Emperor Ashoka - the most famous and powerful ruler in Indian history

Emperor Ashoka - the most famous and powerful ruler in Indian history

Emperor Ashoka - the most famous and powerful ruler in Indian history


Ashoka (skt., Aśoka, "born without pain") - ruler of the Maurya Empire from 273 BC. to 232 BC. He called himself Devanampriya Piyadasi.

Emperor Ashoka after a number of military successes subdued a significant part of South Asia from modern Afghanistan to Bengal and further southwards to Mysore. The ruler of a huge empire, after numerous victories on battlefields, he refused from violence and vowed never to fight again. He became an ideal ruler, and until the end of his life he strove to bring enlightenment, justice, and dissemination of the doctrine of Dharma to people:

"All people are my children. All that I wish for my children, and I wish them wealth and happiness in this world and the next one, I wish for all the people. "

Ashoka went down in history as a great patron of Buddhism. According to modern scholars, this ruler did more to transform Buddhism into a world religion than anyone else.

The wheel at the top of the pillar, which he installed in Sarnath during his pilgrimage to the holy places, now is depicted on the national flag of free India.

Buddha's Prediction

It is believed that Buddha Shakyamuni predicted the arrival of Ashoka.

One day Buddha went to a town to ask for food. His path passed along a beach, where children played. They built castles from the sand, among which there were both the royal palace and the treasury. The children even shared the roles of the King, the Queen, and the Dignitaries.

When Buddha and his disciples were approached them, a boy who was playing the King saw them coming and got very happy. He gathered a handful of sand and pebbles, which represented royal treasures, and ran to Buddha. Seeing, that the boy wants to fill Buddha's cup with sand, a disciple named Ananda was going to drive him away, but Buddha said:

- Let me accept this offering. It is a special sign.

Then Buddha lowered his cup, but the boy still could not reach the cup. Budda called one of his dignitaries and asked him to stand on all his fours. The boy stood on the dignitary's back to put the offering into the cup of Buddha.

Seeing this, Ananda and the other disciples got very surprised and asked:

- Who is this boy?

- This is not a common boy, - replied Buddha. - Thanks to his good intention and the connection, that has arisen between us today, he will become a great king two hundred and fifty years after my Mahaparinirva. He will help to spread my Teaching and support the sangha. He will erect as many Buddha statues around the world as there are grains of sand in his hands. It is a very special child, and his friends, who helped him today, will continue to support his deeds.

Then Buddha uttered a special initiation prayer and continued his journey towards the town. Such was his prophecy about Emperor Ashoka.

As predicted, Ashoka was born again two hundred and fifty years after Buddha's Mahaparinirvana.

Origins and childhood

Ashoka was a grandson of Chandragupta, the founder of the Mauryan dynasty. Chandragupta was the first ruler of the Maurya Empire. He ruled the Empire for twenty-four years and then reposed power in hands of his son - Bindusara. Bindusara was Ashoka's father.

Ashoka's mother was Subhadrangi, the daughter of a poor Brahmin named Champakanagar. According to the legend, his father gave her to a harem, because he had received a prediction, that his daughter's son would become a great ruler. The status of Ashoka, born in the harem, was very low, he had many brothers from more notable wives of the king and an elder brother from the same mother.

As a child, Ashoka was full of play, and it was very difficult to manage with him. The only thing he leaned towards was hunting, and he soon became a skilled hunter.

Ashoka did not have a sparkling beauty. But no other prince surpassed him in valor, courage, dignity, love of adventure, and governmental skills. Therefore, Ashoka was respected by both officials and ordinary people. Bindusara noticed his son's talent of a ruler, and, although Ashoka was still young, the king pricked him for a governor of Avanti.

Coming to power

Arriving in Ujjain, the capital of Avanti, Ashoka showed himself as an excellent ruler. In this city he married Shakya Kumari, a beautiful daughter of a wealthy merchant Vidishanagar. She bore him two children, who were called Mahendra and Sanghamitra.

The citizens of Taxila rebelled against the rule of Magadha. The eldest son of Bindusara, named Susema, could not reassure the people. Then Bindusara sent Ashoka to suppress the uprising. Ashoka boldly led the troops to the city and besieged it. The citizens of Taxila did not confront him, but arranged a great reception for the new ruler.

