Aśoka Reigns over India

India emperor Aśoka, after a successful series of military conquests, converted to Buddhism and sought to spread the religion’s nonviolent beliefs

Summary of Event

Aśoka (also spelled Ashoka) was an emperor of the Mauryan Dynasty, which united a large part of the land now known as India under a single ruler. Aśoka is chiefly remembered for his conversion to Buddhism and for his contributions to the spread of the Buddhist religion. Stories about his conversion are found in several texts, most notably in the Aśokāvadāna (third century b.c.e.; the legend of Aśoka), which was translated from Sanskrit to Chinese by Faxian (Fa-hsien; c. 337-422 c.e.) circa the fourth or fifth century c.e. There are also numerous references to Aśoka in the chronicles of the kingdom of Sri Lanka. In 1837, the Western scholar James Prinsep managed to translate an inscription on a stone pillar. The inscription was a series of edicts by a ruler identified as “King Piyadasi.” Over the course of the nineteenth century, researchers found other stone inscriptions that pronounced legal reforms and moral principles. In 1915, an inscription that identified this king by name as the legendary Aśoka established that the ruler responsible for these edicts was the hero of the ancient Buddhist stories. Aśoka

The founder of the Mauryan Dynasty was Aśoka’s grandfather, Chandragupta Maurya. Chandragupta was a relatively low-caste member of the Moriya tribe who managed to seize the throne of the northern Indian kingdom of Magadha about 321 b.c.e. After bringing the rest of the valley of the Ganges River under his control, Chandragupta moved into the northwestern area of South Asia, where the recent departure of the Greek invader Alexander the Great had left a power vacuum. Chandragupta’s son, Bindusāra, inherited the throne in c. 298 b.c.e. Under Bindusāra, the Mauryan territory grew to include most of the Indian subcontinent. However, the land of Kalinga, along the eastern coast of India by the Bay of Bengal, remained independent. Because Kalinga controlled the routes to southern India, it was a barrier to the consolidation of the Mauryan Empire.

Bindusāra died in 272 b.c.e. His son Aśoka, also known as Aśoka the Fierce because of his aggressive character, rushed to the imperial capital of Pataliputra and killed all of his rivals to the throne except for his brother. Popular anger against Aśoka’s actions delayed his coronation until 270. He took the title of Dēvānaṃpiya Piyadasi, which means “Beloved of the Gods, the One Who Looks on With Affection.” After becoming ruler, he assumed the task of defeating the Kalingans. He was ruthless, brutal, and successful. In 260 b.c.e., he attacked the territory, destroying its military forces and killing or exiling all who resisted. According to Buddhist tradition, Aśoka was so disturbed by the suffering he had caused that he converted to Buddhism and devoted the rest of his reign to supporting and spreading this religion of nonviolence.

Aśoka’s conversion may not have been as dramatic and sudden as the legends suggest. He was probably a Buddhist in name for at least two years before the Kalinga campaign. He also did not desert his warlike ways immediately after that campaign. However, the edicts in stone do show him to be concerned with the moral reform of his kingdom during the latter part of his reign. In these edicts, Aśoka proclaimed his good intentions toward his subjects, whom he addressed as a father addressing his children. He apologized for the excesses of the Kalinga war and stated that he did not intend to extend his empire further. He announced the need for private morality in the lives of his subjects and for public morality in the administration of his state. Aśoka apparently reformed the empire’s judicial system, with the aim of making it more humane and just. He also undertook an extensive program of public works, including the digging of wells along roads, the planting of fruit and shade trees, and the building of hostels.

During Aśoka’s rule, the Buddhist Saṅgha, or community of the faithful, undertook a major effort at reorganization. Since the death of the Buddha in about the fifth century b.c.e., Buddhism had split into a number of different factions and schools. According to many historical accounts, a Third Buddhist Council was held at Pataliputra in 250 b.c.e. to establish Buddhist orthodoxy. At this council, the adherents of the Theravāda (literally, the way of the elders) school of Buddhism attempted to maintain what they believed was true Buddhism. The council is generally described as leading to the division of Buddhism into the Theravāda (also called Hīnayāna) and Mahāyāna approaches to Buddhism. Some Buddhist histories maintain that Aśoka directed or even called the Third Council, but there is no indication of the ruler’s active involvement in his own stone inscriptions. Still, even if Aśoka was not behind the assembling of the council, it could not have taken place without his knowledge and approval.

