Emperor Ashoka the Great
I am thrilled to have been given this opportunity to write about Emperor Ashoka the Great. During his early reign, he was a fierce ruler and yet he was able to change his way in later life and became a compassionate ruler. This is inspiring in itself because change can be a difficult thing to do, especially when you are habituated to do and think in a certain way. For this reason, I admire his resolve and courage to stop the cycle of war and violence.
Although India is no longer a Buddhist country, the results of Emperor Ashoka’s considerable effort and dedication in spreading the Dharma to neighboring countries can still be felt. I hope you will find this article exciting and informative on the life, works and accomplishments of this great ruler. Enjoy and be inspired by Emperor Ashoka!
ASHOKA THE GREAT
Emperor Ashoka, also known as ‘Ashoka the Great’, was the third ruler of the Mauryan Empire, and many consider him to be one of the greatest rulers in Indian history. H.G. Wells, a 20th century English writer, called him the ‘Greatest of Kings.’
During Emperor Ashoka’s reign, India had a relatively well-managed government system. The reign of Emperor Ashoka is considered to be one of the most glorious periods in Indian history. During the first part of his reign, he worked systematically to consolidate and expand his empire. He ruled over the entire Indian subcontinent, except for the southernmost parts (i.e., Tamil Nadu and Kerala). During the later part of his reign, he is largely credited and admired for spreading the message of Buddhism and peace in many parts of the world. Although Buddhism faded in India after his death, it continued to flourish and spread in other parts of the world, primarily in East and Southeast Asia.
Emperor Ashoka remained ambitious and fearsome until the annexation of Kalinga, a feudal republic located on the coast of the present day Indian state of Odisha and northern parts of Andhra Pradesh. The war to occupy Kalinga was considered the bloodiest and most lethal that Emperor Ashoka had ever waged. The massive loss of lives and damage left him shattered and regretful, which ultimately caused him to transform from a fierce and vengeful ruler to a peaceful and benevolent emperor. He is said to have constructed approximately 84,000 stupas and pillars across his empire during his lifetime. The most significant of these are the Ashoka Pillars that contain the image of the Lion Capital of Ashoka, which is now regarded as India’s national emblem, and the Ashoka Chakras, inscribed on many of his stone inscriptions.
ASHOKA’S FAMILY AND CHILDHOOD
Our knowledge about the history of his reign is based on inscriptions engraved on rocks and pillars, many of which still can be seen today. However, these inscriptions do not provide much information about his early life. For this we have to depend solely on Buddhist texts like the Divyavadana and Ceylonese chronicles like Avadana, Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa to obtain the information regarding his early life.
Ashoka (304 – 232 BCE) was born in the town of Pataliputra and was given the name Devanampriya Priyadarshi Samrat Ashoka. He was born to the second emperor of the Mauryan Dynasty, Emperor Bindusara and his relatively lower ranking wife, Shubhadrangi also known as Maharani Dharma, as stated in the Avadana text. By the virtue of his parenting, he was the grandson of the Founder of the Mauryan Dynasty, Chandragupta Maurya. According to the Ashokavadana, an Indian text in Sanskrit that describes the birth and reign of the Emperor Ashoka, Shubhadrangi was the daughter of a Brahmin from the city of Champa. The legend says that through palace intrigue she was initially kept away from Emperor Bindusara. However, she eventually gained access to him and was able to bear him a son. It is from her exclamation “I am now without sorrow” that Ashoka got his name which means “painless, without sorrow” in the ancient Sanskrit language.
Ashoka’s father, Emperor Bindusara (b. 320 – 273 BCE), was the son of Emperor Chandragupta Maurya and one of his wives, Durdhara. She died giving birth to Bindusara. When she was pregnant, she ate with her husband, the emperor. Durdhara was not informed that the food eaten by Emperor Chandragupta always had a controlled amount of poison to build up his immunity towards being poisoned. The poison was added to the food by his Chief Minister, Chanakya, as a precautionary measure to protect Emperor Chandragupta because he had many enemies, and many attempts were made to poison him. Therefore, when Durdhara ate the same food as the emperor, she did not have the immune system to neutralise the poison and her body reacted negatively. Before she took her last breath, Chanakya who had mastered Ayurveda knowledge and skills, removed Bindusara from his mother’s womb by performing a cesarean section. Durdhara died after giving birth to Bindusara.
Emperor Chandragupta Maurya left his son, Bindusara, a large and extensive empire. Bindusara was enthroned in 298 BCE. Chanakya was the most famous minister under Chandragupta’s rule, and he continued to be one of the principal ministers during Emperor Bindusara’s reign. Chanakya further extended the Mauryan Empire during the reign of Emperor Bindusara Maurya. The Empire is said to have extended from the east to the west and can be explained by the fact that it stretched from the eastern sea in Bengal to the western sea in Saurashtra.
