Ashoka (English: /əˈʃoʊkə/; IAST: Aśoka; died 232 BCE), or
Ashoka the Great, was an Indian emperor of the Maurya Dynasty, who
ruled almost all of the
Indian subcontinent from c. 268 to 232
BCE. He was the grandson of the founder of the Maurya Dynasty,
Chandragupta Maurya, who had created one of the largest empires in
India and then, according to Jain sources, renounced it all to
become a Jain monk. One of India's greatest emperors, Ashoka
expanded Chandragupta's empire, and reigned over a realm that
stretched from present-day
Afghanistan in the west to
the east. It covered the entire
Indian subcontinent except for parts
of present-day Tamil Nadu,
Karnataka and Kerala. The empire's capital
Pataliputra (in Magadha, present-day Patna), with provincial
Taxila and Ujjain.
In about 260 BCE,
Ashoka waged a destructive war against the state of
Kalinga (modern Odisha). He conquered Kalinga, which none of his
ancestors had done. Some scholars suggest he belonged to the Jain
tradition, but it is generally accepted that he embraced Buddhism.
Legends state he converted after witnessing the mass deaths of the
Kalinga War, which he himself had waged out of a desire for conquest.
Ashoka reflected on the war in Kalinga, which reportedly had resulted
in more than 100,000 deaths and 150,000 deportations, ending at around
Ashoka converted to
Buddhism about 263 BCE. He
is remembered for the
Ashoka pillars and edicts, for sending Buddhist
Sri Lanka and Central Asia, and for establishing monuments
marking several significant sites in the life of Gautama Buddha.
Beyond the Edicts of Ashoka, biographical information about him relies
on legends written centuries later, such as the 2nd-century CE
Ashokavadana ("Narrative of Ashoka", a part of the Divyavadana), and
in the Sri Lankan text
Mahavamsa ("Great Chronicle"). The emblem of
Republic of India
Republic of India is an adaptation of the Lion Capital of
Ashoka. Ashoka's name "Aśoka" means "painless, without sorrow" in
Sanskrit (the a privativum and śoka, "pain, distress"). In his
edicts, he is referred to as Devānāmpriya (
Pali Devānaṃpiya or
"the Beloved of the Gods"), and Priyadarśin (
Pali Piyadasī or "He
who regards everyone with affection"). His fondness for his name's
connection to the
Saraca asoca tree, or "
Ashoka tree", is also
referenced in the Ashokavadana.
H.G. Wells wrote of
Ashoka in his book
The Outline of History: "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
Ashoka shines, and shines, almost alone, a star."
1.1 Ashoka's early life
1.2 Rise to power
1.4 Conquest of Kalinga &
1.5 Death and legacy
2 Historical sources
3 Perceptions and historiography
3.1 Focus of debate
3.2 Legends of Ashoka
Ashoka and the relics of the Buddha
4.1 Approach towards religions
4.2 Global spread of Buddhism
4.4 As administrator
4.5 Animal welfare
4.7 Stone architecture
Pillars of Ashoka
Pillars of Ashoka (Ashokstambha)
Lion Capital of Ashoka
Lion Capital of Ashoka (Ashokmudra)
4.7.3 Constructions credited to Ashoka
5 In art, film and literature
6 See also
8 External links
Ashoka's early life
Ashoka was born to the
Bindusara and Subhadrangī (or
Dharmā). He was the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, founder of
the Maurya dynasty. Broadly, Chandragupta was born in a humble family,
abandoned, raised as a son by another family, then with the training
and counsel of
Arthashastra fame ultimately built one of
the largest empires in ancient India. Ashoka's grandfather
Chandragupta renounced it all, and became a monk in the Jain
tradition. According to Roman historian Appian, Chandragupta had
made a "marital alliance" with Seleucus; there is thus a possibility
Ashoka had a Seleucid Greek grandmother. An Indian
Puranic source, the Pratisarga Parva of the Bhavishya Purana, also
described the marriage of Chandragupta with a Greek ("Yavana")
princess, daughter of Seleucus.
The ancient Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain texts provide varying
biographical accounts. The
Avadana texts mention that his mother was
queen Subhadrangī. According to the Ashokavadana, she was the
daughter of a Brahmin from the city of Champa.:205 She gave
him the name Ashoka, meaning "one without sorrow". The Divyāvadāna
tells a similar story, but gives the name of the queen as
Ashoka had several elder siblings, all of
whom were his half-brothers from the other wives of his father
Ashoka was given royal military training.
Rise to power
Ashoka's empire stretched from
Bengal to southern
India. Several modern maps depict it as covering nearly all of the
Indian subcontinent, except the southern tip.
Hermann Kulke and
Dietmar Rothermund believe that Ashoka's empire did
not include large parts of India, which were controlled by autonomous
Ashoka putting down a revolt
due to activities of wicked ministers. This may have been an incident
in Bindusara's times. Taranatha's account states that Chanakya,
Bindusara's chief advisor, destroyed the nobles and kings of 16 towns
and made himself the master of all territory between the eastern and
the western seas. Some historians consider this as an indication of
Bindusara's conquest of the Deccan while others consider it as
suppression of a revolt. Following this,
Ashoka was stationed at
Ujain, the capital of Malwa, as governor.
Bindusara's death in 272 BCE led to a war over succession. According
to the Divyavadana,
Bindusara wanted his elder son
Susima to succeed
Ashoka was supported by his father's ministers, who found
Susima to be arrogant and disrespectful towards them. A minister
named Radhagupta seems to have played an important role in Ashoka's
rise to the throne. The
Ashokavadana recounts Radhagupta's offering of
an old royal elephant to
Ashoka for him to ride to the Garden of the
Gold Pavilion where King
Bindusara would determine his successor.
