Ashoka the Great

India's Mauryan Emperor

Ashoka's Pillar in Bihar, India. G. Nimatallah / De Agostini Picture Library

Ashoka — the Emporer of India's Maurya Dynasty from 268 to 232 B.C. — is remembered as one of early history's most brutally violent rulers of the region, though also later turned to a life of Buddhist nonviolence after witnessing the devastation of his attack against the Kalinga region. 

The story of this conversion and many others about a great emperor called Ashoka appear in ancient Sanskrit literature, including the "Ashokavadana," "Divyavandana," and "Mahvamsa." For many years, westerners considered them to be mere legend. They did not connect the ruler Ashoka, grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, to the stone pillars inscribed with edicts that are sprinkled all around the edges of India.

In 1915, however, archaeologists found a pillar inscription that identified the author of those edicts, the well-known Mauryan emperor Piyadasi or Priyadarsi — meaning "Beloved of the Gods" — by his given name: Ashoka. The virtuous emperor from the ancient texts and the law-giver who ordered the installation of pillars inscribed with merciful laws all over the subcontinent were the same man.

Ashoka's Early Life

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

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 a competent general, likely much to his brothers' dismay, 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, and while there, he fell in love with and later married a commoner, a fisher-woman named Kaurwaki.

An 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 this came in direct conflict with his life as a war general. Still, 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 B.C. a two-year-long war for the succession 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.

"Chandashok:" Ashoka the Terrible

For the first eight years of his reign, Ashoka waged near-constant war. 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 the Burmese 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.

That is until 265 when 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 sacked.

Ashoka had led the invasion in person, and he went out into the capital city of the Kalingas 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 underwent a religious epiphany.

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

The Edicts of King Ashoka

Had Ashoka simply vowed to himself that he would live according to Buddhist principles, later ages would not remember his name. However, he published his intentions across his empire. 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 dot the landscapes of 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 will 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 the 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, the putting out of 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.

Ashoka's Legacy

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 B.C. We no longer know the names of most of his 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, but it went into a gradual decline. The last Mauryan emperor was Brhadrata, who was assassinated in 185 B.C. 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, his edicts, still located on pillars around the region. What's more, Ashoka is now known the world over as one of the best rulers ever to have reigned in India — talk about your major epiphany!