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ca. 322-185 BC

"There is no better work than promoting the welfare of the world. Whatever be my great deeds, I have done them in order to discharge my debt to all beings."

(The Encyclopedia of Ancient Civilization)

  These words were spoken by Asoka, the third emperor of the Mauryan dynasty of India and the best known ancient ruler of India. Asoka was born in 304 BC and came to the throne in 270 BC, after a power struggle that resulted in the death of one of his brothers. In 260 BC, Asoka attacked Kalinga (present day Orissa) in order to expand his empire, which he ruled as a tyrant at that time. This campaign was successful, but resulted in a horrible loss of life. Overwhelmed by the carnage he had caused, Asoka changed his way of life.

Back to "Mauryan Empire" Chronology

  In remorse for his bloody attack on Kalinga, Asoka renounced war forever and became a Buddhist. He sent missionaries to South East Asia, Cyrene (present day Libya), Egypt, Syria, and Macedonia. His son, Mahinda, became a Theraveda monk and was sent to introduce Buddhism to Sri Lanka. In Asoka's empire, all religions were tolerated but Buddhism was preferred. Buddhism became a dominant religious force under Asoka.

  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. Asoka campaigned for moral, spiritual, and social renewal. He had inspectors of morality, who were appointed to make sure that his policies were carried out. He also reformed the administrative and judicial systems of India.

  Art and architecture in Asoka's empire was scant, but reflected the importance of Buddhism. Some of Asoka's edicts, carved on pillars and rocks, form the earliest known epigraphs in the subcontinent. There are 20 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. Asoka's pillars are some of India's earliest major stone sculptures. The artistic and Buddhist advancement under Asoka encouraged the further development of stone architecture.

  The impacts of Asoka's reign are chiefly religious. He was the first powerful monarch to practice Buddhism. He united most of the subcontinent and introduced it to Buddhism, and his missionary activity is credited with the firm establishment of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.


The "Rock and Pillar Edicts"


"AsokaHarappan Civilization

The Dictionary of Art, Ed. Jane Turner (New York; Macmillan Publishers Limited)

The Encyclopedia of Ancient Civilization, Ed. Arthur Cotterell (New York; The Rainbird Publishing Group Limited, 1980)

Grove, Noel, Atlas of World History (Washington DC; National Geographic Society, 1997)    

Edited by: Ryan Billedo
Researched by: John Peterson
Written by: Robin Trautman
14 September 1998

Text Copyright 2016 by ThenAgain. All rights reserved.