The uprising in Taxila has shown the inability of Susema to rule the country. At the meeting of councillors it became clear, that, if Soussema became a king according to the rules of tradition, then there would be no justice in the Empire, and it would decay. Therefore, Ashoka was informed, that after his father's death, he, against the tradition, would lead the empire.

The emperor Bindusara died in 272 BC. Ashoka, who arrived in Pataliputra from Ujjain at the request of Radhagupta, the head of government, was crowned King of Magadha. The official coronation of Ashoka took place only four years after he drived power, in 268 BC.

Ashoka was a very educated statesman. He ruled Magadha wisely and skillfully. The council of advisers and state officials adhered to the Emperor. For eight years, peace and tranquility reigned in the state.

War with Kalinga and remorse of Ashoka

Eight years after the accession to the throne, Ashoka declared war on a small state of Kalinga (Orissa). Kalinga occupied rich and fertile lands between Godavari and Manhandi, so it was a strategically and commercially important place. But the people of Kalinga were patriots, and they were preparing to fight and die in defense of their homeland.

The army of Kalinga fought with the army of Magadha, showing miracles of courage, but still Ashoka has won a difficult victory. During the battle, 150 thousand people were captured and more than 100 thousand people were killed. Kalinga has shown a stubborn resistance to Ashoka. Severe penalties were applied upon common people, and nobility, who also did not want to accept the Mauryan power.

It is traditionally believed that, seeing the battlefield with a multitude of killed people and animals, realizing the suffering and the destruction it caused, Ashoka felt a strong remorse: "What have I done? - It's horrible! Being the head of a vast empire, I sought to capture a small kingdom and condemned to death thousands of soldiers; I became the reason, that thousands of women became widows, and thousands of children became orphans."

This remorse led to his strengthening of faith and to subsequent acceptance of Buddhism. The Kalingan War, which was the first war for Ashoka, was also his last war. The power of Arms has bowed before the power of Justice and Dharma. Ashoka vowed that he would never take a weapon and never commit such a crime again.

The teachings, that a disciple of Buddha, Upagupta, has transmitted to him, brought peace to Ashoka.

"Of all the victories, the Dharma's victory is the greatest. One can conquer a part of the Earth. But kindness, love and pity can win all people's hearts. A fountain of blood is caused by a sharp sword, and a fountain of love is caused by Dharma. Victory by weapon brings one a fleeting joy, and victory of Dharma brings one eternal joy. "

Domestic policy

The activity of Ashoka within the Empire was unique. He forbade sacrifices and abolished forced labor. A list of protected animals was compiled, hunting for pleasure was prohibited as well as aimless burning of forests.

To entertainments of former rulers Ashoka preferred pilgrimages, distribution of gifts and meetings with ordinary people. He visited holy places in his numerous trips. Ashoka explained the purpose of the pilgrimages this way: "... to meet brahmanas and sramanas, to make offerings to them. To neet the elders and to give them gold. To meet with people and to preach the law of Dharma, to talk about Dharma."

Throughout the Empire Ashoka, initiated the construction of universities. Nalanda, the most famous university of that time, became the center of education in Magadha.

All the money from the state treasury was spent to improve the well-being of people. He developed agriculture, trade, and various crafts. Irrigation channels and floodgates for merchant ships were built. Ashoka has ordered to build good roads throughout the country to boost trade and to develop craftsmanship. For the good of travelers, he also ordered to plant trees on both sides of any road. Wells were dug, sheds and inns were built.

Free medical care was distributed for both humans and animals. Ashoka was the first in the world to build hospitals for the treatment of animals. He took medicinal plants and various fruit-bearing trees from certain places and planted them in areas where they did not exist. In one of the decree-edicts, he even expressed the desire, that even tenants of the wood in his Empire lived happily.

Promotion of the concept of Dharma and the Edicts of Ashoka

The greatest merit of his service, as he himself believed, was Ashoka's activity, aimed to correct morals, which he turned to all his subjects. "I have planted banyan trees along the roads to give shadows, and set up mango groves. In every eight krosa I have dug wells and built inns, and in different places I have built water reservoirs for people and animals. But these are only little achievements. Similar benefits were created by former kings. I have done it so, that my subjects would follow the path of Dharma."

