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Ashoka

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Ashoka (English: /əˈʃoʊkə/; IAST: Aśoka;


died 232 BCE)[5] was an Indian emperor
of the Maurya Dynasty, who ruled almost
all of the Indian subcontinent from c. 268
to 232 BCE.[6] He was the grandson of
the founder of the Maurya Dynasty,
Chandragupta Maurya, who had created
one of the largest empires in ancient
India and then, according to Jain
sources, renounced it all to become a
Jain monk.[7] One of India's greatest
emperors, Ashoka expanded
Chandragupta's empire, and reigned over
a realm that stretched 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.
The empire's capital was Pataliputra (in
Magadha, present-day Patna), with
provincial capitals at Taxila and Ujjain.
Ashoka
Chakravartin[1][2]

A c. 1st century BCE/CE relief from Sanchi,


showing Ashoka on his chariot, visiting the
Nagas at Ramagrama.[3]

3rd Mauryan emperor

Reign c. 268 – c. 232 BCE[4]

Coronation 268 BCE[4]

Predecessor Bindusara

Successor Dasharatha

Born Pataliputra, modern-day Patna


Died 232 BCE
Pataliputra, modern-day Patna

Spouse Asandhimitra
Devi
Karuvaki
Padmavati
Tishyaraksha

Issue Mahendra
Tivala
Kunala
Jalauka
Charumati
Sanghamitra

Dynasty Maurya

Father Bindusara

Mother Subhadrangi (also called


Dharma)
In about 260 BCE, Ashoka waged a
destructive war against the state of
Kalinga (modern Odisha).[8] He
conquered Kalinga, which none of his
ancestors had done.[9] Some scholars
suggest he belonged to the Jain tradition,
but it is generally accepted that he
embraced Buddhism.[10] Legends state
he converted after witnessing the mass
deaths of the Kalinga War, which he
himself had waged out of a desire for
conquest. "Ashoka reflected on the war in
Kalinga, which reportedly had resulted in
more than 100,000 deaths and 150,000
deportations, ending at around 200,000
deaths."[11] Ashoka converted to
Buddhism about 263 BCE.[8] 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.[12]

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. Ashoka's name "Aśoka" means
"painless, without sorrow" in Sanskrit (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
(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. H.G.
Wells wrote of Ashoka in his book The
Outline of History: "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
Ashoka's early life

Ashoka was born to the Mauryan


emperor, Bindusara and Subhadrangī (or
Dharmā).[13] He was the grandson of
Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the
Maurya dynasty. Broadly, Chandragupta
was born in a humble family, abandoned,
raised as a son by another family, then
with the training and counsel of
Chanakya of Arthashastra fame
ultimately built one of the largest
empires in ancient India.[14][15][16]
Ashoka's grandfather Chandragupta
renounced it all, and became a monk in
the Jain tradition.[7] According to Roman
historian Appian, Chandragupta had
made a "marital alliance" with Seleucus;
there is thus a possibility that Ashoka
had a Seleucid Greek grandmother.[17][18]
An Indian Puranic source, the Pratisarga
Parva of the Bhavishya Purana, also
described the marriage of Chandragupta
with a Greek ("Yavana") princess,
daughter of Seleucus.[19]

The ancient Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain


texts provide varying biographical
accounts. The Avadana texts mention
that his mother was queen Subhadrangī.
According to the Ashokavadana, she was
the daughter of a Brahmin from the city
of Champa.[20][21]:205 She gave him the
name Ashoka, meaning "one without
sorrow". The Divyāvadāna tells a similar
story, but gives the name of the queen as
Janapadakalyānī.[22][23] Ashoka had
several elder siblings, all of whom were
his half-brothers from the other wives of
his father Bindusara. Ashoka was given
royal military training.[24]

Rise to power
Ashoka's empire stretched
from Afghanistan to Bengal
to southern India. Several
modern maps depict it as
covering nearly all of the
Indian subcontinent, except
the southern tip. [25]
Hermann Kulke and
Dietmar Rothermund
believe that Ashoka's
empire did not include
large parts of India, which
were controlled by
autonomous tribes [25]

The Buddhist text Divyavadana describes


Ashoka putting down a revolt due to
activities of wicked ministers. This may
have been an incident in Bindusara's
times. Taranatha's account states that
Chanakya, Bindusara's chief advisor,
destroyed the nobles and kings of 16
towns and made himself the master of
all territory between the eastern and the
western seas. Some historians consider
this as an indication of Bindusara's
conquest of the Deccan while others
consider it as suppression of a revolt.
Following this, Ashoka was stationed at
Ujain, the capital of Malwa, as
governor.[20]

Bindusara's death in 272 BCE led to a war


over succession. According to the
Divyavadana, Bindusara wanted his elder
son Susima to succeed him but Ashoka
was supported by his father's ministers,
who found Susima to be arrogant and
disrespectful towards them.[26] A
minister named Radhagupta seems to
have played an important role in
Ashoka's rise to the throne. The
Ashokavadana recounts Radhagupta's
offering of an old royal elephant to
Ashoka for him to ride to the Garden of
the Gold Pavilion where King Bindusara
would determine his successor. Ashoka
later got rid of the legitimate heir to the
throne by tricking him into entering a pit
filled with live coals. Radhagupta,
according to the Ashokavadana, would
later be appointed prime minister by
Ashoka once he had gained the throne.
The Dipavansa and Mahavansa refer to
Ashoka's killing 99 of his brothers,
sparing only one, named Vitashoka or
Tissa,[4] although there is no clear proof
about this incident (many such accounts
are saturated with mythological
elements). The coronation happened in
269 BCE, four years after his succession
to the throne.[27]

Emperor Ashoka and his Queen at the Deer Park.


