Ashoka – Life and Major Accomplishments of the 3rd Mauryan Emperor
Ashoka, commonly known as Ashoka the Great, was the third emperor of the Maurya Empire, a powerful ancient Indian kingdom that occupied large parts of the Indian subcontinent. Regarded as one of the greatest rulers of ancient India, Ashoka lifted the Maurya Empire to its greatest extent, militarily and economically.
Below World History Edu presents notable achievements of Ashoka the Great:
Successfully quelled a massive rebellion in Takshashila (modern day Pakistan)
It’s said that Ashoka’s father then-Emperor Bindusara sent the young prince, who was by then in his early 20s, to the province of Takshashila (what is now present day Pakistan) to put an end to a severe rebellion. The energetic and vibrant Ashoka marched his army from the empire’s capital Patliputra to Takshashilla, where he quickly restored order and brought into custody the ringleaders of the rebellion. Not in the emperor’s wildest imagination did he expect Ashoka to pull of such a magnanimous victory.
In one ancient Sri Lankan text, it is said that Ashoka was appointed by the emperor to serve as the viceroy of the Ujjain Province (located in central India). Once again, Ashoka proved the naysayers wrong and did exceptionally well in his role. The experiences he gained while serving as viceroy proved very useful when he became emperor of the kingdom.
Ashoka’s reign as emperor saw unprecedented level of growth and expansion
After succeeding his father around 268 BC, Ashoka, who at the time was in his mid-30s, set out to expand the Mauryan Emperor’s boundaries to never-before-seen level. Ashoka was determined to go where none of his predecessors dared to go. He is said to have stretched Maurya’s boundaries into places in modern day Afghanistan and Bangladesh. During his more than three-decade reign, his empire covered almost all of the Indian subcontinent. And from the heartland of the empire, the city of Pataliputra (located in modern day Patna), Ashoka kept maintained order and steered his people to a prosperous life. It’s generally stated that the Maurya Empire reached its zenith, militarily and economically.
For example, he captured cities like Kalinga (modern day Odisha in eastern India), which lied on the eastern coast of India. Kalinga was famed for being very prosperous as well having a very strong royal navy force stationed in the area to ensure the city remained safe for commerce. Ultimately, Ashoka handed the city’s defense forces a major defeat.
He was a massive proponent of Buddhist teachings and peaceful cohabitation in his empire
It is worth pointing out that Ashoka was described in some ancient Sri Lankan Buddhist texts as a very vicious ruler, particularly in his early years on the throne. This explains why he picked up epithets like Ashoka the Fierce (“Chandashoka”). During his conquest of Kalinga, his army killed about 100,000 people, including civilians. Ashoka did not end there; he took more than 140,000 of the city’s inhabitants. After seeing the massive devastation he had inflicted upon Kalinga and its people, Ashoka became a bit remorseful and embraced the teachings of Buddhism. Not only was he a follower of the faith, he encouraged his subjects to convert. He built many Buddhist temples, shrines and monasteries across the empire.
Emperor Ashoka is credited with promoting Buddhism across ancient Asia and beyond. He did this by encouraging Buddhist monks to go beyond the boundaries of the empire into places like present day Nepal, Burma, and even Greece. It’s also been stated that some of the Buddhist monks visited China and Japan, where the monks had special discussions with kings and rulers of those regions.
As a sign of his complete devotion to the faith, he dispatched two of his children – Mahindra and Sanghamitra – to what is today Sri Lanka to spread the teachings of Gautama Buddha.
Ashoka the Great was a big patron of art and fine architectural buildings
Ashoka the Great’s reign saw the growth of art, culture and architecture across the empire. Perhaps his most famous architectural work are the Ashoka’s Pillars, also known as Sthambhas. The pillars were erected across the empire as a symbol of Ashoka’s devotion to non-violence and the promotion of peace. The pillars also symbolized the Emperor’s dominion and power over the kingdom.
Over 80,000 Buddhist stupas sprang up during Ashoka’s reign. Historians consider this one of the emperor’s greatest accomplishments. The Great Sanchi Stupa, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1989, was built by Ashoka in what is today the Raisen District of the State of Madhya Pradesh, India.
Other notable structures that Ashoka commissioned include Dhamek Stupa (located in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India), Deorkotha, and the Mahbodhi Temple. The latter has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2002. Many of the temples and stupas he built were to serve as shrines for relics of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism.
Ashoka the Great ended capital punishment
As part of his non-violent approach to governance, Ashoka the Great scrapped off capital punishment from the laws of the empire. This was his way of respect the sanctity of human life Buddhism so much espouses.
He led by example by being kind to his officers and administrators. He is said to have constantly called for tolerance and respect to prevail in the kingdom. Also priests during his reign were held in very high standard.
Instituted a number of social programs
Ashoka was not only known for his unflinching devotion to Buddhism and peaceful reign, he was known for taking good care of his people. He did this through social welfare programs. Those programs were obviously inspired by the things he learnt in Buddhism. He made sure that his senior officers and administrators carried out their duties with a human touch. During his reign, hospitals, community centers, and other social facilities were constructed. The emperor had strong appreciation of the positive effects greenery and vegetation could have on the mood of his people. As a result, he embarked on a number of afforestation projects, planting trees along the major streets of the capital.
Lion Capital of Ashoka – the National Emblem of India
The modern Republic of India adapted the Lion Capital of Ashoka during the creation of the country’s national emblem in January 1950. The Lion Capital of Ashoka, which shows four lions in a seated position on a base with a bull and a horse, was used by the Ashoka to symbolize his power, fortitude, hard work, and commitment. Ashoka also incorporated the Dharma Chakra (the Wheel) into the design as way to show his commitment to the teachings of Buddhism.
One of the first known rulers to promote wildlife conservation
Ashoka holds the honor of being one of first known rulers of the ancient world to take wildlife conservation seriously. He outlawed the hunting of animals and sacrificial ceremonies. He also restricted the consumption of meat in his palace. He also halted the killing of female pigs, goats and other farm animals that were still feeding their young.
How Ashoka became emperor of the Mauryan Empire
Following the death of Ashoka’s father Bindusara around 265 BC, a bitter power struggle ensued among the emperor’s descendants. It pitted Ashoka against his older brother Sushima, who was the crown prince, according to Ashokavandana. Many royal courtiers considered Sushima the rightful heir to the throne, while Ashoka was seen as the usurper. Unperturbed by those opinions, Ashoka fought tooth and nail and got rid of Sushima and his allies. He then went on to be crowned third emperor of the Mauryan Empire.
In one account of the story, Ashoka is said to have slaughtered close to hundred siblings and half-siblings of his on his way to becoming emperor. Later historians tend to place the figure at around 7 or 6. Regardless, it shows just how much Ashoka was determined to succeed his father.
More on Ashoka the Great
- Ashoka’s name means “painless, without sorrow” in Sanskrit.
- “The Beloved of the Gods” (Devānāmpriya) and “He who regards everyone with affection” (Pali Piyadasī) are just some of the most famous epithets that he used.
- The Ashoka tree, also known as Saraca asoca, came to be named after Ashoka because of the king’s commitment to wildlife conservation. The plant, which belongs to the Detariodeae subfamily of the legume family, translates to “sorrow-less”. The Ashoka tree is the official state flower of Odisha, a state in eastern India.
- Following his death in 232 BC, he was succeeded by his grandson Dasharatha, who ruled from for just a year or so. Unlike Ashoka, Dasharatha, who maintained many of the policies of Ashoka, could not keep the empire united as many territories broke away from the central government.