Ashoka believed, that the Dharma message should not stay ”motionless”. He wanted it to be spread everywhere in India and beyond. Therefore, he commanded, that the words of Dharma should be engraved on rocks and columns throughout the country. These inscriptions - the Edicts of Ashoka — inculcated the concept of Dharma into social ethics and morals of the inhabitants of the country. Ashoka wanted his message to reach people of all the countries and to enable them to follow and spread the Dharma concept for the good of the whole world.

To date, more than 150 edicts have survived. The main part of them are various local versions of the fourteen Great Rock Edicts, as well as two Special Rock Edicts, a Small Rock Edict and seven Column Edicts. Such inscriptions can be found today in India and beyond. In India, they were found in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, and in the Siddapur area of Chitradurg, as well as in Koppala and Maski in Raichur in the Karnataka region. Outside India, they were found in the Peshwar area of Pakistan, near Kandahar in Afghanistan, and on the border with Nepal.

"Dharma was multiplied by two means: thanks to the Dharma-based orders, and through persuasion. Of these two, commands and orders give little, while persuasion gives a lot. Based on Dharma, I commanded to protect animals and much more. But it was due to persuasion, that Dharma has grown enough in people's minds so they would not kill the living beings and would not harm them. "

The range of themes touched in the Edicts included the adoption and dissemination of Buddhism, moral and religious laws, obedience to parents, the care of a King about the well-being of his subects, and the protection of animals. The moral rules illuminated in the Edicts were not specific neither to Buddhism, nor to Brahmanism or any other religious school. No religious-philosophical categories of Buddhism are mentioned in the Edicts. These were traditional ethical rules that are well understood by different strata of the population, regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation. The principles of Dharma, which were reflected in the Edicts of Ashoka, were to become common to the population of the whole Empire and, as the result, to rise above the dharmas of varnas, associations and different social groups.

"A proper attitude towards slaves and servants, respect for teachers is a good deed; abstinence (from killing) of living beings is a good deed; offerings to brahmanas and sramanas is a good deed. These and other similar are a ceremony of dharma. A father, a son, a brother, a master, a friend, a neighbor should talk about it: that's what a good deed is, this is how a ceremony should be performed, until the goal is reached."

Most of his Edicts were addressed not to monks, but to laymen. Therefore, the inscriptions do not mention nirvana, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and other specific concepts of Buddhism.

To spread the principles of Dharma, Ashoka has even created something similar to the institution of human rights defenders. For this purpose, he has expanded the composition of the supreme state officials, mahamatras, adding dharma-mahamatras to them. These officials met with people of different religions and lived among them. They helped to overcome fallacies about other religions. It was also the duty of the dharma-mahamatras to watch, if money for religious purposes was appropriately spent. They traveled around the Empire and visited courts, where they reviewed the cases and, if finding errors, changed the punishment. Such officials had never existed in history before. In addition to this, other officials also traveled around the Empire every five years and distributed the Dharma principles among the people.

The spread of Buddhism and the Third Buddhist council

The point of view, that Buddhism under Ashoka's reign was a state religion, is not true. Providing special protection to the Buddhist community, Ashoka did not turn Buddhism into a state religion. The main feature of his religious policy was religious tolerance, and he adhered to this policy during almost the entire period of his reign.

"He who praises his own religion out of excessive devotion and defames others, having a thought that he will glorify his religion in such a manner, only harms his religion. Therefore, it is useful to have discussions. One should listen and respect the doctrines preached by others. Devanampriya Piyadasi commands everyone to get acquainted with the basic doctrines of other religions."

In his Edicts Ashoka advocates the unification of all sects, not through violence, but as the result of evolution of the main principles and their teachings development. Judging by the Edicts, Ashoka gave caves to the cultist of Ajivika, who were, at that time, one of the main rivals of Buddhists and had considerable influence among the people. From the Edicts it is also known that the King sent his representatives to the Jains and to the brahmanas. It was the policy of religious tolerance, with a skilful control of the state over the life of various religious sects, that allowed Ashoka to avoid conflicts with a strong community of brahmanas, Ajivika followers, Jains, and at the same time to strengthen Buddhism greatly. When, in the last years of Ashoka's reign, he stepped back from the policy of religious tolerance and began to pursue an explicitly pro-Buddhism policy, this caused a strong opposition among adherents of other religions and led to severe consequences for the King and his reign.

