Ashoka (Asoka) was the third ruler of the Mauryan Empire. Under his long rule the empire that he inherited reached its zenith territorially and culturally. Soon after his death the Mauryan Empire split up and ended. He is remembered as a great ruler in world history and the greatest ruler in India.
Chandragupta Maurya founded the Mauryan dynasty in 326 b.c.e. Both he and his son Bindusara were successful warriors, unifying northern India and part of modern Afghanistan for the first time in history. Ashoka was not Bindusara’s eldest son, and there is a gap of time between his father’s death and his succession, due perhaps to war with his brothers. Ashoka continued to expand the empire by conquering southward. One war against Kalinga in the southeast was particularly bloody and filled him with remorse. As a result he converted to Buddhism (from Vedic Hinduism) and renounced war as an instrument of policy.
He became a vegetarian, prohibited the killing of some animals, and discouraged hunting, urging people to go on pilgrimages instead. He also built many shrines in places associated with Buddha’s life. However, he honored all religions and holy men. Ashoka’s son and daughter became Buddhist missionaries to Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka); Indian missionaries to the island also brought the people the advanced arts and technology of India. Around 240 b.c.e. he called the Third Buddhist Council at Pataliputra, his capital city, which completed the Buddhist canons and dealt with differences among the monastic orders.
A great deal is known about the personality and policy of Ashoka because he ordered many of his edicts, laws, and pronouncements engraved on stone pillars and rock surfaces throughout his empire and ordered his officials to read them to the public periodically as instruction. Most of the inscriptions that survived used the Brahmi script, precursor of modern Hindi, but some were in other languages, depending on the vernacular of the district.
Ten inscribed pillars survive. Different animals associated with Buddhism adorned the capital of each pillar; the one with lions (the roar of lion, heard far and wide, symbolized the importance of the Buddha’s teaching) is the symbol of modern India. Ashoka called the people of the empire his children and said: “At all times, whether I am eating, or in the women’s apartments . . . everywhere reporters are posted so that they may inform me of the people’s business. . . . For I regard the welfare of the people as my chief duty.”
Ashoka lightened the laws against criminals, though he did not abolish the death penalty. He also exhorted his people to practice virtue, be honest, obey parents, and be generous to servants. He forbade some amusements as immoral and appointed morality officers to enforce proper conduct among officials and the people, allowing them even to pry into the households of his relatives. Little is known of his last years. It is also unclear who succeeded him; some sources even say that he was deposed around 232 b.c.e. In any case the Mauryan Empire soon fell into chaos and collapsed. History honors Ashoka as a remarkable man and great king. Present-day India has his lion and the wheel of Buddha’s law that adorned the capital of his inscribed pillar as symbols of the nation.