Emperor Ashoka


The Life and Work of Ashoka: Political/Military

  • Reigned as emperor for 42 years from 270-232 BCE
  • Inherited throne of very powerful Maurya dynasty (kingdom in Northern India)
  • Dynasty held power from 324-187 BCE - many kings were benefactors of Buddhism
  •  Regarded as founder of India because:
  • First monarch of a united India - conducting extensive military campaigns (until arond 270 BCE) led to conquer of numerous Indian states and brought them together to form a vast empire, the territory of which, covered most of modern India
  •  Empire only exluded the south of India
  • Had primarily a military role as emperor - from warrior caste (Khatriya): duty was protection of people and land against enemies and to expand the realm according to the 'might is right' philoshophy
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The Life and Work of Ashoka: Life of Ashoka

  • Born in 290 BCE
  • Ashoka means 'without sorrow'
  • Youngest of 5 sons - eldest brother was first to inherit throne
  • All 4 brothers mysteriously murdered - led to Ashoka being in power - historians think Ashoka may have been involved in murders
  • Took office at 16 y/o
  • Crowned emperor at 21 y/o
  • Led many successful military campaigns to secure large empire
  • Had change of heart after battle in Kalinga and became lay Buddhist: '150,000 people taken captive, 100,000 people killed and many time that number died' (Rock Edict 13)
  • Revolutionised Indian vision of kingship
  • Left us with first historical records and transformed Buddhism into world religion
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Significance of The Edicts

  • 32 Edicts discovered by archaeologists on rocks and pillars throughout India
  • Provide detailed information about Ashoka's achievements
  • Edicts are inscriptions: range from record of events to proclamations telling people how to act morally
  • Crucial to history - provide dates of events in ancient India following Indus Valley Civilisation (1500 BCE) and also give ability to date events before and after Ashoka's reign
  • Hold ethical advice encouraging Ashoka's people to live as good citizens - this advice never claims to be Buddhist or ever directly refers to the Buddha - introduces debate amongst scholars e.g. A L Basham argues Ashoka's ideas were not Buddhist at all
  • In one edict Ashoka exhorts his people to behave responsibly, obey parents and superiors, help the poor and the sick etc
  • Others encourage people to minimise expenditure and possessions etc.
  • Through Edicts Ashoka emphasised ways in which Buddhism could be pracited by lay people - he set out specific ways of applying Buddhist values to life in society and within family life
  • Prior to Ashoka the heart of Buddhism had been monastic life
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Ashoka's New Vision of Kingship

  • The Indian vision of kingship was changed radically by Ashoka in 2 ways:
  • 1) Extending role of king to one of protecting his people morally through kindness and social justice
  • 2) Actively directing resources to meet everyday needs of a peaceful and civil society
  • These ideas were completely new - a form of socialism before its time and an example of 'engaged Buddhism'
  • Evidence of feeling a moral responsibility to his people
  • Ashoka was complete opposite of trad. ruler - instead of engaging in war, he sought to bring about peace, sent missionaries (incl. his son Mahinda) abroad in spirit of 'conquest by Dharma' as opposed to military conquest - particularly successful in Sri Lanka
  • Policies show he was a firm advocate of pacifism
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Ashoka's Accomplishments: Examples

  • Set up medical and veterinary centres
  • Constructed well and resevoirs and planted trees
  • Provided welfare and temp. financial support to ex-prisoners
  • Est. first rest houses for travellers - particularly important when pilgrimages became prominent feature in life
  • Torture was banned
  • Officials were encouraged to care for the old and for orphans as well as ensuring equal judicial standards throughout the Empire
  • Ahimsa (non-violence) was central principle to Ashoka's approach: avoid harming environment - 22 species of fish, birds and mammals were protected and hunting them was outlawed
  • Laws were made against castration and branding of cattle
  • Indiscriminate burning of forests were outlawed
  • Helped Buddhists: iniated building programmes and had many Buddhist stupas constructed (around 8,4000)
  • (According to trad.) He opened up 10 stupas originally built after Buddha's death - Buddha's relics were then divided into smaller pieces
  • Donated state resources to construction of monastries and upkeep of monks - allowed religion to firmly est. itself in new parts of India
  •  Convened 3rd Buddhist council to standardise scriptures and resolve disputes between different Buddhist schools
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Ashoka and Other Faiths:

  • Rock Edict 12 shows initiation of religious climate in India
  • However: animal sacrifice was banned (in accordance with Buddhist principle of ahimsa (non-violence/non-harm) towards any living thing) - a central part of Brahminical religion - sparked feelings of oppostion among Hindus
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Edict Examples:

  • Conversion to Buddhism: 'Beloved-of-the-Gods (Ashoka) came to feel a strong inclanation towards the Dhamma, a love for the Dhamma and for instruction in Dhamma. Now B-O-T-G feels deep remorse for having conquered the Kalingas' - Rock Edict 13
  • Efforts to spread Buddhism: 'Everywhere people are following B-O-T-G's instructions in Dhamma' - Rock Edict 13
  • Moral Precepts: 'Our King killed very few animals' - Pilar Edict 5 // 'Prisoners have been given amnesty on 25 occasions' - Pilar Edict 5
  • Religious Precepts: 'All religions desire self-control and purity of heart' - Rock Edict 7 // 'Here (in my domain) no livings beings ate to be slaughtered or offered in sacrifice' - Rock Edict 1
  • Social and Animal Welfare: 'Wherever medical herbs suitable for humans or animals are not available, I have had them imported and grown' - Rock Edict 2
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Ideal Buddhist Leader?:

(10) Duties of a King or government (from Pali Canon): Choose some to use as examples

  • Generosity for benefit of the people
  • High moral characters which observes 5 precepts
  • Prepared to give up all personal comfort and glory and even one's own life in interest of the people
  • General honesty: not being open to threats or bribes or deceiving people
  • Kind and gentle attitude
  • Ability to lead a simple life free from self-indulgence and exercising great self-control 
  • Free from hatred towards anyone and not bear grudges
  • Try to promote peace by avoiding and preventing war and generally try to avoid violence and destruction of life
  • Ablility to be patient, tolerant and understanding
  • Shouldn't oppose will of the people but should rule in harmony with them
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Scholarly Quotes for Exam:

A L Basham: 'Ashoka's ideas were not Buddhist at all' - Criticism: not ideal Buddhist leader

R Thapar: 'Ashoka's ideas were "a social ideology set within an imperial framework".' 

R Thapar: 'Ashoka holds out the carrot reward of pleasing the gods'

R Gombrich: 'His patronage made it a world religion' - shows significant impact on Buddhism

R Gombrich: 'Ashoka did more than any other individual to spread Buddhism'  - shows significant impact on Buddhism

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