Emperor Ashoka10 min read

Emperor Ashoka was one of the most enlightened monarchs of all time.

Alexander’s domination over North-western India did not last more than three years. In the revolt against the Greek rule, a young man of 25 named Chandragupta came to the fore as a leader. He was a scion of the Magadha rulers, born of a harlot’s daughter named Mura.

He had met Alexander at a time when he was in exile and had submitted to him plans for the conquest of the Gangetic valley. On the death of Alexander in 323 b.c. Chandragupta collected an army and conquered the Punjab. He then marched on Magadha and defeated the King, Dhana Nanda, exterminating his family and proclaiming himself King.

His army numbered 30,000 cavalry, 8,000 elephants and 60,000 infantry and with it he proceeded to conquer a large part of India. His capital, Pataliputra, had 64 gates and 570 towers, and far outshone in splendour and magnificence any other city of the time. Its gilded pillars were adorned with golden vines and silver birds. The royal park contained fish ponds and a great variety of ornamental trees and shrubs. A very high state of civilization was reflected in the architecture and in the volume of industry and trade. Writing was in common use.

All foreigners were provided with suitable lodging, escorts and medical attention, and those who died were decently buried and their assets forwarded to their heirs. Chandragupta ruled with stern severity until his death in 297 b.c. when his son Bindusara became Emperor.

Ashoka Vardhana was the son of Emperor Bindusara. He learned the art of government under his father and served as Viceroy of several provinces. He spent many years in Taxila, in those days one of the most splendid cities of the East, as Governor of what is now the Punjab, Kashmir and the regions to the west of the Indus. It was a very rich territory, and Taxila itself was celebrated as a great university town, famous as a centre of learning, and a seat of art and the sciences, especially medicine. Ashoka was in Ujjain when his father fell mortally ill.

Ashoka took up the government of the vast empire in the year 272 b.c. His coronation took place in 269 b.c. and was marked by the pardon and release of prisoners taken by him.

In the twelfth year of his reign (261 b.c.) Ashoka embarked on an aggressive war and added to his already vast empire the kingdom of Kalinga lying between the Bay of Bengal and the river Godavari. 150,000 men and women were carried away as captives, 100,000 were slain in the war of conquest, and many times that number perished from famine and pestilence. The Emperor’s conscience was smitten by the sight of the misery of which he had been the cause, and his heart was consumed with burning sorrow, regret and remorse.

He resolved never again to resort to war and, may it be said to the Emperor’s honour, he never did wage a war after this time. It was at this period of his life that he came under the influence of the Buddhist teachings. In the 13th Rock Edict, which relates to the Kalinga campaign, His Sacred Majesty declares : “ The chiefest conquest is that won by Dharma, the Law of Piety ”, and he begs his descendants to rid themselves of the popular notion that conquest by arms is the duty of Kings.

From this time forth the Emperor made it the chief business of his life to carry on propaganda in favour of the great ethical principles of harmlessness and universal compassion which he called Dharma. In the seventeenth year of his reign, he caused fourteen edicts to be engraved upon rocks laying down general rules for the guidance of high and low officials conducting the local administration of his empire. In the year 249 b.c. the Emperor made pilgrimages, bare-footed, to the holy places of India, covering over a thousand miles.

He prayed at the sacred Lumbini grove for the well-being of his subjects. The beautifully engraved pillar surmounted by the stone image of a horse which he caused to be erected in honour of the place where the Venerable One, the Holy Gautama Buddha, was born, still stands to-day in the Lumbini grove.

The saint Upagupta was the Guru of the Emperor, and in his company the Emperor visited Kapilavastu, Sarnath (near Benares) and Sravasti, holding Sat Sangs in each place, and making endowments for the sick and the poor. He stayed for some time in Sravasti practising the yoga and studying the holy Suttras with his Guru.

Ashoka gave up hunting and also banned the slaughter of animals to provide food for the royal table. In the thirtieth year of his reign he issued fresh and more detailed regulations forbidding absolutely the slaughter of certain animals throughout the Empire and imposing restrictions on the slaughter of other animals whom it was permitted to kill for food.

A year or two later Ashoka donned the yellow robe of a Buddhist monk and became a member of the Order (Sangha) with a view to acquiring Nirvana, the final deliverance from the wheel of birth and death. Although living in his private life as the poorest of his subjects and even begging for his own daily meal, the Emperor continued to rule justly and wisely.

Hsiao Yen, the first Emperor of the Liang dynasty in China also adopted the monastic life while continuing to rule his Empire, following the example of Ashoka.

The Empire of Ashoka extended to the Hindu Kush, covering Afghanistan, the Swat valley and Kashmir ; eastward it comprised the whole of Bengal, and to the south it stretched as far as the modern Mysore. Ashoka was a great builder and is credited with the creation of 84,000 stupas (cupolas), temples, free inns for travellers, hospitals for the sick and also for animals, homes for widows and orphans. Fa-hien, the first Chinese pilgrim to visit Pataliputra, Ashoka’s capital, in the fifth century a.d., was so struck with the beauty and grandeur of the architecture that he wrote : “ Hardly could human hands have created these buildings of elegance and beauty with their carving and inlaid sculptures ”.

