Devanampriya Priyadarshi Raja Asoka was the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya and the son of the second Maurya Emperor, Bindusara.
Acknowledged as the greatest of monarchs in world history, Asoka, is singled out as a ruler without a parallel.
In his role as a monarch and a missionary, he made his time one of the most glorious epochs of Indian history.
Much light is thrown on the history of Asoka by his own inscriptions as they exist on the surface of imperishable rocks. Information about his life and time are also gathered from various Buddhist sources and Indian traditions. There are, of course, many legends and stories about him in Indian literature. The substance of his life, in any case, has been ascertained from reliable sources and accepted as historically established.
Asoka’s father Bindusara was fortunate for inheriting a vast and powerful empire from his father, Chandragupta Maurya. That he was himself powerful is known from the Greek sources in which Bindusara was described as Amitrochates. The word is supposed to have been taken from the Sanskrit word Amitraghatu or the ‘Slayer of Foes’ or Amitra khada, meaning ‘Devourer of Enemies’. Taranatha, the famous Tibetan historian of a later time, wrote in his history of Buddhism that Chanakya or Kautilya, who was the chief minister of Chandragupta, also continued to work in the same capacity under Bindusara. He further writes that “Chanaky accomplished the destruction of the nobles and kings of 16 towns and made Bindusara master of all the territory between eastern and western sea”.
The exact conquests of Bindusara are not clear since his father had conquered vast territories in the west and the east, and in the north and the south. Might be, Amitraghata destroyed some rebellious nobles or small rulers within the empire to strengthen his power and confirm his supremacy.
There is no doubt that Bindusara ruled over his father’s empire effectively and preserved the Maurya Empire successfully. He also maintained good relation with contemporary Greek rulers outside India. It is known from the Greek accounts that Bindusara requested the Syrian King Antiochus I Soter, who was the son of Seleukos Nikator, to buy and send to him sweet wine, dried figs and a learned philosopher. And, the Syrian king wrote back: “We shall send you the figs and the wine, but in Greece the laws forbid a sophist (a man of wisdom) to be sold”. He, however, sent an ambassador named Daimachus to the court of Bindusara. The King of Egypt, Ptolemy Philadelphos, also sent an ambassador to the Maurya Court named Dionysius.
According to traditions, Bindusara had 16 wives, and as many as 101 sons. The name of his eldest son is said to have been Sumana or Susima. His second son was Asoka, and the name of the youngest son was Tishya. According to one tradition, the name of Asoka’s mother was Subhadrangi.
Another tradition mentions her name as Dharma. The Year of birth of Asoka was 304 B.C. when his grandfather Chandragupta was still ruling the empire. Legends lead us to understand that Asoka was the most intelligent among may sons of his father. When Asoka was 18 years old, Bindusara appointed him as his Viceroy of the province of Avanti which had its capital at Ujjayini. This took place in the year 286 B.C. and the young prince soon showed his ability as well as individuality in his works.
There at Ujjayini, Asoka married a lady of the famous Sakya clan to which Buddha belonged. Her name was Vidisa Mahadevi Sakya Kumari. Apparently her birth place was Vidisa (modern Bhilsa). When Asoka was 20, Mahadevi gave birth to a son who was named Mahendra. Two years later, in 282 B.C., a daughter was born to Asoka named Sanghamitra. In future, both Mahendra and Sanghamitra played a great role in the spread of Buddhism when their royal father sent them to preach that religion outside India.
When prince Asoka was working as the viceroy at Ujjayini, prince Susima, the eldest son of Bindusara, was serving as his father’s viceroy at Taxila. A revolt of the people of Taxila broke out at that time for the misdeeds of the wicked officers which Susima failed to suppress. Thereupon, the Emperor sent Asoka to Taxila to suppress it which he did. Asoka thus served as the viceroy of Taxila after serving as the viceroy in Ujjayini. There is also reference to a second rebellion in Taxila which Asoka faced and suppressed. According to Puranic evidences, Bindusara ruled for twenty-five years. His death took place in about 273 B.C.
The Ceylonese (Sinhalese) Chronicles describe of a fratricidal war which followed the death of Bindusara. The chief rivals to the throne were the eldest son of the late Emperor Susima or Sumana and Asoka. The Chronicles narrate that it was fierce struggle in which Asoka won at last by killing his ninety-nine brothers. He spared the life of only one brother, Tishya, who was the youngest. Such descriptions of Ashoka’s cruelty were perhaps motivated exaggerations on part of the Buddhist writers who wanted to show Asoka as a Chandasoka before he became a Buddhist and turned into a Dharmasoka. According to Taranatha, the Tibetan writer, Asoka killed six brothers to capture the throne.
It is most probable that there was a war of succession for which Asoka’s coronation was delayed for four years. Between his accession to the throne in 273 B.C. and his coronation for appointment as king in 269 B.C., there was an interval of four years. This leads historians to believe that there was a war of succession which ended in the victory of Asoka. But, the Buddhist legends about his cruelty and about his killing of as many as 99 brothers do not seem to possess historical substance.
In some of his inscriptions, which were erected long after his coronation, Asoka refers to his ‘brothers and sisters’ and other relatives for whose welfare he was most anxious. Inscriptional evidences also indirectly suggest that some of his brothers served as his viceroys in prominent places like Taxila, Tosali, Ujjayini, and Suvaranagiri and were called as the Kumaras and Aryputras. According to Mahavamsa, Asoka even appointed his youngest brother Tishya as the Uparaja or the Deputy king. The traditions maintain that Asoka captured the throne with the support of the ministers of the late monarch headed by the chief minister, Radhagupta (also mentioned as Khallataka).
After coming to the throne and having consolidated his power after four years by coronation, Asoka found himself the all-powerful ruler of a great empire extending from the Kabul valley to the Brahmaputra, and from the Himalayas to the Godavari-Krishna basin and Mysore in the south. In the north-west, the Maurya Empire touched the territories of the Greek monarch of Syria and Western Asia.
In the west, the empire touched the Arabian Sea. The empire also included inaccessible areas in the north, such as Kashmir and Nepal. That Asoka ruled over the Himalayan territories is proved by the existence of his inscriptions at Mansehra in Hazara district, at Kalsi in Dehra Dun district, at Rummindei in the Nepal Tarai and at Rampurva in north Bihar.
Evidences are also available to show the extent of Asokan Empire to north Bengal (Pundra Vardhan) and east Bengal (Samatata). The empire of Asoka, thus, was an all-India empire, except for the territories of the Chodas, Pandyas, Satyaputra and Keralaputra in the Tamil land of the far south.
But, this empire of Chandragupta, Bindusara and Asoka did not include a prominent land which was just adjacent to the heartland of the Maurya Empire, namely, Magadha. It was Kalinga. For Twelve years after accession and especially for eight years after coronation Asoka ruled the empire as a strong ruler with absolute power in his command. He lived the usual life of a great king in pomp, splendour and pleasure. He did not fight any external war, though he had the power for aggression.
He also had no fear of invasion from outside Greek Kings with whom there were diplomatic relations from the time of his father. During the first twelve years of his rule he was busy in internal administration. Obviously his position became stronger and stronger since his coronation. When Asoka had thus enjoyed his unlimited imperial authority for long, he decided to invade Kalinga. It was going to be his first war. It was also destined to be his last war.