Ashoka later got rid of the legitimate heir to the throne by tricking
him into entering a pit filled with live coals. Radhagupta, according
to the Ashokavadana, would later be appointed prime minister by Ashoka
once he had gained the throne. The
Mahavansa refer to
Ashoka's killing 99 of his brothers, sparing only one, named Vitashoka
or Tissa, although there is no clear proof about this incident
(many such accounts are saturated with mythological elements). The
coronation happened in 269 BCE, four years after his succession to the
Ashoka and his Queen at the Deer Park.
Buddhist legends state that
Ashoka was bad-tempered and of a wicked
nature. He built Ashoka's Hell, an elaborate torture chamber described
as a "Paradisal Hell" due to the contrast between its beautiful
exterior and the acts carried out within by his appointed executioner,
Girikaa. This earned him the name of Chanda
Aśoka) meaning "
Ashoka the Fierce" in Sanskrit. Professor Charles
Drekmeier cautions that the
Buddhist legends tend to dramatise the
Buddhism brought in him, and therefore, exaggerate
Ashoka's past wickedness and his piousness after the conversion.
Ascending the throne,
Ashoka expanded his empire over the next eight
years, from the present-day
Assam in the East to
Balochistan in the
West; from the
Pamir Knot in
Afghanistan in the north to the peninsula
India except for present day
Tamil Nadu and
were ruled by the three ancient Tamil kingdoms.
From the various sources that speak of his life,
Ashoka is believed to
have had five wives. They were named Devi (or
Vedisa-Mahadevi-Shakyakumari), the second queen, Karuvaki,
Asandhimitra (designated agramahisī or "chief queen"), Padmavati, and
Tishyarakshita. He is similarly believed to have had four sons and
two daughters: a son by Devi named Mahendra (Pali: Mahinda), Tivara
(son of Karuvaki),
Kunala (son of Padmavati, and Jalauka (mentioned in
the Kashmir Chronicle), a daughter of Devi named
Sanghamitta), and another daughter named Charumati.
According to one version of the Mahavamsa, the
Buddhist chronicle of
Sri Lanka, Ashoka, when he was heir-apparent and was journeying as
Viceroy to Ujjain, is said to have halted at
Vidisha (10 kilometers
from Sanchi), and there married the daughter of a local banker. She
was called Devi and later gave
Ashoka two sons, Ujjeniya and Mahendra,
and a daughter Sanghamitta. After Ashoka's accession, Mahendra headed
Buddhist mission, sent probably under the auspices of the Emperor,
to Sri Lanka.
Conquest of Kalinga &
While the early part of Ashoka's reign was apparently quite
bloodthirsty, he became a follower of the Buddha's teachings after his
conquest of the Kalinga on the east coast of
India in the present-day
Odisha and North Coastal Andhra Pradesh. Kalinga was a state
that prided itself on its sovereignty and democracy. With its
monarchical parliamentary democracy it was quite an exception in
ancient Bharata where there existed the concept of Rajdharma.
Rajdharma means the duty of the rulers, which was intrinsically
entwined with the concept of bravery and dharma. The Kalinga War
happened eight years after his coronation. From his 13th inscription,
we come to know that the battle was a massive one and caused the
deaths of more than 100,000 soldiers and many civilians who rose up in
defence; over 150,000 were deported.
Diamond throne built by
Ashoka at the
Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh
Gaya, at the location where the
Buddha reached enlightenment.
Edict 13 of the
Edicts of Ashoka
Edicts of Ashoka Rock Inscriptions expresses the great
remorse the king felt after observing the destruction of Kalinga:
Directly after the Kalingas had been annexed began His Sacred
Majesty’s zealous protection of the Law of Piety, his love of that
Law, and his inculcation of that Law. Thence arises the remorse of His
Sacred Majesty for having conquered the Kalingas, because the conquest
of a country previously unconquered involves the slaughter, death, and
carrying away captive of the people. That is a matter of profound
sorrow and regret to His Sacred Majesty.
Legend says that one day after the war was over,
Ashoka ventured out
to roam the city and all he could see were burnt houses and scattered
corpses. The lethal war with Kalinga transformed the vengeful Emperor
Ashoka to a stable and peaceful emperor and he became a patron of
Buddhism. According to the prominent Indologist, A. L. Basham,
Ashoka's personal religion became Buddhism, if not before, then
certainly after the Kalinga war. However, according to Basham, the
Dharma officially propagated by
Ashoka was not
Buddhism at all.
Nevertheless, his patronage led to the expansion of
Buddhism in the
Mauryan empire and other kingdoms during his rule, and worldwide from
about 250 BCE. Prominent in this cause were his son Mahinda
(Mahendra) and daughter
Sanghamitra (whose name means "friend of the
Sangha"), who established
Buddhism in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
Ashokan Pillar at Vaishali
Death and legacy
Ashoka's Major Rock Edict
Ashoka's Major Rock Edict at
Junagadh contains inscriptions by Ashoka
(fourteen of the Edicts of Ashoka),
Rudradaman I and Skandagupta.
Ashoka ruled for an estimated 36 years and died in 232 BCE. Legend
states that during his cremation, his body burned for seven days and
nights. After his death, the
Mauryan dynasty lasted just fifty
more years until his empire stretched over almost all of the Indian
Ashoka had many wives and children, but many of their
names are lost to time. His chief consort (agramahisi) for the
majority of his reign was his wife, Asandhimitra, who apparently bore
him no children.
