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King Ashoka the Great

Updated on August 14, 2014


Ashoka is the greatest king of the Mauryan Empire. He succeeded his father Bindusara, whose reign is important for continued links with Greek princes. During the reign of his father, Ashoka commanded several regiments of the Mauryan army. He successfully suppressed a rebellion at Taxshila. Later he suppressed another rebellion at Ujjain. According to the traditions Ashoka was so cruel in his early life that he killed his 99 brothers to get the throne.

Ashoka the Great
Ashoka the Great

Ashokan Edicts

We can reconstruct the history of Ashoka on the basis of his inscriptions. He is the first Indian king to speak directly to the people through his inscriptions. They were engraved on rocks, on polished stone pillars mounted by capitals and in the caves. They are found not only in the Indian subcontinent but also in Kandhar in Afghanistan. These inscriptions are in the form of 44 royal orders, and each royal order has several copies. The inscriptions were composed in Prakrit language, and written in the Brahmi script throughout the greater part of the empire. But in the north-western part they appear in Kharosthi script, and in Kandhar in Afghanistan they were written even in Aramaic, in Greek script and Greek language. These inscriptions were generally placed on ancient highways. They throw light on the career of Ashoka, his external and domestic policies, and the extent of his empire.

Impact of the Kalinga War

The ideology of Buddhism guided Ashoka's state policy at home and abroad. After his accession to the throne Ashoka fought only one major war called the Kalinga war. According to him 100,000 people were killed in this war, and 150,000 were taken prisoners. The war brought to the brahmana priests and the Buddhist monks great suffering, which caused Ashoka much grief and remorse. So he abandoned the policy of physical occupation in favour of a policy of cultural conquest. In other words, bherighosha was replaced by dhammaghosha.

Ashoka now made an ideological appeal towards the tribal peoples and the frontier kingdoms. The subjects of the independent states in Kalinga were asked to obey the king as their father and to repose confidence in him. The officials appointed by Asoka were instructed to propagate this idea among all sections of ha jubjects. The tribal peoples were similarly asked to follow the principles of dhamma. Ashoka no longer treated foreign dominions legitimate areas for military conquest. He tried to conquer them ideologically. He took step for the welfare of men and animals in foreign lands, which was a new thing considering the condition of those days. He sent ambassadors of peace to the Greek kingdoms in Western Asia and Greece. All this can be said on the basis of Ashoka's inscriptions. If we rely on the Buddhist tradition it would appear that he sent missionaries for the propagation of Buddhism to Sri Lanka and Central Asia. As an enlightened ruler Ashoka tried to enlarge his area of political influence through propaganda.

It would be wrong to think that the Kalinga war made Ashoka an extreme pacifist. He did not pursue the policy of peace for the sake of peace under all conditions. On the other hand, he adopted a practical policy of consolidating his empire. He retained Kalinga after its conquest and incorporated it into his empire. There is also nothing to show that he disbanded the huge army maintained from the time of Chandragupta Maurya. Although he repeatedly asked the tribal people to follow the policy of dharma, he threatened them if they violated the established rules of social order and righteousness (dharma). Within the empire he appointed a class of officers known as the rajukas, who were vested with the authority of not only rewarding people but also punishing them, wherever necessary. The policy of Ashoka to consolidate the empire through dharma bore fruit. The Kandhar inscription speaks of the success of his policy with the hunters and fishermen, who gave up killing animals and possibly took to a settled agricultural life.

Ashoka Pillar at Sarnath
Ashoka Pillar at Sarnath

Internal Policy and Buddhism

Ashoka, was converted to Buddhism as a result of the Kalinga war. According to tradition he became a monk, made huge gifts to the . Buddhists and undertook pilgrimages to the Buddhist shrines. The fact of his visiting the Buddhist shrines is also suggested by the dharma yatras mentioned in his inscriptions.

According to tradition the Buddhist council was held under the chairmanship of Ashoka's brother, and missionaries were sent not only to south India but also to Sri Lanka, Burma and other countries to convert the people there. Brahmi inscriptions of the second and first centuries B.C. have been found in Sri Lanka.

Ashoka set a very high ideal for himself, and this was the ideal of paternal kingship. He repeatedly asked his officials to tell the subjects that the king looked upon them as his children. As agents of the king, the officials were also asked to take care of the people. Ashoka appointed dharmamahamairas for propagating dharma among various social groups including women. He also appointed rajukas for the administration of justice in his empire.

When king Devanampriya Priyadarsin had been anointed twenty years, he came himself and worshipped (this spot), because the Buddha Sakyamuni was born here. (He) both caused to be made a stone bearing wall and caused a stone pillar to be set up
When king Devanampriya Priyadarsin had been anointed twenty years, he came himself and worshipped (this spot), because the Buddha Sakyamuni was born here. (He) both caused to be made a stone bearing wall and caused a stone pillar to be set up

He disapproved of rituals, especially those observed by women. He forbade killing of certain birds and animals, and completely prohibited the slaughter of animals in the capital. He interdicted gay social functions in which people indulged in revelries. But Ashoka's dharma was not a narrow dharma. It cannot be regarded as a sectarian faith. Its broad objective was to preserve the social order. It ordained that people should obey their parents, pay respect to the brahmanas and Buddhist monks, and show mercy to slaves and servants. These instructions can be found in both the Buddhist and brahmanical faiths.

Ashoka taught people to live and let live. He emphasized compassion towards animals and proper behaviour towards relatives. His teachings were meant to strengthen the institution of family and the existing social classes. He held that if the people behaved well they ' would attain heaven. He never said that they would attain nirvana, which was the goal of Buddhist teachings. Ashoka's teachings were thus intended to maintain the existing social order on the basis of tolerance. He" does not seem to have preached any sectarian faith.


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      swagatika pati 4 years ago

      Where Piyadassi written for chronological years there is no reference of Asoka. So all the Edict writer are Asoka how can one assume?

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      Priyanka Bhatt 4 years ago

      thanks,it was quite informative &interesting but Ashoka's edicts are not mentioned.

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      kiran pollard 5 years ago

      its nice

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      rinky 5 years ago

      it nwas very useful to me

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      Sojourner McConnell 6 years ago from Winchester Kentucky

      I loved this hub. It was informative and interesting. Thank you for sharing this ruler with us.

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      Yashwant Sinha 6 years ago

      i like ashoka

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      Navmeet 6 years ago

      The piller at Sarnath that you show in the picture, is not the one at Sarnath. The Sarnath piller has 4 lions back to back.

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      chithra 6 years ago

      i was having program in my school related to smt. ashoka .... igot the first position in it.

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      History of India 7 years ago

      thanx for the information...