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Early Life of Asoka the Great (Devanampriya Priyadarshi)

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Devanampriya Priyadarshi Samrat Ashoka (also Asoka, Ashoka Maurya) was the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya and the son of the second Maurya Emperor, Bindusara.

Acknowledged as the greatest of monarchs in world history, Ashoka is singled out as a ruler without a parallel. In his role as a monarch and a missionary, he made his time one of the most glorious epics of Indian history.

Ashoka’s father Bindusara was fortunate for inheriting a vast and powerful empire from his father, Chandragupta Maurya. His mother was perhaps a Brahmin.

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The year of birth of Ashoka was 304 B.C., when his grandfather Chandragupta was still ruling the empire. Ashoka means “happiness, joyfulness and without grief or sorrow”. Legends lead us to understand that Ashoka was the most intelligent among many sons of his father. He was energetic, fearless, strong, and possessed great military skills. When Ashoka was 18 years old, Bindusara appointed him as his Viceroy of the province of Avanti which had its capital at Ujjayini. This took place in the year 286 B.C. and the young prince soon showed his ability as well as individuality in his works. There at Ujjayini, Ashoka married a lady of the famous Sakya clan to which Buddha belonged. Her name was Vidisa Mahadevi Sakya Kumari. Apparently her birth-place was Vidisa (modern Bhilsa). When Ashoka was 20, Mahadevi gave birth to a son who was named Mahendra. Two years later, in 282 B.C., a daughter was born to Ashoka named Sanghamitra. In future, both Mahendra and Sanghamitra played great role in the spread of Buddhism when their royal father sent them preach that religion outside India.

When Prince Ashoka was working as the viceroy at Ujjaini, prince Susima, the eldest son of Bindusara, was serving as his father’s viceroy at Taxila. A revolt of the people of Taxila broke out at that time for the misdeeds of the wicked officers which Susima failed to suppress. There­upon, the Emperor sent Ashoka to Taxila to suppress it which he did. Ashoka thus served as the viceroy of Taxila after serving as the viceroy in Ujjayini. There is also reference to a second rebellion in Taxila which Ashoka fated and suppressed.

According to Puranic evidences, Bindusara ruled for twenty-five years. His death took place in about 272 B.C.

The Ceylonese Chronicles describe of a fratricidal war which followed the death of Bindusara. The Chronicles narrate that it was fierce struggle in which Ashoka won at last by killing his ninety-nine brothers. He spared the life of only one brother, Tishya, who was the youngest. Such descriptions of Ashoka’s cruelty were perhaps motivated exaggerations on part of the Buddhist writers who wanted to show Ashoka as a ChandAshoka before he became a Buddhist and turned into a DharmAshoka. According to Taranatha, the Tibetan writer, Ashoka killed six brothers to capture the throne.

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It is most probable that there was a war of succession for which Ashoka’s coronation was delayed for four years. Between his accession to the throne in 272 B.C., and his coronation for appointment as king in 268 B.C., there was an interval of four years. This leads historians to believe at there was a war of succession which ended in the victory of Ashoka. But, the Buddhist legends about his cruelty and about his killing of as any as 99 brothers do not seem to possess historical substance. He was perhaps not as cruel as shown in these Buddhist texts. In some of his inscriptions, which were erected long after his coronation, Ashoka refers to his ‘brothers and sisters’ and other relatives for whose welfare he was most anxious. Inscriptional evidences also indirectly suggest that some of his brothers served as his viceroys in prominent places like Taxila, Tosali, Ujjaini, and Suvarnagiri and were called as the Kumaras and Aryaputras. According to Mahavamsa, Ashoka even appointed his youngest brother Tishya as the Uparaja or the Deputy King.

The traditions maintain that Ashoka captured the throne with the support of the ministers of the late monarch headed by the chief minister, Radhagupta.

After coming to the throne, and having consolidated his power after four years by coronation, Ashoka found himself the all-powerful ruler of a great empire extending from the Kabul valley to the Brahmaputra, and from the Himalayas to the Godavari-Krishna basin and Mysore in the south. The empire of Ashoka, thus, was an all-India empire, except for the territories of the Cholas, Pandyas, Satyaputra and Keralaputra in the Tamil land of the far south.

But, this empire of Chandragupta, Bindusara and Ashoka did not include one prominent land which was just adjacent to the heartland of the Maurya Empire, namely, Magadha. It was Kalinga.

Also read: Short Biography of Ashoka the Great

For Twelve years after accession and especially for eight years after coronation Ashoka ruled the empire as a strong ruler with absolute power in his command. He lived the usual life of a great king in pomp, splendor and pleasure. He did not fight any external war, though he had the power for aggression. He also had no fear of invasion from outside Greek kings with whom there were diplomatic relations from the time of his father. During the first twelve years of his rule he was busy in internal administration. Obviously his position became stronger and stronger since his coronation.

When Ashoka had thus enjoyed his unlimited imperial authority for long, he decided to invade Kalinga. It was going to be his first major war. It was also destined to be his last war.

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