Ashoka, also known as, Ashoka the Great (r. 268-232 BCE) was the third king of the Mauryan Empire (322-185 BCE) best known for his renunciation of war, development of the concept of dhamma (pious social conduct), and promotion of Buddhism as well as his effective reign of a nearly pan-Indian political entity. At its height, under Ashoka, the Mauryan Empire stretched from modern-day Iran through almost the entirety of the Indian subcontinent. Ashoka was able to rule this vast empire initially through the precepts of the political treatise known as the Arthashastra, attributed to the Prime Minister Chanakya (also known as Kautilya and Vishnugupta, l. c. 350-275 BCE) who served under Ashoka’s grandfather Chandragupta (r. c. 321-c.297 BCE) who founded the empire.
Ashoka means “without sorrow” which was most likely his given name. He is referred to in his edicts, carved in stone, as Devanampiya Piyadassi which, according to scholar John Keay (and agreed upon by scholarly consensus) means “Beloved of the Gods” and “gracious of mien” (89). He is said to have been particularly ruthless early in his reign until he launched a campaign against the Kingdom of Kalinga in c. 260 BCE which resulted in such carnage, destruction, and death that Ashoka renounced war and, in time, converted to Buddhism, devoting himself to peace as exemplified in his concept of dhamma. Most of what is known of him, outside of his edicts, comes from Buddhist texts which treat him as a model of conversion and virtuous behavior.
The empire he and his family built did not last even 50 years after his death. Although he was the greatest of the kings of one of the largest and most powerful empires in antiquity, his name was lost to history until he was identified by the British scholar and orientalist James Prinsep (l. 1799-1840 CE) in 1837 CE. Since then, Ashoka has come to be recognized as one of the most fascinating ancient monarchs for his decision to renounce war, his insistence on religious tolerance, and his peaceful efforts in establishing Buddhism as a major world religion.
Although Ashoka’s name appears in the Puranas (encyclopedic literature of India dealing with kings, heroes, legends, and gods), no information on his life is given there. The details of his youth, rise to power, and renunciation of violence following the Kalinga campaign come from Buddhist sources which are considered, in many respects, more legendary than historical.
The Great Work by Ashoka
The Lion Capital of Ashoka is a sculpture of four Asiatic lions standing back to back, on an elaborate base that includes other animals. A graphic representation of it was adopted as the official Emblem of India in 1950. It was originally placed on the top of the Ashoka pillar at the important Buddhist site of Sarnath by the Emperor Ashoka, in about 250 BCE during his rule over the Maurya Empire. The pillar, sometimes called the Aśoka Column, is still in its original location, but the Lion Capital is now in the Sarnath Museum, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India. Standing 2.15 metres (7 feet) high including the base, it is more elaborate than the other very similar surviving capitals of the pillars of Ashoka bearing the Edicts of Ashoka that were placed throughout India several of which feature single animals at the top; one other damaged group of four lions survives, at Sanchi.
The Ashoka Chakra is a depiction of the Dharma Chakra; a wheel represented with 24 spokes in Buddhism. It is so called because it appears on a number of edicts of Ashoka, most prominent among which is the Lion Capital of Ashoka. The most visible use of the Ashoka Chakra today is at the centre of the Flag of India (adopted on 24 July 1947), where it is rendered in a navy blue colour on a white background, replacing the symbol of charkha (spinning wheel) of the pre-independence versions of the flag.
The Ashoka Pillars are among the earliest known stone sculptural remains from India. Only another pillar fragment, the Pataliputra capital, is possibly from a slightly earlier date. It is thought that before the 3rd century BCE, wood rather than stone was used as the main material for Indian architectural constructions, and that stone may have been adopted following interaction with the Persians and the Greeks. A graphic representation of the Lion Capital of Ashoka from the column there was adopted as the official Emblem of India in 1950. All the Ashoka Pillars were built at Buddhist monasteries, many important sites from the life of the Buddha and places of pilgrimage. Some of the columns carry inscriptions addressed to the monks and nuns. Some were erected to commemorate visits by Ashoka. Major pillars are present in the Indian States of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and some parts of Haryana.