IntroductionBoth Eastern and Western ancient history reflect how immensely powerful rulers have transformed nations in striking ways, and either strengthening or eroding them. When Ashoka, the Indian emperor reigning during the 3rd century BCE, is considered, it is usual that his impact on vastly expanding the territory of India is emphasized as his greatest achievement. Empires, however, are subject to changes in size over time, while other royal influences may be far more enduring. This is, in fact, the case with Ashoka. Beyond any other legacy, the reign of Ashoka changed India through the commitment to the Buddhist faith of the emperor, which remained the dominant faith long after his passing, and still continues to define a great deal of Asian culture.
Given the antiquity of Ashoka’s reign, it is inevitable that fact and legend become confused, even as some facts are established. For example, it has long been believed that Ashoka gained power by murdering nearly one hundred of his brothers, but it is more probable that he killed on only the half-brother who was the legitimate heir to the throne. What is not contested is that Ashoka was responsible for vastly enlarging India’s territories through launching, and winning, wars with neighboring states; at the height of his reign, the Indian population reached approximately thirty million, greatly exceeding the populations of coeval European empires. Only decades after his death, India would lose much of the land Ashoka seized for the nation through war, but the reality remains that this emperor made India a global force to be reckoned with in the era.
Also reflecting a link between legend and reality is the dramatic change in Ashoka, about eight years into his reign. It is known that, following an especially violent conflict with the feudal state Kalinga, hundreds of thousands died, and Ashoka issued an edict lamenting the tragedy. Legend then has him radically denouncing war and embracing Buddhism. History records that further edicts followed, all insisting upon Buddhist principles of human virtue and the people’s obligations to practice care for the sick and elderly. For centuries afterward, India would remain a powerful Buddhist state, and one bringing the faith to the rest of the continent.
Reinforcing the duality in Ashoka’s rule was his alternating between worldly ambition and consideration. After embracing Buddhism, for example, Ashoka invited thousands of monks to the Panchavarsika Festival, during which he presented the sanghas, or assemblies of monks, hundreds of thousands of gold pieces. Other acts of deference were made, but Ashoka had a political agenda as well; he wanted to outshine the acknowledged patron of Buddhism, King Bimbisara, in generosity and expression of devotion. If this great ruler found faith and ruled by insisting that Indians revere the teachings of Buddha, he nonetheless never fully abandoned his right to kingship.
Expansion of territory aside, Ashoka’s most enduring impact on India was his insistence on honoring Buddhism, which became the country’s faith for centuries afterward. Legend obfuscates history, as Ashoka’s reign preceded the Christian Era. Still, it is known that he aggressively and vastly enlarged India, and then underwent a religious conversion upholding basic morality. The lands seized by war were not long to remain Indian, as happens as nations evolve in power and ambition. The emperor’s legacy of exalting Buddhism, however, had lasting effects on the entire culture.
- Issitt, Micah, and Main, Carlyn. Hidden Religion: The Greatest Mysteries and Symbols of the World’s Religious Beliefs. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2014.
- Singh, Upinder. Political Violence in Ancient India. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.
- Violatti, Cristian. “Ashoka.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. https://www.ancient.eu/Ashoka/_Hlk502296121 (accessed Dec. 28, 2017).