Asoka, Emperor of India

{uh-soh′-kuh}

Asoka, d. 232 B.C., was one of the greatest emperors and one of the most remarkable personalities of Indian history. The third ruler of the Maurya dynasty, he was the son of Bindusara and the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya. As crown prince, Asoka was viceroy of Taxila and Ujjain. He became emperor upon his father's death (c.273 B.C.). By the conquest of Kalinga (now Orissa state) in c.261 B.C., he consolidated his kingdom to include most of southern and central India as well as what are now Afghanistan and Balochistan. His influence extended to southern India and Sri Lanka.

After seeing the horrors of war in Kalinga, Asoka converted from Brahmanism to Buddhism and vowed never again to use weapons or armies to rule or extend his empire. Instead, he governed according to Buddhist principles of philanthropy and compassion. Asoka studied Buddhist scriptures. He and his officials toured the country instructing his subjects on morality and toleration. He relaxed harsh laws, created an ordered economic expansion, and established principles of justice and morality. His many charitable works included the creation of hospitals for people and animals and rest stops for travelers.

Many of Asoka's edicts, particularly those on practical morality and the way of compassion, were engraved on pillars and rocks erected throughout India. Many of these survive and are the chief source of information about his reign. Asoka strongly influenced the development of Buddhism, not only by making it the state religion, but also by spreading it outside India, where the religion began. He sent Buddhist missionaries to many other countries, particularly Sri Lanka, which became the center of classical Buddhism. Asoka's empire was ended only 50 years after his death by a Brahman-led Hindu reaction that virtually extinguished Buddhism in India and led to the dissolution of the Maurya empire into hundreds of smaller kingdoms.

Further Reading:

Gokhale, Balkrishna G., Asoka Maurya (1966).

Mookerji, Radha K., Asoka, 3d ed. (1962; repr. 1986).

Sastri, K. A., ed., The Age of the Nandas and Mauryas (1988).

Smith, Vincent A., Asoka: The Buddhist Emperor of India (1920; repr. 1990).

Strong, John S., The Legend of King Asoka (1989).

Thapar, Romila, Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas (1961) and Interpreting Ancient India (1993).


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