The Mauryas – Ashoka the Great

Ashoka the Great (अशोक महान)

Ashoka appears as the rising Sun from the horizon of ancient history and covers all with its illumination. He is the first historical personality whose inscriptions have survived. He seems to be talking to us directly from his epigraphs. Though there are ample inscriptions left by him however his life and career is still shrouded in mystery. Many scholars have tried to remove the cloud hovering it, resulting in many interpretations of his life and career.

Before we start with the life and career of Ashoka, it would be good to check what is referred as his previous life in few legends. There are two stories in general, one talking about gift of honey and another talking about gift of dirt. It is told that due to these gifts, he was given a boon to rule over India as Ashoka in his next future life.

  • Gift of Honey
    • Mahavamsa –a  honey-trader
    • Thupavamsa – mention only about trader but no gift as such
  • Gift of Dirt
    • Faxian
    • Asokavadana


These legends also mention prophecies about Ashoka becoming sovereign ruler of Jambudvipa. Divyavadana mentions that an Ajivika saint Pingalavasta told Ashoka’s mother that he would be the king one day. I-tsing tells about a tradition where Buddha prophesied about Ashoka as the sovereign of Jambudvipa.

Though we do not have any epigraphical evidence however it is a known and accepted fact that Ashoka was the son of the Mauryan king Bindusara as all the literary evidences takes Ashoka as the son of Bindusara. In this manner he would be the grandson of Chandragupta. References of Ashoka and Chandragupta are found in Junagadh rock inscription of Rudradaman however no relationship was mentioned apart from the fact that Chandragupta precedes Ashoka.

It is clear that Bindusara was the father of Ashoka, but do we have any information about his mother? We have different accounts of his mother from different legends.

  • Subhadrangi – Ashokavadanamala (bore Bindusara Ashoka and Vitashoka. She was the daughter of a Brahman from Champa.)
  • Dharma – Mahavamsatika/Mahabodhivamsa (She is mentioned to belong to the Kshatriya clan of the Moriyas.)

Bindusara had many sons and therefore Ashoka had many brothers. This is also evident from his inscriptions where he mentioned about families and relatives of his brothers. Several of Ashoka’s brothers are mentioned in various legends

  • Mahendra – Yuan Chwang
  • Tishya – Mahavamsa/ Thupavamsa. Mahavamsa mentions that Tishya was set as uparaja by Ashoka but the former retired as a religious devotee under the influence of his preceptor Yonaka Mahadharmarakshita. Tishya was later known as Ekaviharika due to a vihara excavated by Ashoka for him in a rock called Bhojakagiri.
  • Sumana/ Sushima – Mahavamsa/ Divyavadana/ Thupavamsa
  • Vitashoka – Divyavadana, Thera-gatha commentary mentions that he became an arhat under Giridatta
  • Sudatta/Sugatra – some Chinese works

Nothing much is known about the early life of Ashoka. He would have undergone the training and teachings prescribed for a royal prince. It can also be stated that after attaining a certain age, he was posted as a viceroy to royal vice-royalties. Mention of him as viceroy of certain regions are made in various legends. Ashoka was appointed as the viceroy of various vice-royalties before his accession to the throne. Macphail and Smith mention that he was first the viceroy of Taxila and afterwards of Ujjain.

  • Avanti – Mahabodhivamsa mentions that Ashoka was a viceroy of Avanti region with its capital at Ujjain. The similar story is mentioned in Dipavamsa, Sinhala Thupavamsa, Thupavamsa.
  • Svasas – Divyavadana mentions Ashoka as a viceroy of Svasas region in Uttarpatha with its capital at Taxila
  • Taxila – Mahavamsa mentions that Bindusara sent Ashoka to suppress the revolt there and thereafter appointed as viceroy of that region

In both, Southern (Sri Lanka) and Northern (India), Buddhist legends, Ashoka is told to be a tyrant ruler in the early stages of his career. Mahavamsa and Buddhacharita refer him as Chandashoka, ‘Ashoka the Fierce’. There are many stories told about his tyranny over his people and religious sects.

However this legend is only mentioned in the Buddhist accounts, all other religious accounts whether Brahmanical or Jain are silent over this. This made scholars suggest that Buddhists made up this legend to glorify their religion and power of Buddhism that it converted the fierce emperor into a benevolent one.

