Monday, March 9, 2009

Ashoka the Great

Ashoka the Great
Mauryan Emperor
Modern reconstruction of Ashoka's portrait
Reign 273 BC-232 BC
Full name Asok Bindusara Maurya
Titles Devanampriya Priyadarsi or Piodasses, Dhammarakhit, Dharmaraja, Dhammaraj, Dhammaradnya, Chakravartin, Samrat, Radnyashreshtha, Magadhrajshretha, Magadharajan, Bhupatin, Mauryaraja, Aryashok, Dharmashok, Dhammashok, Asokvadhhan , Ashokavardhan, Prajapita
Born 304 BC
Birthplace Pataliputra (Modern Day, Patna)
Died 232 BC
Place of death Pataliputra
Buried Ashes immersed in Ganges River, possibly at Varanasi
Predecessor Bindusara
Successor Dasaratha Maurya
Consort Maharani Devi
Wives Rani Tishyaraksha
Rani Padmavati
Rani Kaurwaki
Offspring Mahinda, Sanghamitta,Teevala,Kunala
Royal House Mauryan dynasty
Father Bindusara
Mother Rani Dharma or Shubhadrangi
Religious beliefs Buddhism ,Humanism
Ashoka (Devanāgarī: अशोकः, IAST: Aśokaḥ, IPA: [aɕoːkə(hə)], 304 BCE – 232 BCE) was an Indian emperor, of the Maurya Dynasty who ruled from 273 BCE to 232 BCE. Often cited as one of India's as well as world's greatest emperors, Ashoka reigned over most of present-day India after a number of military conquests. His empire stretched from present-day Pakistan, Afghanistan in the west, to the present-day Bangladesh and the Indian state of Assam in the east, and as far south as the brahmagiri in Karnataka. His reign was headquartered in Magadha (present-day Bihar state of India).[1] He embraced Buddhism from the prevalent Vedic tradition after witnessing the mass deaths of the war of Kalinga, which he himself had waged out of a desire for conquest. He was later dedicated in the propagation of Buddhism across Asia and established monuments marking several significant sites in the life of Gautama Buddha. Ashoka in human history is often referred as the emperor of all ages. Ashoka was a devotee of ahimsa (nonviolence), love, truth, tolerance and Vegetarianism .

His name "aśoka" means "without sorrow" in Sanskrit (a= no/without, soka= sorrow or worry). In his edicts, he is referred to as Devānāmpriya (Devanāgarī: देवानांप्रिय)/Devānaṃpiya or "The Beloved Of The Gods", and Priyadarśin (Devanāgarī: प्रियदर्शी)/Piyadassī or "He who regards everyone amiably". Another title of his is Dhamma (prakrit: धम्मः), "Lawful, Religious, Righteous".

Renowned British author and social critic H. G. Wells in his bestselling two-volume work, The Outline of History (1920), wrote of emperor Ashoka:

In the history of the world there have been thousands of kings and emperors who called themselves 'their highnesses,' 'their majesties,' and 'their exalted majesties' and so on. They shone for a brief moment, and as quickly disappeared. But Ashoka shines and shines brightly like a bright star, even unto this day.

Along with the Edicts of Ashoka, his legend is related in the later 2nd century Aśokāvadāna ("Narrative of Asoka") and Divyāvadāna ("Divine narrative"), and in the Sinhalese text Mahavamsa ("Great Chronicle"). Although there are many inscriptions of Ashoka, no coins which can be confidently linked to him have been found. This may be linked to the fact that his contemporary and neighbour Diodotus I has numerous coins but no inscriptions. Moreover, the Kandahar bilingual inscription clearly indicates that Ashoka was the ruler of this area but the coins point to Diodotus-I as the ruler. Ranajit Pal attempts to resolve the problem by suggesting that Ashoka was the same as Diodotus I.[2] He maintains that Patali (28°19'58" La., 57°52'16" Lo.)[3] near Kohnouj and Konarak in the Gulf Area was Patliputra.[4]

After two thousand years , the influence of Ashoka is seen in the south asia especially Indian subcontinent. An emblem which was excavated from his empire is today the national Emblem of India. In the history of Buddhism Ashoka is marked just next to Gautam Buddha.

Early life

Ashoka was the son of the Mauryan emperor Bindusara by a relatively lower ranked Queen known as Dharma (although the daughter of a Brahmin or Shubhadrangi, she was undervalued as she wasn't of royal blood). Ashoka had several elder siblings (all step brothers from other wives of Bindusara) and just one younger sibling, Vitthashoka (a much loved brother from the same mother). Because of his exemplary intellect and warrior skills, he is said to have been the favourite of his grandfather Chandragupta Maurya. As the legend goes, when Chandragupta Maurya left his empire for a Jain living, he threw his sword away. Ashoka found the sword and kept it.

