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Iron Age India

The Mauryas: Ashoka

by Abhijit Rajadhyaksha, 2 August 2009. Updated 3 October 2009

Ashoka the Great, as he is known, is not presumed to have been great for his conquests but for his renunciation of violence and for laying the foundations of a welfare state which would serve as an example for centuries to come.

Ashoka was said to have been born at some point around 273 BC. In 1837, James Princep had rediscovered this almost forgotten figure when he deciphered a script in which Ashoka was referred to as 'Devanampiya Piyadassi' or the 'beloved of the gods'. This was something which tallied with the Buddhist chronicles of Sri Lanka which gave details of his early life.

Ashoka served as the governor of Ujjain during the reign of his father, Bindusara. After Bindusara's death, Ashoka is said to have seized the throne after a fratricidal war with his ninety-nine brothers, the most prominent being the eldest, Sushima. His earlier life seems to have been one of extreme ruthlessness, typical of an imperialist ruler. But it was the cataclysmic war against Kalinga which is said to have transformed the personality of Ashoka from a cruel individual to a pacifist and benevolent king. A transition from 'Chandashoka' (ferocious Ashoka) to 'Dharmashoka' (the religious one).

There is no other king in ancient India for whom so much information has been unearthed as Ashoka, making him the most familiar name we have as far as future generations are concerned.

Ashoka's rock edicts

Ashoka left a huge number of inscriptions behind, and these furnish a wealth of information which was engraved on rocks, monolithic monuments, and remarkably well-polished stone pillars. The details on them were mainly about his later life as a king, his reign, his religion and his ideology. They can be categorised as follows:

  • Fourteen Rock Edicts found at eight different places: Shahbazgarhi (the seventh edict to be engraved was on a bowl found at Peshawar in Pakistan and currently on display in the Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai), Manshera (Hazara), Kalsi (Dehradun in Uttarakhand), Girnar (Junagadh in Gujrat), Sopara (Thana in Maharashtra), Dhauli and Jaugada (Orissa), and Yerragudi (Kurnool in Andhra Pradesh).
  • Minor Rock Edicts found in thirteen different places: Roopnath (Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh), Bairat (Jaipur in Rajasthan), Sasaram (Shahbad district, Bihar), Maski (Raichur in Karnataka), Gavimath and Palkigundu (Mysore, Karnataka), Gujarra (Datia district , Madhya Pradesh), Ahraura (Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh), Rajulamandagiri (Kurnool in Andhra Pradesh), and Yerragudi and three neighbouring places in Chitaldurga district, Mysore.
  • Seven Pillar Edicts, seven edicts found on a single pillar (Topra, presently displayed in Delhi). The rest were found in northern Bihar.
  • The remaining inscriptions were engraved on rocks, pillars and cave walls.

The most important of these were the pillar engravings found at Rumindei (Nepal) which mention Ashoka's visit to the birthplace of Gautam Buddha at Lumbini. Two short inscriptions written in Aramaic have also been found at Taxilla and Jalalabad (Afghanistan). A bilingual inscription written in Greek and Aramaic has been found on a rock at Shar-i-Kuna (Kandahar, Afghanistan). Four edicts (one in Kharoshti script derived from Aramaic, which was used in Iran, and others in, perhaps, Prakrit, with the rest found in the country being in Brahmi) have been found in Shalatak and Qargha (Afghanistan).

The thirteenth rock edict gives a vivid account of Ashoka's conquest of Kalinga (260 BC), after a prolonged war, in which 150,000 people were captured and 100,000 killed and many times that number perished afterwards. Ashoka was said to have been filled with great remorse and guilt after witnessing the misery and bloodshed his war had cost.

He sought solace in the peace preached by the Buddhist religion. He was initiated into the Buddhist fold by the monk, Upagupta. He remained a disciple for two and a half years, until being formally inducted in the Buddhist order and becoming a 'Bhikku' (a fully ordained Buddhist monastic).

Modern India's national emblem is a gift from Ashoka's heritage - the Dharma Chakra 'wheel' at the centre of the Indian flag.

Ashoka visited the various places which are considered holy by Buddhists. He is said to have begun the propagation of the Buddhist doctrines through his specially appointed officers called 'Dharmamahamatras'.

Ashoka's 'dhamma' (in Prakrit) or 'dharma' (in Sanskrit) is still considered to be reflecting his character and philosophy.


Dhamma was Ashoka's own invention, according to the historian, Romila Thapar. It was essentially a code of moral duties, benevolent acts and a freedom from passions for an individual (referencing historian L Prasad).

The basic tenets of Ashoka's Dhamma were:

  • Compassion, liberalism, truth and purity in personal life.
  • Respect and kindness towards parents, siblings, companions, friends, elders, teachers, ascetics, the bramhanas, bhikkus, the disabled, and slaves and servants.
  • Cruelty towards humans and animals alike was abhorred.
  • Doing away with anger, envy and pride, and espousing the pursuance of righteous deeds.
  • The description on the twelfth rock edict states that the people should not only tolerate all religions and sects, but also develop a spirit of reverence for all. Polite speech was encouraged, and criticism and intolerance was discouraged. Also included was a request for people to read out religious texts to each other.

He never stressed the metaphysical element of religion, but its moral and social aspects.

Ashoka also practiced what he preached. He stopped consuming meat, prohibited the killing of animals, birds in the palace, or anything during hunting expeditions. He stopped animal fights and encouraged festivals and religious fairs.