In his old age, he seems to have come under the spell of his youngest
wife Tishyaraksha. It is said that she had got Ashoka's son Kunala,
the regent in Takshashila and the heir presumptive to the throne,
blinded by a wily stratagem. The official executioners spared Kunala
and he became a wandering singer accompanied by his favourite wife
Kanchanmala. In Pataliputra,
Ashoka heard Kunala's song, and realised
that Kunala's misfortune may have been a punishment for some past sin
of the emperor himself. He condemned
Tishyaraksha to death, restoring
Kunala to the court. In the Ashokavadana,
Kunala is portrayed as
forgiving Tishyaraksha, having obtained enlightenment through Buddhist
practice. While he urges
Ashoka to forgive her as well,
not respond with the same forgiveness.
Kunala was succeeded by his
son, Samprati, who ruled for 50 years until his death.[citation
The reign of
Ashoka Maurya might have disappeared into history as the
ages passed by, had he not left behind records of his reign. These
records are in the form of sculpted pillars and rocks inscribed with a
variety of actions and teachings he wished to be published under his
name. The language used for inscription was in one of the Prakrit
"common" languages etched in a Brahmi script.
In the year 185 BCE, about fifty years after Ashoka's death, the last
Maurya ruler, Brihadratha, was assassinated by the commander-in-chief
Mauryan armed forces, Pushyamitra Shunga, while he was taking
the Guard of Honor of his forces.
Pushyamitra Shunga founded the
Shunga dynasty (185-75 BCE) and ruled just a fragmented part of the
Mauryan Empire. Many of the northwestern territories of the Mauryan
Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan) became the
Indo-Greek Kingdom.
King Ashoka, the third monarch of the Indian
Mauryan dynasty, is also
considered as one of the most exemplary rulers who ever lived.
Khalsi rock edict of Ashoka, which mentions the Greek kings
Antiochus, Ptolemy, Antigonus, Magas and Alexander by name, as
recipients of his teachings.
Further information: History of Buddhism, History of
Buddhism in Nepal,
Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and
Buddhism in Burma
One of the more enduring legacies of
Ashoka was the model that he
provided for the relationship between
Buddhism and the state. Emperor
Ashoka was seen as a role model to leaders within the Buddhist
community. He not only provided guidance and strength, but he also
created personal relationships with his supporters. Throughout
Theravada Southeastern Asia, the model of rulership embodied by Ashoka
replaced the notion of divine kingship that had previously dominated
Angkor kingdom, for instance). Under this model of 'Buddhist
kingship', the king sought to legitimise his rule not through descent
from a divine source, but by supporting and earning the approval of
Buddhist sangha. Following Ashoka's example, kings established
monasteries, funded the construction of stupas, and supported the
ordination of monks in their kingdom. Many rulers also took an active
role in resolving disputes over the status and regulation of the
Ashoka had in calling a conclave to settle a number of
contentious issues during his reign. This development ultimately led
to a close association in many Southeast Asian countries between the
monarchy and the religious hierarchy, an association that can still be
seen today in the state-supported
Buddhism of Thailand and the
traditional role of the Thai king as both a religious and secular
Ashoka also said that all his courtiers always governed the
people in a moral manner.
According to the legends mentioned in the 2nd-century CE text
Ashoka was not non-violent after adopting Buddhism. In
one instance, a non-
Pundravardhana drew a picture showing
Buddha bowing at the feet of
Nirgrantha Jnatiputra (identified
with Mahavira, 24th Tirthankara of Jainism). On complaint from a
Ashoka issued an order to arrest him, and
subsequently, another order to kill all the Ajivikas in
Pundravardhana. Around 18,000 followers of the
Ajivika sect were
executed as a result of this order. Sometime later, another
Nirgrantha follower in
Pataliputra drew a similar picture. Ashoka
burnt him and his entire family alive in their house. He also
announced an award of one dinara (silver coin) to anyone who brought
him the head of a Nirgrantha heretic. According to Ashokavadana, as a
result of this order, his own brother was mistaken for a heretic and
killed by a cowherd. However, for several reasons, scholars say,
these stories of persecutions of rival sects by
Ashoka appear to be
clear fabrications arising out of sectarian propaganda.
Main articles: Edicts of Ashoka, Ashokavadana, Mahavamsa, and
Ashoka was almost forgotten by the historians of the early British
James Prinsep contributed in the revelation of historical
sources. Another important historian was British archaeologist John
Hubert Marshall, who was director-General of the Archaeological Survey
of India. His main interests were
Sanchi and Sarnath, in addition to
Harappa and Mohenjodaro. Sir Alexander Cunningham, a British
archaeologist and army engineer, and often known as the father of the
Archaeological Survey of India, unveiled heritage sites like the
Bharhut Stupa, Sarnath, Sanchi, and the Mahabodhi Temple. Mortimer
Wheeler, a British archaeologist, also exposed Ashokan historical
sources, especially the Taxila.
Kandahar Edict of Ashoka, a bilingual inscription (in Greek and
Aramaic) by King Ashoka, discovered at
Kandahar (National Museum of
Information about the life and reign of
Ashoka primarily comes from a
relatively small number of
Buddhist sources. In particular, the
Ashokavadana ('Story of Ashoka'), written in the 2nd century,
and the two
Pāli chronicles of
Sri Lanka (the
Mahavamsa) provide most of the currently known information about
Ashoka. Additional information is contributed by the Edicts of Ashoka,
whose authorship was finally attributed to the
Ashoka of Buddhist
legend after the discovery of dynastic lists that gave the name used
in the edicts (Priyadarshi—'He who regards everyone with affection')
as a title or additional name of
Ashoka Maurya. Architectural remains
of his period have been found at Kumhrar, Patna, which include an
80-pillar hypostyle hall.