Chandragupta Maurya,who was founder of Maurya dynasty,and grandfather to Ashoka

Ashoka was in his adolescence a rude and naughty boy. He was a fearsome hunter. He was a kshatriya and was given all royal military trainings and other Vedic knowledge as well as the classic Viddyas. According to a legends he was able to kill a lion or tiger with the help of a wood-rod only. He was also able to beat a number of weapon bearing soldiers with empty hands. Ashoka was known for his sword-fighting. According to a myth when he was with his sword no one was able to go in front of him. He was very adventurous and this made him terrible. According to many historians Ashoka was not a delicate prince, he was physically very rude and strong. According to a story he was able to kill even a war elephant with the hilt of a knife. Ashoka was a frightening warrior and a heartless military-general and because of this quality he was sent to destroy the riot of Avanti. Many historians assert that he might have killed his own brothers who came against his way to power...

Rise to Power

Maurya Empire under Ashoka the Great; the empire was from West to Iran to East to Bangladesh/Assam and from Central Asia (Afganistan) to Tamil Nadu/South India.

Developing into an impeccable warrior general and a shrewd statesman, Ashoka went on command several regiments of the Mauryan army. His growing popularity across the empire made his elder brothers wary of his chances of being favoured by Bindusara to become the next emperor. The eldest of them, Prince Susima, the traditional heir to the throne, persuaded Bindusara to send Ashoka to quell an uprising in the city of Taxila in the north-west province of Sindh, of which Prince Susima was the governor. Taxila was a highly volatile place because of the war-like Indo-Greek population and mismanagement by Susima himself. This had led to the formation of different militias causing unrest. Ashoka complied and left for the troubled area. As news of Ashoka's visit with his army trickled in, he was welcomed by the revolting militias and the uprising ended without a fight. (The province revolted once more during the rule of Ashoka, but this time the uprising was crushed with an iron hand.)

Ashoka's success made his step-brothers more wary of his intentions of becoming the emperor, and more incitements from Susima led Bindusara to send Ashoka into exile. He went into Kalinga and stayed incognito there. There he met a fisherwoman named Kaurwaki, with whom he fell in love; recently found inscriptions indicate that she went on to become his second or third queen.

Meanwhile, there was again a violent uprising in Ujjain. Emperor Bindusara summoned Ashoka back after an exile of two years. Ashoka went into Ujjain and in the ensuing battle was injured, but his generals quelled the uprising. Ashoka was treated in hiding so that loyalists of the Susima group could not harm him. He was treated by Buddhist monks and nuns. This is where he first learned the teachings of the Buddha, and it is also where he met Devi, who was his personal nurse and the daughter of a merchant from adjacent Vidisha. After recovering, he married her. It was quite unacceptable to Bindusara that one of his sons should marry a Buddhist, so he did not allow Ashoka to stay in Pataliputra, but instead sent him back to Ujjain and made him the governor of Ujjain.

The following year passed quite peacefully for him and Devi was about to deliver his first child. In the meanwhile, Emperor Bindusara died. As the news of the unborn heir to the throne spread, Prince Susima planned the execution of the unborn child; however, the assassin who came to kill Devi and her child killed his mother instead. As the folklore goes, in a fit of rage, Prince Ashoka attacked Pataliputra (modern day Patna), and beheaded all his brothers, including Susima, and threw their bodies in a well in Pataliputra. At that stage of his life, many called him Chanda Ashoka (Sansrit word chanda means cruel) meaning fierce, rude, passionate and heartless Ashoka . In this phase of life he was known for his unquenched thirst for wars and campaigns launched to conquer the lands of other rulers made him called as Chandashok(the terrible Ashok).

Most of the Indian currencies including coins contain the symbol of Lion capital of Ashoka

Ascending the throne, Ashoka expanded his empire over the next eight years, expanding it from the present-day boundaries of Bangladesh and the state of Assam in India in the east to the territory of present-day Iran / Persia and Afghanistan in the west; from the Pamir Knots in the north to the almost peninsular part of southern India (i.e. Tamilnadu / Kerala).

Conquest of Kalinga

While the early part of Ashoka's reign was apparently quite bloodthirsty, he became a follower of the Buddha's teaching after his conquest of Kalinga (India), on the east coast of India in the present-day state of Orissa. 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, as there existed the concept of Rajdharma, meaning the duty of the rulers, which was intrinsically entwined with the concept of bravery and Kshatriya dharma.

A view of the banks of the River Daya, also the supposed battlefield of Kalinga from atop Dhauli hills (click for larger image)

The pretext for the start of the Kalinga War (265 BC or 263 BC) is uncertain. One of Susima's brothers might have fled to Kalinga and found official refuge there. This enraged Ashoka immensely. He was advised by his ministers to attack Kalinga for this act of treachery. Ashoka then asked Kalinga's royalty to submit before his supremacy. When they defied this diktat, Ashoka sent one of his generals to Kalinga to make them submit.

The general and his forces were, however, completely routed through the skilled tact of Kalinga's commander-in-chief. Ashoka, baffled at this defeat, attacked with the greatest invasion ever recorded in Indian history until then. Kalinga put up a stiff resistance, but they were no match for Ashoka's brutal strength. The whole of Kalinga was plundered and destroyed: Ashoka's later edicts say that about 100,000 people were killed on the Kalinga side and 10,000 from Ashoka's army; thousands of men and women were deported.

