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Ashoka the Great and an Ashoka Pillar at Tilaurakot, Lumbini, Nepal

Ashoka the Great: From Cruel King to Benevolent Buddhist

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The emperor Ashoka is considered to be one of India’s greatest monarchs, and was the third ruler of the Mauryan Empire. Whilst Ashoka’s conquests pale in comparison to his illustrious grandfather’s, he is widely remembered as a Buddhist ruler, and it was his contributions to Buddhism and morality that made him such a renowned figure in Indian history.

The Immense Mauryan Empire

The Mauryan Empire is estimated to be the largest empire (in terms of land area) in the history of the Indian subcontinent. At its height, the Mauryan Empire occupied not only most of present day India, but also Bhutan, Nepal, and Bangladesh in the east, as well as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and parts of Iran in the west. Much of these conquests were made during the reign of Chandragupta Maurya, the first ruler of the empire - Ashoka’s grandfather.

Statue of Chandragupta Maurya, the first ruler of the Mauryan Empire and Ashoka’s grandfather.

Statue of Chandragupta Maurya, the first ruler of the Mauryan Empire and Ashoka’s grandfather. (Public Domain)

A Family Feud with a Throne as the Prize

Ashoka is said to have been born in 304 BC to the emperor Bindusara and Dharmma (a relatively low ranking wife of the emperor.) Apart from one younger brother, Ashoka had several elder half-brothers. According to one legend, Ashoka fought and killed 99 of his brothers in order to inherit the Mauryan throne. Only his younger brother, Vitashoka, is said to have been spared.

From an early age, Ashoka showed great potential to become a successful general and an astute administrator. Despite his prowess, Ashoka’s chances of succeeding his father were slim, due to the fact that he had several elder half-brothers. Nevertheless, Ashoka’s abilities made them suspicious that Bindusara would leave the throne to him, and the brothers began to feel insecure. This was especially true for Susima, Bindusara’s eldest son, who stood to lose the most.

As a result, Susima sought to eliminate Ashoka so as to secure his position. He managed to convince his father to send Ashoka to Taxila (in modern day Pakistan) to quell an uprising. Susima’s plan backfired, however, as Ashoka was welcomed with open arms when he reached the area, and thus put down the uprising without any bloodshed.

Susima then began inciting Bindusara against Ashoka, which resulted in the future emperor being sent into exile for two years. A violent uprising in Ujjain, however, forced Bindusara to call Ashoka back, and he subsequently sent his son to deal with this new uprising instead. Whilst Ashoka succeeded in crushing the uprising, he was injured during a battle. In order to keep the news of Ashoka’s injury hidden from Susima, the prince is said to have been treated in secret by Buddhist monks. Scholars believe that this was Ashoka’s first encounter with the teachings of the Buddha.

In the following year (275 BC), Bindusara fell ill and died. A war of succession was fought between Ashoka and his half-brothers. Ashoka ultimately emerged victorious, and became the third Mauryan emperor.

An Indian relief that may depict Ashoka in the center. From Amaravati, Guntur district, India.

An Indian relief that may depict Ashoka in the center. From Amaravati, Guntur district, India. (CC By SA 3.0)

Beginnings as a Brutal Ruler

It is said that for the first few years of his emperorship, Ashoka was a cruel and brutal ruler. In one legend, for instance, Ashoka decided to test the loyalty of his ministers by ordering them to chop down all the flower and fruit trees, but to leave the thorn trees alone. The ministers were puzzled, and questioned Ashoka’s order. After they questioned the emperor three times, Ashoka flew into a rage and “he unsheathed his sword and cut off the heads of five hundred ministers.”

Another legend speaks of a torture chamber constructed by Ashoka called ‘the beautiful gaol’ or ‘Ashoka’s Hell.’ This building was “lovely from the outside as far as the gate, but inside it was actually a very frightful place.” The construction of the ‘beautiful gaol’ was a request made by Girika, the emperor’s newly-appointed executioner, and it is said that he drew inspiration from the five tortures of Hell.

