Biography of Ashoka the Great, India's Mauryan Emperor

Ashoka Pillar

G. Nimatallah / De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

Ashoka the Great (c. 304–232 BCE) was the emperor of India's Maurya Dynasty from 268 to 232 BCE and is remembered for his remarkable conversion to nonviolence and his merciful reign. In 265 BCE after witnessing the devastation of his own attack on the Kalinga region, he converted from being a brutal conqueror of a vast empire to a benevolent emperor who successfully ruled according to nonviolent principles. His edicts encouraged the protection of animals, mercy for criminals, and tolerance of other religions.

Fast Facts: Ashoka the Great

  • Known For: Ashoka was the ruler of India's Mauryan Empire; after an epiphany, he became a promoter of Buddhist non-violence.
  • Born: 304 BCE in Pataliputra, Mauryan Empire
  • Parents: Bindusara and Dharma
  • Died: 232 BCE in Pataliputra, Mauryan Empire
  • Spouse(s): Devi, Kaurwaki confirmed; many others alleged
  • Children: Mahinda, Kunala, Tivala, Jalauka
  • Notable Quote: "Dharma is good. And what is Dharma? It is having few faults and many goods deeds, mercy, charity, truthfulness, and purity."

Early Life

In 304 BCE, the second emperor of the Maurya Dynasty, Bindusara, welcomed a son named Ashoka Bindusara Maurya into the world. The boy's mother Dharma was only a commoner. She had several older children—half-brothers of Ashoka—so Ashoka seemed unlikely to ever ascend the throne.

Ashoka grew up to be a bold, troublesome, and cruel young man who was always extremely fond of hunting. According to legend, he killed a lion using only a wooden stick. His older half-brothers feared Ashoka and convinced his father to post him as a general to distant frontiers of the Mauryan Empire. Ashoka proved to be a competent general, putting down a rebellion in the Punjabi city of Taxshila.

Aware that his brothers viewed him as a rival for the throne, Ashoka went into exile for two years in the neighboring country of Kalinga. While he was there, he fell in love with and later married a commoner, a fisher-woman named Kaurwaki.

Introduction to Buddhism

Bindusara recalled his son to Maurya to help quell an uprising in Ujjain, the former capital of the Avanti Kingdom. Ashoka succeeded but was injured in the fighting. Buddhist monks tended to the wounded prince in secret so that his eldest brother, the heir-apparent Susima, would not learn of Ashoka's injuries.

At this time, Ashoka officially converted to Buddhism and began embracing its principles, though they were in direct conflict with his life as a general. He met and fell in love with a woman from Vidisha called Devi who also attended to his injuries during this period. The couple later married.

When Bindusara died in 275 BCE, a two-year war for the throne erupted between Ashoka and his half-brothers. The Vedic sources vary on how many of Ashoka's brothers died—one says that he killed them all while another states that he killed several of them. In either case, Ashoka prevailed and became the third ruler of the Mauryan Empire.

Imperial Rule

For the first eight years of his reign, Ashoka waged near-constant war on surrounding regions. He had inherited a sizable empire, but he expanded it to include most of the Indian subcontinent, as well as the area from the current-day borders of Iran and Afghanistan in the west to Bangladesh and Burma border in the east. Only the southern tip of India and Sri Lanka and the kingdom of Kalinga on the northeast coast of India remained out of his reach.

In 265 BCE, Ashoka attacked Kalinga. Although it was the homeland of his second wife Kaurwaki and the king of Kalinga had sheltered Ashoka before his ascent to the throne, the Mauryan emperor gathered the largest invasion force in Indian history and launched his assault. Kalinga fought back bravely, but in the end it was defeated and all of its cities were sacked.

Ashoka had led the invasion in person, and he went out into the capital city of Kalinga the morning after his victory to survey the damage. The ruined houses and bloodied corpses of nearly 150,000 slain civilians and soldiers sickened the emperor, and he experienced a religious epiphany.

Although he had considered himself more or less a Buddhist prior to that day, the carnage at Kalinga led Ashoka to devote himself completely to Buddhism, and he vowed to practice ahimsa, or nonviolence, from that day forward.

Edicts

Had Ashoka simply vowed to himself that he would live according to Buddhist principles, later ages would likely not remember his name. However, he published his intentions for the whole empire to read. Ashoka wrote out a series of edicts, explaining his policies and aspirations for the empire and urging others to follow his enlightened example.

The Edicts of King Ashoka were carved onto pillars of stone 40 to 50 feet high and set up all around the edges of the Mauryan Empire as well as in the heart of Ashoka's realm. Dozens of these pillars can still be found in India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

In his edicts, Ashoka vowed to care for his people like a father and promised neighboring people that they need not fear him—that he would use only persuasion, not violence, to win people over. Ashoka noted that he had made available shade and fruit trees for the people as well as medical care for all people and animals.

His concern for living things also appeared in a ban on live sacrifices and sport hunting as well as a request for respect for all other creatures, including servants. Ashoka urged his people to follow a vegetarian diet and banned the practice of burning forests or agricultural wastes that might harbor wild animals. A long list of animals appeared on his protected species list, including bulls, wild ducks, squirrels, deer, porcupines, and pigeons.

Ashoka also ruled with incredible accessibility. He noted that "I consider it best to meet with people personally." To that end, he went on frequent tours around his empire. He also advertised that he would stop whatever he was doing if a matter of imperial business needed attention, even if he was having dinner or sleeping.

In addition, Ashoka was very concerned with judicial matters. His attitude toward convicted criminals was quite merciful. He banned punishments such as torture, removing people's eyes, and the death penalty, and he urged pardons for the elderly, those with families to support, and those who were doing charitable work.

Finally, although Ashoka urged his people to practice Buddhist values, he fostered an atmosphere of respect for all religions. Within his empire, people followed not only the relatively new Buddhist faith but also Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Greek polytheism, and many other belief systems. Ashoka served as an example of tolerance for his subjects, and his religious affairs officers encouraged the practice of any religion.

Death

Ashoka the Great ruled as a just and merciful king from his epiphany in 265 until his death at the age of 72 in 232 BCE. His body was given a royal cremation ceremony.

Legacy

We do not know the names of most of Ashoka's wives and children, however, his twin children by his first wife, a boy called Mahindra and a girl named Sanghamitra, were instrumental in converting Sri Lanka to Buddhism.

After Ashoka's death, the Mauryan Empire continued to exist for 50 years before going into a gradual decline. The last Mauryan emperor was Brhadrata, who was assassinated in 185 BCE by one of his generals, Pusyamitra Sunga. Although his family did not rule for long after he was gone, Ashoka's principles and his examples lived on through the Vedas and his edicts, which can still be seen on pillars today.

Sources

  • Lahiri, Nayanjot. "Ashoka in Ancient India." Harvard University Press, 2015.
  • Trainor, Kevin. "Buddhism: the Illustrated Guide." Duncan Baird, 2004.