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Ashoka the Great - Rise and fall of Buddhism

Ashoka the Great

Ashoka (304–232 BC), popularly known as Ashoka the Great, was an Indian emperor of the Maurya Dynasty who ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent from 269 BC to 232 BC. Ashoka played a critical role in helping make Buddhism a world religion. As the peace-loving ruler of one of the world's largest, richest and most powerful multi-ethnic states, he is considered an exemplary ruler, who tried to put into practice a secular state ethic of non-violence. The emblem of the modern Republic of India is an adaptation of the Lion Capital of Ashoka.

Early life as brutal Emperor

Ashoka is said to have been of a wicked nature and bad temper. He submitted his ministers to a test of loyalty and had 500 of them killed. He also kept a harem of around 500 women. Once when certain lot to these women insulted him, he had the whole lot of them burnt to death. He also built hell on earth, an elaborate and horrific torture chamber. This torture Chamber earned him the name of Chand Ashoka (Sanskrit), meaning Ashoka the Fierce.

Ascending the throne, Ashoka expanded his empire over the next eight years, from the present-day boundaries and regions of Burma–Bangladesh and the state of Assam in India in the east to the territory of present-day Iran / Persia and Afghanistan in the west; from the Pamir Knots in the north almost to the peninsular of southern India.

Conquest of Kalinga

While the early part of Ashoka's reign was apparently quite bloodthirsty, he became a follower of the Buddha's teaching after his conquest of Kalinga on the east coast of India in the present-day state of Orissa. Kalinga was a state that prided itself on its sovereignty and democracy. The pretext for the start of the Kalinga War (265 BC or 263 BC) is uncertain. One of Susima's brothers (Sushima was a prince of Mauryan Empire and half-brother of Asoka. He was in line for his father Bindusara's throne, but was killed by Asoka) might have fled to Kalinga and found official refuge there. Kalinga put up a stiff resistance, but they were no match for Ashoka's brutal strength.

The whole of Kalinga was plundered and destroyed. It is said that in the aftermath of the Battle of Kalinga the Daya River running next to the battle field turned red with the blood of the slain. By his own account, 1,00,000 men were killed and another 1,50,000 people driven from the land in the terrible violence that Ashoka, unleashed when he invaded the neighboring kingdom of Kalinga. Thousands of men and women were deported. The whole of Kalinga was plundered and destroyed.

Maurya Empire at the age of Ashoka.
The empire stretched from Iran to Bangladesh/Assam
and from Central Asia (Afghanistan) to South India.

Buddhist conversion

One day after the war was over, Ashoka ventured out to roam the city and all he could see were burnt houses and scattered corpses. Ashoka had seen the bloodshed with his own eyes. He felt that he was the cause of the destruction.This sight made him sick and he cried the famous monologue:

“What have I done? If this is a victory, what's a defeat then? Is this a victory or a defeat? Is this justice or injustice? Is it gallantry or a rout? Is it valor to kill innocent children and women? Do I do it to widen the empire and for prosperity or to destroy the other's kingdom and splendor? One has lost her husband, someone else a father, someone a child, someone an unborn infant.... What's this debris of the corpses? Are these marks of victory or defeat? Are these vultures, crows, eagles the messengers of death or evil?”

Word-of-mouth stories tells that after the war was over and Ashoka saw the destruction he had caused, a woman approached him and said, "Your actions have taken from me my father, husband, and son. Now what will I have left to live for?". Moved by these words, it is said, that he accepted/adopted Buddhism. He vowed to never take life again and became one of the most just ruler India has ever seen.

The Kalinga War prompted Ashoka, already a non-engaged Buddhist, to devote the rest of his life to Ahimsa (non-violence) and to Dhamma-Vijaya (victory through Dhamma). Ashoka ended the military expansion of the empire, and led the empire through more than 40 years of relative peace, harmony and prosperity. He used his position to propagate the relatively new religion to new heights, as far as ancient Rome and Egypt. He made Buddhism his state religion around 260 BC, and propagated it and preached it within his domain and worldwide from about 250 BC. Emperor Ashoka undoubtedly has to be credited with the first serious attempt to develop a Buddhist policy.

Asokan pillar at Vaishali, Bihar, India

During the remaining portion of Ashoka's reign, he pursued an official policy of nonviolence (ahimsa). Even the unnecessary slaughter or mutilation of people was immediately abolished. Everyone became protected by the king's law against sport hunting and branding. He treated his subjects as equals regardless of their religion, politics and caste. The kingdoms surrounding his, so easily overthrown, were instead made to be well-respected allies.

He is acclaimed for constructing hospitals for animals and renovating major roads throughout India. Ashoka defined the main principles of dharma (dhamma) as nonviolence, tolerance of all sects and opinions, obedience to parents, respect for the Brahmans and other religious teachers and priests, liberality towards friends, humane treatment of servants, and generosity towards all.

What happened after Asoka?

Ashoka ruled for an estimated forty years. In the year 185 BC, about fifty years after Ashoka's death, the last Maurya ruler, Brhadrata, was assassinated by the commander-in-chief of the Mauryan armed forces, Pusyamitra Sunga, while he was taking the Guard of Honor of his forces. Pusyamitra Sunga founded the “Sunga dynasty” and ruled just a fragmented part of the Mauryan Empire. Many of the northwestern territories of the Mauryan Empire (modern-day Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan) became the "Indo-Greek Kingdom".

Following the Mauryans, the first Brahmin emperor was Pusyamitra Sunga, is believed by some writers with the persecution of Buddhists and a resurgence of Brahmanism that forced Buddhism outwards to Kashmir, Gandhara and Bactria. However, there is doubt as to whether he did persecute Buddhists actively. According to the 2nd century Ashokavadana (a text related to Ashoka the Great): "Then Emperor Pusyamitra equipped a fourfold army, and intending to destroy the Buddhist religion, he went to the Kukkutarama and destroyed the “sangharama” (temple or monastery, where dwells the Buddhist monastic community), killed the monks there, and departed. After some time, he arrived in Sakala, and proclaimed that he would give a hundred dinara reward to whoever brought him the head of a Buddhist monk"

Later Sunga emperors were seen as amenable to Buddhism.

The Ashoka Chakra, "the wheel of
Righteousness" (Dharma in Sanskrit)

The early part of Ashoka's life was apparently quite bloodthirsty. He also built an elaborate and horrific torture chamber and this earned him the name Ashoka the Fierce. He became a follower of the Buddha's teaching after his conquest of Kalinga. All he could see at Kalinga were burnt houses, scattered corpses and thousands of fatally wounded people. The words of a woman echoed in his ears. "Your actions have taken from me my father, husband, and son. Now what will I have left to live for?”  He felt that he was the cause of the destruction. Eventually, he pursued an official policy of nonviolence.

King Ashoka the Great, has come to be regarded as one of the most exemplary rulers in world history. The British historian H.G. Wells has written: "Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousnesses and serenities and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Asoka shines, and shines, almost alone, a star."

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