Ashoka Maurya





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Ashoka Maurya

Davanampriya Priyadarshi Chakravartin Samrat Ashoka Maurya was the third emperor of the Mauryan dynasty. Having seized the throne in the war of succession, he reigned for nearly forty years. Ashoka's life has been a historian's enigma. It is time we explore the legend and reality of Ashoka.

Ashoka Maurya Priyadarśin Devanapriya Chakravartin

Chakravarti, from Amaravati Stupa, 1st century CE, using the

Chakravarti, from Amaravati Stupa, 1st century CE, using the "Royal Gesture" and surrounded by his attributes. Possibly represents Ashoka of the Mauryan Empire.

Predecessor Bindusara
Empire Magadha (Indian Subcontinent in his context)
Issues Mahendra (Sri Lankan tradition) Sanghamitra (Sri Lankan tradition) Tivala (own inscriptions) Kunala (North Indian tradition) Charumati
Religion Hinduism(Initial years), Buddhism(Later part of life)
Spouses Devi (Sri Lankan tradition) Karuvaki (own inscriptions) Padmavati (North Indian tradition) Asandhimitra (Sri Lankan tradition) Tishyaraksha (Sri Lankan and North Indian tradition)
Dynasty Maurya
Reign c. 268 – c. 232 BCE
Coronation c.268 BCE
Birth place Patliputra
Date of death c.232 BCE
Grandfather Chandragupta Maurya
Death place Patliputra
Mother Subhadrangi or Devi
Father Bindusara
Date of birth c. 304 BCE
Sucessor Dasharatha

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. 

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 the 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 emperor's 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 the 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 backward, 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 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 scholars like Nayanjyot Lahiri assume that these places might be annual gathering sites or places of religious importance.

The Major Rock Edicts: Moral code of Dharma/Dhamma

Ashoka’s voice was first heard in edicts that ran from some six to twenty-two lines. ‘Short’ is a relative term, the relation being to the size of rescripts that came to be transcribed in the second campaign of epigraphs. As against the first articulation of the ‘minor’ edicts, we now encounter a series of messages, of more than a 
hundred lines covering, in several instances, multiple rock surfaces. By common consent, these are known as Ashoka’s major rock edicts, the word ‘major’ denoting the length and possibly the gravitas of the message. Collectively, the rendition appears like a  finished and coherent anthology comprising fourteen edicts. On the orders of the emperor, this set of edicts was transcribed in several places across India. At many of their locations, they have survived well. The most extraordinary of these sites is Erragudi in 
Andhra, where we saw the first of Ashoka’s minor epigraphs—which graces the most easily accessible of the Erragudi rocks, inscribed on the lowest of the boulders. Versions of the major edicts like the one at Erragudi appear on rocks at Girnar in Gujarat, at Shahbazgarhi, and Mansehra in northwest Pakistan, at Kandahar in Afghanistan, and at Kalsi in Uttarakhand. In two places within Orissa—Dhauli, and Jaugada—there is a complete set of edicts, though some of what is found on them differ from that on the axis from Pakistan to Andhra. A few of the major edicts have not endured well: Sopara in Maharashtra has yielded fragments of a mere three edicts, while at Sannathi in In  Karnataka only four edicts have been found.  The short earlier versions whetted his appetite for such discourse. He seems to have grown ever more convinced that governance involved not just ruling well and prescribing policy but ensuring direct and affective communication with his subjects. 

As regards the policy of the empire, it may be summed up in Asoka's message "The chiefest conquest is the conquest of Right and not of Might" [RE XIII] First, war was abolished within the empire by one stroke.The sovereignty of the smaller states and weaker peoples was respected as a matter of principle. To the manyunsubdued borderers of the empire went forth the healing message. The king desires that they should not be afraid of him but should trust him, and would receive from him not sorrow but happiness. Nor was subjection forced on the ruder peoples on the plea of civilising them, Even upon the forest folk in his dominions His Sacred Majesty looks kindly. 

"So rang through the country the message, loud and clear, repeated on rock and pillar, the message of freedom, of peace on earth and goodwill among men Silenced was the war-drum the bheri-ghoşa was drowned in the dharma-ghosa "[RE IV]. But we must note that Asoka attached a condition to his gift of Freedom, it must go with morality While anxious " to secure the confidence of the borderers," he was equally anxion/ to set them moving on the path of picty"[KE I The forest folks are distimetly "bidden to turn from the evil ways that they be not chastised. Secondly, while miltary conquest was forbidden, he moral conquests of the good cause grew apace. These were undertaken as parts of among his own peoples, but also in  spreading work of administration in the foreign countries on his borders and beyond. Thus his international relations were governed by principles that still remain to be recognized, the borderss  that divide nations could not stand before his sense of universal brotherhood.

Thus we find this good king, centuries ahead of his times, carrying on welfare work among the citizens of other states by the expenses borne by his own state [RE II].[ref]


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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