He also convened the 'Third General Council' of Buddhists at his capital, Patliputra, to settle their internal differences and proceed with a more unified progression of Buddhism. It was presided over by the monk, Mogaliputta Tissa. It deputed missionaries to neighbouring and far off countries like western Asia, Syria (the court of Antiochus II Theos), Egypt (the court of Ptolemy II Philadelphus), Ceylon (his son Mahendra and daughter Sanghamitra were sent to the royal court of Ceylon, modern Sri Lanka), Macedonia and Greece (the court of Antigonus II Gonatas), Magas of Cyrene, and the court of Alexander of Epirus.

Ashoka's administration

Ashoka followed the basic structure of administration set up during the rule of Chandragupta Maurya. However Ashoka stressed 'humanism and dedication to his subjects' in his administration and which was to be the hallmark of his reign.

He categorically instructed his officers to apprise him of the people's problems whenever and wherever they wanted. He sincerely believed that being a monarch was only a means of public service rather than anything else. His subjects were his children and their king was their benevolent patriarch.

A special officer, the 'Vrajabhumika', was appointed to be in charge of public utility works.

Orders were given to the high-serving officials that they should maintain a strict vigil on their subordinates so as to ensure the regular performance of their duties.

As mentioned in the book by Romila Thapar, during Ashokan times, "Land revenue was of two types. One being the tax on the area of the land cultivated and the other on the assessment of the produce. Ashoka's inscription at Lumbini, commemorating the birthplace of Buddha, speaks of 'Bali' and 'Bhagga' which may have been these two taxes. Interestingly, he exempts the people of Lumbini from the first, but continues to impose a tax on their produce. The assessment varied from region to region and the sources mention a range from one sixth to a quarter of the produce of the land. It was generally based on the land worked by each individual cultivator and also the quality of land. A reference to 'pindakara' - a heap of taxes - could suggest a tax collected jointly from a village. The treasury was entitled to tax shepherds and livestock breeders on the number and produce of the animals. Taxes on other activities referred to by the general term 'kara' were also levied. A tax of a different kind, 'vishti', was paid in labour for the state and is therefore translated as unpaid labour (UK English), or corvée (US English). 'Vishti' pertains more to the individual than the other taxes. At this period it is mentioned often in the context of craft production, where craftsmen provide a stipulated amount of free labour to the state".

Ashoka stupa

The Ashoka Stupa, a massive rock which is covered in inscriptions, rests inside this protective building at Kalsi. The stupa was erected in the third century BC as one of a large number of inscriptions left by the emperor in order to spread his message of peace

Security and law and order were also strictly maintained during the Ashokan period of rule. It was decided that the death penalty was to be carried out three days after judgement being delivered, and there were also dates fixed for granting amnesty.

All people were considered to be the same in the eyes of law, irrespective of their religion, sect or class. The 'Rajukas' (revenue settlement officer), were given judicial powers to facilitate a quick dispensation of justice.

The Ashokan empire was governed by its many 'viceroys' seated at their provincial capitals: Suvarnagiri, Toshali, Taxilla and Ujjain. The empire was mainly the inheritance of his predecessors, barring Kalinga which Ashoka conquered in 260 BC. It extended right down to the south, excluding the independent Tamilian kingdoms of the Cholas, Cheras, Pandyas , Satyaputras and Tamraparnis of Sri Lanka (with whom Ashoka maintained friendly relations as mentioned in the chronicles of the island, 'Dipavamsa' and 'Mahavamsa'. There is also mention of Ashoka gifting the Sri Lankans the branch of the Bodhi tree under which Buddha achieved salvation).

Emperor Ashoka died around 232 BC. He was succeeded by seven Mauryan kings down the line, the last being Brihadrata who was killed by his Brahmin commander-in-chief, Pushyamitra, who then established the Sunga dynasty.

H G Wells once wrote about Ashoka: "It is not every age, it is not every nation, which can produce a king like this type. Ashoka still remains without a parallel in the history of the world".

Post Ashoka kings

  • 321-301 BC Chandragupta Maurya
  • 232-224 BC Dashratha - He was a successor to Ashoka as Ashoka's son Kunala was blinded in a palace conspiracy. Dashratha was the nephew of Kunala and ruled for eight years. He dedicated three caves at Nagajuni to the Ajivika sect. Dashratha was succeeded by Kunala's son, Samprati.
  • 224-215 BC Samprati - ruled for nine years. He converted to Jainism (his grandmother Padmawati was also a Jain). He propagated Jainism and is credited with the founding of many Jain temples.
  • 215-202 BC Salisuka - According to the Gargi Samhita he was a cruel tyrant.
  • 202-195 BC Devavarman
  • 195-187 BC Satadhanwan
  • 187-185 BC Brihadrata - the last Maurya king. During the reign of Brihadrata there were invasions by the Indo-Greek king Demetrius, who captured what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan, Panchala, Saketa, Mathura and Pataliputra. Brihadrata was killed by his minister, Pushyamitra Sunga, who established the Sunga dynasty in Magadha, eclipsing the Maurya reign.


Main Sources

Altekar, A S - State and Government in Ancient India, Motilal Banarasidas Publishers Ltd

Majumdar, R C - Ancient India, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Ltd, 1987

Prasad, L - Studies in Indian History, Cosmos Bookhive, Gurgaon, 2000

Thapar, Romila - Penguin History of India, Volume 1, Penguin Books, London, 1990



Text copyright © Abhijit Rajadhyaksha. An original feature for the History Files.