Like his father, Emperor Bindusara Maurya also maintained good diplomatic relations with the Greek rulers and his step grandfather Selecus Nicator, a former general of Alexander the Great. He also shared cordial relations with his step uncle, the Syrian King, and the Egyptian rulers. Scholars from Egypt and Syria lived in his palace as ambassadors. Emperor Bindusara was passionate about culture and philosophy. He is believed to have been tolerant of all religious sects and saints of various religions visited his court. Ashoka might have learnt from the very men who graced his father’s court.
Ashoka had several elder siblings, all of whom were his half-brothers from the other wives of Emperor Bindusara, who had 16 wives and approximately 101 sons. The name of his eldest son is said to have been Susima and the name of the youngest son was Tishya.
Having been born into a royal family, Emperor Ashoka received extensive royal military training, and he was believed to be the most intelligent among the many sons of his father. He was intellectual, energetic, fearless, strong, fought well and possessed great military skills. He also excelled in hunting, which was evident from his ability to kill a lion with only a wooden rod. It was because of these attributes that Ashoka is said to have been the favorite of his grandfather, Emperor Chandragupta. According to legend, Ashoka recovered Chandragupta’s sword after he cast it away prior to embarking on the life of a Jain ascetic.
ASHOKA’S LIFE BEFORE ENTHRONEMENT
Ashoka grew to become an extraordinary warrior and a shrewd statesman. He commanded several regiments of the Mauryan army. His growing popularity across the Mauryan Empire made his elder brothers feel insecure about their chances of becoming the next king. In a feeble attempt to end Ashoka’s life in war, or to destroy his reputation through failure, Prince Susima, the eldest son and crown prince to the throne, asked their father Emperor Bindusara to assign Ashoka on a mission to quell an uprising in the city of Taxila in the Northwestern province of Sindh. Ironically, Susima was actually the governor of this city. Susima and his officials did not govern Taxila well, and this caused civil unrest.
Because Susima’s mother was a princess, Susima was King Bindusara’s favorite son. By comparison, Ashoka’s mother was a commoner by birth and King Bindusara is said to have not liked Ashoka very much initially. Perhaps it was because of this reason that Bindusara accepted Susima’s suggestion and commanded Ashoka to quell the uprising in Taxila. Ashoka, being the fearless war general that he was, complied with his father’s request. Upon hearing the news that Ashoka and his army were coming, the militias surprisingly welcomed him and almost immediately ended the uprising without a fight.
Ashoka’s success made Emperor Bindusara’s many sons wary of his intentions of succeeding the throne, and once again Susima suggested to Emperor Bindusara to send Ashoka away. This time he was sent into exile in Kalinga. During his stay there, he fell in love with a fisherwoman named Karuvaki who, according to inscriptions that were found recently, became Ashoka’s second or third wife.
After Ashoka was exiled for two years, a violent uprising broke out in Ujjain. King Bindusara sent Ashoka and his generals to quell the uprising there. Although Ashoka was injured during battle, his generals managed to complete the task successfully. After his injury, Ashoka was treated by Buddhist monks (bhikshus) and nuns (bhikshunis) in hiding to prevent those loyal to Susima from harming him. This is where he first learnt of Buddha’s teachings. He had a personal nurse, Devi, who was a merchant’s daughter from the famous Shakya clan. Her full name was Mahadevi Shakya Kumari and she was born in Vidisa. Ashoka grew fond of Devi and married her.
Emperor Bindusara disliked the fact that Ashoka married a Buddhist and thus forbade Ashoka to stay in Pataliputra. He sent him back to Ujjain with the title of Provincial Governor. Emperor Bindusara’s dislike of Ashoka’s marriage was most likely due to Buddhism’s rejection of the caste system. This rejection was considered to be socially dangerous, with the potential to destabilise the status quo and therefore seen as a threat to the monarchy. Buddhism also denied the authority and roles of the Brahmins, which are the highest class of Hindu society. As a result, Buddhists were seen as undermining India’s social system.
EMPEROR ASHOKA’S FAMILY & PRIVATE LIFE
When Emperor Ashoka was 20 years old, one of his wives, Maharani Devi gave birth to twins, a son named Mahendra and a daughter named Sanghamitta. Later, both Mahendra and Sanghamitta contributed and played a great role in the spread of Buddhism after their father sent them to preach Buddhism outside India.
Emperor Ashoka had several wives although the exact number is unclear. There are references to at least three empresses in the chronicles and Buddhist texts like the Mahavamsa and Divyavadana. Emperor Ashoka’s Chief Empress for most of his reign was Empress Asandhimittra who passed away four years before King Ashoka’s own passing. Upon the passing of Empress Asandhimittra, Tissarakkha was given the position of Chief Empress. It is said that this empress had a very great influence on Ashoka.
The second empress of Ashoka was Karuvaki, the mother of Trivara as mentioned in the Empress’s edict. Another Empress referred to in the Divyavadana as his third wife was Padmavati who was the mother of the crown prince Kunala, also known as Dharma-vivardhana. The Chinese Buddhist monk, Faxian, who travelled from China to India by foot on a mission to acquire Buddhist texts, also mentioned Dharma-vivardhana, who was the Viceroy of Gandhara, to be the son of Emperor Ashoka. From Rajatarangini, a historical chronicle, we can find references to the other sons of Emperor Ashoka, Jalauka and Tivara, who were the sons of Empress Karuvaki. From the information given, it is reasonable to believe that although Emperor Ashoka was a Buddhist, he had a number of empresses and concubines.
