other people. The story then goes on to narrate how it was only after an encounter with a pious Buddhist monk that Ashoka himself transformed into “Ashoka the pious”. A Chinese traveler who visited India in the 7th century CE, XuanZang recorded in his memoirs that he visited the place where the supposed torture chamber stood.

3) Another story is about events that occurred towards the end of Ashoka’s time on earth. Ashoka is said to have started gifting away the contents of his treasury to the Buddhist sangha. His ministers however were scared that his eccentricity would be the downfall of the empire and so denied him access to the treasury. As a result, Ashoka started giving away his personal possessions and was eventually left with nothing and so died peacefully.

At this point it is important to note that the Ashokavadana being a Buddhist text in itself sought to gain new converts for Buddhism and so used all these legends. Devotion to the Buddha and loyalty to the sangha are stressed. Such texts added to the perception that Ashoka was essentially the ideal Buddhist monarch who deserved both admiration and emulation.[54]


Approach towards religions

According to Indian historian Romila Thapar, Ashoka emphasized respect for all religious teachers, and harmonious relationship between parents and children, teachers and pupils, and employers and employees.[55] Ashoka's religion contained gleanings from all religions.[citation needed] He emphasized the virtues of Ahimsa, respect to all religious teachers, equal respect for and study of each other's scriptures, and rational faith.[citation needed]

Global spread of Buddhism

Stupa of Sanchi. The central stupa was built during the Mauryas, and enlarged during the Sungas, but the decorative gateway is dated to the later dynasty of the Satavahanas.

As a Buddhist emperor, Ashoka believed that Buddhism is beneficial for all human beings as well as animals and plants, so he built a number of stupas, Sangharama, viharas, chaitya, and residences for Buddhist monks all over South Asia and Central Asia. According to the Ashokavadana, he ordered the construction of 84,000 stupas to house the Buddha's relics.[56] In the Aryamanjusrimulakalpa, Ashoka takes offerings to each of these stupas traveling in a chariot adorned with precious metals.[57] He gave donations to viharas and mathas. He sent his only daughter Sanghamitra and son Mahindra to spread Buddhism in Sri Lanka (then known as Tamraparni). Ashoka also sent many prominent Buddhist monks (bhikshus) like Madhyamik Sthavira to modern Kashmir and Afghanistan; Maharaskshit Sthavira to Syria, Persia / Iran, Egypt, Greece, Italy and Turkey; Massim Sthavira to Nepal, Bhutan, China and Mongolia; Sohn Uttar Sthavira to modern Cambodia, Laos, Burma (old name Suvarnabhumi for Burma and Thailand), Thailand and Vietnam; Mahadhhamarakhhita Sthavira to Maharashtra (old name Maharatthha); Maharakhhit Sthavira and Yavandhammarakhhita Sthavira to South India.[citation needed]

Geographical distribution of known capitals of the Pillars of Ashoka. These are all thought to have been commissioned by Ashoka.

Ashoka also invited Buddhists and non-Buddhists for religious conferences. He inspired the Buddhist monks to compose the sacred religious texts, and also gave all types of help to that end. Ashoka also helped to develop viharas (intellectual hubs) such as Nalanda and Taxila. Ashoka helped to construct Sanchi and Mahabodhi Temple. Ashoka also gave donations to non-Buddhists. As his reign continued his even-handedness was replaced with special inclination towards Buddhism.[58] Ashoka helped and respected both Shramanas (Buddhists monks) and Brahmins (Vedic monks). Ashoka also helped to organise the Third Buddhist council (c. 250 BCE) at Pataliputra (today's Patna). It was conducted by the monk Moggaliputta-Tissa who was the spiritual teacher of Ashoka.[citation needed]

Emperor Ashoka's son, Mahinda, also helped with the spread of Buddhism by translating the Buddhist Canon into a language that could be understood by the people of Sri Lanka.[59]

It is well known that Ashoka sent dütas or emissaries to convey messages or letters, written or oral (rather both), to various people. The VIth Rock Edict about "oral orders" reveals this. It was later confirmed that it was not unusual to add oral messages to written ones, and the content of Ashoka's messages can be inferred likewise from the XIIIth Rock Edict: They were meant to spread his dhammavijaya, which he considered the highest victory and which he wished to propagate everywhere (including far beyond India). There is obvious and undeniable trace of cultural contact through the adoption of the Kharosthi script, and the idea of installing inscriptions might have travelled with this script, as Achaemenid influence is seen in some of the formulations used by Ashoka in his inscriptions. This indicates to us that Ashoka was indeed in contact with other cultures, and was an active part in mingling and spreading new cultural ideas beyond his own immediate walls.[60]

Hellenistic world

Distribution of the Edicts of Ashoka, and location of the contemporary Greek city of Ai-Khanoum.[61]
Buddhist proselytism at the time of king Ashoka (260–218 BCE).

