The Mauryan dynasty of India united most of the Indian subcontinent with Chandragupta Maurya. His grandson, Ashoka, inherited an empire which stretched from the Hindu Kush mountains to the modern state of Bangladesh in the east. His father was Emperor Bindusara and one of his lower status wives, Subhadrangi. Subhadrangi was only the daughter of a Brahmin, however, she was extremely beautiful. The other wives in the women’s apartment grew jealous of her and contrived to keep her and the Emperor apart. Finally, the two were united and Ashoka was born in 304 BCE. The name “Ashoka” comes from his mother’s explanation on the birth of her son, “I am now without sorrow”.
Ashoka was not the only child in the royal nursery and had several half-brothers from his father’s other wives. The chronicles suggest that Ashoka was not especially good looking, and that his father looked down on him. However, he made his own place with the rest of the family through his valor, skill and courage. He was given royal military training and according to legend killed a lion with only a wooden rod. He cut is his teeth on military action by putting down the riots in the Avanti province.
After his father death, there was a succession fight between Ashoka and his brothers. According to the Divyavadana, a Buddhist text, Bindusara wanted his son Susima to succeed him. However, Susima was reported to be arrogant and his disrespect had angered all the ministers in the government. They supported Ashoka in a coup d’etat against his half brother. Legends say Ashoka tricked Susima into entering a pit filled with live coals. This seems a little complicated, but stranger things have happened. Other legends tell of Ashoka killing 99 of his half brothers, sparing only one. There is no evidence of Ashoka having that many siblings, and it is thought this may have mythological elements instead of truth. At any rate, Ashoka was crowned in 269 BCE.
The early part of Ashoka’s reign was similar to his grandfather in that he ruled the empire through brutal force. He was efficient yet ruthless. He was especially tough on crime, creating a prison called “Ashoka’s Hell” in the north of the capital. The outside of the prison was beautiful and elaborate to contrast to the sadistic tortures, which took place inside. Ashoka’s personal executioner, Girikaa, took charge of the torture and killing of prisoners and apparently was extremely good at his job. This prison earned the emperor the name Chanda Ashoka, meaning “Ashoka the Fierce” in Sanskrit. A Chinese traveler named Xuanzang visited India 900 after Ashoka’s reign, and the stories were about “Ashoka’s Hell” were still being passed around.
Ashoka also expanded the Empire by conquering new territories. The one that profoundly changed him was the conquest of Kalinga in 261 BCE. Kalinga was a feudal state in the present day territory of Orissa, and is considered one of the most brutal and bloodiest wars in history. The Kalingans were hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, but stubbornly insisted on defending themselves to the last man to keep their honor. Ultimately, they lost the war, their city and many lives. It is estimated that there were around 300,000 casualties and many more men, women and children deported. No one knows exactly what about this experience touched Ashoka so, but it obviously did. A legend states Ashoka walked through the grounds of Kalinga after his conquest expecting to be happy about the victory, but was moved by the human suffering he saw. This remorse was reflected in the Edicts of Ashoka.
The Edicts of Ashoka are a collection of 33 inscriptions on the Pillars of Ashoka as well as boulders and cave walls throughout the Empire. Edict 13 specifically reflect the great remorse Ashoka felt after the conquest of Kalinga. From that moment on, he officially converted to Buddhism and adopted a policy of non-violence. He attempted to rule by Dharma, which was what he termed the energetic practice of the virtues of honesty, truthfulness, compassion, mercifulness, benevolence, nonviolence, and considerate behavior toward all. A tall order, but Ashoka took it seriously. This was not a religious doctrine he was pushing, but one that was independent of his Buddhist beliefs. One of the quotes from the Edicts shows what he desired, “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.”
He went on periodic tours through the countryside preaching dharma to the rural people and aiding them in their lives. He created “dharma ministers” to look to the welfare of the people. This got to be somewhat high handed as these ministers could sometimes turn into thought police, but it was an attempt. Ashoka also founded hospitals for men and animals and supplied medicine for all. He supervised planting of roadside trees, rest houses and watering areas and wells for travelers. There was also a boom in the building of Buddhist monasteries and stupas, buildings used as a place of meditation. He was so committed that he sent his own son and daughter as Buddhist missionaries to Sri Lanka. Most of this sounds great, but it did upset the apple cart in some parts of society. Brahmin priests were prohibited from performing ancient ceremonies with animal sacrifices. The strict rules on the sacredness of life put limitations on hunters and fisherman as well.
After Ashoka’s death in 232 BCE, his empire and his work disintegrated. However, Ashoka influenced emperors from China to Japan. He was to Buddhism what Constantine was to Christianity.
Sources available on request