Ashoka the Great was emperor of the Maurya Dynasty who ruled the Indian subcontinent from 269 BC to 232 BC. His kingdom stretched from Pakistan and Afghanistan in the west to Bangaldesh and Assam in the east, and as far as Kerala and Andhra Pradesh in the East. Ashoka was headquartered in Magadha (Bihar).
Early Life of Asoka the Great
Ashoka in his younger days is said to have had a massive temper and was also very wicked and cruel. He once put his ministers through a loyalty test in which he killed 500 of them. He was also nicknamed Chand Ashoka which means ‘Ashoka the Fierce’ for having built a horrific torture chamber.
On ascending the throne, Ashoka expanded his empire to regions in Iran, Persia and Afghanistan over the next eight years. The battle of Kalinga would be the one that would change his life forever.
Kalinga was a rich and fertile land situated between the Godavari and Mahanadi rivers. This was the only land left to conquer. The people of Kalinga refused to bow down to Ashoka’s rule, however, they were also no match for Ashoka’s army. It is said that in this battle alone more than 100,000 soldiers lost their lives and many civilians who rose up in defence were deported.
After his conquest, Ashoka, while walking through the grounds, was moved by the number of bodies and the wails of the families of the dead. He saw burnt houses and scattered corpses which made him sick and he cried the famous monologue:
What have I done? If this is a victory, what’s a defeat then? Is this a victory or a defeat? Is this justice or injustice? Is it gallantry or a rout? Is it valor to kill innocent children and women? Do I do it to widen the empire and for prosperity or to destroy the other’s kingdom and splendor? One has lost her husband, someone else a father, someone a child, someone an unborn infant…. What’s this debris of corpses? Are these marks of victory or defeat? Are these vultures, crows, eagles the messengers of death or evil?
Why Ashoka the Great Adopted Buddhism?
Ashoka adopted Buddhism soon after and embraced the message of love, peace and kindness that Buddha taught. He made Buddhism his state religion, propagated it and preached it within his kingdom as well as in other parts of the world. He built thousands of stupas and viharas which can still be seen even today.
For the rest of his life, Ashoka pursued a policy of nonviolence (Ahimsa). Unnecessary slaughter of animals was abolished. Hunting was now limited. Ashoka also promoted the concept of vegetarianism.
Ashoka built many universities, water transit and irrigation systems for trade and agriculture. He treated his subjects as equals, regardless of their religion, politics and caste. He is also acclaimed for constructing hospitals for animals and renovating major roads throughout India.
This transformation led to people calling him Dhammashoka, meaning Ashoka, the follower of Dharma (duty or proper behavior). Ashoka defined dharma 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.
The source of our knowledge about Ashoka is the many inscriptions he had carved on pillars and rocks throughout the empire. All his inscriptions show compassionate loving. He addressed all his people as his “children.”
After 40 years of rule, at the age of 72, in 232 BC, Ashoka breathed his last. He left behind a legacy as an able ruler, lawmaker, hero, monk and noble preacher of dharma. Ashoka was the last of the great kings of the Mauryan dynasty, which fell apart fifty years later.