Ashoka and the Rise of Buddhism

Much before there was the famous Bollywood film Ashoka, there was the actual emperor. Ashoka is considered among the most prominent of Ancient Indian rulers, perhaps even the greatest emperor to rule India. This is mostly because the unification of what is the present-day Indian sub-continent occurred first under his rule.

Born to the Mauryan dynasty in 304 BCE, Ashoka was the grandson of Mauryan founder Chandragupta Maurya. Named so to mean, literally, “without pain or distress”, records such as the Ashokavardana describe the emperor’s fondness for his name and its connection to the Asoka tree (saraca asoca) found abundantly in parts of India.

He was known to have ruled from ca. 269 BCE up to his death in 232 BCE. His reign stretched at one point of time to cover as far as northern Kerala and Andhra Pradesh in the south, parts of the Hindu Kush mountain range in the northwest, Assam in the northeast and portions of Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh in the north. This included most prominently areas then called Gandhara, Taxila, Ujjaini, and Patliputra and headquarters Maghadha.

Fiercely ambitious, Ashoka, in 260 BCE, set out to achieve something no previous Mauryan emperor had done – fight and win a war with Kalinga (modern-day Odisha). The ensuing Battle of Kalinga was of gigantic proportions with reportedly 100,000 soldiers at war and many more civilians. Legend has it that the nearby river was red with the streaming blood of the soldiers.

Eight years into his reign, Ashoka was thus faced with a moral crisis at Kalinga. While ambition led him to conquer, his conscience was profoundly disturbed by the human loss and consequences. Ashoka thus turned to find solace in nascent Buddhism.

The period that followed was by and large a peaceful one. Though still a military power, Ashoka maintained friendly relations with southern Indian kingdoms such as the Cholas, the Pandyas, Keralaputra, etc. He sent his son Mahendra as an ambassador to places as far off as Japan to aid in spreading the Buddhist message of peace.

His famous edicts located variously in modern-day Nepal, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan speak of many public reforms such as the building of universities, roads, hospitals, and irrigation systems. These edicts are moreover remarkably written in the then-local dialect of Brahmi rather than the official Sanskrit in an attempt to reach out to the people in their own language.

Ashoka thereby sought to live up to his name Ashoka the Great by doing such great things. His life, now the stuff of legend, is recorded in the Asokavardana and his edicts are now famous monuments. Besides this, Ashoka’s contribution to modern-day Indian polity includes the Ashoka Chakra – the round wheel-like symbol located at the center of the modern Indian flag.


Related Information :

Chandragupta Maurya

Development of Art During the Mauryan Empire

Facts about An Ancient City

Golden Age of India