There is little information available concerning Emperor Ashoka’s private life and habits. From Rock Edict 6, we have an indirect reference as to how he would spend his time when he was not attending to official business. When a certain Dr Bhandarkar, an Indian scholar, was analysing the information found in Rock Edict 6, he noted that in Emperor Ashoka’s moments of leisure, when he was not asleep, he could be found at his capital either regaling the dining hall or engaging with his wives and concubines. Emperor Ashoka also enjoyed riding his horse or simply passing time in the orchard. From one of his edicts it is known that he even controlled the slaughter of animals by only permitting two peacocks and one deer to be killed for his royal meals. This gives us an idea of the kind of food that gratified his royal palate.
As an Emperor, before his conversion into Buddhism, Ashoka seemed to have done what the rulers of ancient India would do. He entertained his subjects by continuing the tradition of Samajas. The Samajas consisted of entertaining people with a banquet feast with meat dishes. Other Samajas consisted of dancing, music and wrestling, which were performed in an amphitheatre. Hunting was also a big part of the entertainment. According to Nilkanta Sastri, an Indian historian who wrote on South Indian history, these Samajas were unquestionably a diplomatic method of keeping the people pleased and satisfied. However, such Samajas were all stopped after Ashoka embraced Buddhism.
RISE TO POWER
According to the Mahavamsa, Ashoka was in Ujjain when he heard the news concerning his father’s ill health and he hurried towards the capital city of Pataliputra. There he killed 99 of his brothers, except the youngest, Tishya in order to become the new emperor. According to one legend, Ashoka was portrayed as a person with a bad temper and wicked nature. He was said to have built “Ashoka’s Hell”, an elaborate torture chamber disguised as a beautiful palace, which earned him the name of Chanda Ashoka (meaning Ashoka the Fierce).
Historically, there was a four-year gap between Emperor Bindusara’s death in 273 BCE and Emperor Ashoka’s coronation in 269 BCE. This leads historians to believe that Emperor Bindusara’s death led to a power struggle amongst his sons. According to the Divyavadana, Emperor Bindusara wanted his son Susima to succeed him but Ashoka was supported by his father’s ministers, who found Susima to be arrogant and disrespectful towards them. Ashoka managed to rise to the throne with the support of Emperor Bindusara’s ministers, headed by his Chief Minister Radhagupta (also known as Khallataka).
According to several inscriptions, which were erected long after his coronation, Emperor Ashoka referred to his ‘brothers and sisters’ and other relatives for whose welfare he was most concerned. Inscriptional evidence also indirectly suggests that some of his brothers served as his viceroys in important places such as Taxila, Tosali, Ujjayini and Suvaranagiri and what is more, they were addressed as the Kumaras and Aryaputras. According to the Mahavamsa, Ashoka even appointed his youngest brother Tishya as the Uparaja or the Deputy King. Therefore, the Buddhist legends about his cruelty and the killing of his 99 brothers do not seem to possess much historical substance.
The Reign of King Ashoka
Ashoka pursued a policy of expansion for the Mauryan Empire, following the ideal of his predecessors. Eight years after ascending the throne, Emperor Ashoka significantly expanded his empire. It grew from the present-day boundaries of Bangladesh and the Indian state of Assam in the east side, to the present-day territories of Afghanistan and Iran in the west. The empire also grew from the Palmir Knots in the north to the most peninsular part of Southern India. This would be recorded as the greatest geographical expansion of the Mauryan Empire.
Despite the mighty size of this Empire which was built by three successive generations of the Mauryan Emperors (i.e., Chandragupta, Bindusara and Ashoka), it did not include a prominent kingdom which was adjacent to the epicentre of the Mauryan Empire (i.e., Magadha or Kalinga). For eight years after the coronation, Emperor Ashoka ruled his empire with an iron fist. He was perceived to be a strong ruler and lived the usual life of a great emperor with pomp, splendour and pleasure. He did not fight external wars, even though he had the power for aggression. He also had no threat or fear of invasion from the Greek kings with whom he had good diplomatic relations dating back to the time of his father.
During the first 12 years of his reign, Emperor Ashoka was occupied with internal administrative work. His position only grew stronger after his coronation. At the time when Emperor Ashoka enjoyed absolute imperial authority, he gained confidence and decided make a move to annex Kalinga. At that time, Emperor Ashoka commanded the largest army of his time consisting of 600,000 infantry, 30,000 cavalry and 9,000 war elephants.