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 thought to be missing in the Lion Capital of Ashoka at Sarnath Museum which has been adopted as the National Emblem of India.

As the legend goes, 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. This sight made him sick and he cried the famous monologue, "What have I done?, is this a victory ,what's a defeat then! ..this is a victory or a defeat! this is justice or injustice! it's gallantry or a rout? it a valour to kill innocent children and women ... I do it for enwide the empire or for prosperity .. or to destroy the other's kingdom or splendour ,...someone has lost it's husband,someone father,someone child,someone an inborn infant...what's this debris of the corpses ...are these marks of victory or defeat?.. are these vultures , crows, eagles the messengers of death or evil?... What have I done! What have I done!!" The brutality of the conquest led him to adopt Buddhism and he used his position to propagate the relatively new philosophy to new heights, as far as ancient Rome and Egypt. He made Vibhajyavada Buddhism his state religion around 260 BC. He propagated the Vibhajyavada school of Buddhism and preached it within his domain and worldwide from about 250 BC. Emperor Ashoka undoubtedly has to be credited with the first serious attempt to develop a Buddhist polity.

Ashokan Pillar at Vaishali

Prominent in this cause were his son Venerable Mahinda and daughter Sanghamitta (whose name means "friend of the Sangha"), who established Buddhism in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He built thousands of Stupas and Viharas for Buddhist followers. The Stupas of Sanchi are world famous and the stupa named Sanchi Stupa was built by Emperor Ashoka. During the remaining portion of Ashoka's reign, he pursued an official policy of nonviolence, ahimsa. Even the unnecessary slaughter or mutilation of animals was immediately abolished. Wildlife became protected by the king's law against sport hunting and branding. Limited hunting was permitted for consumption reasons but Ashoka also promoted the concept of vegetarianism. Ashoka also showed mercy to those imprisoned, allowing them leave for the outside a day of the year. He attempted to raise the professional ambition of the common man by building universities for study and water transit and irrigation systems for trade and agriculture. He treated his subjects as equals regardless of their religion, politics and caste. The kingdoms surrounding his, so easily overthrown, were instead made to be well-respected allies.

He is acclaimed for constructing hospitals for animals and renovating major roads throughout India. After this transformation of self, Ashoka came to be known as Dhammashoka (Sanskrit), meaning Ashoka, the follower of Dharma. Ashoka defined the main principles of dharma (dhamma) as nonviolence, tolerance of all sects and opinions, obedience to parents, respect for the Brahmans and other religious teachers and priests, liberality towards friends, humane treatment of servants, and generosity towards all. These principles suggest a general ethic of behaviour to which no religious or social group could object.

Some critics say that Ashoka was afraid of more wars, but among his neighbors, including the Seleucid Empire and the Greco-Bactrian kingdom established by Diodotus I, none could match his strength. He was a contemporary of both Antiochus I Soter and his successor Antiochus II Theos of the Seleucid dynasty as well as Diodotus I and his son Diodotus II of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. If his inscriptions and edicts are well studied, one finds that he was familiar with the Hellenic world but never in awe of it. His edicts, which talk of friendly relations, give the names of both Antiochus of the Seleucid empire and Ptolemy III of Egypt. But the fame of the Mauryan empire was widespread from the time that Ashoka's grandfather Chandragupta Maurya defeated Seleucus Nicator , the founder of the Seleucid Dynasty.

Stupa of Sanchi

The source of much of our knowledge of Ashoka is the many inscriptions he had carved on pillars and rocks throughout the empire. Emperor Ashoka is known as Piyadasi (in Pali) or Priyadarshi (in Sanskrit) meaning "good looking" or "favoured by the gods with good blessing". All his inscriptions have the imperial touch and show compassionate loving; he addressed his people as his "children". These inscriptions promoted Buddhist morality and encouraged nonviolence and adherence to Dharma (duty or proper behavior), 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 admisistration. The Ashoka Pillar at Sarnath is the most popular of the relics left by Ashoka. Made of sandstone, this pillar records the visit of the emperor to Sarnath, in the 3rd century BC. 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 actual events ever happened, but the stone etchings clearly depict how Ashoka wanted to be thought of and remembered.

Ashoka's own words as known from his Edicts are: "All men are my children. I am like a father to them. As every father desires the good and the happiness of his children, I wish that all men should be happy always." Edward D'Cruz interprets the Ashokan dharma as a "religion to be used as a symbol of a new imperial unity and a cementing force to weld the diverse and heterogeneous elements of the empire".

Buddhist proselytism at the time of king Ashoka (260-218 BCE).

At the time of Emperor Ashoka (270-232 BC), according to his Edicts.

Also, in the Edicts of Ashoka, Ashoka mentions the Hellenistic kings of the period as a convert to Buddhist, although no Hellenic historical record of this event remain:

The conquest by Dharma has been won here, on the borders, and even six hundred yojanas (5,400-9,600 km) 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 (Sri Lanka).

