There is little information regarding the early life of Asoka. He acted as Governor of Ujjain and also suppressed a revolt in Taxila during his father Bindusara’s reign. There was an interval of four years between Asoka’s accession
to the throne (273 B.C.) and his actual coronation (269 B.C.). Therefore, it appears from the available evidence that there was a struggle for the throne after Bindusara’s death. The Ceylonese Chronicles, Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa state that Asoka captured power after killing his ninety
nine brothers including his elder brother Susima. The youngest brother Tissa was spared. But according to Taranatha of Tibet, Asoka killed only six of his brothers.
Asoka’s Edict also refers to his brothers acting as officers in his administration. However, it is clear that the succession of Asoka was a disputed one. The most important event of Asoka’s reign was his victorious war with Kalinga in 261 B.C. Although there is no detail about the cause and course of the war, the effects of the war were described by Asoka himself in the Rock edict XIII: “A hundred and fifty thousand were killed and many times that number perished…” After the war he annexed Kalinga to the Mauryan Empire. Another most important effect of the Kalinga war was that Asoka embraced Buddhism under the influence of Buddhist monk, Upagupta.
Asoka and Buddhism
According some scholars, his conversion to Buddhism was gradual and not immediate. About 261 B.C. Asoka became a Sakya Upasaka (lay dsicple) and two and a half years later, a Bikshu (monk). Then he gave up hunting, visited Bodh-Gaya, and organized missions. He appointed special officers called Dharma Mahamatras to speed up the progress of Dhamma. In 241 B.C., he visited the birth place of Buddha, the Lumbini Garden, near Kapilavastu. He also visited other holy places of Buddhism like Sarnath, Sravasti and Kusinagara. He sent a mission to Sri Lanka under his son Mahendra and daughter Sangamitra who planted there the branch of the original Bodhi tree. Asoka convened the Third Buddhist Council at Pataliputra in 240 B.C. in order to strengthen the Sangha. It was presided over by Moggaliputta Tissa.
Extent of Asoka’s Empire
Asoka’s inscriptions mention the southernmost kingdoms – Cholas, Pandyas, Satyaputras and Keralaputras – as border-states. Therefore these states remained outside the Mauryan Empire. According to Rajatarangini, Kashmir was a part of the Mauryan Empire. Nepal was also within the Mauryan empire. The northwestern frontier was already demarcated by Chandragupta Maurya.
Although Asoka embraced Buddhism and took efforts to spread Buddhism, his policy of Dhamma was a still broad concept. It was a way of life, a code of conduct and a set of principles to be adopted and practiced by the people at large. His principles of Dhamma were clearly stated in his Edicts. The main features of Asoka’s Dhamma as mentioned in his various Edicts may be summed as follows:
1. Service to father and mother, practice of ahimsa, love of truth, reverence to teachers and good treatment of relatives.
2. Prohibition of animal sacrifices and festive gatherings and avoiding expensive and meaningless ceremonies and rituals.
3. Efficient organization of administration in the direction of social welfare and maintenance of constant contact with people through the system of Dhammayatras.
4. Humane treatment of servants by masters and prisoners by government officials.
5. Consideration and non-violence to animals and courtesy to relations and liberality to Brahmins.
6. Tolerance among all the religious sects.
7. Conquest through Dhamma instead of through war.
The concept of non-violence and other similar ideas of Asoka’s Dhamma are identical with the teachings of Buddha. But he did not equate Dhamma with Buddhist teachings. Buddhism remained his personal belief. His Dhamma signifies a general code of conduct. Asoka wished that his Dhamma should spread through all social levels.
Estimate of Asoka
Asoka was “the greatest of kings” surpassing Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar and other renowned Emperors of the world. According to H.G. Wells “Amidst the tens and thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, the name of Asoka shines and shines almost alone, a star”. Asoka was true to his ideals. He was not a dreamer but a man of practical genius. His Dhamma is so universal that it appeals to humanity even today. He was an example in history for his benevolent administration and also for following the policy of non-aggression even after his victory in the war. His central ideal was to promote the welfare of humanity.