Edicts of Ashoka
Edicts of Ashoka -The
Edicts of Ashoka
Edicts of Ashoka are a collection of 33
inscriptions on the Pillars of Ashoka, as well as boulders and cave
walls, made by
Ashoka during his reign. These inscriptions are
dispersed throughout modern-day
Pakistan and India, and represent the
first tangible evidence of Buddhism. The edicts describe in detail the
first wide expansion of
Buddhism through the sponsorship of one of the
most powerful kings of Indian history, offering more information about
Ashoka's proselytism, moral precepts, religious precepts, and his
notions of social and animal welfare.
Ashokavadana – The Aśokāvadāna is a 2nd-century CE text
related to the legend of Ashoka. The legend was translated into
Fa Hien in 300 CE. It is essentially a
Hinayana text, and
its world is that of Mathura and North-west India. The emphasis of
this little known text is on exploring the relationship between the
king and the community of monks (the Sangha) and setting up an ideal
of religious life for the laity (the common man) by telling appealing
stories about religious exploits. The most startling feature is that
Ashoka’s conversion has nothing to do with the Kalinga war, which is
not even mentioned, nor is there a word about his belonging to the
Maurya dynasty. Equally surprising is the record of his use of state
power to spread
Buddhism in an uncompromising fashion. The legend of
Veetashoka provides insights into Ashoka’s character that are not
available in the widely known
A punch-marked Coin of Ashoka
A silver coin of 1 karshapana of the empire Maurya, period of Ashoka
Maurya towards 272-232 BC, workshop of Mathura. Obv: Symbols including
a sun and an animal Rev: Symbol Dimensions: 13.92 x 11.75 mm Weight:
Mahavamsa ("Great Chronicle") is a historical poem
written in the
Pali language of the kings of Sri Lanka. It covers the
period from the coming of King Vijaya of Kalinga (ancient Odisha) in
543 BCE to the reign of King Mahasena (334–361). As it often refers
to the royal dynasties of India, the
Mahavamsa is also valuable for
historians who wish to date and relate contemporary royal dynasties in
the Indian subcontinent. It is very important in dating the
consecration of Ashoka.
Dwipavamsa -The Dwipavamsa, or "Dweepavamsa", (i.e., Chronicle of the
Island, in Pali) is the oldest historical record of Sri Lanka. The
chronicle is believed to be compiled from
Atthakatha and other sources
around the 3rd or 4th century CE. King Dhatusena (4th century) had
ordered that the
Dipavamsa be recited at the Mahinda festival held
annually in Anuradhapura.
Caduceus symbol on a punch-marked coin of the
Maurya Empire in India,
in the 3rd-2nd century BCE.
The caduceus appears as a symbol of the punch-marked coins of the
Maurya Empire in India, in the 3rd-2nd century BCE. Numismatic
research suggests that this symbol was the symbol of king Ashoka, his
personal "Mudra". This symbol was not used on the pre-Mauryan
punch-marked coins, but only on coins of the Maurya period, together
with the three arched-hill symbol, the "peacock on the hill", the
triskelis and the
Perceptions and historiography
The use of
Buddhist sources in reconstructing the life of
had a strong influence on perceptions of Ashoka, as well as the
interpretations of his Edicts. Building on traditional accounts, early
Ashoka as a primarily
Buddhist monarch who underwent
a conversion to
Buddhism and was actively engaged in sponsoring and
Buddhist monastic institution. Some scholars have
tended to question this assessment. Romila Thappar writes about Ashoka
that "We need to see him both as a statesman in the context of
inheriting and sustaining an empire in a particular historical period,
and as a person with a strong commitment to changing society through
what might be called the propagation of social ethics." The only
source of information not attributable to
Buddhist sources are the
Ashokan Edicts, and these do not explicitly state that
Ashoka was a
Buddhist. In his edicts,
Ashoka expresses support for all the major
religions of his time: Buddhism, Brahmanism, Jainism, and Ajivikaism,
and his edicts addressed to the population at large (there are some
addressed specifically to Buddhists; this is not the case for the
other religions) generally focus on moral themes members of all the
religions would accept. For example, Amartya Sen writes, "The Indian
Ashoka in the third century BCE presented many political
inscriptions in favor of tolerance and individual freedom, both as a
part of state policy and in the relation of different people to each
However, the edicts alone strongly indicate that he was a Buddhist. In
one edict he belittles rituals, and he banned Vedic animal sacrifices;
these strongly suggest that he at least did not look to the Vedic
tradition for guidance. Furthermore, many edicts are expressed to
Buddhists alone; in one,
Ashoka declares himself to be an "upasaka",
and in another he demonstrates a close familiarity with Buddhist
texts. He erected rock pillars at
Buddhist holy sites, but did not do
so for the sites of other religions. He also used the word "dhamma" to
refer to qualities of the heart that underlie moral action; this was
Buddhist use of the word. However, he used the word
more in the spirit than as a strict code of conduct. Romila Thappar
writes, "His dhamma did not derive from divine inspiration, even if
its observance promised heaven. It was more in keeping with the ethic
conditioned by the logic of given situations. His logic of Dhamma was
intended to influence the conduct of categories of people, in relation
to each other. Especially where they involved unequal
relationships." Finally, he promotes ideals that correspond to the
first three steps of the Buddha's graduated discourse.