In his edicts, Ashoka mentions some of the people living in Hellenic countries as converts to Buddhism and recipients of his envoys, although no Hellenic historical record of this event remains:

Now it is conquest by Dhamma that Beloved-of-the-Gods considers to be the best conquest. And it (conquest by Dhamma) has been won here, on the borders, even six hundred yojanas away, where the Greek king Antiochos rules, beyond there where the four kings named Ptolemy, Antigonos, Magas and Alexander rule, likewise in the south among the Cholas, the Pandyas, and as far as Tamraparni. Here in the king's domain among the Greeks, the Kambojas, the Nabhakas, the Nabhapamktis, the Bhojas, the Pitinikas, the Andhras and the Palidas, everywhere people are following Beloved-of-the-Gods' instructions in Dhamma. Even where Beloved-of-the-Gods' envoys have not been, these people too, having heard of the practice of Dhamma and the ordinances and instructions in Dhamma given by Beloved-of-the-Gods, are following it and will continue to do so.

— Edicts of Ashoka, Rock Edict (S. Dhammika)[62]

It is not too far-fetched to imagine, however, that Ashoka received letters from Greek rulers and was acquainted with the Hellenistic royal orders in the same way as he perhaps knew of the inscriptions of the Achaemenid kings, given the presence of ambassadors of Hellenistic kings in India (as well as the dütas sent by Ashoka himself).[60] Dionysius is reported to have been such a Greek ambassador at the court of Ashoka, sent by Ptolemy II Philadelphus,[63] who himself is mentionned in the Edicts of Ashoka as a recipient of the Buddhist proselytism of Ashoka. Some Hellenistic philosophers, such as Hegesias of Cyrene, who probably lived under the rule of King Magas, one of the supposed recipients of Buddhist emissaries from Asoka, are sometimes thought to have been influenced by Buddhist teachings.[64]

The Greeks in India even seem to have played an active role in the propagation of Buddhism, as some of the emissaries of Ashoka, such as Dharmaraksita, are described in Pali sources as leading Greek (Yona) Buddhist monks, active in spreading Buddhism (the Mahavamsa, XII[65]).

Some Greeks (Yavana) may have played an administrative role in the territories ruled by Ashoka. The Girnar inscription of Rudradaman records that during the rule of Ashoka, a Yavana Governor was in charge in the area of Girnar, Gujarat, mentionning his role in the construction of a water reservoir.[66][67]

As administrator

Mauryan ringstone, with standing goddess. Northwest Pakistan. 3rd century BCE. British Museum.

Ashoka's military power was strong, but after his conversion to Buddhism, he maintained friendly relations with three major Tamil kingdoms in the South--namely, Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas--the post-Alexandrian empire, Tamraparni, and Suvarnabhumi. His edicts state that he made provisions for medical treatment of humans and animals in his own kingdom as well as in these neighbouring states. He also had wells dug and trees planted along the roads for the benefit of the common people.[50]

Animal welfare

Ashoka's rock edicts declare that injuring living things is not good, and no animal should be sacrificed for slaughter.[68] However, he did not prohibit common cattle slaughter or beef eating.[69]

He imposed a ban on killing of "all four-footed creatures that are neither useful nor edible", and of specific animal species including several birds, certain types of fish and bulls among others. He also banned killing of female goats, sheep and pigs that were nursing their young; as well as their young up to the age of six months. He also banned killing of all fish and castration of animals during certain periods such as Chaturmasa and Uposatha.[70][71]

Ashoka also abolished the royal hunting of animals and restricted the slaying of animals for food in the royal residence.[72] Because he banned hunting, created many veterinary clinics and eliminated meat eating on many holidays, the Mauryan Empire under Ashoka has been described as "one of the very few instances in world history of a government treating its animals as citizens who are as deserving of its protection as the human residents".[73]

Ashoka Chakra

The Ashoka Chakra, "the wheel of Righteousness" (Dharma in Sanskrit or Dhamma in Pali)"

The Ashoka Chakra (the wheel of Ashoka) is a depiction of the Dharmachakra (the Wheel of Dharma). The wheel has 24 spokes which represent the 12 Laws of Dependent Origination and the 12 Laws of Dependent Termination. The Ashoka Chakra has been widely inscribed on many relics of the Mauryan Emperor, most prominent among which is the Lion Capital of Sarnath and The Ashoka Pillar. The most visible use of the Ashoka Chakra today is at the centre of the National flag of the Republic of India (adopted on 22 July 1947), where it is rendered in a Navy-blue color on a White background, by replacing the symbol of Charkha (Spinning wheel) of the pre-independence versions of the flag. The Ashoka Chakra can also been seen on the base of the Lion Capital of Ashoka which has been adopted as the National Emblem of India.[citation needed]