Ashoka the Great, Edicts of Ashoka, Rock Edict 13 (S. Dhammika)

Ashoka also claims that he encouraged the development of herbal medicine, for human and nonhuman animals, in their territories:

Everywhere within Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi's [Ashoka's] domain, and among the people beyond the borders, the Cholas, the Pandyas, the Satiyaputras, the Keralaputras, as far as Tamraparni and where the Greek king Antiochos rules, and among the kings who are neighbors of Antiochos, everywhere has Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, made provision for two types of medical treatment: medical treatment for humans and medical treatment for animals. Wherever medical herbs suitable for humans or animals are not available, I have had them imported and grown. Wherever medical roots or fruits are not available I have had them imported and grown. Along roads I have had wells dug and trees planted for the benefit of humans and animals.

Ashoka the Great, Edicts of Ashoka, Rock Edict 2

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[5]).

[edit] Marital alliance

A "marital alliance" had been concluded between Seleucus Nicator and Ashoka's grandfather Chandragupta Maurya in 303 BC:

He (Seleucus) crossed the Indus and waged war with Sandrocottus [Maurya], king of the Indians, who dwelt on the banks of that stream, until they came to an understanding with each other and contracted a marriage relationship.

Appian, History of Rome, The Syrian Wars 55[6]

The term used in ancient sources (Epigamia) could refer either to a dynastic alliance between the Seleucids and the Mauryas, or more generally to a recognition of marriage between Indian and Greeks. Since there are no records of an Indian princess in the abundant Classical literature on the Seleucid, it is generally thought that the alliance went the other way around, and that a Seleucid princess may have been bethrothed to the Mauryan Dynasty. This practice in itself was quite common in the Hellenistic world to formalize alliances. There is thus a possibility that Ashoka was partly of Hellenic descent, either from his grandmother if Chandragupta married the Seleucid princess, or from his mother if Chandragupta's son, Bindusura, was the object of the marriage. This remains a hypothesis as there are no known more detailed descriptions of the exact nature of the marital alliance, although this is quite symptomatic of the generally good relationship between the Hellenistic world and Ashoka.[7]

Historical sources

The distribution of the Edicts of Ashoka

Ashoka the great was almost forgotten by the historians of that age but James Prinsep (an Anglo-Indian scholar and antiquary) decodified the brahmi and kharoshti edicts.Another important historian who contributed in the revealation of historical sources was British archaeologist sir John Hubert Marshall who was director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India ,his main interests were Sanchi and Sarnath besides harappa and mohenjodaro .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 Asoka, 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 (Priyadarsi – meaning 'favored by the Gods') as a title or additional name of Ashoka Mauriya. Architectural remains of his period have been found, Kumhrar, Patna, which include an 80-pillar hypostyle hall.

The use of Buddhist sources in reconstructing the life of Ashoka has had a strong influence on perceptions of Ashoka, and 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.

Later scholars have tended to question this assessment. The only source of information not attributable to Buddhist sources – the Ashokan edicts – make only a few references to Buddhism directly, despite many references to the concept of dhamma (Sanskrit: dharma). Some interpreters have seen this as an indication that Ashoka was attempting to craft an inclusive, poly-religious civil religion for his empire that was centered on the concept of dharma as a positive moral force, but which did not embrace or advocate any particular philosophy attributable to the religious movements of Ashoka's age (such as the Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Ajivikas).

Bilingual inscription (Greek and Aramaic) by king Ashoka, from Kandahar (Shar-i-kuna). Kabul Museum.

Most likely, the complex religious environment of the age would have required careful diplomatic management in order to avoid provoking religious unrest. Modern scholars and adherents of the traditional Buddhist perspective both tend to agree that Ashoka's rule was marked by tolerance towards a number of religious faiths.

Death and legacy

Ashoka ruled for an estimated forty years, and after his death, the Mauryan dynasty lasted just fifty more years. Ashoka had many wives and children, but their names are lost to time. Mahindra and Sanghamitra were twins born by his fourth wife, Devi, in the city of Ujjain. He had entrusted to them the job of making his state religion, Buddhism, more popular across the known and the unknown world. Mahindra and Sanghamitra went into Sri Lanka and converted the King, the Queen and their people to Buddhism. So they were naturally not the ones handling state affairs after him.

In his old age, he seems to have come under the spell of his youngest wife Tishyaraksha. It is said that she had got his son Kunala, the regent in Takshashila, blinded by a wily stratagem. But the official executioners spared Kunala and he became a wandering singer accompanied by his favourite wife Kanchanmala. In Pataliputra, Ashoka hears Kunala's song, and realizes that Kunala's misfortune may have been a punishment for some past sin of the emperor himself and condemns Tishyaraksha to death, restoring Kunala to the court. Kunala was succeeded by his son, Samprati, but his rule did not last long after Ashoka's death.

This is the famous original sandstone sculpted Lion Capital of Ashoka preserved at Sarnath Museum which was originally erected around 250 BCE atop an Ashoka Pillar at Sarnath. The angle from which this picture has been taken, minus the inverted bell-shaped lotus flower, has been adopted as the National Emblem of India showing the Horse on the left and the Bull on the right of the Ashoka Chakra in the circular base on which the four Indian lions are standing back to back. On the far side there is an Elephant and a Lion instead. The wheel "Ashoka Chakra" from its base has been placed onto the center of the National Flag of India.

