Ashoka (Asoka Maurya) was born in 304 BC. He ruled the Mauryan Empire after Emperor Bindusara, the father of Ashoka, from 274 BC to 232 BC .
Basically his reign has been divided in two distinct phase, the first phase which is also referred as “Chandashoka” or ‘Cruel Ashoka’ and the second phase, referred to as “Dharmashoka” or Righteous (Religious) Ashoka. His reign is considered to be one of the most prosperous times in Indian history.
Early Life of Ashoka
Ashoka was born to a Brahmin mother, Dhamma, of ajivika sect. The queen was initially conspired and kept away from the king Bindusara, but finally this ended and she gave birth to a son, on this day she exclaimed “My sorrows (shoka) have ended” and Ashoka got his name.
Being a prince, Ashoka got a royal military training. His skills with sword were unmatched. He was an emotionless and ruthless viceroy. It is said that he use to conduct loyalty tests amongst his ministers and people failing to pass the test were exterminated.
Chandashoka : Ashoka, the Dreaded General
The first phase of Ashoka, ‘Chandashoka’, “Chand” refers to “Chandal” or a Demon. Ashoka was feared by all his subordinates. In his first few ventures, he was asked to subdue the uprising taking place in Ujjain. His portrait of a cruel general and also the news of his appointment as a viceroy of Ujjain calmed the rebellion. Ashoka was also referred by his elder brother, Susima, to suppress the civil rebellion, taking place in Taxila in 279 BC, which was successfully suppressed by Ashoka.
Half- Brothers of Ashoka were jealous and scared of his potential and forced Bindusara to send him on an exile in Kalinga. In 274 BC when Emperor Bindusara became ill Ashoka returned to Magadha and got himself involved in a bloody struggle for the throne. Although, Bindusara wanted the elder brother Susima to be the next ruler, Ashoka along with the court’s prime minister, Radhagupt, was able to plot Susima to death. It is said that Ashoka killed all of his brothers, except Tissa.
Ashoka, the ruler of Magadha
Ashoka succeed the throne in 273 BC. For next 8 years he was in a desperate search of power and expansion. Ashoka inherited a fairly large empire and he had all the plans to expand it. During his reign, Mauryan Empire spread out to Afghanistan and Iran In the West, Myanmar in the East, Hindukush in the North and most of Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the South, covering most of the Peninsula. Only the Southernmost part of the Peninsula and Sri Lanka were NOT the part of Maurya Empire.
War on Kalinga – 265 BC
There was a province named Kalinga (present day Orissa) on the North-Eastern coast of the Indian Peninsula, which was NOT captured by Magadha. Ashoka considered this democratic free state of Kalinga as a disgrace for Magadha Empire and in 265 BC declared war on Kalinga. The warriors of Kalinga were courageous and fought daringly. The war was a bloody massacre, and Magadha was able to annex Kalinga. A total of hundred thousand people died in the war including ten thousand of Ashoka’s own men.
Soon after the war got over, Ashoka came to survey the battlefield. Looking at the scene of the carnage, he was deeply distressed.
This event changed his life and he moved on to the second phase of his life, the phase which also gave rise to era of Ancient Indian History.
Dharmashoka : The Second Phase of Ashoka’s Life
After watching so much of blood and gore in the battlefield Ashoka took a resolution of never getting involved in a war again. Ashoka was influenced by his first wife, Devi, who was a Buddhist and started practicing Buddhism. Ashoka promoted vegetarianism. He also became the first Buddhist ruler of India.
Ashoka initiated and funded a lot of campaigns to spread Buddhism to a lot of parts of the world. He is credited the spreading of Buddhism to Sri Lanka, Greece and Egypt.
Ashoka involved himself in construction of various Buddhist Stupas. The Stupa of Sanchi is one of the largest and oldest stupa in the world till day. The twins from his eldest wife, Sanghamitra and Mahindra, were send to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to spread Buddhism. On their way, they constructed thousands of Stupas and Viharas for Buddhist followers.
Ashoka banned hunting. The unnecessary slaughtering of animals stopped. Ashoka ordered the construction of University, improved irrigation system. He also promoted ‘Equality for all’. The neighboring empires were treated with respect. Ashoka advocated tolerance for all as the prime objective of Dharma.
Death and Final Years
Ashoka ruled for around 42 years. During the last few years he seemed to have been under the magic charm of his youngest wife, Tishyaraksha. One of the interesting occurrences takes an account of blinding of Ashoka’s son, Kunala, by Tishyaraksha (It is said that Kunala and Tishyaraksha were of same age and Tishyaraksha was attracted towards Kunala, but seeing Kunala’s lack of interest in her she decided to take a revenge and got him blinded). When the Emperor came to know about this he ordered the execution of the Queen.
Ashoka was succeeded by Dasaratha Maurya, grandson of Ashoka.
Unfortunately, the kind of justice and equality that was demonstrated by Ashoka during his reign of 42 years could not be shown by any of his successors and the whole Mauryan Empire was brought down to ground within 50 years of his death.
The golden era of Indian history ended. The Great Maurya Dynasty fragmented into small kingdoms. The Mauryan Dynasty was succeeded by Sunga Dynasty in year 185 BC when the last Mauryan ruler, Brihadratha, was executed by his military general Pusyamitra Sunga.