Ashokavadana presents an alternate view of the
familiar Ashoka; one in which his conversion has nothing to do with
the Kalinga war or about his descent from the Maurya dynasty. Instead,
Ashoka's reason for adopting non-violence appears much more personal.
Ashokavadana shows that the main source of Ashoka's conversion and
the acts of welfare that followed are rooted instead in intense
personal anguish at its core, from a wellspring inside himself rather
than spurred by a specific event. It thereby illuminates
more humanly ambitious and passionate, with both greatness and flaws.
Ashoka is very different from the "shadowy do-gooder" of later
Much of the knowledge about
Ashoka comes from the several inscriptions
that he had carved on pillars and rocks throughout the empire. All his
inscriptions present him as compassionate and loving. In the Kalinga
rock edits, he addresses his people as his "children" and mentions
that as a father he desires their good. These inscriptions
Buddhist morality and encouraged nonviolence and adherence to
dharma (duty or proper behaviour), and they talk of his fame and
conquered lands as well as the neighbouring kingdoms holding up his
might. One also gets some primary information about the Kalinga War
and Ashoka's allies plus some useful knowledge on the civil
Ashoka Pillar at
Sarnath is the most notable of
the relics left by Ashoka. Made of sandstone, this pillar records the
visit of the emperor to Sarnath, in the 3rd century BCE. It has a
four-lion capital (four lions standing back to back), which was
adopted as the emblem of the modern Indian republic. The lion
symbolises both Ashoka's imperial rule and the kingship of the Buddha.
In translating these monuments, historians learn the bulk of what is
assumed to have been true fact of the
Mauryan Empire. It is difficult
to determine whether or not some events ever actually happened, but
the stone etchings clearly depict how
Ashoka wanted to be thought of
and remembered.
Focus of debate
Front frieze of the Diamond throne, built by
Ashoka at Bodh Gaya.
Recently scholarly analysis determined that the three major foci of
Ashoka involve the nature of the Maurya empire; the
extent and impact of Ashoka's pacifism; and what is referred to in the
Inscriptions as dhamma or dharma, which connotes goodness, virtue, and
charity. Some historians[who?] have argued that Ashoka's pacifism
undermined the "military backbone" of the Maurya empire, while others
have suggested that the extent and impact of his pacifism have been
"grossly exaggerated". The dhamma of the Edicts has been understood as
Buddhist lay ethic, a set of politico-moral ideas, a
"sort of universal religion", or as an Ashokan innovation. On the
other hand, it has also been interpreted as an essentially political
ideology that sought to knit together a vast and diverse empire.
Scholars are still attempting to analyse both the expressed and
implied political ideas of the Edicts (particularly in regard to
imperial vision), and make inferences pertaining to how that vision
was grappling with problems and political realities of a "virtually
subcontinental, and culturally and economically highly variegated, 3rd
century BCE Indian empire. Nonetheless, it remains clear that Ashoka's
Inscriptions represent the earliest corpus of royal inscriptions in
the Indian subcontinent, and therefore prove to be a very important
innovation in royal practices."
Legends of Ashoka
Ashoka and his two queens, in a relief at Sanchi.
Until the Ashokan inscriptions were discovered and deciphered, stories
Ashoka were based on the legendary accounts of his life and not
strictly on historical facts. These legends were found in Buddhist
textual sources such as the text of Ashokavadana. The
a subset of a larger set of legends in the Divyavadana, though it
could have existed independently as well. Following are some of the
legends narrated in the
Ashokavadana about Ashoka:
1) One of the stories talks about an event that occurred in a past
life of Ashoka, when he was a small child named Jaya. Once when Jaya
was playing on the roadside, the
Buddha came by. The young child put a
handful of earth in the Buddha’s begging bowl as his gift to the
saint and declared his wish to one day become a great emperor and
follower of the Buddha. The
Buddha is said to have smiled a smile that
“illuminated the universe with its rays of light”. These rays
of light are then said to have re-entered the Buddha’s left palm,
signifying that this child Jaya would, in his next life, become a
great emperor. The
Buddha is said to have even turned to his disciple
Ananda and is said to have predicted that this child would be “a
great, righteous chakravarti king, who would rule his empire from his
capital at Pataliputra”.
2) Another story aims to portray
Ashoka as an evil person in order to
convey the importance of his transformation into a good person upon
adopting Buddhism. It begins by stating that due to Ashoka’s
physical ugliness he was disliked by his father Bindusara. Ashoka
wanted to become king and so he got rid of the heir by tricking him
into entering a pit filled with live coals. He became famous as
Ashoka the Fierce” because of his wicked nature and bad temper.
He is said to have subjected his ministers to a test of loyalty and
then have 500 of them killed for failing it. He is said to have burnt
his entire harem to death when certain women insulted him. He is
supposed to have derived sadistic pleasure from watching other people
suffer. And for this he built himself an elaborate and horrific
torture chamber where he amused himself by torturing other people. The
story then goes on to narrate how it was only after an encounter with
Buddhist monk that
Ashoka himself transformed into “Ashoka
the pious”. A Chinese traveler who visited
India in the 7th century
CE, XuanZang recorded in his memoirs that he visited the place where
the supposed torture chamber stood.
3) Another story is about events that occurred towards the end of
Ashoka’s time on earth.