After seventeen years of Ashoka's reign, Buddhists' relationship with representatives of other religions became more complicated. Difficulties arose among Buddhists themselves: the sources tell about conflicts between followers of different Buddhism schools. There also were many lazy and poor monks who set a bad example. The Buddha's teaching was losing its power. Ashoka felt it and issued a special decree against dissenters: he drove out many lazy monks from monasteries and disfrocked them. He invited worthy and serious monks to Ashokaram monastery near Pataliputra for the Third Buddhist council. Moggaliputra Tishia was the head of the council of monks who came from all over the country. Ashoka sat aside the Great Masters and asked every bhiksha-monk: "What did Buddha teach?" After the council, the Buddha's teaching received a new impetus.

Ashoka was not like other kings who sent their armies to defeat their neighbours. He said, that the victory of Dharma was the highest victory, and sent Buddhist monks to other countries to bear the Light that he had received from the Teaching of Buddha. Preachers of the Teachings went to Syria, Egypt, Macedonia, Burma and Kashmir. He sent his own children Mahendra and Sanghamitra to the island of Ceylon (Srilanka). As the result of such acts, the Teaching of Buddha has spread in all the countries of East Asia.

The last years of Ashoka's reign and the fate of the Empire

Ashoka, who was the embodiment of compassion, kindness and love, suffered a lot in his old age. Since his sons, Mahendra, Kunala and Tivala, were engaged with the dissemination of the Teaching of Buddha, his grandsons Dasharat and Samprati began to fighy for the right to inherit the throne.

As it was told in the late Buddhist scriptures, by the end of his reign, King Ashoka, by giving generous gifts to the Buddhist community, aiming to help spread the Buddha's Teachings, has nearly emptied the state Treasury. During this period, a grandson of Ashoka, Samprati, became a heir to the throne. The royal dignitaries informed him of the excessive gifts given by the Emperor and demanded that they were taken back immediately. By an order of Samprati, Ashoka's orders for awards to the Buddhist community were no longer fulfilled.

Little is known about the last ten years of Ashoka's life and about the circumstances of his death. Some sources say: "The emperor felt disgusted with life, and so he made a pilgrimage as a Buddhist monk with his mentor to calm his mind. Finally, he came to Taxila and stayed there. Ashoka passed away at the age of seventy-two."

The heirs of Ashoka failed to preserve the unity of the Empire. Based on various sources, it can be assumed, that the Empire split into two parts: the Eastern one with the capital in Pataliputra and the Western one with the capital in Taxila. After the death of Ashoka, the Mauryan Empire gradually fell into decay and ceased to exist in 180 BC.

The uniqueness of Ashoka in the history of mankind

For thirty-seven years, Ashoka ruled a huge Empire as a capable Emperor, a skilled legislator, a hero, who knows no defeats, a monk among the kings, a noble preacher of Dharma and a friend of his subjects. In the history of the mankind, he is the only one, who has called himself "Devanampriya" and "Piyadasi" in many of his inscriptions. Devanampriya means «the Beloved of the Gods», and Piyadasi is «the Joy of the Seers». These names corresponded to the character of Ashoka. He became his own Master and wished for only one thing - to be a real disciple of Buddha. He devoted his life to the happiness and well-being of his subjects.

Some historians say, that Ashoka followed the Buddha's Teachings so faithfully, that he even became a monk. Although Ashoka was an Emperor, he often visited monasteries and strictly observed vows, austerities, and commandments. During his stay there, he carefully studied the Teaching of Buddha.

Ashoka left the world two thousand years ago, but his Empire of Justice, Dharma, Non-violence, Compassion, and Kindness to his subjects remains an ideal for the world even today. As an English historian G.D. Wells has once said: "In the history of the mankind there were thousands of kings and emperors, who called themselves "My Majesty", "My Highness", "My August personage" and so on. They did not shine for long and vanished quickly. But Ashoka's name shines even today, and this radiance is like a bright star."