In 265 BCE, Emperor Ashoka waged war against Kalinga, a state that prided itself on its sovereignty and democracy. This war lasted two years between 265 BCE and 263 BCE, and is famously known as the Conquest of Kalinga. The cause and pretext of the war is uncertain but it was most likely purely territorial. Kalinga occupied a strategic position controlling the routes to South India by land and sea. However, there is speculation that his brothers fled to Kalinga and were granted refugee status, which angered Emperor Ashoka greatly. With the advice, support and urging of his ministers, he waged war on Kalinga to take revenge for their treacherous act.
Emperor Ashoka asked Kalinga’s royalty to submit to the Mauryan Empire’s supremacy but they defied him. Emperor Ashoka went on to send one of his generals to force them to submit, but instead his general and his forces were outsmarted and defeated by Kalinga’s leader who was a brilliant and skilled tactician. Emperor Ashoka was shocked and perhaps humiliated by this defeat. In his anger, he launched the greatest invasion ever recorded in Indian history at that time. Kalinga managed to put up a fight, but they were ultimately defeated by Emperor Ashoka’s massive army. The entire kingdom of Kalinga was destroyed and resulted in approximately 100,000 casualties on the Kalinga side, and 10,000 casualties on the Mauryan side. Although this war caused incredible human suffering, it was also Emperor Ashoka’s final war.
CONVERSION TO BUDDHISM
In his Rock Edict 13, Emperor Ashoka referred to the Conquest of Kalinga and the resulting great loss of lives. The Rock Edict reads, “One hundred and fifty thousand persons were captured, one hundred thousand were killed and many times that number perished.” The destructive nature of the Kalinga war created an emotional shock in Emperor Ashoka. He regretted the fact that he was responsible for so much suffering of fellow human beings. Upon seeing firsthand the damage this war has caused, Emperor Ashoka was deeply regretful and he cried out the famous sentence, “What have I done?”
While Ashoka was this penitent mood, he met the Buddhist monk Upagupta who taught him the Dharma and the teachings touched his heart. He converted to Buddhism and embraced their concept of non-violence, vowing to serve all human beings. This change of heart that Emperor Ashoka experienced was eventually reflected in his internal and foreign policies.
Emperor Ashoka’s decision to abandon the policy of war made it possible for some states in the south to maintain their independence. He then went on to pursue a policy of friendship towards all nations of the time. He used his position as Emperor to spread the relatively new teachings of Buddhism as far as Ancient Rome and Alexandria, Egypt.
Around 260 BCE, Emperor Ashoka declared Buddhism to be the state religion and started the Vibhajyavada School of Buddhism. Vibhajya means ‘dividing or analysing’ and Vada means ‘doctrine or meaning’.
The Vibhajyavadins, meaning “those who make distinctions”, were the followers of Buddhist Schools founded by Emperor Ashoka. They have a strong presence in South India where they called themselves Theravadans. They rejected the claims of Sarvastivada, an earlier school of Buddhism, that all Dharmas exist in the past, present and future. Instead the Vibhajyavadins made a distinction between Dharmas that exist and Dharmas that do not exist. Their standpoints were formulated by Moggaliputtatissa, a Buddhist monk and one of Ashoka’s spiritual teachers. It is also listed in a Buddhist scripture known as Kathavatthu, one of the seven books in the Theravada Abhidhamma Pitaka, which is a branch of Buddhism that uses the teachings of the Pali Canon, also known as the most complete of the early Buddhist canons.
ANOTHER VERSION OF EMPEROR ASHOKA’S CONVERSION TO BUDDHISM
Another account of Emperor Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism is recorded in the Ashokavadana. The text does not refer to the Battle of Kalinga and appears to be more mythical than the previous historical reference. It does, however, contain interesting details about Emperor Ashoka’s practice of Buddhism.
In this text, a Buddhist monk named Samudra appears at what he thought was a palace in Emperor Ashoka’s capital but in reality, it was a new building dedicated to the ‘art of execution’. The young monk, Samudra who was begging for alms became a potential victim of the palace’s guardian, Chandagirika who was to kill whoever stepped through the door. Chandagirika liked to torture and kill, and had already callously dispatched his own parents. Chandagirika agreed to a seven-day delay when the monk Samudra, who feared death, begged him for mercy.
Meanwhile, another youth and one of the women of the royal household caused some offence to Chandagirika, who immediately ordered their execution. He then had their bodies crushed with pestles in an iron mortar before Samudra. While witnessing this horrible execution, Samudra suddenly realised the truth of the Buddha’s teaching of impermanence and became an arhat (liberated being).
The next morning, the time of his execution arrived but Samudra was calm and not afraid. He said to Chandagirika, “True, my night of ignorance has cleared and the sun of my good fortune is at its height. You may do as you wish, my friend.” The executioner was quite unmoved and threw Samudra into a cauldron of water mixed with blood. However, as hard as Chandagirika tried to light a fire underneath the cauldron, it would not light. Looking into the cauldron, he was amazed to see Samudra calmly sitting in the lotus position. He immediately went to find Emperor Ashoka to show him this miracle, together with hundreds of his subjects. Samudra realised that the time had ripened for Emperor Ashoka to receive Buddhist teachings, which the text explains:
Miraculously, Samudra floated up in the air and stunned Ashoka.