Ashoka is said to have started gifting away
the contents of his treasury to the
Buddhist sangha. His ministers
however were scared that his eccentricity would be the downfall of the
empire and so denied him access to the treasury. As a result, Ashoka
started giving away his personal possessions and was eventually left
with nothing and so died peacefully.
At this point it is important to note that the
Ashokavadana being a
Buddhist text in itself sought to gain new converts for
so used all these legends. Devotion to the
Buddha and loyalty to the
sangha are stressed. Such texts added to the perception that Ashoka
was essentially the ideal
Buddhist monarch who deserved both
admiration and emulation.
Ashoka and the relics of the Buddha
Buddhist legend, particularly the Mahaparinirvana, the
relics of the
Buddha had been shared among eight countries following
Ashoka endeavoured to take back the relics and share
them among 84,000 stupas. This story is amply depicted in the reliefs
Sanchi and Bharhut. According to the legend,
the ashes from seven of the countries, but failed to take the ashes
from the Nagas at Ramagrama. This scene is depicted on the tranversal
portion of the southern gateway at Sanchi.
Ashoka visits Ramagrama, to take relics of the
Buddha from the
Nagas, but in vain. Southern gateway,
Stupa 1, Sanchi.
Approach towards religions
According to Indian historian Romila Thapar,
Ashoka emphasized respect
for all religious teachers, and harmonious relationship between
parents and children, teachers and pupils, and employers and
employees. Ashoka's religion contained gleanings from all
religions. He emphasized the virtues of Ahimsa,
respect to all religious teachers, equal respect for and study of each
other's scriptures, and rational faith.
Global spread of Buddhism
Stupa of Sanchi. The central stupa was built during the Mauryas, and
enlarged during the Sungas, but the decorative gateway is dated to the
later dynasty of the Satavahanas.
Ashoka believed that
Buddhism is beneficial for
all human beings as well as animals and plants, so he built a number
of stupas, Sangharama, viharas, chaitya, and residences for Buddhist
monks all over South Asia and Central Asia. According to the
Ashokavadana, he ordered the construction of 84,000 stupas to house
the Buddha's relics. In the Aryamanjusrimulakalpa,
offerings to each of these stupas traveling in a chariot adorned with
precious metals. He gave donations to viharas and mathas. He sent
his only daughter
Sanghamitra and son Mahindra to spread
Sri Lanka (then known as Tamraparni).
According to the Mahavamsa, in the 17th year of Ashoka's reign, at the
end of the Third
to nine parts of the world to propagate Buddhism.
Geographical distribution of known capitals of the Pillars of Ashoka.
These are all thought to have been commissioned by Ashoka.
Ashoka also invited Buddhists and non-Buddhists for religious
conferences. He inspired the
Buddhist monks to compose the sacred
religious texts, and also gave all types of help to that end. Ashoka
also helped to develop viharas (intellectual hubs) such as
Ashoka helped to construct
Sanchi and Mahabodhi Temple. Ashoka
also gave donations to non-Buddhists. As his reign continued his
even-handedness was replaced with special inclination towards
Ashoka helped and respected both Shramanas (Buddhists
monks) and Brahmins (Vedic monks).
Ashoka also helped to organise the
Buddhist council (c. 250 BCE) at
Pataliputra (today's Patna).
It was conducted by the monk
Moggaliputta-Tissa who was the spiritual
teacher of Ashoka.
Emperor Ashoka's son, Mahinda, also helped with the spread of Buddhism
by translating the
Buddhist Canon into a language that could be
understood by the people of Sri Lanka.
It is well known that
Ashoka sent dütas or emissaries to convey
messages or letters, written or oral (rather both), to various people.
The VIth Rock Edict about "oral orders" reveals this. It was later
confirmed that it was not unusual to add oral messages to written
ones, and the content of Ashoka's messages can be inferred likewise
from the XIIIth Rock Edict: They were meant to spread his
dhammavijaya, which he considered the highest victory and which he
wished to propagate everywhere (including far beyond India). There is
obvious and undeniable trace of cultural contact through the adoption
Kharosthi script, and the idea of installing inscriptions might
have travelled with this script, as
Achaemenid influence is seen in
some of the formulations used by
Ashoka in his inscriptions. This
indicates to us that
Ashoka was indeed in contact with other cultures,
and was an active part in mingling and spreading new cultural ideas
beyond his own immediate walls.
Distribution of the Edicts of Ashoka, and location of the contemporary
Greek city of Ai-Khanoum.
Buddhist proselytism at the time of king
Ashoka (260–218 BCE).
In his edicts,
Ashoka mentions some of the people living in Hellenic
countries as converts to
Buddhism and recipients of his envoys,
although no Hellenic historical record of this event remains:
Now it is conquest by Dhamma that Beloved-of-the-Gods considers to be
the best conquest. And it (conquest by Dhamma) has been won here, on
the borders, even six hundred yojanas away, where the Greek king
Antiochos rules, beyond there where the four kings named Ptolemy,
Antigonos, Magas and Alexander rule, likewise in the south among the
Cholas, the Pandyas, and as far as Tamraparni. Here in the king's
domain among the Greeks, the Kambojas, the Nabhakas, the Nabhapamktis,
the Bhojas, the Pitinikas, the Andhras and the Palidas, everywhere
people are following Beloved-of-the-Gods' instructions in Dhamma. Even
where Beloved-of-the-Gods' envoys have not been, these people too,
having heard of the practice of Dhamma and the ordinances and
instructions in Dhamma given by Beloved-of-the-Gods, are following it
and will continue to do so.
