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Asoka the Great (273 – 232 BC)

There is little information regarding the early life of Ashoka, also spelled Asoka. He acted as Governor of Ujjain and also suppressed a revolt in Taxila during his father Bindusara’s reign. His reign is given as c. 265–238 BC, and as c. 273–232 BC. There was an interval of four years between Asoka’s accession to the throne (273 BC) and his actual coronation (269 BC). Therefore, it appears from the available evidence that there was a struggle for the throne after Bindusara’s death.

Many wild legends have gathered round Asoka’s name. The Ceylonese Chronicles, Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa state that Asoka captured power after killing his ninety nine brothers including the his elder brother Susima. The youngest brother Tissa was spared. But according to Taranatha of Tibet, Asoka killed only six of his brothers. Asoka’s Edict also refers to his brothers acting as officers in his administration. However, it is clear that the succession of Asoka was a disputed one.

Asoka waged only one war of aggression, that directed to the acquisition of Kalinga on the coast of the Bay of Bengal. His gigantic empire, which extended from the Hindu Kush to the northern districts of Mysore, consequently must have been inherited, with the exception of Kalinga, from his father, and must have been acquired either by Bindusara or by Chandragupta, or by both.

The most important event of Asoka’s reign was his victorious war with Kalinga in 261 BC. Although there is no detail about the cause and course of the war, the effects of the war were described by Asoka himself in the Rock edict XIII: “A hundred and fifty thousand were killed and many times that number perished…” After the war he annexed Kalinga to the Mauryan Empire. Another most important effect of the Kalinga war was that Asoka embraced Buddhism under the influence of Buddhist monk, Upagupta.

Asoka’s inscriptions mention the southernmost kingdoms – Cholas, Pandyas, Satyaputras and Keralaputras – as border-states. Therefore these states remained outside the Mauryan Empire. According to Rajatarangini, Kashmir was a part of the Mauryan Empire. Nepal was also within the Mauryan empire. The northwestern frontier was already demarcated by Chandragupta Maurya.

Asoka having been a. man of peace for the greater part of his long reign, the recorded political events during it are few, and nothing is known about his military force. The interest of the story is centred on the movement initiated by him which transformed Buddhism from a local sect into one of the world-religions and on the gradual development of the emperor’s personal character and policy. His imperishable records constitute in large measure his autobiography Written in terms manifestly dictated by himself.

According some scholars, his conversion to Buddhism was gradual and not immediate. About 261 BC. Asoka became a Sakya Upasaka (lay dsicple) and two and a half years later, a Bikshu (monk). Then he gave up hunting, visited Bodh-Gaya, and organized missions. He appointed special officers called Dharma Mahamatras to speed up the progress of Dhamma. In 241 B.C., he visited the birth place of Buddha, the Lumbini Garden, near Kapilavastu. He also visited other holy places of Buddhism like Sarnath, Sravasti and Kusinagara. He sent a mission to Sri Lanka under his son Mahendra and daughter Sangamitra who planted there the branch of the original Bodhi tree. Asoka convened the Third Buddhist Council at Pataliputra in 240 B.C. in order to strengthen the Sangha. It was presided over by Moggaliputta Tissa.

Although Asoka embraced Buddhism and took efforts to spread Buddhism, his policy of Dhamma was a still broad concept. It was a way of life, a code of conduct and a set of principles to be adopted and practiced by the people at large. His principles of Dhamma were clearly stated in his Edicts. The main features of Asoka’s Dhamma as mentioned in his various Edicts may be summed as follows:

  1. Service to father and mother, practice of ahimsa, love of truth, reverence to teachers and good treatment of relatives.
  2. Prohibition of animal sacrifices and festive gatherings and avoiding expensive and meaningless ceremonies and rituals.
  3. Efficient organization of administration in the direction of social welfare and maintenance of constant contact with people through the system of Dhammayatras.
  4. Humane treatment of servants by masters and prisoners by government officials.
  5. Consideration and non-violence to animals and courtesy to relations and liberality to Brahmins.
  6. Tolerance among all the religious sects.
  7. Conquest through Dhamma instead of through war.
The concept of non-violence and other similar ideas of Asoka’s Dhamma are identical with the teachings of Buddha. But he did not equate Dhamma with Buddhist teachings. Buddhism remained his personal belief. His Dhamma signifies a general code of conduct. Asoka wished that his Dhamma should spread through all social levels.

Asoka was “the greatest of kings” surpassing Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar and other renowned Emperors of the world. According to H.G. Wells “Amidst the tens and thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, the name of Asoka shines and shines almost alone, a star”. Asoka was true to his ideals. He was not a dreamer but a man of practical genius. His Dhamma is so universal that it appeals to humanity even today. He was an example in history for his benevolent administration and also for following the policy of non-aggression even after his victory in the war. His central ideal was to promote the welfare of humanity.

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Page last modified: 12-08-2013 16:07:21 ZULU