Two Legends One Change

One legend states that one of Girika’s victims was a Buddhist monk by the name of Samudra. Although he was tortured by Girika, he was unharmed and news of this miracle reached the emperor. Ashoka came to meet Samudra who chastised him and instructed the emperor to build 84,000 stupas in accordance with the Buddha’s prophecy and to guarantee the security of all beings. Ashoka repented, tore down the torture chamber, executed his executioner, and obeyed Samudra’s commands.

Another version of Ashoka’s conversion (arguably more well-known than the one involving Samudra) involves the emperor’s conquest of Kalinga. After defeating his enemy, Ashoka went into Kalinga’s capital to survey the damage. The amount of death and destruction is said to have sickened the emperor, causing him to renounce his violent ways and embrace Buddhism.

Ashoka’s envoy declares peace. Illustration from Hutchinson’s Story of the Nations.

Ashoka’s envoy declares peace. Illustration from Hutchinson’s Story of the Nations. (Public Domain) Ashoka was penitent after the conquest of Kalinga according to one of the legends of his conversion to Buddhism.

Ashoka Converts to Buddhism and Spreads the Teachings

After embracing Buddhism, the emperor began to propagate this faith throughout his empire and beyond. This is perhaps most clearly seen in his edicts, which were carved onto rocks and pillars for all to see. These edicts dealt with a variety of topics from a Buddhist point of view. For instance, there is a part which dealt with the protection of animals,

“Formerly, in the kitchen of Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, hundreds of thousands of animals were killed every day to make curry. But now with the writing of this Dhamma edict only three creatures, two peacocks and a deer are killed, and the deer not always. And in time, not even these three creatures will be killed.” 

A fragment of one of Ashoka’s Pillars can also be found in the British Museum, and declares the emperor’s benevolence towards all under his rule,

"I consider how I may bring happiness to the people, not only to relatives of mine or residents of my capital city, but also to those who are far removed from me. I act in the same manner with respect to all. I am concerned similarly with all classes. Moreover, I have honored all religious sects with various offerings. But I consider it my principal duty to visit the people personally."

One of Ashoka’s rock edicts. Junagadh, Gujarat, India

One of Ashoka’s rock edicts. Junagadh, Gujarat, India (CC by SA 3.0)

The Collapse of an Empire and a Religion

Although the status of Buddhism was elevated thanks to Ashoka’s patronage, it did not last long. Following Ashoka’s death in 232 BC and the collapse of the Mauryan Empire about half a century later, Buddhism eventually died out in India. Nevertheless, the foundations for Buddhism as a major world religion had been laid by this emperor, and this faith has been, and still is, popular in many regions outside India.   

Featured image: Ashoka the Great (Public Domain) and an Ashoka Pillar at Tilaurakot, Lumbini, Nepal. (CC By SA 2.5)

By: Ḏḥwty


Ashoka, The Edicts of King Ashoka [Online]

[Dhammika, Ven. S. (trans.), 1993. Ashoka’s The Edicts of King Ashoka.]

Available at:

Strong, J. S., 1989. The Legend of King Aśoka: A Study and Translation of the Aśokāvadāna. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Szczepanski, K., 2015. Ashoka the Great. [Online]
Available at:, 2015. A History of the World in 100 Objects, Episode 32: Pillar of Ashoka. [Online]
Available at:, 2015. Ashoka. [Online]
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As is the case with most things written in Indian History books by left historians, either they are written from the perspective of the invaders or what the British wrote in those times. Hence it becomes our respnsibility to analyse things more deeply & ask relevant questions to deconstuct & then reconstruct again the historical events & personalities to get to the correct picture as much as possible. Ashoka was one such personality from our history, the question is was he really “Ashoka the Great”.

