“Amidst the tens and thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesty’s graciousness, and serenities and royal highness and the like, the name of Asoka shines alone almost as a star”-H.G. Wells.
Devanampriya Priyadarsi Asoka ascended the throne of Magadha in 273 B.C.
He was the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya and son of Bindusara.
He was one of the greatest monarchs of history. We are furnished with a lot of information about him from his inscriptions and Buddhist literature. According to Buddhist tradition, Bindusara had 101 sons. Susima was the eldest son while Asok was the second son. His mother’s name was Subhadrangi.
The Buddhist text Mahavamsa and the Divyavadana refer to a fratricidal struggle among the sons of Bindusara after his death. In this struggle Asoka is said to have killed ninety-nine of his brothers and only spared the life of Jisya, the youngest brother and waded through blood to the throne in 273 B.C. and for his ferocious nature he earned the title “Chandasoka”.
But his coronation was delayed for four years and it took place in 269 B.C. According to Dr. Smith, those four years were, “one of the dark spaces in the spectrum of Indian History’s Vague speculation, unchecked by the salutary limitations of verified fact, is at the best, unprofitable.” But the story regarding the early life of Asoka is not accepted by Dr. Smith due to several reasons.
He points out that the inscriptions of Asoka even prove that in the 17th and 18th years of his reign all his brothers and sisters were alive. In the Rock Edict Asoka expresses his anxious care for the family establishments of his brothers existing in the capital and the countries. Inscriptional evidences even indirectly suggest that some of his brothers were appointed as viceroys in important places like Taxila, Tosali, Ujjayini and Suvarnagiri and were known as the Kumaras and Aryaputras.
According to Dr. Bhandarkar Buddhist texts only wanted to preach the greatness of Buddhism by the story of Asoka’s killing of his brothers and tried to show that how Chandasoka was converted into Dharmasoka under the influence of Buddhism.
Conquest of Kalinga:
The earliest event of Asoka’s reign of which we have reliable information, is his conquest of Kalinga in the 13th year of his reign in 261 B.C. The XIII Rock Edict of Asoka gives a vivid account of the conquest of Kalinga. The kingdom of Kalinga corresponds to modern Orissa and Ganjam. There were some causes for the invasion of Kalinga.
First, Kalinga was once a part of the Magadhan empire when it was ruled by the Nandas. It became independent when Chandragupta Maurya rebelled against the Nanda king. Due to his pre-occupation in Northern India, Chandragupta Maurya had no time to reconquering it. Hence Asoka after his accession wanted to annex Kalinga to the Mauryan empire.
Secondly, Kalinga posed a threat to Magadha as the Kalingan rulers considerably increased their military power from the time of Chandragupta to that of Asoka. According to Pliny, Kalingan army consisted of 60,000 infantry, 1000 cavalry and 700 war-elephants. The existence of such a big army was a source of danger to Asoka.
Thirdly, the material prosperity of Kalinga was enhanced by commercial relation with Malaya, Java and Ceylon. Thus the growing Military power along with material prosperity and hostile attitude of Kalinga towards Magadha made her a powerful enemy to the Mauryan empire.
Asoka felt the need of its subjugation and attacked Kalinga in the eighth year of his reign. It is not definitely known as to the name of the king and his dynasty then ruling over the kingdom of Kalinga because Asoka did not mention these facts in his inscription. According to scholars Kalinga might be at that time was like an oligarchical or republican state of the ancient type.
The R E. XIII, of Asoka gives an account of the occupation of Kalinga after a terrible fight in course of which 1, 50,000 persons were captured, 100,000 were killed, and many times that number perished. Numerous people also suffered from violence, separation and other evils of war which caused Asoka much grief and remorse.
So he abandoned the policy of conquest or “bherighosha” in favour of a policy of spiritual conquest or “dhammaghosa”. Thus the conquest of Kalinga gave a descent burial to the Magadhan imperialism and opened an era of peace and non-violent policy of inter-state relation. This Kalinga war converted Asoka as a Buddhist and missionary.
The Kalinga war was a turning point in the life of Asoka. So far as his religion was concerned. After the Kalinga war he embraced Buddhism. It was sanyasi Upagupta who converted him and acted as his spiritual guru. According to Kalhana, the author of Rajatarangini, before his conversion Asoka was a patron of Brahmanical religion and Shiva was his favorite deity. But the feeling of remorse and misery led him to embrace Buddhism after the Kalinga war.
According to tradition Upagupta the Buddhist monk converted him to Buddhism and acted as his spiritual guide. In the Bhabru Edict, he declares his faith in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. He regarded Buddha as a Bhagabat and visited the holy places associated with the life of Buddha. He always kept himself in close contact with the Samgha. In spite of his patronage to Buddhism, Asoka was tolerant to all the religions of his time.
Asoka’s Dhamma or Law of piety contained the following fundamental principles:
1. Mastery of Senses or Samyam.
2. Purity of thought or Bhavasuddhi.
3. Gratitude or Knitajnata.
4. Stead fastness of devotion or Dridh-Bhakti.
5. Kindness or Dya.
6. Charity or Dana.
7. Purity or Saucha.
8. Truthful or Satya.
9. Service or Sushrusa.
The inscriptions of Asoka give us a clear idea about his religion. In the second Minor Rock Edict, it is mentioned that, “Father and mother must be obeyed; similarly, respect for living creatures must be enforced, truth must be spoken. These are the virtues of Law of piety which must be practiced.” In the Second Pillar Edict, Asoka mentioned that Dhamma consisted in little impiety, many good deeds, compassion, liberality, truthfulness and purity.”
