Asoka (reigned ca. 273-232 B.C.), the third emperor of the Maurya dynasty, is considered ancient India's greatest ruler. He combined the piety of a saint with the practical qualities of a king, and in the history of Buddhism he ranks second only to Buddha.
By the 3d century B.C. the kingdom of Magadha under the hegemony of the Mauryas controlled almost the entire Indian subcontinent. Only the southern tip of India and Ceylon remained free of the Mauryas' political influence. However, Buddhist missionaries of Asoka extended religious influence into Ceylon, which became a stronghold of Theravada Buddhism through Asoka's efforts.
In his youth Asoka served as viceroy of Taxila and later of Ujain. He came to the throne in 273 B.C., but a disputed succession delayed his coronation until 269. In 261 he annexed Kalinga, a vast tract between the Mahanadi and Godavari rivers, killing over 100,000 people and taking 150,000 captives. This was the only aggressive war of his reign, and so shocked the King's conscience that 4 years later he publicly recorded on various edicts his profound sorrow and remorse. He devoted the rest of his life to the propagation of dharma, the Buddhist law of piety.
To bring his precepts into harmony with his personal practice, Asoka gave up hunting, royal luxuries, and the use of meat in the royal kitchen. He established and endowed hospitals for men and animals, both within his own realm and in those of the neighboring powers. On the highways banyan trees were planted to provide shade, mango groves were laid to provide fruit, wells were dug, watering places constructed, and rest houses established to comfort weary men and animals.
He made pilgrimages to India's holy places, preaching the law of piety to his subjects along the way. Often he was absent from his capital for as long as 10 months. He appointed a special class of officers, dharma mahamatras, to propagate morality. He asked them to be teachers first, magistrates afterward. Declaring all his subjects to be his children, he considered himself to be the trustee of their welfare rather than a ruler. But Asoka, while utilizing the full force of his administration, recognized frankly that permanent improvement was to be based on genuine change of heart, not on royal measures. He exhorted his subjects to meditate; to practice nonviolence and noninjury toward fellowmen and animals; to revere parents, teachers, mendicants, and elders; to be kind to inferiors such as servants, serfs, and beasts of burden; to be truthful; and to respect the beliefs of fellowmen. He did not seek to establish a sectarian creed and lavishly gave to all religious sects.
From the sixteenth year of his reign Asoka permanently recorded ethical doctrines by inscribing them on rocks, sandstone pillars, and cave walls in the various regional languages. There were Fourteen Rock Edicts incised at seven different places in the remoter provinces of the empire. Some of these are preserved practically complete to this day. The second great series is that of Seven Pillar Inscriptions, six of which exist in six copies each, engraved on monolithic sandstone pillars erected at various localities in the home provinces. The seventh, perhaps the most important edict, is found on one pillar only. The remaining inscriptions consist of two Kalinga Edicts in two recensions, or critical revisions, three Cave Inscriptions, two Tarai Pillar Inscriptions, and several minor pillar and rock edicts in several recensions. The number of distinct documents is perhaps 35. Some inscriptions are in Greek and Aramaic. Bilingual inscriptions have been discovered on many pillars, making possible the decipherment of Brahmi and Kharosthi scripts. Many of the pillars contain Arabic numerals, India's gift to mathematics.
Asoka is reported to have built over 8,000 temples and more than 1,000 stupas, or tombs in honor of the Buddha. The stupa at Bhilsa still survives. The surviving gray sandstone pillars of his palace at Patliputra (modern Patna) display marvelous technical execution and brilliant art detail. The huge blocks of hard stone have an exquisite polish unmatched in India since the Asokan era. Asoka's lion seal carved on the Sarnath pillar has become modern India's state seal, and Asoka's wheel is represented on the central stripe of India's flag.
Anxious to spread his message across India, Asoka sent embassies to the Near East. His edicts mention Antiochus II, Theos of Syria, Ptolemy II, Philadelphos of Egypt, Magas of Cyrene, Antigonos Gonatas of Macedonia, and Alexander of Epirus. His son Mahendra and daughter Samghamitra went to Ceylon, which has been a Buddhist country since. A mission was sent to Burma, while others went to the Himalayan region and beyond. On the Indian subcontinent he sent his views to the Cola, Cera, and Pandya rulers.
The empire Asoka ruled comprised, in modern terminology, Afghanistan south of the Hindu Kush, Baluchistan, Sind, Kashmir, the area of the lower Himalayas, and the whole of India and Pakistan proper except the southern extremity below the latitude of Madras. The central regions were governed directly from Patliputra, the outlying domains were divided among four viceroys, who were close relatives of the imperial family. A council of ministers advised the King, but in addition there was a well-defined bureaucratic structure, and five cadres are mentioned. In spite of Asoka's personal commitment to nonviolence, a standing army was maintained, the Kalinga Edict clearly enjoined people not to rebel for the Emperor "even in his remorse" had the power to crush them, and the death penalty was retained.
Not much is known about Asoka's family life. His inscriptions speak of two queens; Buddhist legends mention several. Very little is known about his sons, and how many they were. It is also not known how, when, and where the king-turned-evangelist died. A Tibetan tradition maintains that he died at Taxila. Two grandsons, Dasratha and Samprathi, succeeded him and divided the empire. But within 50 years of Asoka's death, a Brahmanical reaction, led by Pusyamitra, brought the dynasty to an end.
The most authoritative study of Asoka is Romila Thapar, Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas (1961), which contains complete translations of the known inscriptions. B. G. Gokhale, Asoka Maurya (1966), discusses the influence of Asoka's personal philosophy on his empire. Asoka is discussed at length in Gertrude Emerson Sen, The Pageant of India's History (1948). See also Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India (1946).