— Edicts of Ashoka, Rock Edict (S. Dhammika)
It is not too far-fetched to imagine, however, that
letters from Greek rulers and was acquainted with the Hellenistic
royal orders in the same way as he perhaps knew of the inscriptions of
Achaemenid kings, given the presence of ambassadors of Hellenistic
India (as well as the dütas sent by
Dionysius is reported to have been such a Greek ambassador at the
court of Ashoka, sent by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who himself is
mentioned in the
Edicts of Ashoka
Edicts of Ashoka as a recipient of the Buddhist
proselytism of Ashoka. Some
Hellenistic philosophers, such as Hegesias
of Cyrene, who probably lived under the rule of King Magas, one of the
supposed recipients of
Buddhist emissaries from Asoka, are sometimes
thought to have been influenced by
The Greeks in
India even seem to have played an active role in the
propagation of Buddhism, as some of the emissaries of Ashoka, such as
Dharmaraksita, are described in
Pali sources as leading Greek (Yona)
Buddhist monks, active in spreading
Buddhism (the Mahavamsa, XII).
Some Greeks (Yavana) may have played an administrative role in the
territories ruled by Ashoka. The
Girnar inscription of Rudradaman
records that during the rule of Ashoka, a
Yavana Governor was in
charge in the area of Girnar, Gujarat, mentioning his role in the
construction of a water reservoir.
Mauryan ringstone, with standing goddess. Northwest Pakistan. 3rd
century BCE. British Museum.
Ashoka's military power was strong, but after his conversion to
Buddhism, he maintained friendly relations with three major Tamil
kingdoms in the South—namely, Cheras,
Cholas and Pandyas—the
post-Alexandrian empire, Tamraparni, and Suvarnabhumi. His edicts
state that he made provisions for medical treatment of humans and
animals in his own kingdom as well as in these neighbouring states. He
also had wells dug and trees planted along the roads for the benefit
of the common people.
Ashoka's rock edicts declare that injuring living things is not good,
and no animal should be sacrificed for slaughter. However, he did
not prohibit common cattle slaughter or beef eating.
He imposed a ban on killing of "all four-footed creatures that are
neither useful nor edible", and of specific animal species including
several birds, certain types of fish and bulls among others. He also
banned killing of female goats, sheep and pigs that were nursing their
young; as well as their young up to the age of six months. He also
banned killing of all fish and castration of animals during certain
periods such as
Chaturmasa and Uposatha.
Ashoka also abolished the royal hunting of animals and restricted the
slaying of animals for food in the royal residence. Because he
banned hunting, created many veterinary clinics and eliminated meat
eating on many holidays, the
Mauryan Empire under
Ashoka has been
described as "one of the very few instances in world history of a
government treating its animals as citizens who are as deserving of
its protection as the human residents".
Ashoka Chakra, "the wheel of Righteousness" (
Dhamma in Pali)"
Ashoka Chakra (the wheel of Ashoka) is a depiction of the
Dharmachakra (the Wheel of Dharma). The wheel has 24 spokes which
represent the 12 Laws of Dependent Origination and the 12 Laws of
Dependent Termination. The
Ashoka Chakra has been widely inscribed on
many relics of the
Mauryan Emperor, most prominent among which is the
Lion Capital of
Sarnath and The
Ashoka Pillar. The most visible use of
Ashoka Chakra today is at the centre of the National flag of the
Republic of India
Republic of India (adopted on 22 July 1947), where it is rendered in a
Navy-blue color on a White background, by replacing the symbol of
Charkha (Spinning wheel) of the pre-independence versions of the flag.
Ashoka Chakra can also been seen on the base of the Lion Capital
Ashoka which has been adopted as the National Emblem of
Ashoka Chakra was created by
Ashoka during his reign.
Chakra is a
Sanskrit word which also means "cycle" or "self-repeating process".
The process it signifies is the cycle of time—as in how the world
changes with time.
A few days before
India became independent in August 1947, the
Constituent Assembly decided that the flag of India
must be acceptable to all parties and communities. A flag with
three colours, Saffron, White and Green with the
Ashoka Chakra was
Pataliputra capital, a 3rd-century BCE capital from the Mauryan
palace in Pataliputra, displaying
Rampurva bull capital, detail of the abacus, with two "flame
palmettes" framing a lotus surrounded by small rosette flowers.
Ashoka is often credited with the beginning of stone architecture in
India, possibly following the introduction of stone-building
techniques by the Greeks after Alexander the Great. Before
Ashoka's time, buildings were probably built in non-permanent
material, such as wood, bamboo or thatch.
Ashoka may have
rebuilt his palace in
Pataliputra by replacing wooden material by
stone, and may also have used the help of foreign craftmen.
Ashoka also innovated by using the permament qualities of stone for
his written edicts, as well as his pillars with
Pillars of Ashoka
Pillars of Ashoka (Ashokstambha)
Main article: Pillars of Ashoka
The Ashokan pillar at Lumbini, Nepal, Buddha's birthplace
The pillars of
Ashoka are a series of columns dispersed throughout the
northern Indian subcontinent, and erected by
Ashoka during his reign
in the 3rd century BCE. Originally, there must have been many pillars
Ashoka although only ten with inscriptions still survive. Averaging
between forty and fifty feet in height, and weighing up to fifty tons
each, all the pillars were quarried at Chunar, just south of Varanasi
and dragged, sometimes hundreds of miles, to where they were erected.
The first Pillar of
Ashoka was found in the 16th century by Thomas
Coryat in the ruins of ancient Delhi. The wheel represents the sun
Buddhist law, while the swastika stands for the cosmic dance
around a fixed center and guards against evil.
