In 324 BCE, Chandragupta, ruler of the Mauryan Empire set out to conquer the weaker surrounding kingdoms to expand the territory of his people. As an explorer by nature, Chandragupta would travel to other lands to determine weather or not their defenses could put up much of a struggle. His military, while not extraordinary, devastated the primitive neighbors and avoided those that could not be won in a day. With cautious technique and determination the emperor spread his boundaries in every direction. With the aid of a Brahman statesman named Kautilya, who organized the political hierarchy of command, Chandragupta became the first to rule over a unified India.
Chandragupta governed the land as best he knew until the century's end, then entrusted the state to his son Bindusara. Nothing changed under the second generation of the Mauryan Empire. The territory continued to increase, as did the size of the military. Bindusara established a reign much the same as his fathers, controlling a larger kingdom than ever before known. As time went on however, the King became ill and speculation ran wild concerning which of his sons would inherit the throne. Tradition would choose the eldest son but many advisors became doubtful of his capabilities.
Oddly enough, soon after Bindusara addressed the public with his
intent to stand down, a silent sibling rivalry commenced. For some
strange reason Bindusara's sons became the victims of an assassin.
One by one each man fell until only Ashoka stood tall. He was the one
of many to evade a murderer. It is the belief of many historians that
Ashoka and another of political influence thought it better if
Bindusara were elevated of his decision.
Ashoka was anointed the new emperor in 274 BCE. Immediately he began instituting his law of oppression by administering capital punishment for even the slightest infractions. His cruel heart showed mercy upon no one. His people spoke so poorly of the new king's antics, word went straight to the top by way of the spies Ashoka had created to investigate public concern. Desiring to win rather than demand acclaim, Ashoka decided to surpass the efforts of his predecessors by brutally demolishing the kingdoms previously unscaved. The kingdom of Kalinga had with its borders, long kept the Mauryan Empire from accessing much of the Ganges river. This was enough of a reason to initiate an invasion. He led his military to eventual victory but in the process lost as well.
Standing along the front lines, Ashoka witnessed first hand the massacre of hundreds of thousands waged war on complete strangers. He knew so many had lost their lives simply because, he, the king, had ordered them to do so. Women became widows, children now orphans, Ashoka asked himself exactly what had his people won in war.
Great changes in policy fell on India following the war. Ashoka relinquished all intent in expanding his lands by military means. He had nothing to gain in battle and no reason to fear outside invasion. Instead he turned all his attention to the welfare of his subjects, and so began an era of peace and internal progression. By example Ashoka taught and persuaded his people to love and respect all living things. According to Dr. Munshi, "he insisted on the recognition of the sanctity of all human life".
The unnecessary slaughter or mutilation of animals was immediately abolished. Wildlife became protected by the king's law against sport hunting and branding. Limited hunting was permitted for consumption reasons but the overwhelming majority of Indians chose by their own free will to become vegetarians. Ashoka also showed mercy to those imprisoned, allowing them leave for the outside a day of the year. He attempted to raise the professional ambition of the common man by building universities for study and water transit and irrigation systems for trade and agriculture. He treated his subjects as equals regardless of their religion, politics and cast. The kingdoms surrounding his, so easily overthrown, were instead made to be well-respected allies.
Ashoka became an avid Buddhist practitioner, building 84,000
stupas across his empire housing the sacred relics of Gotama. He sent
his family on religious pilgrimages to foreign lands and held massive
assemblies so holy men from the world over could converse upon
philosophies of the day. More than even Buddhism was Ashoka's deep
involvement in the dharma. The dharma became the ultimate personal
conduct of moral and ethical standard he desired his subjects to live
Ashoka saw the dharma as a righteous path showing the utmost respect for life. The dharma would bring harmony to India in the form of compassion. Serving as a guiding light, a voice of conscious that is the dharma can lead one to be a respectful, responsible human being. Edward D'cruz interprets the Ashokan dharma as a "religion to be used as a symbol of a new imperial unity and a cementing force to weld the diverse and heterogeneous elements of the empire". Ashoka's intent was to instigate "a practice of social behavior so broad and benevolent in its scope that no person, no matter what his religion, could reasonably object to it".
The dream was to unify a nation so large that its people of one
region share little in common with those of another region. Diversity
of religion, ethnicity and many cultural aspects held citizens
against each other, creating a social block. The moral order of
dharma could be agreed upon as beneficial and progressive by all who
could understand its merits, in fact the dharma had long been a
primary practice for members of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.
Dharma became the link between king and commoner, everyone lived by
the same law of moral, religious and civil obligation toward each
The reign of Ashoka Mauryan could easily have disappeared into history as the ages passed by, and would have, if hadn't he left behind a record of his trials. The testimony of this king was discovered in the form of magnificently sculpted pillars and boulders with the actions and teachings he wished to be published etched into the stone. What Ashoka left behind was the first written language in India since the ancient city of Harrapa. Rather than Sanskrit, the language used for inscription was the current spoken form called Prakrita. In translating these monuments, historians learn the bulk of what is assumed to have been true fact of the Mauryan Empire. It is difficult to determine whether or not some actual events ever happened but the etchings clearly depict how Ashoka wanted to be thought of and remembered.
The pillars, chiseled from stone, could weigh to fifty tons a piece. These would habitually be topped off with the sculpture of a lion or bull and carry the word of the king around its base. The transportation of each rock and pillar was a major ordeal, it may take several hundreds to hoist the artifact into place or onto a vessel capable of travel with such extreme weight. Each edict was sent to the outstretches of the empire so all could read, or be read to, the royal dharma. Most commonly the more elaborate works were sent to places of national importance and spiritual recognition, such as the birth place of Gotama.
Pillar Edict II when translated describes the "middle path", the way to enlightenment through dharma that the Buddha taught in his first sermon. Others such as Pillar Edict VII, quote Ashoka as remarking "I consider the promotion of my people's welfare my highest duty". Professor Tambiah, an anthropologist of the University of Chicago translates Rock Edict XI as reading, "There is no gift that can equal the gift of dharma, establishment of human relations in dharma, the distribution of wealth through dharma, or the kinship in dharma". Many of the etchings are complex and contradicting but those of the day got the message loud and clear. years preaching the dharma in order to unify his people. Just as he will never be forgotten, neither will his efforts to impose his great force of dharma. This is why the people of modern India have taken his image of "the wheel of dharma" from the sacred pillars and forever embedded it in the center of their national flag. It's no wonder in all his achievements, Ashoka, the Buddhist King, has inspired infinite cultures, multiple religions, and "One nation under god, with liberty and justice for all".
Unknowingly contributing to this page include;
D'cruz, Edward 1967, India The Quest For Nationhood, India Printing Works, Bombay, India.
Dr. Munshi, K. M. 1968, The Age Of Imperial Unity, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, India.
Tambiah, S. J. 1976, World Conqueror & World Renouncer, Cambridge University Press, London.
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