The link below analyses & gives details on this aspect:

Brief points from the video presentation below:

Now most historians agree on the fact that before the Kalinga war Ashoka was a rutheless & unpopular king. He climbed to the throne by killing all of his half-brothers including Sushima who was bequeathed to be the emperor by Bindusara (the previous emperor). He patronised Buddhism mainly because at that time the loyal followers of the previous emperor were Ajivikas & Jains & eventually carried a massacre of those previous loyalists. Also pre-Ashoka the Mauryan empire extended its influence from Taxila to Bengal in the West & to Karnataka in the South. So Ashoka really didn’t increased much influence under his rule.

Where great divergences appear are the events post Kalinga where it is said that he became so upset with the gore & destruction that he felt deep remorse, took to the path of non-violence & became a Buddhist. To start with the last point is completely invalid as he became & patronised Buddhism much before this as I have written before mainly to loosen the hold of the previous court loyalists who had a different strand of philosphical bent (ofcourse personal preferences could have also played some part). Also with an empire of such vast influence why was Kalinga & region just besides Patliputra independent or more appropriately revolting? Two appropriate reasons one can conclude, either the people & the governor/ruler of Kalinga were disgusted by the actions & governance of Ashoka & revolted or seeing the weaking foundations of Mauryan empire led to the ruler/governor of Kalinga to try out decalring himself independent. Either of which don’t reflect nicely on Ashoka.

The analysis used to reach this massive conclusion of Ashoka’s change in heart are mainly the edicts he himself constructed at various parts of the country. In one of his own edict he is seen warning the Forest tribal people of dire consequences (even though he is remoresful) if they don’t toe the line (details in the video above), clearly not tht words of truly remorseful king.

Also its obvious that if I am remorseful I would express it to the person whom I have wronged. There are two places in Kalinga or now Odisha where the edicts have been found (Dhauli & Jaugada) he has given lot of sermons for sure but nowehere has he expressed remorse there, where he has expressed remorse are far of lands elsewhere in the country (including the threating remorse he expressed to the tribals) making me believe that the following events are more likely:

Ashoka who was already a despised king because of his brutality, the war of Kalinga where a 100,000 people were killed & many others injured, a 150,000 captured led to a wave of repulsion against Ashoka. This led him to change tract & went into an ancient style PR overdirve where this was his way of telling the people in various parts of the country how much of a changed person he has become & has taken to the path of non-violence.

We also read the empire started collapsing after the passing away of Ashoka, unless there is some natural disaster or some fierce unknown external invasion empires don’t collapse abruptly. Instead the foundations start weakening before that. For e.g. geographically Aurangzeb controlled the largest extent of Mughal Empire but because of his high handedness & bigotry created resistances throughout the country. The Marathas, The Sikhs & The Ahoms which weakened the foundation of Mughal empire & as these things take time to channel through the system & the results appear after his death. Similarly the high handedness & bigotry of Ashoka weakened the foundations of the Mauryan Empire.

Even More concerning are some texts (Ashokvandana) which indicates a genocide against monks following Ajivika school of thought dealing a crippling blow to this religion so much so that this school of thought don’t exist in the country anymore. Though I must confess some more research is required on this to establish the validity of these claims further.

So based upon the circumstantial evidence in front of me I don’t think so. What I definitely for sure know is that the tag of “Great” that is bestowed upon him is for sure invalid. The circumstantial evidence points to a king who was power hungry, ruthless, bigot who went on a PR drive once his actions faced repulsion for his own people. While he is certainly not “Great” but if there is a line dividing people between “good” & “evil” to push Ashoka completely to the other side of the line some of these things need to investigated in detail to give better judgement.

Sorry but he was not a cruel king but a person who like others wanted to expand his empire but never had any hatred for his people.Yes the war lead to a huge loss in human life which affected his mind severly and lead him to lead a life of monk. Who knows had he remained the same present day Indian Subcontinent history would have been vastly different.

dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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