The reign of Ashoka Maurya could easily have disappeared into history as the ages passed by, and would have, had he not left behind a record of his trials. The testimony of this wise king was discovered in the form of magnificently sculpted pillars and boulders with a variety of actions and teachings he wished to be published etched into the stone. What Ashoka left behind was the first written language in India since the ancient city of Harappa. Rather than Sanskrit, the language used for inscription was the current spoken form called Prakrit.

In the year 185 BC, about fifty years after Ashoka's death, the last Maurya ruler, Brhadrata, was brutally murdered by the commander-in-chief of the Mauryan armed forces, Pusyamitra Sunga, while he was taking the Guard of Honor of his forces. Pusyamitra Sunga founded the Sunga dynasty (185 BC-78 BC) and ruled just a fragmented part of the Mauryan Empire. Much of the northwestern territories of the Mauryan Empire (modern-day Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan) became the Indo-Greek Kingdom.

When India gained independence from the British Empire it adopted Ashoka's emblem for its own, placing the Dharmachakra (The Wheel of Righteous Duty) that crowned his many columns on the flag of the newly independent state.

In 1992, Ashoka was ranked #53 on Michael H. Hart's list of the most influential figures in history. In 2001, a semi-fictionalized portrayal of Ashoka's life was produced as a motion picture under the title Asoka.

Buddhist Kingship

One of the more enduring legacies of Ashoka Maurya was the model that he provided for the relationship between Buddhism and the state. 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 legitimize 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 lead 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 were true to their self and governed the people in a moral manner.

Ashoka's contribution to the global spread of Buddhism

Sanghamitta(Emperor Ashoka's daughter) arriving in Sri Lanka to spread buddhism with the Holy Bodhi Tree

Ashoka, now a Buddhist emperor, believed that Buddhism is beneficial for all human beings as well as animals and plants, so he built 84,000 stupas, Sangharama, viharas, Chaitya, and residences for Buddhist monks all over South Asia and Central Asia. He gave donations to viharas and mathas. He sent his only daughter Sanghamitta and son Mahindra to spread Buddhism in Sri Lanka (ancient name Tamraparni). Ashoka also sent main Buddhist monks (bhikshus) Sthaviras like Madhyamik Sthavira to modern Kashmir and Afganistan; 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, Myanmar (old name Suvarnabhumi for Burma and Thailand), Thailand and Vietnam; Mahadhhamarakhhita stahvira to Maharashtra (old name Maharatthha); Maharakhhit Sthavira and Yavandhammarakhhita Sthavira to South India. Ashoka also invited Buddhists and non-Buddhists for religious conferences. Ashoka also inspired the Buddhist monks to compose the sacred religious texts, he also gave all type of help for that. Ashoka also helped to develope viharas (intellectual hubs) such as Nalanda and Taxila.Ashoka helped to construct Sanchi and Mahabodhi Temple. Ashoka never tried to harm or to destroy non-Buddhist religions, he also gave donations to non-Buddhists. Ashoka helped and respected both Sramans (Buddhists monks) and Brahmins (Vedic monks). Ashoka also helped to organise Third Buddhist council (c. 250 BCE) at Pataliputra (today's Patna); it was held by the monk Moggaliputta-Tissa who was the spiritual teacher of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka.

Ashoka as an ideal administrator

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

Ashoka's military power was so strong that he was able to crush the neighbours like Cholas , Pandya, Keralputra, the post Alexanderine empire, Tamraparni, and Suvarnabhumi but he never harmed them, rather according to his edicts we know that he provided the humanitarian help like doctors , hospitals, inns , wells, medical-herbs and engineers to his neighbouring countries. In his neighbouring countries Ashoka helped humans as well as animals. Ashoka also planted trees in his empire and his neighbouring countries. Ashoka was perhaps the first emperor in human history to ban slavery, animal-hunting ,fishing and deforestation. Ashoka also banned the death sentences and asked the same for the neighbouring countries. [8] Ashoka commanded his people to serve the orders of their elders (parents) and religious monks ( shramana and Brahmin ). Ashoka also recommonded his people to study all religions and respect all religions, according to him to harm anotoher's religion is a harm to someone's owns religion. Ashoka asserted his people to live with Dharmmacharana. Ashoka asked people to live with harmony, peace, love and tolerance. Ashoka called his people as his children, and they could call him when they need him. He also asked people to save money and not to spend for immoral causes. Ashoka also believed in dharmacharana(dhammacharana) and dharmavijaya(dhammavijaya). According to many european and asian historians the age of Ashoka was the age of light and delightment. He was the first emperor in human history who has taught the lesson of unity , peace, equality and love. Ashoka's aim was not to expand the territories but the welfare of all of his subjects (sarvajansukhay). In his vast empire there was no evidence of recognizable mutiny or civil war. Ashoka was the true devotee of nonviolence, peace and love. This made him different from other emperors. Ashoka also helped Buddhism as well as religions like Jainism, Hinduism, Hellenic polytheism and Ajivikas. Ashoka was against any discrimination among humans. He helped students, poors, orphans and the elderly with social, political and economic help. According to Ashoka a haterd gives birth to hatred and a feeling of love gives birth to love and mercy. According to him the happiness of people is the happiness of the ruler. His opinion was that the sword is not as powerfull as love. Ashoka was also Kind to prisoners, and respected animal life and tree life. Ashoka allowed females to be educated. He also permitted females to enter religious institutions. He allowed female Buddhist monastic such as Bhikkhuni. Because of these reasons he is known as the emperor of all ages and thus became a milestone in the History of the world.