Sanchi relief.

Buddhist legends state that Ashoka was


bad-tempered and of a wicked nature. He
built Ashoka's Hell, an elaborate torture
chamber described as a "Paradisal Hell"
due to the contrast between its beautiful
exterior and the acts carried out within by
his appointed executioner, Girikaa.[28]
This earned him the name of Chanda
Ashoka (Caṇḍa Aśoka) meaning "Ashoka
the Fierce" in Sanskrit. Professor Charles
Drekmeier cautions that the Buddhist
legends tend to dramatise the change
that Buddhism brought in him, and
therefore, exaggerate Ashoka's past
wickedness and his piousness after the
conversion.[29]

Ascending the throne, Ashoka expanded


his empire over the next eight years, from
the present-day Assam in the East to
Balochistan in the West; from the Pamir
Knot in Afghanistan in the north to the
peninsula of southern India except for
present day Tamil Nadu and Kerala which
were ruled by the three ancient Tamil
kingdoms.[23][30]

Conquest of Kalinga

While the early part of Ashoka's reign


was apparently quite bloodthirsty, he
became a follower of the Buddha's
teachings after his conquest of Kalinga
on the east coast of India in the present-
day states of Odisha and North Coastal
Andhra Pradesh. 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 where there
existed the concept of Rajdharma.
Rajdharma means the duty of the rulers,
which was intrinsically entwined with the
concept of bravery and dharma. The
Kalinga War happened eight years after
his coronation. From his 13th inscription,
we come to know that the battle was a
massive one and caused the deaths of
more than 100,000 soldiers and many
civilians who rose up in defence; over
150,000 were deported.[31] When he was
walking through the grounds of Kalinga
after his conquest, rejoicing in his victory,
he was moved by the number of bodies
strewn there and the wails of the
bereaved.

Marriage

From the various sources that speak of


his life, Ashoka is believed to have had
five wives. They were named Devi (or
Vedisa-Mahadevi-Shakyakumari), the
second queen, Karuvaki, Asandhimitra
(designated agramahisī or "chief queen"),
Padmavati, and Tishyarakshita.[32] He is
similarly believed to have had four sons
and two daughters: a son by Devi named
Mahendra (Pali: Mahinda), Tivara (son of
Karuvaki), Kunala (son of Padmavati, and
Jalauka (mentioned in the Kashmir
Chronicle), a daughter of Devi named
Sanghamitra (Pali: Sanghamitta), and
another daughter named Charumati.[32]

According to one version of the


Mahavamsa, the Buddhist chronicle of Sri
Lanka, Ashoka, when he was heir-
apparent and was journeying as Viceroy
to Ujjain, is said to have halted at Vidisha
(10 kilometers from Sanchi), and there
married the daughter of a local banker.
She was called Devi and later gave
Ashoka two sons, Ujjeniya and
Mahendra, and a daughter Sanghamitta.
After Ashoka's accession, Mahendra
headed a Buddhist mission, sent
probably under the auspices of the
Emperor, to Sri Lanka.[33]

Buddhist conversion

The Diamond throne built by Ashoka at the


Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, at the location
where the Buddha reached enlightenment.

Edict 13 on the Edicts of Ashoka Rock


Inscriptions reflect the great remorse the
king felt after observing the destruction
of Kalinga:
His Majesty felt remorse on account of
the conquest of Kalinga because, during
the subjugation of a previously
unconquered country, slaughter, death,
and taking away captive of the people
necessarily occur, whereas His Majesty
feels profound sorrow and regret.

The edict goes on to address the even


greater degree of sorrow and regret
resulting from Ashoka's understanding
that the friends and families of deceased
would suffer greatly too.[34]

Legend says that 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. The lethal
war with Kalinga transformed the
vengeful Emperor Ashoka to a stable and
peaceful emperor and he became a
patron of Buddhism. According to the
prominent Indologist, A. L. Basham,
Ashoka's personal religion became
Buddhism, if not before, then certainly
after the Kalinga war. However, according
to Basham, the Dharma officially
propagated by Ashoka was not
Buddhism at all.[35] Nevertheless, his
patronage led to the expansion of
Buddhism in the Mauryan empire and
other kingdoms during his rule, and
worldwide from about 250 BCE.[36]
Prominent in this cause were his son
Mahinda (Mahendra) and daughter
Sanghamitra (whose name means "friend
of the Sangha"), who established
Buddhism in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).[37]

Ashokan Pillar at Vaishali

Death and legacy


Ashoka's Major Rock Edict at Junagadh contains
inscriptions by Ashoka (fourteen of the Edicts of
Ashoka), Rudradaman I and Skandagupta.

