Updated: Jun 7, 2020
Who was Ashoka the Great ?
Ashoka, also known as Ashoka the Great, was an Indian emperor of the Maurya Dynasty, who ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent from c. 268 to 232 BCE. The grandson of the founder of the Maurya Dynasty, Chandragupta Maurya, Ashoka promoted the spread of Buddhism across ancient Asia. Considered by many to be one of India's greatest emperors, Ashoka expanded Chandragupta's empire to reign over a realm stretching 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.
Ashoka waged a destructive war against the state of Kalinga (modern Odisha), which he conquered in about 260 BCE. He converted to Buddhism after witnessing the mass deaths of the Kalinga War, which he had waged out of a desire for conquest and which reportedly directly resulted in more than 100,000 deaths and 150,000 deportations. 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.
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.
His Sanskrit name "Aśoka" means "painless, without sorrow" (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 or Priyadarshi (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.
"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."
Biography in Brief
Ashoka, also spelled Aśoka, (died 238?BCE, India), last major emperor in the Mauryandynasty of India. His vigorous patronage of Buddhism during his reign (c.265–238BCE; also given asc.273–232BCE) furthered the expansion of that religion throughout India. Following his successful but bloody conquest of the Kalinga country on the east coast, Ashoka renounced armed conquest and adopted a policy that he called “conquest by dharma” (i.e., by principles of right life).
In order to gain wide publicity for his teachings and his work, Ashoka made them known by means of oral announcements and by engravings on rocks and pillars at suitable sites. These inscriptions—the rock edicts and pillar edicts (e.g., the lion capital of the pillar found at Sarnath, which has become India’s national emblem), mostly dated in various years of his reign—contain statements regarding his thoughts and actions and provide information on his life and acts. His utterances rang of frankness and sincerity.
According to his own accounts, Ashoka conquered the Kalinga country (modern Orissa state) in the eighth year of his reign. The sufferings that the war inflicted on the defeated people moved him to such remorse that he renounced armed conquests. It was at this time that he came in touch with Buddhism and adopted it. Under its influence and prompted by his own dynamic temperament, he resolved to live according to, and preach, the dharma and to serve his subjects and all humanity.
Ashoka repeatedly declared that he understood dharma to be the energetic practice of the sociomoral virtues of honesty, truthfulness, compassion, mercifulness, benevolence, nonviolence, considerate behaviour toward all, “little sin and many good deeds,” nonextravagance, nonacquisitiveness, and noninjury to animals. He spoke of no particular mode of religious creed or worship, nor of any philosophical doctrines. He spoke of Buddhism only to his coreligionists and not to others.
Toward all religious sects he adopted a policy of respect and guaranteed them full freedom to live according to their own principles, but he also urged them to exert themselves for the “increase of their inner worthiness.” Moreover, he exhorted them to respect the creeds of others, praise the good points of others, and refrain from vehement adverse criticism of the viewpoints of others.
To practice the dharma actively, Ashoka went out on periodic tours preaching the dharma to the rural people and relieving their sufferings. He ordered his high officials to do the same, in addition to attending to their normal duties; he exhorted administrative officers to be constantly aware of the joys and sorrows of the common folk and to be prompt and impartial in dispensing justice.
A special class of high officers, designated “dharma ministers,” was appointed to foster dharma work by the public, relieve sufferings wherever found, and look to the special needs of women, of people inhabiting outlying regions, of neighbouring peoples, and of various religious communities.
It was ordered that matters concerning public welfare were to be reported to him at all times. The only glory he sought, he said, was for having led his people along the path of dharma. No doubts are left in the minds of readers of his inscriptions regarding his earnest zeal for serving his subjects. More success was attained in his work, he said, by reasoning with people than by issuing commands.
Among his works of public utility were the founding of hospitals for men and animals and the supplying of medicines, and the planting of roadside trees and groves, digging of wells, and construction of watering sheds and rest houses. Orders were also issued for curbing public laxities and preventing cruelty to animals. With the death of Ashoka, the Mauryan empire disintegrated and his work was discontinued.
His memory survives for what he attempted to achieve and the high ideals he held before himself.
Most enduring were Ashoka’s services to Buddhism. He built a number of stupas (commemorative burial mounds) and monasteries and erected pillars on which he ordered inscribed his understanding of religious doctrines. He took strong measures to suppress schisms within the sangha (the Buddhist religious community) and prescribed a course of scriptural studies for adherents.
The Sinhalese chronicle Mahavamsa says that when the order decided to send preaching missions abroad, Ashoka helped them enthusiastically and sent his own son and daughter as missionaries to Sri Lanka. It is as a result of Ashoka’s patronage that Buddhism, which until then was a small sect confined to particular localities, spread throughout India and subsequently beyond the frontiers of the country.
A sample quotation that illustrates the spirit that guided Ashoka is:
All men are my children. As for my own children I desire that they may be provided with all the welfare and happiness of this world and of the next, so do I desire for all men as well.
Why Ashoka is Known as Ashoka The Great
1.Ashoka The Great
Ashoka’s name has been etched in the annals of Indian history in golden letters. With its most honourable epithet, Ashoka the great is a well known name even to every child learning Indian History. The distinguishing achievements of Ashoka have made him duly deserve this title and it is highly interesting to know what this amazing emperor has done to glorify the Indian subcontinent.
2. The mesmerizing personality
Bindusara had made one of his sons Sushim the governor of the province of Taxilla. Sushim was arrogant and was ill-mannered and had secured a bad reputation among the officials and subjects alike. His mismanagement was never tolerated and the people rose in rebellion against him in Taxilla. Ashoka intervened in the scene and his mere visit pacified the masses who willingly came forward to listen to him. Ashoka had secured the full support of a large number of officials in the Mauryan court which was even envied by Bindusara.
3. How Ashoka came to power
Bindusara wanted to make Sushim his successor. Fearing that Ashoka might come in the way, Bindusara sent him in exile. However, upon his return, Ashoka secured the cooperation and support of several ministers and seized the throne by slaying all his brothers who proved a hurdle. He made the rest of his brothers viceroys of different provinces in the empire. Owing to his abilities, talent, prowess and popularity, Bindusara could do little to check him.
4. Unifying the subcontinent
Continuing the trend set by Chandragupta Maurya and Bindusara, Ashoka continued the mission of unifying the Indian subcontinent. During his reign, the Mauryan Empire stretched far beyond the present day India in the northeast, north and northwest. In the south, he moved his territories to touch the present day Tamilnadu. Never before or after that India could stretch over a vast space of land.
5. The undisputed ruler
Chandragupta Maurya and Bindusara ruled for 24 years and 25 years respectively, whereas Ashoka ruled the Mauryan Empire for about 40 years. He was a highly powerful monarch with a democratic temperament whom no one dared to challenge during his lifetime. During his reign, there was neither any attack by the external forces nor any internal strife anywhere in the vast empire. We can in fact say that Ashoka was the greatest ruler that India has ever seen.
6. The matchless king