Constuctions those are credited to Ashoka the great

Famous Quotations by Ashoka the great

Fragment of the 6th Pillar Edicts of Ashoka (238 BCE), in Brahmi, sandstones. British Museum.
  • All men are my children. What I desire for my own children, and I desire their welfare and happiness both in this world and the next, which I desire for all men. You do not understand to what extent I desire this, and if some of you do understand, you do not understand the full extent of my desire.
  • Here (in my domain) no living beings are to be slaughtered or offered in sacrifice.
  • Respect for mother and father is good, generosity to friends, acquaintances, relatives, Brahmans and ascetics is good, not killing living beings is good, moderation in spending and moderation in saving is good.
Edicts of Ashoka I-XI in Shahbazgarhi, Peshawar.
  • To do good is difficult. One who does good first does something hard to do. I have done many good deeds, and, if my sons, grandsons and their descendants up to the end of the world act in like manner, they too will do much good. But whoever amongst them neglects this, they will do evil. Truly, it is easy to do evil.
  • All religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart.
  • King Piyadasi, does not consider glory and fame to be of great account unless they are achieved through having my subjects respect Dhamma and practice Dhamma, both now and in the future.
  • Whoever praises his own religion, due to excessive devotion, and condemns others with the thought "Let me glorify my own religion," only harms his own religion. Therefore contact (between religions) is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others.
  • There is no gift like the gift of the Dhamma, (no acquaintance like) acquaintance with Dhamma, (no distribution like) distribution of Dhamma, and (no kinship like) kinship through Dhamma. And it consists of this: proper behavior towards servants and employees, respect for mother and father, generosity to friends, companions, relations, Brahmans and ascetics, and not killing living beings.
  • King Piyadasi, honors both ascetics and the householders of all religions, and he honors them with gifts and honors of various kinds.But Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, does not value gifts and honors as much as he values this -- that there should be growth in the essentials of all religions.
  • Along roads I have had banyan trees planted so that they can give shade to animals and men, and I have had mango groves planted. At intervals of eight //krosas//, I have had wells dug, rest-houses built, and in various places, I have had watering-places made for the use of animals and men. But these are but minor achievements. Such things to make the people happy have been done by former kings. I have done these things for this purpose, that the people might practice the Dhamma.
  • It is my desire that there should be uniformity in law and uniformity in sentencing. I even go this far, to grant a three-day stay for those in prison who have been tried and sentenced to death. During this time their relatives can make appeals to have the prisoners' lives spared. If there is none to appeal on their behalf, the prisoners can give gifts in order to make merit for the next world, or observe fasts.[9]