Ashoka ruled for an estimated 36 years


and died in 232 BCE.[38] Legend states
that during his cremation, his body
burned for seven days and nights.[39]
After his death, the Mauryan dynasty
lasted just fifty more years until his
empire stretched over almost all of the
Indian subcontinent. Ashoka had many
wives and children, but many of their
names are lost to time. His chief consort
(agramahisi) for the majority of his reign
was his wife, Asandhimitra, who
apparently bore him no children.[40]
In his old age, he seems to have come
under the spell of his youngest wife
Tishyaraksha. It is said that she had got
Ashoka's son Kunala, the regent in
Takshashila and the heir presumptive to
the throne, blinded by a wily stratagem.
The official executioners spared Kunala
and he became a wandering singer
accompanied by his favourite wife
Kanchanmala. In Pataliputra, Ashoka
heard Kunala's song, and realised that
Kunala's misfortune may have been a
punishment for some past sin of the
emperor himself. He condemned
Tishyaraksha to death, restoring Kunala
to the court. In the Ashokavadana,
Kunala is portrayed as forgiving
Tishyaraksha, having obtained
enlightenment through Buddhist practice.
While he urges Ashoka to forgive her as
well, Ashoka does not respond with the
same forgiveness.[28] Kunala was
succeeded by his son, Samprati, who
ruled for 50 years until his death.

The reign of Ashoka Maurya might have


disappeared into history as the ages
passed by, had he not left behind records
of his reign. These records are in the
form of sculpted pillars and rocks
inscribed with a variety of actions and
teachings he wished to be published
under his name. The language used for
inscription was in one of the Prakrit
"common" languages etched in a Brahmi
script.[41]

In the year 185 BCE, about fifty years


after Ashoka's death, the last Maurya
ruler, Brihadratha, was assassinated by
the commander-in-chief of the Mauryan
armed forces, Pushyamitra Shunga, while
he was taking the Guard of Honor of his
forces. Pushyamitra Shunga founded the
Shunga dynasty (185-75 BCE) and ruled
just a fragmented part of the Mauryan
Empire. Many of the northwestern
territories of the Mauryan Empire
(modern-day Afghanistan and Northern
Pakistan) became the Indo-Greek
Kingdom.
King Ashoka, the third monarch of the
Indian Mauryan dynasty, is also
considered as one of the most exemplary
rulers who ever lived.[42]

Buddhist kingship

The Khalsi rock edict of Ashoka, which mentions the


Greek kings Antiochus, Ptolemy, Antigonus, Magas
and Alexander by name, as recipients of his
teachings.
One of the more enduring legacies of
Ashoka was the model that he provided
for the relationship between Buddhism
and the state. Emperor Ashoka was seen
as a role model to leaders within the
Buddhist community. He not only
provided guidance and strength, but he
also created personal relationships with
his supporters.[43] 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 legitimise
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
led 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 always governed the people in
a moral manner.

According to the legends mentioned in


the 2nd-century CE text Ashokavadana,
Ashoka was not non-violent after
adopting Buddhism. In one instance, a
non-Buddhist in Pundravardhana drew a
picture showing the Buddha bowing at
the feet of Nirgrantha Jnatiputra
(identified with Mahavira, 24th
Tirthankara of Jainism). On complaint
from a Buddhist devotee, Ashoka issued
an order to arrest him, and subsequently,
another order to kill all the Ajivikas in
Pundravardhana. Around 18,000
followers of the Ajivika sect were
executed as a result of this order.[21][44]
Sometime later, another Nirgrantha
follower in Pataliputra drew a similar
picture. Ashoka burnt him and his entire
family alive in their house.[44] He also
announced an award of one dinara (silver
coin) to anyone who brought him the
head of a Nirgrantha heretic. According
to Ashokavadana, as a result of this order,
his own brother was mistaken for a
heretic and killed by a cowherd.[21]
However, for several reasons, scholars
say, these stories of persecutions of rival
sects by Ashoka appear to be clear
fabrications arising out of sectarian
propaganda.[44][45][46]

Historical sources
Ashoka was almost forgotten by the
historians of the early British India, but
James Prinsep contributed in the
revelation of historical sources. Another
important historian was British
archaeologist John Hubert Marshall, who
was director-General of the
Archaeological Survey of India. His main
interests were Sanchi and Sarnath, in
addition to Harappa and Mohenjodaro.
Sir Alexander Cunningham, a British
archaeologist and army engineer, and
often known as the father of the
Archaeological Survey of India, unveiled
heritage sites like the Bharhut Stupa,
Sarnath, Sanchi, and the Mahabodhi
Temple. Mortimer Wheeler, a British
archaeologist, also exposed Ashokan
historical sources, especially the Taxila.

The Kandahar Edict of Ashoka, a bilingual inscription


(in Greek and Aramaic) by King Ashoka, discovered
at Kandahar (National Museum of Afghanistan).
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 Ashoka, 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 (Priyadarshi—'He who regards
everyone with affection') as a title or
additional name of Ashoka Maurya.
Architectural remains of his period have
been found at Kumhrar, Patna, which
include an 80-pillar hypostyle hall.