Missionary Activities of Asoka:
The missionary activities of Asoka started from the tenth year of his reign. The Minor Rock Edict I records his success as a missionary. He exerted himself strenuously to propagate the religion in which he found solace and comfort of his life. Asoka adopted several measures for the spread of Buddhism. He went on tours to preach Buddhism. In the Rock Edict VIII he mentioned that in the tenth year of his reign he gave up Vihara Yatra or tours of pleasure and went on Dharma Yatra. He visited holy places of Buddhism and arranged religious discussions.
He ordered his officers like the Yuktas, Rajukas, Purushas and Pradeshikas to go on tours and preach his Law of Piety to the people in addition to their official duties. He appointed a special class of officials called Dhamma Mahamatras whose sole duty was to propagate Dharma among the people. He also convoked the third Buddhist council at Pataliputra to settle internal disputes.
With the consort of this council Asoka deputed missionaries to the various parts of the world. Majjhantika was sent to Kashmir and Gandhara, Maharakshita to Greek Country, Majjhima to Himalaya Country, Dharmarakshita to Aparantaka, Mahadharmarakshita to Maharastra, Mahadeva to Mahishamandala or Mysore, Rakshita to Varanasi or North Kanara, Sona and Uttara to Suvarnabhumi or Pegu and Sanghamitra and Mahendra Rashtriyg, Uttriya, Sambala and Bliadrasara to Lanka or Ceylon. He also sent missions to Egypt, Macedonia, Cyrene and Epirus. The names of missionaries, whose sphere of work lay in India proper, are preserved in Ceylonese literature.
Asoka adopted the most novel means to make the people realize the doctrines of Buddha, was to engrave them on rocks, pillars and caves throughout his vast dominions. Fourteen Rock Edicts are to be found at Shahbazgarhi, Mansera, Kalsi, Sopara, Girnar, Dhauli, Jaugada, Chitaldmg, Rupnath, Sahsram, Bairat, Maski and Bhabru. The Pillar Edicts are to be found at Jopara, Meerut, Kausambi, Lauriya, Araraj, Lauriya Nandangarh, Rampurva, Sanchi, Rummindei, and Nigliva. The principles, Law of piety displayed on the Rock Edicts, Pillar Edicts and caves must have helped the spread of Buddhism in the country.
Asoka tried to win over the goodwill of the people through philanthropic and benevolent activities. He introduced a series of humanitarian works. Although he didn’t abolish capital punishment, he provided a grace of three days to persons condemned with death. He ordered the planting of shady banyan tries and mango groves. He ordered the digging of wells and construction of rest-houses by the road side for the people.
Watering places were established both for men and animals. He made arrangements for the treatment of men and animals. He also planted medicinal herbs for the treatment of people. He also issued a series of comprehensive legislations to check slaughter and injury to animals. In Pillar Edict V he mentioned a long list of animals and birds that were not to be killed. He also abolished Samajas where animals were killed for distributing meat to the people.
Results of Asoka’s Missionary Activities:
Asoka’s missionary activities had far-reaching consequences. His foreign policy was influenced by it. He told the rulers of the neighbouring states that they should not be afraid of him but trust him. He not only sent missionaries to foreign countries but also maintained friendly relations with Tamil neighbours like Cholas, Pandyas, Satyaputra, Keralputra. The message of dhamma spread to Burma also. Ultimately China, Japan and Tibet were brought within the folds of Buddhism.
Indian art and architecture were also influenced. He substituted stone for wood for the construction of Pillars. He popularised lithic style. He also constructed 84,000 stupas. Brahmi script and Pali language were used by Asoka for preaching Dhamma. Because of his effort, Pali became the state lanaugage and Bramhi was used as the national script all over the country except extreme north-west.
The political effects of Asoka’s missionary activities were not encouraging. He gave up the policy of conquest and followed a policy of non-violence in foreign relations. It has rightly been pointed out that a period of stagnation set in the history of India. The non-violence policy demoralized the army and the people.
By abandoning the aggressive imperial policy, Asoka weakened the very foundations of the empire. Hence after the death of Asoka, a decline started in Maurya body politic. However, one should remember the great saying of Thucydides that all mortal glory is doomed to destruction, but the memory of greatness lives forever.
Asoka occupies an important place in history for his policy of peace, non-violence and cultural conquest. He preached and practised the virtues of concord, toleration and non-violence. Thus in the words of H.G. Wells “Amidst the tens and thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesty’s graciousness, and serenities and royal highness and the like, the name of Asoka shines alone almost as a star.
From the Volga to Japan, his name is still honoured. China, Tibet and even India, though it has left his doctrine, preserve the tradition of his greatness. More living men cherish his memory today than have heard the names of constantine or Charlemanue. He was the living embodiment of his time and he comes before us as quite a modern figure.”