There are various theories on how Ashoka gained the Magadha throne. The most common legend is that there was large bloodshed which involved Ashoka on one side and all his brothers on the other. Ashoka emerged victorious in this war of accession and thus gained the throne. Southern (Sri Lanka) and northern (India, China) Buddhist accounts are unanimous on the fact that Ashoka acquired the throne after a war with his own brothers. However there are different statements on what constitutes the other party of this war.

  • Between Ashoka & 99 brothers – Mahavamsa
  • Between Ashoka & 100 brothers – Dipavamsa
  • Between Ashoka & Sushima – Divyavadana
  • Between Ashoka & 98 brothers – Mahabodhivamsa
  • Between Ashoka & 6 brothers – Taranath
  • Between Ashoka & his brothers – Sinhala Thupavamsa/Thupavamsa

Some accounts mention that he killed all his brothers leaving only single co-uterine brother, while some accounts claim that he killed a few. However, this might not be a fact as Ashoka in his own edicts talks about welfare of his relatives, brothers and their families. It might be possible that he might have killed single brother who was the main claimant of the throne but it cannot be said for certain. Opinion of scholars is tilted towards the fact that he did not kill all of his brothers.

  • Killed all brothers – Krishna Reddy
  • Did not kill his brothers – D N Jha, R K Mookerji, J M Machphail, D R Bhandarkar

As there was a war involved in the accession of throne, Mahavamsa mentions that Ashoka was coroneted four years after accession to the throne. These four years probably were spent in settling down the instability arisen due to the war. The scholars however are divided on this point. R K Mookerji tells that as Ashoka’s accession dispute found place in southern as well as northern Buddhist accounts therefore it can be taken as a fact.

  • Gap of four years – R K Mookerji, D C Sircar, J M Macphail, Krishna Reddy
  • No gap – D R Bhandarkar

The date of coronation of Ashoka can be calculated to near precision. In his Rock Edict XIII, he mentioned his five contemporaneous Western kings. We have already discussed this during RE XIII, and there we found that Ashoka’s fourteenth year falls on 249 BCE when all the mentioned kings were alive. This puts Ashoka’s coronation to  263 BCE. Dipavamsa tells Ashoka’s coronation happened 218 years after the nirvana of Buddha. Then as per our calculation, Buddha’s nirvana would have been in 481 BCE.

Opinion of scholars on accession of Ashoka:

  • 273 BCE – J M Macphail
  • 274 BCE – R K Mookerji

If we accept that there was a gap of four years then we need to explain this gap. And the only explanation probably is that there was a war of succession and this took about four years to settle down. So if a scholar accepts the gap and he should also accept the war. We should not have an opinion that yes there was a gap of four years but there was no war. Otherwise how to explain this gap of four years?

The most important event in Ashoka’s career would have been his conquest over Kalinga.He got a vast empire from his predecessors and it was only Kalinga which was not included in his dominion. The vastness of his empire is evident from the finding places of his inscriptions which are from Afghanistan to Odisha in west to east and from Dehradun to Mysore in north to south.

As per his inscriptions, he carried out his Kalinga conquest eight years after his coronation, i.e. in his ninth year. As per one theory, it was this war which converted Ashoka to Buddhist. Interestingly, the Buddhist legends like Mahavamsa, Divyavadana etc. do not talk about this war. Horrors of this war have been described by Ashoka in his own words in his inscriptions.

Plainly looking at the massacre happened during this war, it would be possible that Ashoka felt the guilt and turned to Buddhism. From his Minor Rock Edict 1 we know that he was a lay follower of Buddha since two and a half year. And since one year or more, he has been intimately associated with Samgha. This suggests that he was associated to Buddhism since three and a half year, if we take the last year separate from the previous two and a half year.

Ashoka himself mentioned that he started his Dhamma-lipis to be engraved since his twelfth year. If we take MRE1 to be issued in his twelfth year then it was between his eighth and ninth year that he got associated to Buddhism. D R Bhandarkar accepts that he was converted in his eighth year however he tells that it was not related to impact of Kalinga war. J F Fleet suggests that he was converted in his thirtieth year.