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, made by Ashoka during
his reign. These inscriptions are
dispersed throughout modern-day
Pakistan and India, and represent the
first tangible evidence of Buddhism. The
edicts describe in detail the first wide
expansion of Buddhism through the
sponsorship of one of the most powerful
kings of Indian history, offering more
information about Ashoka's proselytism,
moral precepts, religious precepts, and
his notions of social and animal
welfare.[47]

Ashokavadana – The Aśokāvadāna is a


2nd-century CE text related to the legend
of Ashoka. The legend was translated
into Chinese by Fa Hien in 300 CE. It is
essentially a Hinayana text, and its world
is that of Mathura and North-west India.
The emphasis of this little known text is
on exploring the relationship between the
king and the community of monks (the
Sangha) and setting up an ideal of
religious life for the laity (the common
man) by telling appealing stories about
religious exploits. The most startling
feature is that Ashoka’s conversion has
nothing to do with the Kalinga war, which
is not even mentioned, nor is there a
word about his belonging to the Maurya
dynasty. Equally surprising is the record
of his use of state power to spread
Buddhism in an uncompromising
fashion. The legend of Veetashoka
provides insights into Ashoka’s character
that are not available in the widely known
Pali records.[28]

A punch-marked Coin of Ashoka [48]


A silver coin of 1 karshapana of the empire Maurya,
period of Ashoka Maurya towards 272-232 BC,
workshop of Mathura. Obv: Symbols including a sun
and an animal Rev: Symbol Dimensions: 13.92 x
11.75 mm Weight: 3.4 g.

Mahavamsa -The Mahavamsa ("Great


Chronicle") is a historical poem written in
the Pali language of the kings of Sri
Lanka. It covers the period from the
coming of King Vijaya of Kalinga (ancient
Odisha) in 543 BCE to the reign of King
Mahasena (334–361). As it often refers
to the royal dynasties of India, the
Mahavamsa is also valuable for
historians who wish to date and relate
contemporary royal dynasties in the
Indian subcontinent. It is very important
in dating the consecration of Ashoka.

Dwipavamsa -The Dwipavamsa, or


"Dweepavamsa", (i.e., Chronicle of the
Island, in Pali) is the oldest historical
record of Sri Lanka. The chronicle is
believed to be compiled from Atthakatha
and other sources around the 3rd or 4th
century CE. King Dhatusena (4th century)
had ordered that the Dipavamsa be
recited at the Mahinda festival held
annually in Anuradhapura.

Symbolism
Caduceus symbol on a punch-marked coin of the
Maurya Empire in India, in the 3rd-2nd century BCE.

The caduceus appears as a symbol of


the punch-marked coins of the Maurya
Empire in India, in the 3rd-2nd century
BCE. Numismatic research suggests that
this symbol was the symbol of king
Ashoka, his personal "Mudra".[49] This
symbol was not used on the pre-Mauryan
punch-marked coins, but only on coins of
the Maurya period, together with the
three arched-hill symbol, the "peacock on
the hill", the triskelis and the Taxila
mark.[50]

Perceptions and
historiography
The use of Buddhist sources in
reconstructing the life of Ashoka has had
a strong influence on perceptions of
Ashoka, as well as 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. Some scholars have
tended to question this assessment.
Romila Thappar writes about Ashoka
that "We need to see him both as a
statesman in the context of inheriting
and sustaining an empire in a particular
historical period, and as a person with a
strong commitment to changing society
through what might be called the
propagation of social ethics."[51] The only
source of information not attributable to
Buddhist sources are the Ashokan Edicts,
and these do not explicitly state that
Ashoka was a Buddhist. In his edicts,
Ashoka expresses support for all the
major religions of his time: Buddhism,
Brahmanism, Jainism, and Ajivikaism,
and his edicts addressed to the
population at large (there are some
addressed specifically to Buddhists; this
is not the case for the other religions)
generally focus on moral themes
members of all the religions would
accept. For example, Amartya Sen writes,
"The Indian Emperor Ashoka in the third
century BCE presented many political
inscriptions in favor of tolerance and
individual freedom, both as a part of
state policy and in the relation of
different people to each other".[52]

However, the edicts alone strongly


indicate that he was a Buddhist. In one
edict he belittles rituals, and he banned
Vedic animal sacrifices; these strongly
suggest that he at least did not look to
the Vedic tradition for guidance.
Furthermore, many edicts are expressed
to Buddhists alone; in one, Ashoka
declares himself to be an "upasaka", and
in another he demonstrates a close
familiarity with Buddhist texts. He
erected rock pillars at Buddhist holy
sites, but did not do so for the sites of
other religions. He also used the word
"dhamma" to refer to qualities of the
heart that underlie moral action; this was
an exclusively Buddhist use of the word.
However, he used the word more in the
spirit than as a strict code of conduct.
Romila Thappar writes, "His dhamma did
not derive from divine inspiration, even if
its observance promised heaven. It was
more in keeping with the ethic
conditioned by the logic of given
situations. His logic of Dhamma was
intended to influence the conduct of
categories of people, in relation to each
other. Especially where they involved
unequal relationships."[51] Finally, he
promotes ideals that correspond to the
first three steps of the Buddha's
graduated discourse.[53]