Lion Capital of Ashoka
Lion Capital of Ashoka (Ashokmudra)
Main article: Lion Capital of Ashoka
Ashoka's pillar capital of Sarnath. Ashokan capitals were highly
realistic and used a characteristic polished finish, giving a shiny
appearance to the stone surface. This sculpture has been adopted as
the National Emblem of India. 3rd century BCE.
The Lion capital of
Ashoka is a sculpture of four lions standing back
to back. It was originally placed atop the
Ashoka pillar at Sarnath,
now in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India. The pillar, sometimes called
Ashoka Column, is still in its original location, but the Lion
Capital is now in the
Sarnath Museum. This
Lion Capital of Ashoka
Lion Capital of Ashoka from
Sarnath has been adopted as the National Emblem of
India and the wheel
Ashoka Chakra") from its base was placed onto the center of the
National Flag of India.
The capital contains four lions (Indian / Asiatic Lions), standing
back to back, mounted on a short cylindrical abacus, with a frieze
carrying sculptures in high relief of an elephant, a galloping horse,
a bull, and a lion, separated by intervening spoked chariot-wheels
over a bell-shaped lotus. Carved out of a single block of polished
sandstone, the capital was believed to be crowned by a 'Wheel of
Dharmachakra popularly known in
India as the "Ashoka
Sarnath pillar bears one of the Edicts of Ashoka, an
inscription against division within the
Buddhist community, which
reads, "No one shall cause division in the order of monks."[citation
The four animals in the
Sarnath capital are believed to symbolise
different steps of Lord Buddha's life.
The Elephant represents the Buddha's idea in reference to the dream of
Queen Maya of a white elephant entering her womb.
The Bull represents desire during the life of the
Buddha as a prince.
The Horse represents Buddha's departure from palatial life.
The Lion represents the accomplishment of Buddha.
Besides the religious interpretations, there are some non-religious
interpretations also about the symbolism of the
Ashoka capital pillar
at Sarnath. According to them, the four lions symbolise Ashoka's rule
over the four directions, the wheels as symbols of his enlightened
rule (Chakravartin) and the four animals as symbols of four adjoining
territories of India.
Constructions credited to Ashoka
Illustration of the original temple built by Asoka at Bodh-Gaya on the
location of the Mahabodhi Temple, sculpture of the
at Sanchi, 1st century CE.
The British restoration was done under guidance from Weligama Sri
Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh, India
Dhamek Stupa, Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh, India
Mahabodhi Temple, Bihar, India
Barabar Caves, Bihar, India
Nalanda Mahavihara (some portions like
Sariputta Stupa), Bihar, India
Taxila University (some portions like
Stupa and Kunala
Stupa), Taxila, Pakistan
Bhir Mound (reconstructed), Taxila, Pakistan
Bharhut stupa, Madhya Pradesh, India
Deorkothar Stupa, Madhya Pradesh, India
Butkara Stupa, Swat, Pakistan
Sannati Stupa, Karnataka, India: the only known sculptural depiction
of Ashoka
Mir Rukun Stupa, Nawabshah, Pakistan
In art, film and literature
A c. 1910 painting by
Abanindranath Tagore (1871–1951) depicting
Ashoka's queen standing in front of the railings of the Buddhist
Sanchi (Raisen district, Madhya Pradesh).
Jaishankar Prasad composed
Ashoka ki Chinta (Ashoka's Anxiety), a poem
that portrays Ashoka’s feelings during the war on Kalinga.
Ashok Kumar is a 1941 Tamil film directed by Raja Chandrasekhar. The
Chittor V. Nagaiah
Chittor V. Nagaiah as Ashoka.
Uttar-Priyadarshi (The Final Beatitude), a verse-play written by poet
Agyeya depicting his redemption, was adapted to stage in 1996 by
Ratan Thiyam and has since been performed in many
parts of the world.
Amar Chitra Katha released a graphic novel based on the life
In Piers Anthony’s series of space opera novels, the main character
Ashoka as a model for administrators to strive for.
Aśoka is a 2001 epic Indian historical drama film directed and
co-written by Santosh Sivan. The film stars
Shah Rukh Khan
Shah Rukh Khan as Ashoka.
Mason Jennings released the song "Emperor Ashoka" on his
Living in the Moment EP. It is based on the life of Ashoka.
In 2013, Christopher C. Doyle released his debut novel, The
Mahabharata Secret, in which he wrote about
Ashoka hiding a dangerous
secret for the well-being of India.
2014's The Emperor's Riddles, a fiction mystery thriller novel by
Satyarth Nayak, traces the evolution of
Ashoka and his esoteric legend
of the Nine Unknown Men.
Ashoka Samrat, a television serial by Ashok
Banker, based on the life of Ashoka, began airing on Colors TV.
The Legend of
Kunal is an upcoming film based on the life of Kunal,
the son of Ashoka. The movie will be directed by Chandraprakash
Dwivedi. The role of
Ashoka is to be played by Amitabh Bachchan, and
the role of
Kunal is played by Arjun Rampal.
Bharatvarsh (TV Series) is an Indian television historical documentary
series, hosted by actor-director
Anupam Kher on Hindi news channel ABP
News. The series stars
Aham Sharma as Ashoka.
Ashoka's policy of Dhamma
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Wikimedia Commons has media related to Ashoka.
Wikiquote has quotations related to: Ashoka
Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article
In Asoka’s Footsteps 1999.
Ashoka at Curlie (based on DMOZ)
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Died: 232 BCE
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