The monolith stone pillares inscribed with the Imperial Edicts and set up in large numbers throughout India are worthy monuments of this almost unrivalled ruler. Some are fifty feet high and weigh fifty tons, and their execution is well-night perfect. The cave temples cut in the Barabar hills on the order of Ashoka are more impressive than Egyptian work of similar type and show an amazing mastery over the intractable material.

In his edicts, the Emperor publishes the Dharma, ignoring the theological implications and taking for granted the doctrine of rebirth and karma. Emphasis is placed on the sanctity of life and on the absolute unconditional right of the meanest animal to retain the breath of life, since all are links

in the endless chain of existence and becoming. In the edict abolishing the royal hunt, the Emperor proclaims that he no longer cares for such frivolous outings, and substitutes for them solemn tours devoted to the inspection of the people and the country, visits to holy men, and the preaching and discussion of Dharma. Another cardinal doctrine enjoined in the edict is that of reverence to parents, elders and preceptors. Conversely, superiors were required to treat their inferiors, including servants, slaves and all living creatures, with kindness and consideration.

Truthfulness is enjoined with great emphasis and also hospitality to strangers and liberality and generosity towards all. Special tolerance of the beliefs of others and also sympathy for their practices was also taught. Almsgiving is recommended, but the highest place is given to the teaching of the Dharma. The following words of the Emperor (Pillar Edict VII) are most remarkable :

“ On the roads I have had banyan-trees planted to give shade to man and beast ; I have had groves of mango- trees planted ; at every half kos (i.e. at approximately every mile and a quarter) I have had wells dug ; free rest-houses have been erected ; and numerous watering-places have been prepared here and there for the enjoyment of man and beast.”

Medicinal herbs were planted widely throughout the Empire wherever they were lacking. There were numerous animal hospitals, a few of which survive to the present day.

The Emperor sent royal missionaries to the independent kingdoms of Ceylon and to the Hellenistic rulers of Syria, Egypt, Cyrene, Macedonia and Epirus. Well-chosen, learned and pious men, some from the. royal house itself, were sent to Asia, Africa and Europe. Asoka’s eldest son, the Crown Prince Mahendra, became a monk and headed the mission to Ceylon to preach the Dharma. He converted King Tissa and his court, and continued living, preaching and writing in Ceylon until his death. Mahendra’s daughter followed him to Ceylon as a nun and founded an order for the spiritual upliftment of the women of that island. She also died in Ceylon.

Ashoka did not suppress Brahmanism, Jainism or any other sect. In one of his Edicts he says :

“ I have accordingly arranged that at all hours and in all places—whether I am eating or in the ladies apartments or in my private room or in my conveyance—everywhere the persons appointed to give information shall keep me informed of the affairs of my people. . . . Work I must for the public benefit . . . And for what do I work ? For no other reason than that I may discharge my debt to all living beings ”.

Ashoka combined the piety of a monk and the wisdom of a king and before his death in 232 b.c. he had succeeded in establishing a kingdom of righteousness in India. The following are translated excerpts from several of the Emperor’s Edicts

The First Rock Edict

Here no living being may be killed for sacrifice, and no festival meeting be held ; for the king sees much evil in such meetings. . . . Formerly in His Majesty’s kitchen many thousands of animals were killed for curry. . . . None shall be killed in future.

The Twelfth Rock Edict

. . . For whoever praises his own sect only, or blames other sects with a view to glorify only his own sect, he rather injures his own sect severely. Wherefore concord is meritorious. . . .

The Third Pillar Edict

King Priyadarsin speaks thus :—

Men regard only their virtuous deeds, thinking ‘ This virtuous deed has been performed by me ’. They do not at all regard their evil deeds, thinking ‘ This evil deed has been performed by me ’. Indeed, the necessary selfexamination is hard. But men should realize that these passions are sinful, namely fierceness, cruelty, anger, pride and envy, and should determine not to ruin themselves by these passions.

The Second Pillar Edict

His Majesty King Priyadarsin speaks thus :—

To practise Dharma is meritorious ; but what does Dharma signify ? It includes compassion, liberality, truthfulness and purity.

The gift of spiritual insight has been bestowed by me in many ways. And on bipeds, quadrupeds, on birds and aquatic animals various benefits have been conferred by me. . . .

The Sixth Pillar Edict

His Majesty King Priyadarsin speaks thus :—

In the thirteenth year of my reign I caused pious edicts to be inscribed in order to promote the welfare and happiness of the people, so that they might turn away from their evil habits and be attracted to Dharma. Intent on the welfare and happiness of the people, I have as much care for those far away and near as for my own relatives with a view to making them happy so far as possible.