Interestingly, the Ashokavadana presents


an alternate view of the familiar Ashoka;
one in which his conversion has nothing
to do with the Kalinga war or about his
descent from the Maurya dynasty.
Instead, Ashoka's reason for adopting
non-violence appears much more
personal. The Ashokavadana shows that
the main source of Ashoka's conversion
and the acts of welfare that followed are
rooted instead in intense personal
anguish at its core, from a wellspring
inside himself rather than spurred by a
specific event. It thereby illuminates
Ashoka as more humanly ambitious and
passionate, with both greatness and
flaws. This Ashoka is very different from
the "shadowy do-gooder" of later Pali
chronicles.[28]

Much of the knowledge about Ashoka


comes from the several inscriptions that
he had carved on pillars and rocks
throughout the empire. All his
inscriptions present him as
compassionate and loving. In the Kalinga
rock edits, he addresses his people as
his "children" and mentions that as a
father he desires their good.[54] These
inscriptions promoted Buddhist morality
and encouraged nonviolence and
adherence to dharma (duty or proper
behaviour), 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 administration.
The Ashoka Pillar at Sarnath is the most
notable of the relics left by Ashoka.
Made of sandstone, this pillar records the
visit of the emperor to Sarnath, in the 3rd
century BCE. 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 events ever actually
happened, but the stone etchings clearly
depict how Ashoka wanted to be thought
of and remembered.

Focus of debate

Front frieze of the Diamond throne, built by Ashoka


at Bodh Gaya.

Recently scholarly analysis determined


that the three major foci of debate
regarding Ashoka involve the nature of
the Maurya empire; the extent and
impact of Ashoka's pacifism; and what is
referred to in the Inscriptions as dhamma
or dharma, which connotes goodness,
virtue, and charity. Some historians have
argued that Ashoka's pacifism
undermined the "military backbone" of
the Maurya empire, while others have
suggested that the extent and impact of
his pacifism have been "grossly
exaggerated". The dhamma of the Edicts
has been understood as concurrently a
Buddhist lay ethic, a set of politico-moral
ideas, a "sort of universal religion", or as
an Ashokan innovation. On the other
hand, it has also been interpreted as an
essentially political ideology that sought
to knit together a vast and diverse
empire. Scholars are still attempting to
analyse both the expressed and implied
political ideas of the Edicts (particularly
in regard to imperial vision), and make
inferences pertaining to how that vision
was grappling with problems and
political realities of a "virtually
subcontinental, and culturally and
economically highly variegated, 3rd
century BCE Indian empire. Nonetheless,
it remains clear that Ashoka's
Inscriptions represent the earliest corpus
of royal inscriptions in the Indian
subcontinent, and therefore prove to be a
very important innovation in royal
practices."[55]

Legends of Ashoka
Ashoka and his two queens, in a relief at Sanchi.

Until the Ashokan inscriptions were


discovered and deciphered, stories about
Ashoka were based on the legendary
accounts of his life and not strictly on
historical facts. These legends were
found in Buddhist textual sources such
as the text of Ashokavadana. The
Ashokavadana is a subset of a larger set
of legends in the Divyavadana, though it
could have existed independently as well.
Following are some of the legends
narrated in the Ashokavadana about
Ashoka:

1) One of the stories talks about an event


that occurred in a past life of Ashoka,
when he was a small child named Jaya.
Once when Jaya was playing on the
roadside, the Buddha came by. The
young child put a handful of earth in the
Buddha’s begging bowl as his gift to the
saint and declared his wish to one day
become a great emperor and follower of
the Buddha. The Buddha is said to have
smiled a smile that “illuminated the
universe with its rays of light”.[20] These
rays of light are then said to have re-
entered the Buddha’s left palm, signifying
that this child Jaya would, in his next life,
become a great emperor. The Buddha is
said to have even turned to his disciple
Ananda and is said to have predicted that
this child would be “a great, righteous
chakravarti king, who would rule his
empire from his capital at Pataliputra”.

2) Another story aims to portray Ashoka


as an evil person in order to convey the
importance of his transformation into a
good person upon adopting
Buddhism.[20] It begins by stating that
due to Ashoka’s physical ugliness he was
disliked by his father Bindusara. Ashoka
wanted to become king and so he got rid
of the heir by tricking him into entering a
pit filled with live coals. He became
famous as “Ashoka the Fierce” because
of his wicked nature and bad temper. He
is said to have subjected his ministers to
a test of loyalty and then have 500 of
them killed for failing it. He is said to
have burnt his entire harem to death
when certain women insulted him. He is
supposed to have derived sadistic
pleasure from watching other people
suffer. And for this he built himself an
elaborate and horrific torture chamber
where he amused himself by torturing
other people. The story then goes on to
narrate how it was only after an
encounter with a pious Buddhist monk
that Ashoka himself transformed into
“Ashoka the pious”. A Chinese traveler
who visited India in the 7th century CE,
XuanZang recorded in his memoirs that
he visited the place where the supposed
torture chamber stood.