Opinions by great personalities on Ashoka the Great

  • Among the emperor's and historical personalities , Samrath / Emperor Ashoka is the surely only being who had decided not to battle with enemy , when he won the battle._Jawaharlal Nehru in The Discovery of India(page no. 86)
  • There is the only one period in Indian history which is a period of freedom, greatness and glory. That is the period of the Mauryan empire (Ashoka's empire)..._B. R. Ambedkar in Annihilation of Caste (page no. 70-71)
  • Ashoka is perhaps the only emperor who hated wars because of the blood sheds and cruelty. He wanted to win the souls of people with love not the bodies with sword and terror.. _ V. G. Gokhale
  • In some cases Ashoka may be compared with Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan ,Timur ,Peter I of Russia ,Napoleon I .But Ashoka was not extra ambitious like Alexander the Great. Ashoka was an ideal administrator like Julius Caesar, but unlike Caesar, he didn't want to be known as a dictator. Ashoka was a strong general but unlike Napoleon I Ashoka never was unsatisfied.Ashoka wanted to be loved by his subjects. He never terrorized his subjects like Genghis Khan ,Timur and Peter I of Russia.Nobility of soul , purity of mind, honesty of nature , clarity of dignity and love for all let Ashoka to sit with Gautama Buddha and Jesus Christ. _ Madhav Kondvilkar in Devancha Priya Raja Priyadarshi Samrath Ashok (page no. 19)
  • Now a days wars, conflicts and blood sheds have become very familiar ,but about two thousand years ago Ashoka comprehended the evils of war and conflicts.Ashoka turned his all power to establish harmony and peace , in this way he has put a fine example to be followed before all the man-kind.In this way he has shown that in the peace-time man would be a progressed being_Dr. Binda Paranjape in Ashokache Shilalekha (page no.29)
  • A hundred years after my death there will be an emperor named Ashoka in Pataliputra. He will rule one of the four continents and adorn Jambudvipa (old name to India) with my relics, building eighty four thousand stupas for the welfare of people. He will have them honored by gods and men. His fame will be widespread. His meritorious gift was just this: Jaya threw a handful of dust into the Tathaagata's bowl._prediction of Buddha for Ashoka according to the Ashokavadana
  • "He (Ashoka) insisted on the recognition of the sanctity of all human life". _Dr. Munshi
  • Asoka (264 to 227 B.C.), one of the great monarchs of history, whose dominions extended from Afghanistan to Madras... is the only military monarch on record who abandoned warfare after victory. He had invaded Kalinga (255 B.C.), a country along the east coast of Madras, perhaps with some intention of completing the conquest of the tip of the Indian peninsula. The expedition was successful, but he was disgusted by what be saw of the cruelties and horrors of war. He declared, in certain inscriptions that still exist, that he would no longer seek conquest by war, but by religion, and the rest of his life was devoted to the spreading of Buddhism throughout the world.He seems to have ruled his vast empire in peace and with great ability. He was no mere religious fanatic. For eight and twenty years Asoka worked sanely for the real needs of men. 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 Asoka shines, and shines, almost alone, a star. From the Volga to Japan his name is still honoured. China, Tibet, and even India, though it has left his doctrine, preserve the tradition of his greatness. More living men cherish his memory to-day than have ever heard the names of Constantine or Charlemagne._H.G. Wells in The Outline of History (Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind) published in (1920) chapter no. 25.4 (Buddhism and Asoka) page no 365-366
  • Alarge number of international scholars agree that Emperor Aśoka of India in the third century B.C. was one of the greatest conquerors who later achieved the most difficult conquest of all — the conquest of himself — through self-conviction and his perception of human suffering. After embracing the Dhamma of the Buddha as his guide and refuge,he transformed the goal of his regime from military conquest to conquest by Dhamma. By providing royal patronagefor the propagation of Buddhism both within and outside his vast dominion, he helped promote the metamorphosis of Buddhism from one among many sects of Indian ascetic spirituality into a world religion that was eventually to penetrate almost all of southern and eastern Asia._Anuradha Seneviratna in King Asoka and Buddhism Historical & Literary Studies (editors preface ) (page. no. xi)
  • We have no way of knowing how effective Asoka’s reforms were or how long they lasted but we do know that monarchs throughout the ancient Buddhist world were encouraged to look to his style of government as an ideal to be followed. King Asoka has to be credited with first attempt to develop a Buddhist polity. Today, with widespread disillusionment in prevailing ideologies and the search for a political philosophy that goes beyond greed (capitalism) , hatred( communism) and delusion (dictatorships led by infallible leaders), Asoka’s edicts may make a meaningful contribution to development of a more spiritually based political system._Ven.S.Dhammika in The Edicts of Ashoka

Important events in the life of Ashoka the Great

Birth - 304 BCE

Marriage with Maharani devi - 286 BCE

Mahindra's birth - 284 BCE

Sanghamitta's birth - 281 BCE

Reign - 272/273 BCE to his Nirvana / Death (232 BCE)

Rajyabhisheka - 270 BCE

Tending to Buddhism - 266 BCE

Building Chaityas - 266/263 BCE

Mahindra and Sanghamitta Become Buddhist - 264 BCE

Kalinga Vijaya - 262/263 BCE

Converted to buddhism - 263 BCE

Dharmayatra - 263-250 BCE

Third Buddhist council - 250-253 BCE

Mahindra's Srilanka Yatra - 252 BCE

Buddhist Proselytism - 250 to his Death / Nirvana

Edicts - 243/242 BCE

Death / Nirvana of Sanghamitta - 240 BCE

Rani Tishyaraksha becomes Pattarani - 236 BCE

Prince Kunal becomes Upraja - 233 bc

Ashoka's Death / Nirvana - 232 BCE

(Note - There are some historians accoring to whom Ashoka embranced buddhism in 266 BCE but became a true follower of buddhism after Conquest of Kalinga 262 BCE or 263 BCE)

Ashoka Chakra (wheel of Ashoka the Great)

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

The Ashoka Chakra (the wheel of Ashok the Great) is a depiction of the Dharmachakra or Dhammachakka in Pali , the Wheel of Dharma (Sanskrit: Chakra means wheel). The wheel has 24 spokes.

The Ashoka Chakra has been widely inscribed on many relics of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka The Great(Reigned 273-232 BCE), 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. Ashoka Chakra can also been seen on the base of Lion Capital of Ashoka which has been adopted as the National Emblem of India.

Ashoka Chakra on the Indian National Flag.

The Ashoka chakra was built by the Indian emperor Ashoka the Great in 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 how the world changes with time. The horse means accuracy and speed while the bull means hardwork.