The Third Buddhist Council is reported to have established the basic sacred writings of Theravāda Buddhism, known as the Tipiṭaka (compiled c. 250 b.c.e.; English translation in Buddhist Scriptures, 1913), and to have made the decision to send Buddhist envoys to other lands. Regardless of whether Aśoka participated in such a council, he certainly became active in the promulgation of Buddhism. Within his empire, Aśoka attempted to teach Buddhism to his own subjects. Many of the inscriptions on rocks or on erected pillars were located in places where crowds would gather. These inscriptions proclaimed to the people the Buddhist idea of dhamma, or dharma, which refers to universal law and the idea of justice or order. Aśoka’s edicts have been found in Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, as well as in India.

Aśoka sent his son Mahinda as a missionary to Sri Lanka. The king of Sri Lanka, Dēvānaṃpiya Tissa, took up the religion and modeled himself on the Indian emperor. Aśoka sent Tissa a branch of the tree under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment, and it is believed that a descendant of this tree still survives in modern Sri Lanka. The emperor sent other Buddhist missionaries to locations throughout India and to foreign lands. His religious missions may have reached the Ionian Greeks, Burma, Malaya, Sumatra, and the regions of the Himalayas to the north. According to his rock edicts, he maintained diplomatic contacts with such faraway rulers as Antiochus II of Syria, Ptolemy Philadelphus of Egypt, Alexander of Epirus, and Antigonus II Gonatas of Macedonia. There is some evidence, then, that the Indian emperor managed to introduce Buddhist ideas to the Mediterranean world.

Aśoka died in c. 238 b.c.e., after a reign of about thirty years. Soon afterward, the Mauryan Empire began to decline, and it broke up c. 185 b.c.e. Some historians have attributed the collapse of the empire to Aśoka’s own policies, maintaining that the emperor’s support of Buddhism led to a reaction by the pre-Buddhist brahman priesthood and that his nonviolence undermined the force needed to maintain an empire. However, other historians have argued that the empire was strained economically by the need to maintain its large army and that any state based primarily on personal loyalty to a ruler would tend to break up.


The rule of Aśoka was significant in three ways. First, he largely completed the process, begun by his grandfather and father, of bringing the Indian subcontinent under a single rule. This contributed to the concept of India as a single place, rather than as a collection of states like Europe. Second, although Buddhism was already spreading when Aśoka came to power, his sponsorship helped the religion flourish and move on to other locations. Theravāda Buddhism, which moved into Southeast Asia under Aśoka’s patronage, eventually became the dominant faith in the areas that became Burma, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia. Sri Lanka still celebrates the mission of Aśoka’s son as the origin of Buddhism in that nation. Third, Aśoka became the model of the ideal Buddhist ruler in many kingdoms and therefore played an important part in the development of ancient Asian political theory and practice. The concept of the king who represents and maintains the cosmic order of justice was central to the idea of the monarch in ancient Cambodia. It was taken up by the kings of Siam (now known as Thailand) and by rulers in other Theravāda realms.

Further Reading

  • Lopez, Donald S. The Story of Buddhism: A Concise Guide to Its History and Teachings. San Francisco: Harper, 2001. A short history of the origins and transformations of Buddhism. Pronunciation guide, bibliography, glossary, and index.
  • Seneviratna, Anuradha, ed. King Aśoka and Buddhism. Seattle: Pariyatti Press, 1995. A collection of essays on Aśoka’s life and on the debates about his role in history.
  • Tamiah, Stanley J. World Conqueror and World Renouncer: A Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand Against a Historical Background. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976. The classical work on the theory of the Buddhist king in Thailand. The author traces this theory from its origins in ancient India. Chapter 5 deals specifically with Aśoka as the model of the Buddhist king. Bibliography, index.
  • Thapar, Romila. Aśoka and the Decline of the Mauryas. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997. An updated edition of one of the most widely read histories of the Mauryan period by a prominent scholar of ancient India. Bibliography and index.

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