3) Another story is about events that


occurred towards the end of Ashoka’s
time on earth. Ashoka is said to have
started gifting away the contents of his
treasury to the Buddhist sangha. His
ministers however were scared that his
eccentricity would be the downfall of the
empire and so denied him access to the
treasury. As a result, Ashoka started
giving away his personal possessions
and was eventually left with nothing and
so died peacefully.[20]

At this point it is important to note that


the Ashokavadana being a Buddhist text
in itself sought to gain new converts for
Buddhism and so used all these legends.
Devotion to the Buddha and loyalty to the
sangha are stressed. Such texts added to
the perception that Ashoka was
essentially the ideal Buddhist monarch
who deserved both admiration and
emulation.[20]

Ashoka and the relics of the Buddha

According to Buddhist legend,


particularly the Mahaparinirvana, the
relics of the Buddha had been shared
among eight countries following his
death.[56] Ashoka endeavoured to take
back the relics and share them among
84.000 stupas. This story is amply
depicted in the reliefs of Sanchi and
Bharhut.[57] According to the legend,
Ashoka obtain the ashes from seven of
countries, but failed to take the ashes
from the Nagas at Ramagrama, who
were able to keep them. This scene is
depicted on the tranversal portion of the
southern gateway at Sanchi.
King Ashoka visits Ramagrama, to take relics of the
Buddha from the Nagas, but in vain. Southern
gateway, Stupa 1, Sanchi.

Contributions
Approach towards religions

According to Indian historian Romila


Thapar, Ashoka emphasized respect for
all religious teachers, and harmonious
relationship between parents and
children, teachers and pupils, and
employers and employees.[58] Ashoka's
religion contained gleanings from all
religions. He emphasized the virtues of
Ahimsa, respect to all religious teachers,
equal respect for and study of each
other's scriptures, and rational faith.

Global spread of Buddhism

Stupa of Sanchi. The central stupa was built during


the Mauryas, and enlarged during the Sungas, but
the decorative gateway is dated to the later dynasty
of the Satavahanas.
As a Buddhist emperor, Ashoka believed
that Buddhism is beneficial for all human
beings as well as animals and plants, so
he built a number of stupas,
Sangharama, viharas, chaitya, and
residences for Buddhist monks all over
South Asia and Central Asia. According
to the Ashokavadana, he ordered the
construction of 84,000 stupas to house
the Buddha's relics.[59] In the
Aryamanjusrimulakalpa, Ashoka takes
offerings to each of these stupas
traveling in a chariot adorned with
precious metals.[60] He gave donations to
viharas and mathas. He sent his only
daughter Sanghamitra and son Mahindra
to spread Buddhism in Sri Lanka (then
known as Tamraparni).

According to the Mahavamsa, in the 17th


year of Ashoka's reign, at the end of the
Third Buddhist Council, Ashoka sent
Buddhist missionaries to nine parts of
the world to propagate Buddhism.[61]

Geographical distribution of known capita ls of the


Pillars of Ashoka. These are all thought to have been
commissioned by Ashoka.
Ashoka also invited Buddhists and non-
Buddhists for religious conferences. He
inspired the Buddhist monks to compose
the sacred religious texts, and also gave
all types of help to that end. Ashoka also
helped to develop viharas (intellectual
hubs) such as Nalanda and Taxila.
Ashoka helped to construct Sanchi and
Mahabodhi Temple. Ashoka also gave
donations to non-Buddhists. As his reign
continued his even-handedness was
replaced with special inclination towards
Buddhism.[62] Ashoka helped and
respected both Shramanas (Buddhists
monks) and Brahmins (Vedic monks).
Ashoka also helped to organise the Third
Buddhist council (c. 250 BCE) at
Pataliputra (today's Patna). It was
conducted by the monk Moggaliputta-
Tissa who was the spiritual teacher of
Ashoka.

Emperor Ashoka's son, Mahinda, also


helped with the spread of Buddhism by
translating the Buddhist Canon into a
language that could be understood by
the people of Sri Lanka.[63]

It is well known that Ashoka sent dütas


or emissaries to convey messages or
letters, written or oral (rather both), to
various people. The VIth Rock Edict
about "oral orders" reveals this. It was
later confirmed that it was not unusual to
add oral messages to written ones, and
the content of Ashoka's messages can
be inferred likewise from the XIIIth Rock
Edict: They were meant to spread his
dhammavijaya, which he considered the
highest victory and which he wished to
propagate everywhere (including far
beyond India). There is obvious and
undeniable trace of cultural contact
through the adoption of the Kharosthi
script, and the idea of installing
inscriptions might have travelled with
this script, as Achaemenid influence is
seen in some of the formulations used by
Ashoka in his inscriptions. This indicates
to us that Ashoka was indeed in contact
with other cultures, and was an active
part in mingling and spreading new
cultural ideas beyond his own immediate
walls.[64]

Hellenistic world

Distribution of the Edicts of Ashoka, and location of


the contemporary Greek city of Ai-Khanoum.[65]

Buddhist proselytism at the time of king Ashoka


(260–218 BCE).
(260–218 BCE).