For from half his body water poured down;
from the other half fire blazed forth;
Raining and flaming, he shone in the sky.
Ashoka folded his hands and asked to be initiated into the mysteries of the Dharma.
After the event, Emperor Ashoka converted to Buddhism and became a lay-devotee (upasaka). Samudra informed Ashoka that Buddha Shakyamuni had predicted that the Emperor would build 84,000 stupas to contain his bodily relics. He was supposed to fulfil this prophecy but instead, the Emperor had built a Palace of Execution. Emperor Ashoka then begged for forgiveness and took the three refuge vows by which one becomes a Buddhist (Refuge in the Three Jewels – the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha). He also pledged to build stupas to house the Buddha’s sacred relics. Then the monk Samudra vanished.
As Emperor Ashoka was about to leave himself, his executioner challenged him that his boon had not been granted, and that he still had the right to execute the first person who had entered the Palace. Surprised that his servant apparently intended to execute his master, Emperor Ashoka responded that since Chandagirika had in fact entered before him, he was the one who should die. Chandagirika was duly executed and the palace of horrors (described as hell in the text) was destroyed.
The text continues with the story of how Emperor Ashoka recovered the relics from eight stupas that were built previously, and constructed the new stupas as he had promised. On one occasion, in order to earn some merit, he traveled throughout his realm incognito as a mendicant and experienced the lifestyle of a monk. The phrase yam me samghe upeti, which translates as “going to the Sangha”, has led some scholars to claim that Emperor Ashoka was a full-time mendicant but it probably implies that he visited and spent time listening to the monks. It is said that Emperor Ashoka venerated monks and he donated generously to the Sangha.
Both versions of the story regarding Emperor Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism record that he had a change of heart that involved the repudiation of slaughter, and the development of a commitment to peace and the precepts of Buddhism.
Some historians have interpreted Emperor Ashoka’s transformation to be a ruse, and accuse him of being afraid of more war. However, among his neighboring kingdoms including the Seleucid Empire and the Greco-Bactrian kingdom established by Diodotus I, none could match the military strength of the Mauryan Empire. Ashoka reigned during the same period as both Antiochus I Soter and his successor, Antiochus II Theos, of the Seleucid dynasty as well as Diodotus I and his son Diodotus II of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. His inscriptions and edicts state that he was familiar with the Hellenic world and some of them were even written in Greek, but he was never in awe of this part of the world. His edicts, which talk of his friendly relations, include the names of both Antiochus of the Seleucid Empire and Ptolemy III of Egypt. The Mauryan Empire had been famous since the time Emperor Chandragupta Maurya defeated Selecus Nicator, the founder of the Seleucid Dynasty. Another indication of the relationship between the Mauryan Empire and Greece can be found in the works of Greek historians who wrote about the Empire’s history. As a result of Alexander the Great’s imperial and cultural projects, the Indian and the Hellenic world were now linked.
Emperor Ashoka undoubtedly deserves the credit for making the first serious attempt to develop governmental policies that were based on Buddhist teachings, effectively putting into practice the Buddha’s own advice on kingship and governance that were contained in the Dasa Raja Dharma (Buddhist principles for leaders to abide by), including the following ten precepts :
- To be liberal and avoid selfishness
- To be a person of high moral character
- To be prepared to sacrifice one’s own pleasure for the well-being of one’s subjects
- To be honest and maintain absolute integrity
- To be kind and gentle
- To set an example by leading a simple life for the subjects to emulate
- To be free from hatred of any kind
- To exercise non-violent means
- To practice patience
- To respect public opinion to promote peace and harmony
Emperor Ashoka published 14 edicts as the basis on his new policies. These are:
- No living being was to be slaughtered or sacrificed
- Humans and animals were to be provided medical care throughout his territory
- Every five years the monks would tour the empire to teach the Dharma
- Everyone should respect their parents, priests and monks
- Prisoners must be treated humanely
- Concerns regarding the welfare of his people must be reported to him at all times no matter where he was or what he was doing
- Since all religions desire self-control and purity of heart, everyone is welcome
- He preferred to give to monks, Brahmins and to the needy than to receive gifts from others
- Reverence for the Dharma and a proper attitude towards teachers is better than marriage or other worldly celebrations
- Glory and fame meant nothing if his people did not respect the Dharma
- Giving the Dharma to others is the best gift anyone could have
- Whoever praises his own religion due to excessive devotion, and condemns others with the thought ‘Let me glorify my own religion’ only harms his own religion. Therefore, contact (between religions) was encouraged
- Conquering through the Dharma was superior to conquering by force but if conquest by force was to be carried out, it should be done so with forbearance and light punishment
- He had his edicts written so that people might act accordingly
Emperor Ashoka replaced conquest by force with what he called “conquest by righteousness” (dhammavijaya). He was possibly the first emperor to renounce violence, yet he remained an influential and powerful ruler during his reign.
