Transformation of Ashoka to a Buddhist

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. Nearly 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.

Transformation & 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.

Asokan pillar at Vaishali, Bihar, India

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.

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.

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.




Wheel of Time - Rise and fall

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

King Ashoka the Great, has come to be regarded as one of the most exemplary rulers in world history. The early part of Emperor 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.

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?

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 Dharmma). 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.

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.

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. 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"

Mark Twain: "a favorite theory of mine is that no occurrence is sole and solitary, but is merely a repetition of a thing which has happened before, and perhaps often."

The Wheel of time or wheel of history (also known as Kalachakra) is a concept found in several religious traditions and philosophies which regard time as cyclical and consisting of repeating ages.

The repetition of similar events in history is called Historic recurrence. The concept of historic recurrence has variously been applied to the overall history of the world (e.g., to the rises and falls of empires), to repetitive patterns in the history of a given polity, and to any two specific events which bear a striking similarity.

History repeats itself

RELATED CATEGORIES