In his edicts, Ashoka mentions some of


the people living in Hellenic countries as
converts to Buddhism and recipients of
his envoys, although no Hellenic
historical record of this event remains:

Now it is conquest by Dhamma


that Beloved-of-the-Gods
considers to be the best
conquest. And it (conquest b y
Dhamma) has been won here,
on the borders, even six
hundred yojanas 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. Here in the kin g's
domain among the Greeks, the
Kambojas, the Nabhakas, the
Nabhapamktis, the Bhojas, the
Pitinikas, the Andhras and the
Palidas, everywhere people are
following Beloved-of-the-Gods'
instructions in Dhamma. Even
where Beloved-of-the-Gods'
envoys have not been, these
people too, having heard of the
practice of Dhamma and the
ordinances and instructions in
Dhamma given by Beloved-of-
the-Gods, are following it and
will continue to do so.

— Edicts of Ashoka, Rock Edict


(S. Dhammika) [66]

It is not too far-fetched to imagine,


however, that Ashoka received letters
from Greek rulers and was acquainted
with the Hellenistic royal orders in the
same way as he perhaps knew of the
inscriptions of the Achaemenid kings,
given the presence of ambassadors of
Hellenistic kings in India (as well as the
dütas sent by Ashoka himself).[64]
Dionysius is reported to have been such
a Greek ambassador at the court of
Ashoka, sent by Ptolemy II
Philadelphus,[67] who himself is
mentioned in the Edicts of Ashoka as a
recipient of the Buddhist proselytism of
Ashoka. Some Hellenistic philosophers,
such as Hegesias of Cyrene, who
probably lived under the rule of King
Magas, one of the supposed recipients of
Buddhist emissaries from Asoka, are
sometimes thought to have been
influenced by Buddhist teachings.[68]
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[69]).

Some Greeks (Yavana) may have played


an administrative role in the territories
ruled by Ashoka. The Girnar inscription of
Rudradaman records that during the rule
of Ashoka, a Yavana Governor was in
charge in the area of Girnar, Gujarat,
mentioning his role in the construction of
a water reservoir.[70][71]
As administrator

Mauryan ringstone, with standing goddess.


Northwest Pakistan. 3rd century BCE. British
Museum.

Ashoka's military power was strong, but


after his conversion to Buddhism, he
maintained friendly relations with three
major Tamil kingdoms in the South—
namely, Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas—
the post-Alexandrian empire, Tamraparni,
and Suvarnabhumi. His edicts state that
he made provisions for medical
treatment of humans and animals in his
own kingdom as well as in these
neighbouring states. He also had wells
dug and trees planted along the roads for
the benefit of the common people.[54]

Animal welfare

Ashoka's rock edicts declare that injuring


living things is not good, and no animal
should be sacrificed for slaughter.[72]
However, he did not prohibit common
cattle slaughter or beef eating.[73]

He imposed a ban on killing of "all four-


footed creatures that are neither useful
nor edible", and of specific animal
species including several birds, certain
types of fish and bulls among others. He
also banned killing of female goats,
sheep and pigs that were nursing their
young; as well as their young up to the
age of six months. He also banned killing
of all fish and castration of animals
during certain periods such as
Chaturmasa and Uposatha.[74][75]

Ashoka also abolished the royal hunting


of animals and restricted the slaying of
animals for food in the royal
residence.[76] Because he banned
hunting, created many veterinary clinics
and eliminated meat eating on many
holidays, the Mauryan Empire under
Ashoka has been described as "one of
the very few instances in world history of
a government treating its animals as
citizens who are as deserving of its
protection as the human residents".[77]

Ashoka Chakra

The Ashoka Chakra, "the wheel of Righteousness"


(Dharma in Sanskrit or Dhamma in Pali)"

The Ashoka Chakra (the wheel of


Ashoka) is a depiction of the
Dharmachakra (the Wheel of Dharma).
The wheel has 24 spokes which
represent the 12 Laws of Dependent
Origination and the 12 Laws of
Dependent Termination. The Ashoka
Chakra has been widely inscribed on
many relics of the Mauryan Emperor,
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. The
Ashoka Chakra can also been seen on
the base of the Lion Capital of Ashoka
which has been adopted as the National
Emblem of India.

The Ashoka Chakra was created by


Ashoka during 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 in how
the world changes with time.

A few days before India became


independent in August 1947, the
specially-formed Constituent Assembly
decided that the flag of India must be
acceptable to all parties and
communities.[78] A flag with three
colours, Saffron, White and Green with
the Ashoka Chakra was selected.

Stone architecture

The Pataliputra capital, a 3rd-century BCE capital


from the Mauryan palace in Pataliputra, displaying
Hellenistic designs.

Rampurva bull capital, detail of the abacus, with two


"flame palmettes" framing a lotus surrounded by
small rosette flowers.
Ashoka is often credited with the
beginning of stone architecture in India,
possibly following the introduction of
stone-building techniques by the Greeks
after Alexander the Great.[79] Before
Ashoka's time, buildings were probably
built in non-permanent material, such as
wood, bamboo or thatch.[79][80] Ashoka
may have rebuilt his palace in Pataliputra
by replacing wooden material by
stone,[81] and may also have used the
help of foreign craftmen.[82] Ashoka also
innovated by using the permament
qualities of stone for his written edicts,
as well as his pillars with Buddhist
symbolism.
Pillars of Ashoka (Ashokstambha)

The Ashokan pillar at Lumbini, Nepal, Buddha's


birthplace

The pillars of Ashoka are a series of


columns dispersed throughout the
northern Indian subcontinent, and
erected by 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 16th
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 Ashoka (Ashokmudra)


Ashoka's pillar capital of Sarnath. Ashokan capitals
were highly realistic and used a characteristic
polished finish, giving a shiny appearance to the
stone surface. This sculpture has been adopted as
the National Emblem of India. 3rd century BCE.