THE SPREADING OF BUDDHISM
Emperor Ashoka is mainly remembered in the ancient texts as the patron of Buddhism. His son, Venerable Mahendra, and daughter, Sanghamitta, a nun whose name means ‘friend of the Sangha’, were also proponents of this cause. They established Buddhism in Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka) and took copies of the Pali Canon of Buddhist scripture (the Tipitaka) with them, which was rectified by the 3rd Buddhist Council presided over by their father. Emperor Ashoka built thousands of stupas and Viharas (monasteries / temples) for Buddhist followers. Some of his missionary monks may even have been Greek. One of Emperor Ashoka’s stupas, the Sanchi Stupa, is famous worldwide.
Emperor Ashoka pursued a policy of ahimsa (non-violence). He passed laws against hunting animals and branding, effectively ending unnecessary animal slaughter and mutilation. Even though he promoted the concept of vegetarianism, he permitted limited hunting for consumption purposes as a testament to his tolerance for the beliefs of others. He showed mercy to prisoners by allowing them one day of freedom per year. Universities were built to allow everyone, both men and women, to have access to education. He built water transit and irrigation systems to support agriculture and trade. His subjects were treated as equals, regardless of their caste, political views or religion. His neighbouring kingdoms, which he could have easily conquered, were made into allies.
Emperor Ashoka is credited for constructing veterinary hospitals and renovating major roads throughout India. After his transformation, Emperor Ashoka came to be known as Dhammashoka meaning ‘Ashoka, the follower of Dharma’ in Sanskrit. Emperor Ashoka adopted the main principles of the Dharma. These principles suggested a general ethic of behavior to which no religious or social group could object. Indeed, from his 12th edict, Ashoka appears to have pioneered not only inter-religious dialogue but also the concept that all religions share common values which are virtuous.
Besides spreading Buddhist values throughout his own land, Emperor Ashoka also sent missionaries to other countries. According to one of his rock edicts, he sent envoys to various Mediterranean countries such as Syria, Egypt and Macedonia, which were ruled by the Greeks at that time. However, no record exists of the results that these envoys brought.
On the other hand, Ceylon was very receptive to the mission led by Mahendra. Sri Lanka was converted and regarded as the place of the subsequent spread of the Buddhadharma. The Buddhist chronicles kept in Sri Lanka, like the Mahavamsa and Dipavamsa, provide us with information about Ashoka’s life. However with these texts it is less certain where history ends and legend beings, compared to the various edicts. The chronicles tell us that Ashoka sent his son Mahendra and his daughter Sanghamitta to the court of King Tissa of Ceylon. Soon the king and his court were converted to Buddhism and from that time onward, for the last 23 centuries up until the modern day, Buddhism has been practised in Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka).
Therefore, although Emperor Ashoka’s envoys may have had little effect in the Mediterranean, they found an audience in countries that surround India, including Nepal and Burma, and Buddhism gradually spread to these countries. This was aided by written teachings of the Buddha and his disciples, which were recorded down by the 4th Buddhist Council in Ceylon. From there, Theravada Buddhism spread to Thailand, Cambodia and other countries in Southeast Asia.
The role that Emperor Ashoka played in spreading Buddhism can not be underestimated. Nuns in Sri Lanka today trace their lineage right back to Emperor Ashoka’s daughter Sanghamitta, and to the retinue of nuns who traveled to Sri Lanka with her. Although the order later became absent for 1000 years in Sri Lanka, it was preserved in Korea and Japan and re-introduced to Sri Lanka within the last century. Sri Lanka thus remains one of the most important Buddhist countries today and is a centre of Buddhist scholarship. If Emperor Ashoka had not put effort to spreading Buddhism beyond India, it might not have survived as it was largely disappearing from India (until its re-emergence in the modern era) with the exception of the area of East Bengal bordering on Burma. Instead, Buddhism spread to China, Japan and beyond. Origen Adamantius, a Greek Christian theologian who spent half of his career in Alexandria, referred to Buddhist missionaries who even visited England. Buddhism on the whole may not have reached China until the 1st CE, but there are stories of one of Emperor Ashoka’s missionaries visiting China. The revival of interest in Buddhism in India has also been attributed to Emperor Ashoka, since the discovery of his edicts helped to stimulate interest.
Buddhist chronicles state that in 250 BCE, Emperor Ashoka personally convened the 3rd Buddhist Council in Pataliputra with two objectives in mind. First, he was responding to reports of heretical views and dissension among the monks in Pataliputra. Emperor Ashoka is said to have interviewed each monk personally and dismissed monks who held beliefs contrary to the Buddha’s teachings, in particular to a belief in an eternal, unchanging self.
Secondly, Emperor Ashoka used this opportunity to appoint knowledgable monks to journey to other lands as emissaries to teach the Dharma. This part of the story is confirmed by the edicts. Buddhist monks like Madhyamik Sthavira were sent to modern-day Kashmir and Afghanistan. Maharaskshit Sthavira was sent to Syria, Persia / Iran, Egypt, Greece, Italy and Turkey. Massim Sthavira travelled to Nepal, Bhutan, China and Mongolia, and Sohn Uttar Sthavira journeyed to modern-day Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand (which was then known as Survarnabhumi) and Vietnam. Mahadharmarakshita Sthavira travelled to Maharashtra and Maharakshita Sthavira and Yavandharmarakshita Sthavira went to South India.