Ashoka’s conversion as found in legends

  • Dipavamsa – after three years of his coronation
  • Mahavamsa – by Nigrodha
  • Asokavadana – by Samudra
  • Thupavamsa – by Nigrodha

Opinion of scholars –

  • Converted after the war – J M Machphail, E Hultzsch, B N Mukherjee
  • Not converted after the war – D N Jha, R K Mookerji, D R Bhandarkar, J F Fleet, Krishna Reddy

Irrespective of when Ashoka got converted to Buddhism, what he preached through his inscription is definitely related to Buddhism in principle. But here also, opinion of scholars is varied. Some take the Dharma of Ashoka as Buddhism while some take it as simple moral duty prescribed in almost all religions. As per the second opinion, the Dharma Ashoka talked about in his edict does not represent Buddhism. In fact it does not represent any religious or theological  but social, moral code of conduct which a person should follow in his daily life activities.

J F Fleet mentions that Ashoka preached not Buddhism but raja-dharma, code of duties prescribed by Manava-dharmashashtra. M Senart tells that Ashoka’s Dharma does not stand for Buddhism but for simple piety which Ashoka wished all his subjects of whatever faith to practice. V A Smith says that what Ashoka preached as his Dharma are the common essential practices observed in all the Indian religions of that time.

R K Mookerji says that at the outset, we must distinguish what was his personal religion from religion he sought to preach and introduce among his people. He points to an elephant figure carved at Dhauli and Kalsi and as elephant is considered an auspicious symbol in Buddhism hence associates Ashoka with Buddhism. He further points to four animals, lion, horse, bull and elephant which are put up as the capital of his pillars. All these animals have association with Buddhism, the elephant typifies the conception, the bull symbolizes nativity, the horse reflects the great departure and the lion symbolizes the lion among the Shakyas.

D R Bhandarkar mentions that if we want to understand Ashoka’s Dharma then we need to understand what kind of Buddhist he was. As per him, Ashoka was a Buddhist upasaka (layman) following the Buddhist code appropriate for a householder. Bhandarkar tells that Dharma of his period fell into two divisions, 1) Dharma for the monks and nuns, and 2) Dharma for the householders. Ashoka being a householder and the people to whom he taught were also householders, therefore he preached the latter Dharma.

Bhandarkar points to Sigalovada-sutta of Digha-Nikaya which is popularly known as ‘gihi-vinaya’ – ‘Institute for the housemen’. The gist of it is as follows. Buddha was once staying near Rajagriha in the Bamboo Wood; and , going out as usual for alms, observes Sigala, a householder’s son, with wet hair and garments and with clasped hands uplifted, paying worship to the several quarters of earth and sky. On Buddha asking the reason why, Sigala says that he does this worship, holding sacred his father’s word. Buddha, however, replies that in the religion of an Ariyan, the six quarters should not be worshiped thus. And on being requested to explain how they should be worshiped, Buddha points out at great length that the best way to worship the quarter is by good deeds to men around him. He tells:

Mother and father are the Eastern view,
And teachers are the quarters of the South,
And wife and children are the Western view,
And friends and kin the quarter to the North;
Servants and working folks the nadir are,
And overhead the Brahmin and recluse,
There quarters should be worshiped by the man
Who fifty ranks as houseman in his clan.

Just a cursory reading of above sutta, no one can fail to recognize startling resemblance to the Dharma of Ashoka where the major constituents are hearkening to parents, reverence to teachers, liberality and seemly behavior towards friends, acquaintances, relatives, Brahman and Sramana, seemly behavior towards servants and slaves etc. Bhandarkar tells as what Ashoka taught was the same what is prescribed for a Buddhist laity therefore we find no mention of nirvana, ashtaangika-marga, the four noble truth etc. which scholars tried to look for as a connection to Buddhism.

One can see the simple nature and principles of Ashoka’s Dhamma. Nothing is new in it, as every religion is based upon such similar principles. Then what made Ashoka to proclaim these simple virtues at such a large scale. Not many scholars have thought on this, D N Jha is the one who gives his theory on this. He tells that the society was at its abyss during that time and moral uplift was of utmost necessity.

