Asoka was one of the most powerful kings of the Indian subcontinent. A ruler of the Mauryan Empire, Ashoka ruled over the country from 273 BC to 232 BC. The reign of Emperor Asoka covered most of India, South Asia and beyond, stretching from present day Afghanistan and parts of Persia in the west, to Bengal and Assam in the east, and Mysore in the south. However, the Battle of Kalinga changed King Asoka completely. From a power hungry emperor, he turned into a Buddhist follower and started preaching the principles of Buddhism throughout the world. Read on this biography to know more about the life history of 'Ashoka the Great':
Asoka was born in 304 BC, to Mauryan Emperor Bindusara and a relatively
lower ranked queen, Dharma. The legend associated with the emperor goes
that his birth had been predicted by Buddha, in the story of 'The Gift
of Dust'. Buddhist Emperor Ashoka had only one younger sibling,
Vitthashoka, but, several elder half-brothers. Right from his childhood
days Ashoka showed great promise in the field of weaponry skills as well
Accession to the Throne
Asoka quickly grew into an excellent warrior general and an astute
statesman. His command on the Mauryan army started growing day by day
and because of this, his elder brothers became suspicious of him being
favored by Bindusara as the next emperor. The eldest son of Bindusara,
Prince Susima, convinced him to send Asoka to Takshashila province (in
Sindh) to control an uprising caused by the formation of different
militias. However, the moment Ashoka reached the province, the militias
welcomed him with open arms and the uprising came to an end without any
fight. This particular success of Asoka made his elder brothers,
especially Susima, more insecure.
Susima started inciting Bindusara against Ashoka, who was then sent
into exile by the emperor. Asoka went to Kalinga, where he met a
fisherwoman named Kaurwaki. He fell in love with her and later, made
Kaurwaki his second or third wife. Soon, the province of Ujjain started
witnessing a violent uprising. Emperor Bindusara called back Ashoka from
the exile and sent him to Ujjain. The prince was injured in the ensuing
battle and was treated by Buddhist monks and nuns. It was in Ujjain that
Asoka first came to know about the life and teachings of Buddha. In
Ujjain, he also met Devi, his personal nurse, who later became his wife.
In the following year, Bindusura became seriously ill and was literally
on his deathbed. A group of ministers, led by Radhagupta, called upon
Ashoka to assume the crown. In the fight that followed his accession,
Ashoka attacked Pataliputra, now Patna, and killed all his brothers,
including Susima. After he became the King, Ashoka launched brutal
assaults to expand his empire, which lasted for around eight years.
Around this time, his Buddhist queen, Devi, gave birth to Prince
Mahindra and Princess Sanghamitra.
The Battle of Kalinga
The battle of Kalinga (now Orissa) became a turning point in the life
of 'Asoka the Great'. The exact reason for the battle is not known.
However, it is believed that one of Ashoka's brothers took refuge at
Kalinga and this enraged Asoka, who launched a brutal assault on the
province. The whole of the province was plundered and destroyed and
thousands of people were killed.
Embracing & Spreading Buddhism
It is said that after the battle of Kalinga was over, King Asoka went
on a tour of the city. He could see nothing except burnt houses and
scattered corpses. This was the first time in his life that Emperor
Ashoka realized the consequences of wars and battles. It is said that
even after he had returned to Patliputra, he was haunted by the scenes
he saw in Kalinga. Even his queen, Devi, who was a Buddhist, left him
after seeing the brutality at Kalinga.
It was during this time that he embraced Buddhism under the Brahmin
Buddhist sages, Radhaswami and Manjushri. After adopting Buddhism, Asoka
started propagating its principles throughout the world, even as far as
ancient Rome and Egypt. Infact, he can be credited with making the first
serious attempt to develop a Buddhist policy.
Buddhist Emperor Asoka built thousands of Stupas and Viharas for
Buddhist followers. One of his stupas, the Great Sanchi Stupa, has been
declared as a World Heritage Site by UNECSO. The Ashoka Pillar at
Sarnath has a four-lion capital, which was later adopted as the national
emblem of the modern Indian republic. Throughout his life, 'Asoka the
Great' followed the policy of nonviolence or ahimsa. Even the slaughter
or mutilation of animals was abolished in his kingdom. He promoted the
concept of vegetarianism. The caste system ceased to exist in his eyes
and he treated all his subjects as equals. At the same time, each and
every person was given the rights to freedom, tolerance, and equality.
Missions to Spread Buddhism
The third council of Buddhism was held under the patronage of Emperor
Ashoka. He also supported the Vibhajjavada sub-school of the
Sthaviravada sect, now known as the Pali Theravada. He sent his
missionaries to the following places: