The date of Asoka’s birth is not known, and not many historians are brave enough to hazard a guess. What is known is that he was the grandson of Chandragupta who founded the Maurya dynasty in approximately 324 B. C. (not long after Alexander left India) and the son of Bindusara, the second of the Maurya line.

On the death of Bindusara in circa 273 B. C. , Asoka became ruler of the Maurya kingdom for a reign of about 40 years. He was officially enthroned at Pataliputra (modern Patna) about four years after Bindusara’s death. What we know of his life and works is gleaned from his inscriptions and edicts and literary tradition. In the inscriptions he is often referred to as Devanampiya (“Beloved of the Gods”) or Priyadarsin (“Of Benevolent Appearance”).

During his father’s lifetime, Asoka is believed to have been viceroy on the northwestern region which included Kashmir and the Punjab with its capital in Taxila. After that he was viceroy of the western region with its capital at Ujjain. According to a Sinhala legend, Asoka was in Ujjain at the time of his father’s death.

In the first eight years of his reign he continued the aggressive policies of his father — who was called “Slayer of Foes” by Greek historians — and grandfather, under whom the Mauryan Empire had grown to include most of both Afghanistan and India. His first major action was that of putting down a revolt in Taxila.

But his war with the Kalingas in southern Orissa changed him forever. It is said that after a great victory he surveyed the battlefield and was appalled by the death and suffering he viewed there; whereupon, he gave up his violent ways and adopted a policy of peace.

An edict recording this event reads in part:

His Majesty King Priyadarshin the ninth year of his reign conquered the Kalingas.One hundred and fifty thousand were thence carried away captive, one hundred thousand were slain, and many times that number perished.

Ever since the annexation of the Kalingas, His Majesty has zealously protected the Law of Piety, has been devoted to that law, and has proclaimed its precepts.

His Majesty feels remorse on account of the conquest of the Kalingas, because, during the subjugation of a previously unconquered country, slaughter, death and taking occur, whereat His Majesty feels profound sorrow and regret . . . .

After the Kalinga War Asoka became an upasaka (lay Buddhist), steeped himself in Buddhist teachings and altered his policies radically. Instead of conquest by armed force, there would be “conquest by morality. “The “reverberation of the war drum” would be replaced by the “reverberation of the law. ”

Not content with peaceful policies within his own empire, Asoka sent forth missionaries to neighbouring kingdoms. However, he never tried to force his beliefs on others, and he maintained tolerant, if not friendly, relations with Hindu communities within his realm and with nearby kingdoms.

He opposed animal slaughter, whether for providing food or for sacrificial purposes, and he discouraged the royal hunt. In one of his edicts he states:

Obedience must be rendered to mother and father, likewise to elders; firmness (of compassion) must be shown towards animals; truth must be spoken: these same moral virtues must be practised.In the same way the pupil must show reverence to the master, and one must behave in a suitable manner towards relatives.

During the 13th year after his coronation, Asoka began a program of circuits by which his officials, every five years, would proclaim the moral law throughout the land.

There is no record of the last eight years of his life, except that he died in 232 B. C. and that he was succeeded by two of his grandsons: Dasaratha who ruled the eastern and Samprati the western parts of his empire. His empire survived him, but not for long.

Asoka was one of those rare phenomena in Indian history, and indeed in the history of the world, who combined in one person the qualities of both greatness and goodness.

Suggested Further Reading

  • Bhandarkar, Devadatta Ramkrishna, 1875-1950.
    Asoka. — 4th ed. — [Calcutta] : University of Calcutta, 1969.
    xxx, 366 p. ; 23 cm. — (Carmichael lectures ; 1923)
  • Gokhale, Balkrishna Govind.
    Asoka Maurya. — New York : Twayne, [1966]
    194 p. : map ; 21 cm. — (Twayne’s rulers and statesmen of the world series ; 3)
  • Smith, Vincent Arthur, 1848-1920.
    Asoka : the Burdhist emperor of India. — Oxford : Clarenden, 1901.
    204 p. : port. ; 20 cm. — (Rulers of India ; v. 28)

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