Asoka was one of the greatest rulers of ancient India. He was the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya of Magadha who established the first Indian empire. Chandragupta reigned for twenty-four years before relinquishing his throne in favor of his son, Bundusara (Asokas father), who left no noticeable mark upon the empire. Asoka was born in 304 B.C. and was known in his youth as Canda Asoka (the fierce Asoka) because of his aggressive nature.
Asoka came to the throne in 270 B.C. after a power struggle that ended in the death of one of his brothers. He was at first disposed to follow the example of his father and grandfather and complete the conquest of the Indian peninsula. In about 256 B.C. Asoka attacked Kalinga, a country on the east coast of Madras, in order to expand his empire, which he ruled as a tyrant at the time. Asoka succeeded in conquering Kalinga in the bloody war in which 100,000 men were killed, 150,000 injured, and thousands were captured and retained as slaves. The sight of the slaughter involved in his conquest deeply distressed Asoka and deeply affected his mind. Overwhelmed by the carnage, he changed his way of life.
Asoka, who practiced Brahmanism, renounced war forever and sought peace in Buddhas preachings of love and ahimsa. The war developed in him a hatred of all kinds of violence so he gave up hunting and the slaughtering of animals. He became a strict vegetarian. His son, Mahinda, became a Theraveda monk and was sent to introduce Buddhism to Sri Lanka. Asoka spent time piously retracing the steps of the Buddha and raising stupas inscribed with moral injunctions and imperatives at holy places of pilgrimage, and for some two years he became a member of a Buddhist order without relinquishing his role as Emperor.
Asokas conversion to Buddhism, affected with the help of his own teacher, Upragupta, was gradual. Even though he did little to change the system of government he inherited, he introduced a novel and powerful moral idealism, which was a moral rule or way of life in the Buddhist sense, as he understood it. He called this the Law of Piety. This law, though following the tenets of the Buddha, was distinct from them and peculiar to Asoka. It was to become one of the great turning points of the civilization of the East, having profound effects throughout the neighboring kingdoms, not least in India itself and in Sri Lanka, and reading China and Greece.
The Law of Piety consisted in moral imperatives requiring that reverence be paid to all to whom it was due, especially to ones superiors, parents, teachers, elders and relations. The imperatives of the Law of Piety required that respect be shown for the sanctity of all animate life, human and animal. They also required humane and just treatment of all, including backward and uncivilized peoples both inside and outside the empire. There were restrictions and prohibitions against vices such as envy, indolence and injustice in relation to and affecting the administration of the empire. The imperatives and prohibitions of the Law of Piety formed a network of righteous relationships between all sentient and animate beings, affecting public, social and familial relationships, and affecting relationships between peoples of different levels of development and between humans and animals. Censors were appointed to ensure that the Law of Piety was observed even in the latters apartments in the Palace. The Law of Piety was a moral law, an imperial law, a law governing foreign relations and a way of life. At the center of the network was Emperor Asoka himself, who assumed that burden ensuring the publication and enforcement of this law.
Asoka drew a comparison between conquest by force of arms and the conquest of the Law of Piety. He believed that the conquest of mans heart by the Law of Piety was the latter to military conquests. His officials were strongly urged to see that justice was done in the administration of the law, so the humanitarianism of the Law of Piety undoubtedly had a salutary effect on state practices. However, the improvement was relative. The severe criminal law, for example, was not amended. The only exception was under the provision that a person condemned to death had three days between sentence and execution for pious meditation and for charitable works by friends. Torture remained normal practice, though Asoka cautioned that sentences must be passed for just causes only.
Art and architecture in Asokas empire was limited, but reflected the importance of Buddhism. Asokas edicts, which were inscribed in Pali calligraphy, were carved on pillars and rocks. Some of them form the earliest known epigraphs in the subcontinent. There are thirty-four known pillars that Asoka commissioned. These pillars are made out of shafts of sandstone and display Buddhist symbols such as the wheel and the lion. Asoka had a sculpture of four lions placed on top of each of his pillars. These lions remain a national symbol of India today. Asokas pillars are some of Indias earliest major stone sculptures. The artistic and Buddhist advancement under Asoka encouraged the further development of stone architecture.
Such was Asoka, greatest of kings. He was far in advance of his age. He left no prince and no organization of men to carry on his work, and within a century of his death (231 B.C.), the great days of his reign had become a glorious memory in a shattered and decaying India. The priestly caste of the Brahmins, the highest and most privileged caste in the Indian social body, had always been opposed to the frank and open teachings of Buddha. Gradually they undermined the Buddhist influence in the land. The old monstrous gods and innumerable cults of Hinduism resumed their sway. Cast became more severe and complicated. For long centuries Buddhism and Brahmanism flourished side by side, and then slowly Buddhism perished and Brahmanism in a multitude of forms replaced it.
I believe that Asoka was one of the great moral reformers in the history of civilization and a precocious pioneer of humanitarian values. His reign was one of the brightest interludes in the troubled history of mankind. He organized a great digging of wells in India and the planting of trees for shade. He founded hospitals and public gardens and gardens for the growing of medicinal herbs. He created a ministry for the care of the aborigines and subject races of India. He made provision for the education of women. He made vast benefactions to the Buddhist teaching orders, and tried to stimulate them to a better and more energetic criticism of their own accumulated literature. For corruptions and superstitious buildups had accumulated very speedily upon the pure and simple teaching of the great Indian master.
Asoka discloses a truly remarkable degree of religious tolerance and of heightened sensitivity to the suffering of all, especially of the righteous, regardless of their religion or denomination. For a mighty emperor who had only recently won a major victory in war, these are very noble and enlightened sentiments, although realistically such sentiments would be of little avail if he did not have absolute power
Although Asoka was not known as a skillful politician, he was devoted to the well being of his subjects. He made provisions for public health care for both humans and animals, introduced improvements in agriculture and horticulture, established wildlife reserves, and sponsored cave excavations to create shelter for traveling monks and ascetics. He campaigned for moral, spiritual, and social renewal.