King Ashoka was the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya.
Asoka holds an important position not only in the history of India, but in the history of the world as well. Few characters in world history can stand comparison with him. He stands head and shoulders above them. The importance of Ashoka in history lies for a variety of reasons:
- Firstly, no other king recorded, in world history entertained a nobler conception of kingly duties than Asoka. He regarded his subjects as his own children. He tried his utmost to promote their material and moral well-being. He did not spare himself in the discharge of his kingly duties. He took special care to appoint honest and dutiful officials over whom he kept the closest supervision. He treated all classes of his subjects equally, irrespective of the faiths they professed. His rule was uniformly just and benevolent.
- Secondly, it was to him that Buddhism owed its elevation to the status of world- religion. When Gautama Buddha died. Buddhism was a local sect and its followers could be counted by thousands. But when Asoka championed it, it spread not only over the whole of India but even to land beyond India and came to be recognized as the most widely prevalent religion in the world.
- Thirdly, Asoka’s benevolent activities were confined not merely to his own empire, but extended beyond. He sent diplomatic envoys to the far distant Greek kingdoms and included them within the sphere of his philanthropic activities.
- Fourthly, Asoka’s activities were not confined to human beings alone; these pervaded the entire animate world.
- Fifthly, he gave India her first lingua franca, the Pali language, which he caused to be spread throughout his empire. His reign saw the realization of the ideal and dream of the ancient Indian political thinkers, viz., a united and undivided India from the Himalayas to the Cape of Comorin. No other ruler can claim to have reached such height of eminence as was reached by Asoka. Hence it has been said that in the annals of kingship, there is scarcely any record comparable to that of Asoka, both as a man and a ruler.
From the inscriptions we learn that on the IXth year of his reign Asoka conquered the country of Kalinga. But he was not capable of bearing the sight of pain and misery caused by this war to millions of innocent people. In the place of exaltation and pride he was moved by pity and repentance. It is said that soon after the Kalinga War Asoka became a Buddhist. Whether his remorse at the enormous loss of Kalinga War responsible for his conversion or his remorse was the result of conversion in a matter on which scholars differ.
The policy of Dharma included measures which today are associated with the welfare of the citizens. Asoka himself gave up the ancestral practice of going on pleasure tours and instead undertook pilgrimages to holy places. To inculcate the law of piety among his people he appointed a special class of officers named Dharma-mahamantras. He ordered his officers such as Yutas, Rajukas, Pradesikas, and Mahamantras to go on circuit for checking miscarriage of justice, arbitrary imprisonment and torture, and for preaching virtue. In order that people might know and understand the Dharma he caused these to be engraved on rocks and pillars and set these up in various parts of his empire. The language, in which teaching was worded, was plainest possible language so that everybody could read and understand them.
Asoka encouraged the holding of concourses (i.e. meetings) where the essence of all religions would be discussed and he also held the public shows of edifying objects for the promotion of Dharma.
Asoka’s vision was not confined only to his empire. He sent missionaries to the independent kingdoms of southern India, to the Hellenistic monarchies of Syria, Egypt, Cyrene, Macedonia, and Epirus. He sent Mahendra (his son of brother) and his daughter (sister according to others) Sanghamitra to Ceylon at the head of a religious mission. Burma also came possible within the sphere of his missionary activities.
Asoka ascended the Mauryan throne in 273 B.C.
In the IXth year of his reign ‘The Kalinga War’ and its attendant horrors brought about a radical change in the mind and thoughts of Asoka. He became a Buddhist. This led him eventually to support the cause of non-violence and consequently to forswear war as a means of conquest.
The importance of Asoka is self-evident. One war was enough to turn his mind for ever against the use of arms and convinced him that the true conquest was that of love of dharma (Dharmavijaya). True, his pacifism has been over stressed. Yet Asoka never allowed this to supersede the duties and responsibilities expected as the head of a mighty empire. In fact, in him there was a perfect blend of the king and a missionary. That is why he is called the ‘Great’.
Like his predecessors Asoka was an aggressive conqueror at the beginning. Therefore, he followed the policy of conquest and expansion. But he did not continue this policy of aggressions as his predecessors. Hence Kalinga was the first and destined to be the last victim of his aggression.
There might have been several reasons for the Maurya invasion of Kalinga. In the edicts Kalingas are described as an unsubdued people. Kalinga was a part of the Nanda Empire but later they might have repudiated allegiance to the imperial authority of Magadha. Hence the very independence and growing power of Kalinga was a thorn to Mauryan imperial ambition.
In the IXth year since his accession Asoka launched an offensive on the kingdom of Kalinga and utterly routed them. If we are informed in the R.E. XIII, “A hundred and fifty thousand people were deported, a hundred thousand were killed and, many times, that number perished.”
Asoka emerged triumphant and but military success was won at a very high price. The destruction caused by the war filled the king with remorse. Hence he sought solace in the non-violent principle of Buddhism. Its impact was destined to profoundly affect the course of history. Asoka discarded for good the policy of military conquest.
It has been said that after the death of Bindusara Asoka succeeded him on the Mauryan throne. Asoka’s accession, according to Ceyconese chronicles is set against the back ground of fratricidal war. Asoka is said to have killed ninety-nine of his brothers. But these appear to have been just a wild legend, a calculated invention in order to describe the wickedness of Asoka before he embraced Buddhism. But the fact remains that the coronation of Asoka was delayed by four years and took place in 269 B.C. Hence some scholars say that it may not be altogether a simple legend and there might have occurred a fratricidal war after the death of Bindusara.
Asokan edicts provide us with a clear picture of the extent of his dominions. In the north-west it touched the borders of the Syrian empire and extended over the territories of the tribes called Kambojas, Yonas, and Gandharas. In the north the empire extended up to the borders of the Himalayas and with the inclusion of Kashmir and Nepal tarai. In the east the empire extended over Bengal and as far as Brahmaputra. In the west the empire extended up to Saurashtra. The southern limits of his empire were marked by the Pennar River beyond which lay the Tamil kingdoms of the Cholas, Pandyas and Keralas. The Greek writers mention the name of a place called Gangaridai. Gangaridai has been identified as some part of Bengal. Hence Bengal or at least a part of it must have been within Asokan Empire. Similarly, the famous Chinese pilgrim Hiuen-Tsang has testified in his account the inclusion of Kashmir in Asokan Empire.