The Ashoka Chakra was created by Ashoka during his reign. Chakra is a Sanskrit word which also means "cycle" or "self-repeating process". The process it signifies is the cycle of time--as in how the world changes with time.[citation needed]

A few days before India became independent in August 1947, the specially-formed Constituent Assembly decided that the flag of India must be acceptable to all parties and communities.[74] A flag with three colours, Saffron, White and Green with the Ashoka Chakra was selected.[citation needed]

Stone architecture

The Pataliputra capital, a 3rd century BCE capital from the Mauryan palace in Pataliputra, displaying Hellenistic designs.
Rampurva bull capital, detail of the abacus, with two "flame palmettes" framing a lotus surrounded by small rosette flowers.

Ashoka is often credited with the beginning of stone architecture in India, possibly following the introduction of stone-building techniques by the Greeks after Alexander the Great.[75] Before Ashoka's time, buildings were probably built in non-permanent material, such as wood, bamboo or thatch.[75][76] Ashoka may have rebuilt his palace in Pataliputra by replacing wooden material by stone,[77] and may also have used the help of foreign craftmen.[78] Ashoka also innovated by using the permament qualities of stone for his written edicts, as well as his pillars with Buddhist symbolism.

Pillars of Ashoka (Ashokstambha)

The Ashokan pillar at Lumbini, Nepal, Buddha's birthplace

The pillars of Ashoka are a series of columns dispersed throughout the northern Indian subcontinent, and erected by Ashoka during his reign in the 3rd century BCE. Originally, there must have been many pillars of Ashoka although only ten with inscriptions still survive. Averaging between forty and fifty feet in height, and weighing up to fifty tons each, all the pillars were quarried at Chunar, just south of Varanasi and dragged, sometimes hundreds of miles, to where they were erected. The first Pillar of Ashoka was found in the 16th century by Thomas Coryat in the ruins of ancient Delhi. The wheel represents the sun time and Buddhist law, while the swastika stands for the cosmic dance around a fixed center and guards against evil.[citation needed]

Lion Capital of Ashoka (Ashokmudra)

The Lion capital of Ashoka is a sculpture of four lions standing back to back. It was originally placed atop the Ashoka pillar at Sarnath, now in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India. The pillar, sometimes called the Ashoka Column, is still in its original location, but the Lion Capital is now in the Sarnath Museum. This Lion Capital of Ashoka from Sarnath has been adopted as the National Emblem of India and the wheel ("Ashoka Chakra") from its base was placed onto the center of the National Flag of India.[citation needed]

The capital contains four lions (Indian / Asiatic Lions), standing back to back, mounted on a short cylindrical abacus, with a frieze carrying sculptures in high relief of an elephant, a galloping horse, a bull, and a lion, separated by intervening spoked chariot-wheels over a bell-shaped lotus. Carved out of a single block of polished sandstone, the capital was believed to be crowned by a 'Wheel of Dharma' (Dharmachakra popularly known in India as the "Ashoka Chakra"). The Sarnath pillar bears one of the Edicts of Ashoka, an inscription against division within the Buddhist community, which reads, "No one shall cause division in the order of monks."[citation needed]

The four animals in the Sarnath capital are believed to symbolise different steps of Lord Buddha's life.[citation needed]

  • The Elephant represents the Buddha's idea in reference to the dream of Queen Maya of a white elephant entering her womb.
  • The Bull represents desire during the life of the Buddha as a prince.
  • The Horse represents Buddha's departure from palatial life.
  • The Lion represents the accomplishment of Buddha.

Besides the religious interpretations, there are some non-religious interpretations also about the symbolism of the Ashoka capital pillar at Sarnath. According to them, the four lions symbolise Ashoka's rule over the four directions, the wheels as symbols of his enlightened rule (Chakravartin) and the four animals as symbols of four adjoining territories of India.[citation needed]

Constructions credited to Ashoka

Illustration of the original temple built by Asoka at Bodh-Gaya on the location of the Mahabodhi Temple, sculpture of the Satavahana period at Sanchi, 1st century CE.

The British restoration was done under guidance from Weligama Sri Sumangala.[79]

In art, film and literature

See also



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External links

  • Ashoka at DMOZ
  • BBC Radio 4: Sunil Khilnani, Incarnations: Ashoka.
  • BBC Radio 4: Melvyn Bragg with Richard Gombrich et al., In Our Time, Ashoka the Great.
  • Hultzsch, E. (1925). Inscriptions of Asoka: New Edition. Oxford: Government of India. 
Died: 232 BCE
Preceded by
Mauryan Emperor
272–232 BCE
Succeeded by
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