Jha states that the feudalism in the ancient India was very oppressive. There were huge taxes levied from the kings. Corruption was prevalent and unchecked. Honest and innocents were booked under false cases and put to prisons. There was much chaos and exploitation. These all malice practices changed the dynamics of the society. People became mean and started following ill means to meet their ends. This provoked Ashoka to rewrite the moral code of the society.

  • Not Buddhism – J F Fleet, R K Mookerji, D C Sircar, J M Macphail, H H Wilson, Edward Thomas, H C Raychaudhuri, F W Thomas, K A Nilakanta Sastri, R Thapar
  • Buddhism – D R Bhandarkar, E Hultzsch, T W Rhys Davids, R G Basak, D C Sircar, B M Barua
  • J F Fleet – his Dharma is consisting of “politico-moral principles such as those embodied in the Great Epic”
  • T W Rhys Davids – his Dharma is the description of the whole duty of laymen, “as generally held in India, but in the form with the modifications, adopted by the Buddhists”
  • V A Smith – his Dharma is purely human and severely practical and the ethics of the edicts are Buddhist rather than Brahmanical
  • E Hultzsch – his Dharma is in thorough agreement with the picture of Buddhist morality which is preserved in the beautiful anthology entitled Dhammapada
  • R G basak – Dhamma principles, in his peculiar ethical system, are fully based on the teachings of Lord Buddha, which are found expressions in several verses in Dhammapada
  • D R Bhandarkar – it is nothing short of that aspect of primitive Buddhism which is meant for upasakas or lay worshipers of the Buddha and that the courses of conduct as laid down by Ashoka are found in the Sigalovada-sutta
  • D C Sircar – it was a code of morals preached by Ashoka probably following what he believed to have been teachings of Buddha
  • B M Barua – it is wholly consistent with the principles of secular Buddhism and not altogether inconsistent with those of others systems of faith and thought
  • H C Raychaudhuri – Ashoka understood the fundamental principles of morality as consisting of the essence of all religions
  • F W Thomas – Ashoka’s activity lay in the sphere of religion and morality
  • R K Mookerjee – Dhamma had been preached by the Maurya emperor of uplift the moral life of the people taking the family as the basis of morality
  • K A Nilakanta Sastri – it is primarily an ethical social conduct and it includes even the animal kingdom within the scope of its all-embracing benevolence
  • R Thapar – Dhamma was largely an ethical concept related to the individual in the context of his society

But did Ashoka only preached or put these into his own actions, and presented himself as a role-model in front of his people? Ashoka declares that all his people are his children and all his works are for their well being and for better life in the other world after death. He presented himself as a role model whom people can idolize. Ashoka mentions in his edict about his family, brother, sisters and other relatives, whom he has provided all services and for whose fame in the other world he is doing so many things.

 Was Ashoka zealous enough towards Buddhism or tolerant towards other religions? Ashoka says in his rock edict XII that, ‘the king does reverence to men of all sects, whether ascetics or householders, by gifts and various forms of reverence’. He further says that, ‘he who does reverence to his own sect, while disparaging the sects of others, wholly from attachment to his own sect, in reality by such conduct inflicts the severest injury to his own sect’.

In Pillar Edict VI, he asserts, ‘I devote my attention to all communities, for the followers of all denominations are honored by me and the honor is paid in various forms. Nevertheless, showing personal regard for them is the chief thing in my opinion’. These all instances are clear proof of his tolerant nature towards all the religion of that time. Bhandarkar tells that every religion has two aspects, doctrinal and ethical. There can be differences on doctrinal aspect among all religions however on ethical aspects all are same. And as Ashoka is concerned about the ethical aspect, hence all religions are same for him and he extends his respect to all.

Though there are varied opinions on whether Ashoka taught Buddhism through his edicts, however there is no difference of opinion on taking Ashoka as a Buddhist. All scholars, except Edward Thomas, accepted that he was converted from Brahmanism to Buddhism. Thomas is of opinion that he was converted from Jain to Buddhism. There however lies uncertainty on what kind of Buddhist Ashoka was. Few scholars take him as a Buddhism monk playing the dual role, of a monk as well as of a king, while few take him as a Buddhist layman/upasaka.

