• The defining event of Ashoka’s rule was his campaign against Kalinga (present-day Odisha) in the eighth year of his reign.
  • This is the only recorded military expedition of the Mauryas.
  • The number of those killed in battle, those who died subsequently, and those deported ran into tens of thousands.
  • The campaign had probably been more ferocious and brutal than usual because this was a punitive war against Kalinga, which had broken away from the Magadha Empire (the Hathigumpha inscription speaks of Kalinga as a part of the Nanda Empire).
  • Ashoka was devastated by the carnage and moved by the suffering that he converted to humanistic values.
  • He became a Buddhist and his new-found values and beliefs were recorded in a series of edicts, which confirm his passion for peace and moral righteousness or dhamma (dharma in Sanskrit).

Edicts of Ashoka

  • The edicts of Ashoka thus constitute the most concrete source of information about the Mauryan Empire.
  • There are 33 edicts comprising
    • 14 Major Rock Edicts,
    • 2 known as Kalinga edicts,
    • 7 Pillar Edicts,
    • some Minor Rock Edicts and
    • a few Minor Pillar Inscriptions.
  • The Major Rock Edicts extend from Kandahar in Afghanistan, Shahbazgarhi and Mansehra in north-west Pakistan to Uttarakhand district in the north, Gujarat and Maharashtra in the west, Odisha in the east and as far south as Karnataka and Kurnool district in Andhra Pradesh.
  • Minor Pillar Inscriptions have been found as far north as Nepal (near Lumbini).
  • The edicts were written mostly in the Brahmi script and in Magadhi and Prakrit.
  • The Kandahar inscriptions are in Greek and Aramaic, while the two inscriptions in north-west Pakistan are in Kharosthi script.
  • The geographical spread of the edicts essentially defines the extent of the vast empire over which Ashoka ruled.
  • The second inscription mentions lands beyond his borders: “the Chodas (Cholas), the Pandyas, the Satiyaputa, the Keralaputa (Chera), even Tamraparni, the Yona king Antiyoka (Antiochus), and the kings who are the neighbours of this Antioka”.
  • The edicts reveal Ashoka’s belief in peace, righteousness and justice and his concern for the welfare of his people.
  • By rejecting violence and war, advocating peace and the pursuit of dhamma, Ashoka negated the prevailing philosophy of statecraft that stressed that an emperor had to strive to extend and consolidate his empire through warfare and military conquests.

Third Buddhist Council

  • One of the major events of Ashoka’s reign was the convening of the Third Buddhist sangha (council) in 250 BCE in the capital Pataliputra.
  • Ashoka’s deepening commitment to Buddhism meant that royal patronage was extended to the Buddhist establishment.
  • An important outcome of this sangha was the decision to expand the reach of Buddhism to other parts of the region and to send missions to convert people to the religion.
  • Buddhism thus became a proselytizing religion and missionaries were sent to regions outlying the empire such as Kashmir and South India.
  • According to popular belief, Ashoka sent his two children, Mahinda and Sanghamitta, to Sri Lanka to propagate Buddhism.
  • It is believed that they took a branch of the original bodhi tree to Sri Lanka.
  • Ashoka seems to have ruled until 232 B.C (B.C.E).
  • Sadly, though his revolutionary view of governance and non-violence find a resonance in our contemporary sensibilities, they were not in consonance with the realities of the times.
  • After his death, the Mauryan Empire slowly disintegrated and died out within fifty years.
  • But the two centuries prior to Ashoka’s death and the disintegration of the Mauryan Empire were truly momentous in Indian history.
  • This was a period of great change.
  • The consolidation of a state extending over nearly two-thirds of the sub-continent had taken place with formalised administration, development of bureaucratic institutions and economic expansion, in addition to the rise of new heterodox religions and philosophies that questioned the established orthodoxy.

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