Not all of these missions were successful. For example, Buddhism did not take root in Thailand or Burma until a few more centuries after the 3rd Council was convened. However, the missions to Greece and Egypt may have had some interesting effects. Scholars have long noted some blending of Hellenic and Buddhist thought that began about that time. There is also some archaeological evidence of Buddhists living in Alexandria.
SYMBOLS AND ARCHITECTURE
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 22th July 1947), where it is rendered as navy-blue in color on a white background. This replaces Chakra symbol (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 Emperor Ashoka which has been adopted as the National Emblem of India.
The Ashoka Chakra was created by Emperor 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 – 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. A flag with three colours, saffron, white and green with the Ashoka Chakra was selected.
The pillars of Ashoka are a series of columns erected by Ashoka during his reign. Their locations are dispersed throughout the northern Indian subcontinent. Originally, there must have been many Ashokan pillars although only 10 with inscriptions survive to this day. Averaging between 40 and 50-ft in height, and weighing up to 50 tons each, all the pillars were excavated in Chunar, just south of Varanasi and transported, sometimes hundreds of miles, to the place where they were erected. The first Ashokan Pillar was found in the 16th Century by Thomas Coryat among the ruins of ancient Delhi. The wheel represents the cycle of time and Buddhist law, while the swastika stands for the cosmic dance around a fixed centre and acted as guardian against evil.
The Lion Capital of Ashoka is a sculpture of four lions standing back to back. It was originally placed on top of the Ashokan Pillar in Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh, India. The pillar, sometimes called the Ashoka Column is still in its original location, but the Lion Capital is now placed in the Sarnath Museum. This Lion Capital was adopted as the National Emblem of India. The Sarnath Pillar contained one of the Edicts of Emperor Ashoka, an inscription against division within the Buddhist community, which reads “No one shall cause division in the order of monks”.
The Capital contains the image of four lions (Indian / Asiatic Lions), standing back to back, mounted on an 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 Dharmachakra.
The four animals in the Sarnath capital are believed to symbolise different stages of Buddha Shakyamuni’s life:
- The elephant represents the Buddha’s birth 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
In addition to religious interpretations, there are some non-religious interpretations regarding these symbols. According to these, the four lions symbolise Emperor Ashoka’s rule over the four directions, the wheels as symbols of his enlightened rule (Chakravartin) and the four animals as symbols of the four adjoining territories of India.
STRUCTURES CREDITED TO ASHOKA
Mahabodhi Temple, built on the site of a previously built temple by Emperor Ashoka (c. 250 BCE) to mark the spot of Buddha Shakyamuni’s enlightenment was restored by the British and Indian governments. The British restoration was executed under guidance from Weligama Sri Sumangala.
Other structures built by Ashoka include:
- Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh, India
- Dhamek Stupa, Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh, 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 Emperor Ashoka
- Mir Rukun Stupa Nawabshah, Pakistan
DEATH AND LEGACY
Emperor Ashoka reigned for an estimated 40 years and after his death, the Mauryan Dynasty lasted for just 50 more years. Emperor Ashoka had many wives and children but except for a few, many of them remain obscure in history. He had entrusted to Mahendra and Sanghamitta the task of spreading Buddhism in Ceylon, making them famous across the world.
The reign of Emperor Ashoka could easily have disappeared into obscurity as the ages passed by, if he had not left behind a record of his edicts. The testimony of this wise emperor are embodied magnificently in sculpted pillars and boulders with a variety of teachings intricately etched into the stone. What Emperor Ashoka left behind was the first written language in India since the ancient city of Harappa. Rather than Sanskrit, the language used for the inscriptions was the current spoken form of Prakrit.
In addition to his legacy as the first Buddhist emperor and one of the pioneers of an alternative approach to governance, Emperor Ashoka was an efficient administrator. His empire was divided into five provinces, with major cities at Taxila, Ujjain, Tosali, Suvarnagiri and Patilaputra. A Kumara (prince) governed each province. These were sub-divided into groups of several villages. Each village was headed by a Gramika. At the centre, Ministers of State (Mantris) dealt with judiciary matters and taxation. Emperor Ashoka issued Sasanasad (ordinances), and listened to people’s concerns and consulted not only his ministers but common people as well. He was very concerned that fair justice was carried out and during his rule, he made the system much more open than it had been before. Death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment and were open to appeal. He wrote:
“I even go this far, to grant a three-day stay for those in prison who have been tried and sentenced to death. During this time their relatives can make appeals to have the prisoners’ lives spared. If there is none to appeal on their behalf, the prisoners can give gifts in order to make merit for the next world, or observe fasts.” (Pillar Edict 4)
Public funds were spent on major projects, including agriculture to feed the poor, to dig wells, and also to plant trees so that people could benefit from the shade they gave in the hottest conditions. Art and culture flourished (both show signs of Greek and Persian influence) and both were conscripted to help the spread of Buddhism. He also provided free medical care for people and animals.