An objection against him being a monk is the rigid code laid down for a monk as per Buddhist laws. With such a rigid code in place, it would be impossible for a person to be a monk and a king at the same time.

  • Monk – V A Smith, Kern, G Buhler, J M Macphail (only for the last years of his life)
  • Layman – D N Jha, R K Mookerji, D R Bhandarkar (Bhikshu-gatika), M Senart

Ashoka has been attributed to spread Buddhism across India and outside its boundaries. He mentions this in his edicts, and it has been mentioned in legends as well. However, how much of spread was witnessed during his time is not very clear. Scholars have varied opinion on this point.

T W Rhys Davids tells that Ashoka’s claim that he was successful in spreading Buddhism to Greek quarters cannot be taken on its face value as there was no growth of this religion during his time. To prove his point, he points to Mahavamsa which is silent on the missions of Ashoka to Greek region. D R Bhandarkar, countering Rhys Davids, tells few references where influence of Buddhism is observed over the native faith of those regions.

Let’s have a look on Ashoka’s family. From various legends and sources we found that he had many wives and children.


  • Vedisa-Mahadevi or Devi – Mahavamsa, Mahabodhivamsa, Dipavamsa
  • Asandhimitra – Mahavamsa, Thupavamsa
  • Padmavati – Divyavadana
  • Tishyarakshita – Mahavamsa, Divyavadana
  • Karuvaki – Queen’s edict


  • Tivara from Karuvaki – Queen’s edict
  • Kunala/Dharmavivardhana from Padmavati – Divyavadana, Xuanzang, Faxian
  • Mahendra from Vedisa-mahadevi – Mahavamsa, Dipavamsa, Sinhala Thupavamsa
  • Jalauka – Kalhan’s Rajtarangani


  • Sanghamitra – Mahavamsa, Dipavamsa, Sinhala Thupavamsa
  • Charumati – Kalhan’s Rajtarangani


  • Agnibrahma, husband of Sanghamitra – Mahavamsa
  • Devapala, husband of Charumati – Kalhan’s Rajtarangani


  • Sumana, son of Sanghamitra – Mahavamsa
  • Samprati, son of Kunala – Divyavadana
  • Dasaratha – rock inscription

Legends also describe that Ashoka recollected all the relics of Buddha which were distributed by Ajatshatru into eight stupas. He was successful getting relics from seven stupas, except the Ramanagar stupa as that was under worship of the Nagas. He later built eighty-four thousand stupas and distributed the relics among those. The number indeed is very large and cannot be true probably, however it might be that Ashoka built a large number of stupas.

Collection of Buddha’s relics

  • Mahavamsa
  • Faxian
  • Asokavadana
  • Visuddhimagga
  • Sinhala Thupavamsa

Eighty-four thousand stupas

  • Mahavamsa
  • Faxian
  • Buddhacharita by Ashvaghosha
  • Visuddhimagga
  • Asokavadana
  • Sinhala Thupavamsa
  • Thupavamsa

Another legend is about the third Buddhist council. This is mentioned only Mahavamsa and other Sri Lankan chronicles. Being only referred in these chronicles and its absence in Ashoka’s inscriptions made scholars believe that such a council did not happen.

Various missions were sent after the completion of this council. These missions were:

  • Kashmir and Gandhara – Majjhantika
  • Mahishamandala (Mysore) – Mahadeva
  • Vanavasi (Banavasi) – Rakkhita
  • Aparantaka (coast north of Mumbai) – Yona-Dharmarakkhita
  • Maharatta (west central India) – Maha-Dharmarakkhita
  • Yona region – Maharakkhita
  • Himavanta (Himalaya) – Majjhima, Kassapa etc
  • Suvannabhumi (Pegu & Mawalmyine (Moulmein) – Smith, both in Myanmar) – Sona and Uttara
  • Lanka – Mahinda

Opinion of scholars varied on the historicity of the council.

  • Yes – R K Mookerji, J M Macphail
  • No – Romila Thapar, D R Bhandarkar

As per Dipavamsa, Ashoka ruled for 37 years. This is well accepted by all scholars in absence of other evidences. As per our calculation, his rule would have ended in 226 BCE.

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