273 - 232 BC
In the history of the world there have been thousands of kings and emperors who called
themselves 'Their Highnesses', 'Their Majesties' and 'Their Exalted Majesties' and so on.
They shone for a brief moment, and as quickly disappeared. But Ashoka shines and shines
brightly like a bright star, even unto this day. So wrote H.G. Wells, British historian
and noble seeker of the truth about mankind's tumultuous past.
In the history of the world there have been thousands of kings and emperors who called themselves 'Their Highnesses', 'Their Majesties' and 'Their Exalted Majesties' and so on. They shone for a brief moment, and as quickly disappeared. But Ashoka shines and shines brightly like a bright star, even unto this day. So wrote H.G. Wells, British historian and noble seeker of the truth about mankind's tumultuous past.
Questionable Hereditary Succession
Ashoka was anointed the new emperor or ruler of the Mauryan Empire in 274 BCE. His grandfather, Chandragupta, had set out to conquer the weaker surrounding kingdoms to expand the territory of his people in 324 BCE, and was the first to rule over a unified India. Ashoka's father, Bindusara, established a reign much the same as his father's, controlling a larger kingdom than ever before known. When Bindusara became gravely ill, Ashoka succeeded him, although one hundred of his other brothers were mysteriously murdered. Many historians believe Ashoka had his own brothers eliminated so that he could succeed his father.
A Sudden Change of Heart
Ashoka's reign as emperor began with a series of wars and bloodshed, culminating in the Kalinga War of 260 BC. The mammoth loss of life and suffering witnessed on the battlefield made him turn away from war. He subsequently became deeply influenced by Buddhism, and adopted the dharma, which consists of basic virtuous teachings that can be practiced by all men regardless of social origins. "Dharma" is derived from the Sanskrit word for "duty".
Towards a New Imperial Unity
Ashoka saw the dharma as a righteous path showing the utmost respect for all living things. The dharma would bring harmony and unity to India in the form of much needed compassion. Serving as a guiding light, a voice of conscious that is the dharma can lead one to be a respectful and highly responsible human being. Edward D'cruz interprets the Ashokan dharma as a "religion to be used as a symbol of a new imperial unity and a cementing force to weld the diverse and heterogeneous elements of the empire". Ashoka's intent was to instigate "a practice of social behavior so broad and benevolent in its scope, that no person, no matter what his religion, could reasonably object to it".
The Moral Order of Dharma
Ashoka's dream was to unify a nation so large that its people of one region shared little in common with those of another region. Diversity of religion, ethnicity and many cultural aspects held citizens against each other, creating social barriers. The moral order of dharma could be agreed upon as beneficial and progressive by all who could understand its merits; in fact, the dharma had long been a primary practice for members of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. Dharma became the link between king and commoner; everyone lived by the same law of moral, religious and civil obligations towards others.
Pillars of the Earth
The reign of Ashoka Mauryan could easily have disappeared into history as the ages passed by, and would have, if hadn't he left behind a record of his trials. The testimony of this wise king was discovered in the form of magnificently sculpted pillars and boulders with the various actions and teachings he wished to be published etched into the stone. What Ashoka left behind was the first written language in India since the ancient city of Harrapa. Rather than Sanskrit, the language used for inscription was the current spoken form called Prakrita. 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 actual events ever happened, but the stone etchings clearly depict how Ashoka wanted to be thought of and remembered.
The Emperor's New Edicts
King Ashoka, the third monarch of the Indian Mauryan dynasty, has come to be regarded as one of the most exemplary rulers in world history. Although Buddhist literature preserved the legend of this ruler - the story of a cruel and ruthless king who converted to Buddhism and thereafter established a reign of virtue - definitive historical records of his reign were lacking. Then in the nineteenth century there came to light a large number of edicts, in India, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan. These edicts, inscribed on rocks and pillars, proclaim Asoka's reforms and policies and promulgate his advice to his subjects. The present rendering of these edicts, based on earlier translations, offers us insights into a powerful and capable ruler's attempt to establish an empire on the foundation of righteousness, a reign which makes the moral and spiritual welfare of his subjects its primary concern.
Beyond Greed, Hatred and Delusion
We have no way of knowing how effective Ashoka's reforms were or how long they lasted, but we do know that monarchs throughout the ancient Buddhist world were encouraged to look to his style of good government as an ideal to be venerated and kindredly administered. King Ashoka undoubtedly has to be credited with the first serious attempt to develop a Buddhist polity. Today, with widespread disillusionment in prevailing ideologies, and the search for a political philosophy that goes beyond greed (capitalism), hatred (communism) and delusion (dictatorships led by "infallible" leaders), Asoka's edicts may still make a meaningful contribution to the development of a more spiritually-based political system of good government for every nation on earth.
A Well Respected Man
Emperor Ashoka was a cruel and merciless ruler at first. He waged war on his perceived enemies on a whim, and caused much suffering amongst his own people. While observing a massive slaughter at the front lines of his army, he experienced a change of heart and turned to the welfare of his own people, who still justly feared him as a ruthless and highly oppressive tyrant. Somewhere along the way he had become a Buddhist, and as a result taught and persuaded his people to love and respect all living things. He insisted on the recognition of the sanctity of all human life. The horrors of war have often transformed savage hearts into compassionate ones. Even the unnecessary slaughter or mutilation of animals was immediately abolished. Wildlife became protected by the king's law against sport hunting and branding. Limited hunting was permitted for consumption reasons but the overwhelming majority of Indians chose by their own free will to become vegetarians. Ashoka also showed mercy to those imprisoned, allowing them leave for the outside a day of the year. He attempted to raise the professional ambition of the common man by building universities for study and water transit and irrigation systems for trade and agriculture. He treated his subjects as equals regardless of their religion, politics and cast. The kingdoms surrounding his, so easily overthrown, were instead made to be well-respected allies.
In His Own Words
All men are my children. I am like a father to them. As every father desires the good and the happiness of his children, I wish that all men should be happy always.
During his reign, Ashoka became an avid Buddhist practitioner, building 84,000 stupas across his empire to house the sacred relics of the Lord Buddha. He sent his family on religious pilgrimages to foreign places, and staged massive assemblies so holy men from the world over could converse upon the philosophies of the day. More than even Buddhism was Ashoka's deep involvement in the dharma. The dharma became the ultimate expression of the moral and ethical standards he desired his subjects to live by. Ashoka defined the main principles of dharma (dhamma) as nonviolence, tolerance of all sects and opinions, obedience to parents, respect for the Brahmans and other religious teachers and priests, liberality towards friends, humane treatment of servants, and generosity towards all. These principles suggest a general ethic of behaviour to which no religious or social group could object.
In perhaps a fitting tribute to this great man of vision and unity, the Indian government has adopted the famous lion capital from his pillar at Sarnath as its official national emblem. The wheel design on the capital's base has also become the central figure of the nation's flag. May the wheel keep on turning for the sake of all men who are brothers in this brave new millennium of ours, and may the teachings of the Light of Asia continue to reach every corner of the earth despite what some inferior men may do or say.
Ashokan Empire 250 BC