The Lion capital of Ashoka is a sculpture


of four lions standing back to back. It
was originally placed atop the Ashoka
pillar at Sarnath, now in the state of Uttar
Pradesh, India. The pillar, sometimes
called the Ashoka 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 a short cylindrical 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
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 four animals in the Sarnath capital


are believed to symbolise different steps
of Lord Buddha's life.

The Elephant represents the Buddha's


idea in reference to the dream of
Queen Maya of a white elephant
entering her womb.
The Bull represents desire during the
life of the Buddha as a prince.
The Horse represents Buddha's
departure from palatial life.
The Lion represents the
accomplishment of Buddha.

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
symbolise 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.
Constructions credited to Ashoka

Illustration of the original temple built by Asoka at


Bodh-Gaya on the location of the Mahabodhi
Temple, sculpture of the Satavahana period at
Sanchi, 1st century CE.

The British restoration was done under


guidance from Weligama Sri
Sumangala.[83]

Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh, India


Dhamek Stupa, Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh,
India
Mahabodhi Temple, Bihar, India
Barabar Caves, Bihar, India
Nalanda Mahavihara (some portions
like Sariputta Stupa), Bihar, India
Taxila University (some portions like
Dharmarajika Stupa and Kunala Stupa),
Taxila, Pakistan
Bhir Mound (reconstructed), Taxila,
Pakistan
Bharhut stupa, Madhya Pradesh, India
Deorkothar Stupa, Madhya Pradesh,
India
Butkara Stupa, Swat, Pakistan
Sannati Stupa, Karnataka, India: the
only known sculptural depiction of
Ashoka
Mir Rukun Stupa, Nawabshah, Pakistan

In art, film and literature

A c. 1910 painting by Abanindranath Tagore (1871–


1951) depicting Ashoka's queen standing in front of
the railings of the Buddhist monument at Sanchi
(Raisen district, Madhya Pradesh).
Jaishankar Prasad composed Ashoka
ki Chinta (Ashoka's Anxiety), a poem
that portrays Ashoka’s feelings during
the war on Kalinga.
Ashok Kumar is a 1941 Tamil film
directed by Raja Chandrasekhar. The
film stars Chittor V. Nagaiah as
Ashoka.
Uttar-Priyadarshi (The Final Beatitude),
a verse-play written by poet Agyeya
depicting his redemption, was adapted
to stage in 1996 by theatre director,
Ratan Thiyam and has since been
performed in many parts of the
world.[84][85]
In 1973, Amar Chitra Katha released a
graphic novel based on the life of
Ashoka.
In Piers Anthony’s series of space
opera novels, the main character
mentions Ashoka as a model for
administrators to strive for.
Aśoka is a 2001 epic Indian historical
drama film directed and co-written by
Santosh Sivan. The film stars Shah
Rukh Khan as Ashoka.
In 2002, Mason Jennings released the
song "Emperor Ashoka" on his Living in
the Moment EP. It is based on the life
of Ashoka.
In 2013, Christopher C. Doyle released
his debut novel, The Mahabharata
Secret, in which he wrote about Ashoka
hiding a dangerous secret for the well-
being of India.
2014's The Emperor's Riddles, a fiction
mystery thriller novel by Satyarth
Nayak, traces the evolution of Ashoka
and his esoteric legend of the Nine
Unknown Men.
In 2015, Chakravartin Ashoka Samrat, a
television serial by Ashok Banker,
based on the life of Ashoka, began
airing on Colors TV.
The Legend of Kunal is an upcoming
film based on the life of Kunal, the son
of Ashoka. The movie will be directed
by Chandraprakash Dwivedi. The role
of Ashoka is to be played by Amitabh
Bachchan, and the role of Kunal is
played by Arjun Rampal.[86]
Bharatvarsh (TV Series) is an Indian
television historical documentary
series, hosted by actor-director
Anupam Kher on Hindi news channel
ABP News.[87] The series stars Aham
Sharma as Ashoka.

See also
Arthashastra
Ashoka's policy of Dhamma

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External links
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Ashoka

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Encyclopædia Britannica article Asoka.

Ashoka at DMOZ
BBC Radio 4: Sunil Khilnani,
Incarnations: Ashoka.
BBC Radio 4: Melvyn Bragg with
Richard Gombrich et al., In Our Time,
Ashoka the Great .
Hultzsch, E. (1925). Inscriptions of
Asoka: New Edition . Oxford:
Government of India.

Ashoka
Mauryan dynasty
 Died: 232 BCE

Mauryan
Preceded by Succeeded by
Emperor
Bindusara Dasharatha
272–232 BCE

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