The Chinese scholar Faxian traveled to India in search of great Buddhist books of discipline between 399 – 414 CE. Whilst in India, he reported seeing works of art, rock caves, palaces and exemplary buildings from Emperor Ashoka’s period. From this he concluded that there must have been a very sophisticated civil service. A characteristic of Mauryan art was the mirror-like finish to the pillars, which has survived centuries of exposure to wind and sun.
Emperor Ashoka combined personal and state ethics and tried to bridge the divides in his multi-cultural empire. He wrote, “You are true to your own belief is you accord kindly treatments to adherents of other faiths. You ham you own religion by harassing followers of other creeds” (Emperor Ashoka, Rock Edict 3).
He believed that his code of reverence and compassion was based on universal values. His 14-point code was aimed for both inner morality and outer action in harmony. He turned away from kingship based on power, compulsion and self-interest, and dared to believe that he could construct a different kind of kingdom based on causing no one harm. It has been suggested that no greater or better kingdom has yet been known amongst men. In Kalinga Rock Edict One, he instructed his judicial officers, warning them that they would not be promoted unless they furthered his desire:
“All men are my children. What I desire for my own children, and I desire their welfare and happiness both in this world and the next, that I desire for all men. You do not understand to what extent I desire this, and if some of you do understand, you do not understand the full extent of my desire.”
Emperor Ashoka’s policy of non-violence was also revived during the independence struggle against the British, by the nationalist leader and Hindu philosopher Mahatma Gandhi. In addition, when India finally gained independence from the British Empire in 1947, it symbolically adopted Emperor Ashoka’s emblem for its own, placing the Dharmachakra that crowned his many columns on the flag of the newly independent state of India.
But his contribution towards Buddhism itself is perhaps the most substantial one of all. In India, Emperor Ashoka essentially turned Buddhism from a tradition into an official state ideology. It was due to his support that Buddhism transformed from being a local Indian cult into a world religion, which today has an estimated 470 million followers according to the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. It was through his deeds and action that Buddhism spread outside of India and began its long transformation to becoming one of the world’s greatest religions. Indeed the world owes Emperor Ashoka for his contribution in making Buddhism into what it is today.
THE FATE OF THE MAURYAN EMPIRE AND INDIA POST ASHOKA
The Brahman priests who had been sidelined by Emperor Ashoka’s Buddhist policies, encouraged civil war by working to undermine his policies. Emperor Ashoka’s time had been one of unification, bringing small kingdoms together, but sadly, it was followed by a time of fragmentation.
In the year 185 CE, about 50 years after Ashoka’s death, the last Mauryan ruler, Brihadratha, was brutally murdered by the commander of the Mauryan army, Pusyamitra Sunga, while he was taking the Guard of Honor of his forces. Pusyamitra Sunga then founded the Sunga Dynasty (185 – 78 CE) and ruled just a small part of the Mauryan Empire. The empire’s decline is mainly attributable to the weak leadership that succeeded Ashoka’s rule. Several other factors also contributed to the decline of the Mauryan Empire, including the downsizing of the military, who lost their jobs under Emperor Ashoka’s policy of non-violence and were subsequently unable to offer adequate defence. The large administration required strong leadership and when this was not forthcoming, provinces tended to assert independence from the central government.
It would not be until some 2000 years later, under Akbar the Great and his great-grandson Aurangzeb, that a large portion of the Indian subcontinent would again be united under a single ruler.
Buddhism has approximately 470 million followers across the globe. It represents a major component of the spiritual heritage of East and Southeast Asia. The two main branches of Buddhism are Mahayana and Theravada. Mahayana Buddhism is practiced by around 185 million people and is the dominant form of Buddhism in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam. Theravada Buddhism has about 125 million followers and is dominant in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Sri Lanka and Burma. Another significant strand of Buddhism related to the Mahayana is Tibetan Buddhism, which is practiced by 20 million people largely in Tibet, Bhutan, Mongolia, and surrounding areas in India, China and Russia. Buddhism is a growing spiritual influence in the West, and many new religious movements are affiliated with Buddhism, especially in Japan and Korea.
For more interesting information:
- The Ancient Buddhist World of Pakistan – Interesting!
- Doing Time Doing Vipassana
- Lion Capital of Asoka (Ashokmudra)
- Biography: The 4th Tagphu Pemavajra Jampel Tenpai Ngodrub
- Lord Tsongkapa, King of the Dharma
- The Samding Dorje Phagmo – The Courageous Female Incarnation Line
- The Buddhist Kingdoms of Indonesia
- Achi Chokyi Drolma – Chief Protectress of the Drikung Kagyu
- Shangmo Dorje Putri – The Bamo of Sakya
- Ekai Kawaguchi – Three Years in Tibet
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