Ashok: A Short Biography of Ashoka the Great of India
The Life of Ashoka the Great
According to Wikipedia, H.G. Wells wrote:
"In the history of the world there have been thousands of kings and emperors who call themselves "their highnesses," "their majesties", and "their exalted majesties" and so on. They shone for a brief moment, and as quickly disappeared. But Ashoka shines and shines brightly like a bright star, even unto this day."
Ashoka was the first ruler to unify all of India. He was also the first Buddhist King who after his conversion to Buddhism attempted to embrace nonviolence and Buddhist principles as part of royal policies Today, he is considered one of India's greatest leaders.
Ashoka the Great ruled India from 273 BC until 232 BC. Despite the acclaim held by H.G. Wells, for many Americans, Ashoka is not well known. This hub is an effort to elucidate the achievements of this historical figure. This is targeted to those who are not familiar with Ashok.
A Talented Military Leader
Ashoka was born in 304 BC. He was the son of the Mauryan Emperor Bindusara. He had one younger brother and also older half-brothers. Early on, he showed great promise. When he started showing success as a military leader, his older brothers began to fear that Ashoka would ascend to the throne.
When an uprising occurred in the Takshashila province, Prince Susima suggested to his father that Ashoka would be the best person to deal with it. When news reached the province that Ashoka was coming, the fighting stopped. The militia who had started the revolt welcomed Ashoka's arrival.
With this victory, Susima became more concerned about Ashoka. He portrayed him as power hungry and ambitious. Soon, he had convinced his father to exile Ashoka to Kalinga.
In Kalinga, Ashoka fell in love with Kaurwaki who worked as a fisherwoman. She would later be one of his many wives.
His exile was soon ended when there was an uprising in Ujjain Province. Emperor Bindusara now called Ashoka back from exile and sent him to Ujjain. This time there was a great battle and Ashoka was seriously hurt.
During his recovery, he was overseen by Buddhist monks and nuns. It was during this time that he first learned about Buddhism. He fell in love with his nurse Devi. She too would become one of his wives.
The Death of the Emperor
The year after the battle at Ujjain, the Emperor Bindusara became very sick. It was clear that he would die. Soon, a war broke out between all of his sons over who would succeed the emperor.
After a series of battles, Ashoka killed many of his brothers. He thus attained the throne in 274 BC. For the first eights years of his rule, he became famous for his brutaiity and his desire to expand the Mauryan Empire.
His nickname at this time was Chandashoka which means "cruel Ashoka".
Battle of Kalinga
So, when Ashoka was in his eighth year of rule, his wife Devi gave birth two twins: Prince Mahindra and Princess Sanghamitra.
He also learned that one of his brothers was hiding in Kalinga. Ashoka was outraged that any place would aid his brother. He launched a full invasion of the province. In the fighting, thousands of people were killed and large areas of land were ravaged.
After the battle, Ashoka decided to look over the destruction. The place that he had once been exiled now lay in utter collapse with houses burned down and many bodies still unburied. It was said that this was the first time that Ashoka saw the direct impact of war.
According to legend, upon seeing the utter devastation, he said: "What have I done?" For the rest of his life, he would not forget the horror that he saw on this day.
Conversion to Buddhism
It is said that his wife Devi accompanied him at Kalinga. She was so bothered by what she saw that she left his side. She ran away and never returned.
Devi was Buddhist and perhaps this in combination with Ashoka's memory of learning about Buddhist principles led him to change his ways.
From this point on, he embraces Buddhism. He took on the Buddhists Radhaswami and Manjushri as his teachers. He decided that he would base the rest of his rule on Buddhist principles.
The First Buddhist King
Ashoka now reversed course. He set free all of his prisoners and returned their property.
There is a story that the pregnant wife of one of his brothers escaped the palace before she could be killed. The baby survived and was brought up by Buddhist monks and nuns. When the boy was 13, he was discovered by Ashoka who learned the boy's identity. Ashoka, at this time, felt so much shame that he moved the boy and his mother to live in the palace.
At this time, he got a new name. Instead of Chandashoka, he became known as Dharmashoka which means "pious Ashoka."
Great Public Works Projects
Ashoka now begins a massive public works project where he orders the creation of thousands of Buddhist buildings. He builds stupas which are mounds that house Buddhist relics and he builds viharas which are Buddhist monasteries. He orders the construction of roadhouses for travelers which are free of charge.
He created edicts which protect wildlife against sport hunting and he promotes the vegetarianism. He initiates the building of universities, irrigation systems, and hospitals.
He signs peace treaties with many of the neighboring kingdom even though with India's resources, he would have little trouble to conquer them outright.
Equality for All
Ashoka takes the very innovative position of protecting minority interests in India. He required nonviolence as well as loerance of all other religions and all opinions.
"Dharmashoka also defined the main principles of dharma as nonviolence, tolerance of all sects and opinions, obedience to parents and other religious teachers and priests, liberality toward friends, humane treatment of servants, and generosity towards all."
Death of Ashoka
Ashoka ruled for over 40 years. 50 years after his death, the Mauryan Empire came to an end. He had numerous wives and many heirs but most of their names are lost. Buddhism did not, of course, stay the state religion of India. Still, empowered by Ashoka, Buddhism quickly spread outside of India's borders into Southeast Asia.
Today, the Ashokra Chakra, the Wheel of Dharma, is featured on the national flag of India. Ashoka used this image on many of his constructions. The wheel has 24 spokes which represent:
- Self sacrifice
- Godly knowledge
- Godly wisdom
- Godly moral
- Reverential fear of God
- Hope/trust/faith in the goodness of God