Emperor Ashoka is considered one of the most influential figures in India's history. He was the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the great Mauryan empire. He is believed to have lived between 304–232 BC. Popularly known as Ashoka The Great, he ruled over most of present-day India during the years 269 - 232 BC. After numerous conquests, including the powerful Kalinga empire, his kingdom stretched from present-day Pakistan & Afghanistan in the west, to the present-day Bangladesh and Assam (Indian state) in the east, and ranged as far south as northern Kerala. His empire was headquartered in Magadha (modern day state of Bihar).
Ashoka, his name meaning "painless, without sorrow" in Sanskrit, was born to King Bindusara and Queen Subhadrangi, the daughter of Champa of Telangana. He had several elder siblings, all of whom were his half-brothers from other wives of Bindusāra. From a very young age, Ashoka received military and warfare training. He was an accomplished hunter, and according to a legend, he killed a lion with just a wooden rod. He was a skilled fighter, whose expertise with the sword was well known. He acquired the reputation of a fierce warrior and a heartless general.
Bindusara's death in 273 BC led to a succession war. Bindusara wanted his son Sushim to succeed him but Ashoka was supported by his father's ministers. According to one legend, Ashoka became the king by getting rid of the legitimate heir to the throne, by tricking him into entering a pit filled with live coals. Another legend states that he killed 99 of his brothers, sparing only one, named Tissa. Ashoka’s coronation took place in 269 BC, four years after his succession to the throne.
In the initial years of his reign, Ashoka is said to have had bad temper and was wicked by nature. Legend goes that he administered a loyalty test to his ministers and killed those that failed. He also kept a harem of hundreds of women and burnt many of them to death when he felt that they insulted him. He built an elaborate and horrific torture chamber which earned him the name of Chand Ashoka, meaning Ashoka the Fierce.
Although the early part of Ashoka's reign was violent and gory, the war with Kalinga became a key turning point in his life. The kingdom of Kalinga was situated on the east coast of India (present-day states of southern Orissa and north coastal Andhra). It prided itself on its sovereignty and monarchial democracy. This was quite an exception in ancient Bharata (India) where the prevalent custom was that of an absolute monarchy. The Kalinga battle was bloody and left more than 100,000 soldiers and many civilians dead or deported. It is said that when Ashoka was walking through the grounds of Kalinga after his conquest, rejoicing his victory, he was moved by the horrific sight of thousands of bodies strewn across the landscape. The piercing wails of the kith and kin of the dead made a lasting impression on his mind. He cried out -
What have I done? 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?
The brutality of the Kalinga conquest led Ashoka to embrace Buddhism, and marked the beginning of a peaceful and glorious chapter of his life. He was so influenced by the teachings of Gautam Buddha that he made Buddhism his state religion around 260 BC, and preached it within his domain and worldwide from about 250 BC. It is said that he propagated it as far as ancient Rome and Egypt. He whole heartedly adopted the principles of Dhamma (righteousness) namely, ahimsa (nonviolence), love, truth, tolerance and vegetarianism. He constructed hospitals for animals, renovated major roads throughout India, attempted to raise the professional ambition of the common man by building universities for study, and water transit and irrigation systems for trade and agriculture. He undertook many philanthropic and developmental activities for his subjects. After this transformation, Ashoka came to be known as Dhammashoka, meaning Ashoka, the follower of Dharma.
Ashoka established many monuments such as stupas, viharas and stambhas venerating Buddhism. The most famous among them are the Sanchi stupa, the Ashoka stambha of Sarnath and the Lion Capital with Ashoka Chakra carved at its center. The Lion capital is a sculpture of four "Indian lions" standing back to back. It was originally placed atop the Ashoka stambha at Sarnath, but is now in the Sarnath Museum in Uttar Pradesh. This Lion Capital has been adopted as the National Emblem of India and the Ashoka Chakra (wheel of Dharma or Sharmachakra) has been placed onto the center of the Flag of India. Ashoka played a critical role in making Buddhism a world religion. As the peace-loving ruler of one of the world's largest, richest and most powerful multi-ethnic states, he is considered an exemplary ruler, who tried to put into practice a secular state ethic of non-violence.
The source of much of our knowledge of Ashoka is the many inscriptions he had carved on pillars and rocks throughout the empire. All his inscriptions have the imperial touch and show compassionate loving. He addressed his people as his "children". These inscriptions promoted Buddhist morality and encouraged nonviolence and adherence to Dharma (duty or proper behavior), and they talk of his fame and conquered lands as well as the neighboring 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. Ashoka's own words as known from his Edicts are: "All men are my children. I am like a father to them. As every father desires the good and the happiness of his children, I wish that all men should be happy always."
Ashoka ruled for an estimated forty years. After his death, the Mauryan dynasty lasted just fifty more years. Ashoka had many wives and children, but many of their names are lost to time. Mahindra and Sanghamitra were twins born by his first wife, Devi, in the city of Ujjain. He had entrusted to them the job of making his state religion, Buddhism, more popular across the known and the unknown world. Mahindra and Sanghamitra went into Sri Lanka and spread Buddhism there.
In his old age, he seems to have come under the spell of his youngest wife Tishyaraksha. It is said that she had got his son Kunala, the regent in Takshashila, blinded by cunning. 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 realized 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. Kunala was succeeded by his son, Samprati, but his rule did not last long after Ashoka's death.
The great monarch Ashoka will always be remembered as a wise, compassionate and philanthropic king. In the history of India he will always be Samraat Chakravartin Ashoka - the Emperor of Emperors Ashoka.