Ashoka Maurya





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Ashoka Maurya

The great Ashoka was third and most powerful emperor of Maurya dynasty. He was considered as one of ‘the greatest of kings’ because of his character as a man, the ideals for which he stood, and the principles by which he governed.

Ashoka was the third emperor of the Mauryan dynasty. Bindusara was succeeded by his son Asoka who is one of the greatest figures in history. He was considered as the greatest of kings and that not because of the physical extent of his empire, extensive as it was, but because of his character as a man, the ideals for which he stood, and the principles by which he governed. As a king, he ruled over the greatest empire known in Indian history. The vast territory extending from Persia to Southern India was bequeathed to him by his predecessors. He himself made an addition to it by his conquest of Kalinga.

A unique feature of his history is that he has himself left a record of it in a permanent form in inscriptions engraved on natural rocks as well as monolithic pillars constructed by him which stand to this day as remarkable monuments of Indian architecture and engineering skill. These inscriptions, along with the traditions recorded in literary texts in both Pali and Sanskrit, help to give a concrete and comprehensive picture of his life and work.

Early Life

Ashoka was the son of Bindusara and his queen who is mentioned in Divyavadana and Ashokavadana as Subhadrangi and Janpadkalyani, and in Srilakan Chronicles as Dharma. She is said to be the daughter of a Brahman of Champa. When she bore her first son, she said- I am without sorrow, and thus the son was named Ashoka (without shoka or sorrow). Ashoka was appointed the governor of Taxila and then Ujjain. According to Ashokavadana, he was sent to Taxila in order to quench a revolt. A fragmented Aramaic inscription found in Sirkap at Taxila that mentions him as viceroy further substantiates this narrative. [ref]

During his vice-royalty at Ujjain, he married Devi, the daughter of a local merchant, who bore him a son and a daughter- Mahindra and Sangmitra[ref] who are associated with spread of Buddhism in Ceylon. Devi has been referred in Ceylonese sources as Sakyani and Sakyakumari, daughter of a member of clan of Sakyas who emigrated to Vidisha.[ref] Devi, a pious Buddhist, stayed in Vidisha and indulged in donations to Viharas. Ashoka later married to Asandhimitta, who was his chief queen. His other queens were Karuvaki[ref]  and Padmavati.[ref]


Asokas accession to throne is enmeshed with several controversies still unresolved. Divyavadana states that Bindusara wished to appoint his son Susima as the king. Ashoka gained the throne against emperors wishes by tilting the ministers in his favour. However, considering the fact that he was chosen governor of two important provinces, and was considered able enough to suppress a revolt in Taxila, it seems unlikely that Ashoka was not the favoured son.

In Dipavamsha, there is mention of Ashoka having killed his 99 brothers while according to Taranath, the Tibetan writer, this number was six. Ceylonese sources also refer to a four year struggle among the princes for the throne, but Puranas and the Jaina sources nowhere mention it.

Date of accession

Several dates, like 271 BC, 269 BC, 268 BC, and 265 BC, have been offered as possible coronation years of Ashoka. Eggermont has used a very ingenious and convincing method to arrive at most probable year of his accession. Divyavadana refers to a pilgrimage taken by Ashoka to various sacred Buddhist places including Lumbini and Bodhi tree. It is mentioned that prior to this pilgrimage there was a solar eclipse. From the Rummindei inscription in Lumbini, it is evident that Ashoka went on this pilgrimage in his twenty-first year after coronation. Through the researches of Fazy and Sidersky, the date for above-mentioned eclipse has been arrived at 4 May, 249 BC. Working 20 year backwards, most acceptable year for accession of Ashoka seems 269-268 BC.[Citation Needed]

Pax Maurya: Age of Dhammavijaya

Plunging Ashoka into an emotional crisis, the result of the Kalinga war radically redirected the entire subsequent life and career of the grieving conqueror. The personal upheaval was also, inadvertently perhaps, a powerful and new political idea: by replacing subjugation with compassion as the most fundamental principle of monarchy, it introduced the earliest glimmerings of a rule of law in which ordinary folk and the citizenry, rather than only the powerful elites and royalty, were consequential. A new perception of kingly calling emerged out of this victory-as-defeat, one which Ashoka touched upon some years later when describing how he discharged his royal responsibilities and duties over this part of his reign. Central in his narrative in the aftermath of securing territorial supremacy was the contrast between his conduct and that of earlier kings.