A few days before India became independent on August 1947, the specially constituted Constituent Assembly decided that the flag of India must be acceptable to all parties and communities.[10] A flag with three colours, Saffron, White and Green with the Ashoka Chakra was selected. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who later became India's first Vice President, clarified the adopted flag and described its significance as follows:

Bhagwa or the saffron colour denotes renunciation or disinterestedness. Our leaders must be indifferent to material gains and dedicate themselves to their work. The white in the centre is light, the path of truth to guide our conduct. The green shows our relation to (the) soil, our relation to the plant life here, on which all other life depends. The "Ashoka Chakra" in the centre of the white is the wheel of the law of dharma. Truth or satya, dharma or virtue ought to be the controlling principle of those who work under this flag. Again, the wheel denotes motion. There is death in stagnation. There is life in movement. India should no more resist change, it must move and go forward. The wheel represents the dynamism of a peaceful change. It also represents 24 hours in a day.

A widely held unofficial interpretation is that the saffron stands for purity and spirituality, white for peace and truth, green for fertility and prosperity and the wheel for justice/righteousness.

The twenty four spokes in this chakra wheel represent twenty four virtues:

  1. Love
  2. Courage
  3. Patience
  4. Peacefulness
  5. Kindness
  6. Goodness
  7. Faithfulness
  8. Gentleness
  9. Self-control
  10. Selflessness
  11. Self sacrifice
  12. Truthfulness
  13. Righteousness
  14. Justice
  15. Mercy
  16. Graciousness
  17. Humility
  18. Empathy
  19. Sympathy
  20. Supreme knowledge
  21. Supreme wisdom
  22. Supreme moral
  23. Love for all beings
  24. Hope/trust/faith in the goodness of God or nature.

Pillars of Ashoka or Ashokstambha (in Sanskrit)

View of the Ashoka Pillar at Vaishali.
The iron pillar in the near Delhi, India.

The pillars of Ashoka are a series of columns dispersed throughout the northern Indian subcontinent, and erected by the Mauryan king 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 16 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.

Lion Capital of Asoka / in Sanskrit (Ashokmudra)

The base of the Ashoka pillar in Sarnath which was broken during Turk Islamic invasions, it was originally surmounted by the "Lion Capital of Ashoka" which is presently at display at the Sarnath Museum. This particular Lion Capital of Ashoka, originally atop this pillar in Sarnath has been adopted as the "National Emblem of India".

The Lion capital of Ashoka is a sculpture of four "Indian lions" standing back to back. It was originally placed atop the Aśoka pillar at Sarnath, now in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India. The pillar, sometimes called the Aśoka 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.

The capital contains four lions (Indian / Asiatic Lions), standing back to back, mounted on an 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 Ashoka Lion capital or the Sarnath lion capital is also known as the national symbol of India. 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". The Sarnath pillar is a column surmounted by a capital, which consists of a canopy representing an inverted bell-shaped lotus flower, a short cylindrical abacus with four 24-spoked Dharma wheels with four animals (an elephant, a bull, a horse, a lion).

The four animals in the Sarnath capital are believed to symbolize different steps of Lord Buddha's life. 1)The Elephant represents the Buddha's idea in reference to the dream of Queen Maya of a white elephant entering her womb. 2)The Bull represents desire during the life of the Buddha as a prince. 3)The Horse represents Buddha's departure from palatial life. 4)The Lion represents the accomplishment of Buddha hood.

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 symbolize 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.

In art , film and literature


Ashoka has an impact on Indian art and Literature. Asoka is a 2001 epic Bollywood film, a historical drama. It is a largely fictional version of the life of the Indian emperor Ashoka, of the Maurya dynasty, who ruled much of South Asia from 273 BCE to 232 BCE. The film was directed by Santosh Sivan and stars Shahrukh Khan as Ashoka and Kareena Kapoor as Kaurwaki, a princess of Kalinga.The film ends with Asoka renouncing the sword and embracing Buddhism. The final narrative describes how Asoka not only built a large empire, but spread Buddhism and the winds of peace through it.

Ashoka in popular culture

  • One of the most famous figures in modern Hindi literature Jaishankar Prasad composed Ashoka ki chinta ( in English : Worry of Ashoka) , which is a famous Hindi verse, the poem portrays Ashoka’s heart during the war of kalinga.
  • Piers Anthony’s series of space opera novels, the main charecter mentions Asoka as a model for administrators to strive for.

See also


  • Swearer, Donald. Buddhism and Society in Southeast Asia (Chambersburg, Pennsylvania: Anima Books, 1981) ISBN 0-89012-023-4
  • Thapar, Romila. Aśoka and the decline of the Mauryas (Delhi : Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, 1998 printing, c1961) ISBN 0-19-564445-X
  • Nilakanta Sastri, K. A. Age of the Nandas and Mauryas (Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass, [1967] c1952) ISBN 0-89684-167-7
  • Bongard-Levin, G. M. Mauryan India (Stosius Inc/Advent Books Division May 1986) ISBN 0-86590-826-5
  • Chand Chauhan, Gian. Origin and Growth of Feudalism in Early India: From the Mauryas to AD 650 (Munshiram Manoharlal January 2004) ISBN 81-215-1028-7
  • Keay, John. India: A History (Grove Press; 1 Grove Pr edition May 10, 2001) ISBN 0-8021-3797-0
  • Falk, Harry. Asokan Sites and Artefacts - A Source-book with Bibliography (Mainz : Philipp von Zabern, [2006]) ISBN 978-3-8053-3712-0