The Emperor's Voice

Ashoka’s self-understanding and how he chose to arrange his narrative of kingship are therefore crucial to any account of his reign. It was a little after 260 BCE when Ashoka sent out a communiqué to his administrators in various parts of India—from the edge of the Yamuna flood plain in North India to the castellated hills of Karnataka in the South.  Communicating with provincial officials lay at the heart of the political system in ancient India. The provinces were, as we have seen—when noting Ashoka’s movements to Taxila in the northwest, Malwa in the south, and Kalinga in the east—spread out over thousands of kilometers. Ashoka had inherited an empire extending from Afghanistan to Karnataka and from Gujarat to Bengal. Administering an entity of this size required regularly touching base with provinces, these being frequently governed by princes of the royal family. Having served as viceroy at Ujjayini himself, Ashoka seems to have maintained the practice of delegating close male  kin to run the provincial bulwarks of his empire. Directions and orders were frequently given to these local functionaries through edicts. Their centrality can be gauged from the fact that directives for both peace and war appear within them. The decrees also include commands by the king concerning punishment and favour,  gifts and exemptions, authorizations for issuing orders, and carrying out certain required works. The Arthashastra considered it necessary for such communiqués to be written with clarity and prescribes the employment of literate scribes with a beautiful hand who ‘should listen with an attentive mind to the command of the king and set it down in writing. 

The importance of royal communications as an anchor of imperial administration is in inverse proportion to what has remained of them: no messages of any kind prior to the time of Ashoka have survived. The usual materials used for writing were palm leaf,  birch-bark (or ‘bhurjapatra’, Betula utilis), cotton cloth, and possibly wooden boards.  As with generations of rulers before him, it is likely that some of Ashoka’s official communications would have been recorded on  the product of such bark and leaf. The major post-Kalinga revolution in communication was that the emperor ordered several of his promulgations to be inscribed on stone and in public places.  These stone edicts have survived remarkably well: found some  2200 years after they were carved, several appear in much the state they were when created. The survival of an ancient document in the shape and place where it was originally inscribed is in itself unusual.  What makes it even more so is that, in Ashoka’s time, it was relatively rare. Alexander of Macedon, as we saw, went to great lengths to ensure he was remembered, even appointing an official historian for the purpose. This notwithstanding, the available narrative accounts about Alexander date to more than 300 years after.

The Minor Rock Edicts: Initial year's after War

Glimpses of rescripts that Ashoka first sent out to his provinces and which were inscribed on his instructions can still be seen at a large number of their original locations because the messages were engraved on immovable rocks and boulders. To distinguish it from the more expansive later edicts on rocks that are known as his ‘major rock edicts’, this communiqué has been classified among his minor rock edicts. There is much variety in the kinds of the surface upon which they were inscribed. Some are on flattish horizontal rock faces, as at Rajula Mandagiri in the Kurnool district in Andhra, and near Srinivaspuri in New Delhi. Others, such as those at Maski and Nittur in Karnataka, are engraved on vertical surfaces. The rocks are sometimes easily accessible, as at Bairat in the Jaipur district of Rajasthan, where the boulder is at the foot of a hillside; and in the case of the rock face on which the Erragudi edict in the Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh is engraved. Some are more difficult to access, such as the inscribed slab at Sasaram, which is located on top of the hill in the Rohtas district of Bihar; and the one at Palkigundu in the Koppal district of Karnataka, which crowns a high and fairly inaccessible ridge, can only be reached after negotiating a very steep elevation. The reasons for inscribing edicts in such remote places is not known but some scholar's like Nayanjyot Lahiri assumes that these places might be annual gathering sites or places of religious importance.



In the annals of kingship, there is scarcely any record comparable to that of Ashoka, both as a man and as a ruler. There are many reasons as well for the interest in him. In relation to his predecessors, he was the first Indian king to rule over an empire embracing much of India and its western borderlands, from Afghanistan to Orissa and towards the south as far as Karnataka. In relation to the rulers who followed him, it was his example that influenced thought philosophical, religious, cultural Asia more profoundly than that of any other political figure of antiquity. The appeal of Ashoka as a model of rulership, even in his own lifetime, is clear from the way in which the Lankan king Devanampiya Tissa (c. 247207 BCE) is said to have established the Buddhist faith in Lanka. This happened after Ashoka sent him gifts that were used for his second coronation, and a message encouraging him to take refuge in the Buddha. Ashoka's influence, much after his time, is unmistakable because he became an icon among Buddhist rulers, the great precedent and model of some of the emergent politics of South and Southeast Asia. In China, for instance, his shaping influence became discernible from the directions taken by several rulers. Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty (50249 ce) is an example of a ruler who tried to emulate Ashoka by erecting stupas and forbidding the consumption of alcohol and meat; the Chinese empress Wu Zetian (623/625 705 ce), at least initially, followed suit by projecting herself as a wheel-turning monarch or chakravartin, an image of Buddhist kingship closely associated with Ashoka. H.G. Wells had this in mind when, in his massive bestseller of the 1920s, The Outline of History, he said that amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousnesses, and serenities and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Ashoka shines, and shines almost alone, a star. From the Volga to Japan, his name is still honored. China, Tibet, and even India, though it has left his doctrine, preserve the tradition of his greatness. More living men cherish his memory today than ever heard the names of Constantine or Charlemagne. [ref][ref]

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