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Representational image of Ashoka the Great.  Source: Luke/Adobe Stock

Shocked by His Own Brutality, Ashoka Converted to Buddhism

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One of the most remarkable transformations in history unfolded during the life of Ashoka the Great, a ruler who transitioned from a brutal conqueror of a vast empire to a benevolent emperor guided by nonviolent principles of Buddhism. The pivotal moment in this extraordinary journey—from which rulers across the world would do well to take inspiration—occurred on the blood-stained sands of Kalinga, forever altering the course of Ashoka's reign.

The Brutality of Ashoka the Great

Ashoka, a formidable emperor of the Mauryan Dynasty who ruled from about 268 to 232 BC, has been remembered for his miraculous metamorphosis. Having inherited a vast empire which covered a significant portion of the Indian subcontinent—covering regions in present-day India, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and parts of Iran— Ashoka's early rule was marked by his ruthlessness and ambition.

His behavior earned him the monikers Kamashoka, in reference to his harem of 500 women, and Chandashoka - ‘Ashoka the fierce’. Nevertheless, much of what we know about Ashoka should be taken with a pinch of salt. One source stated that Ashoka allegedly explored the underworld to study torture methods to employ against his enemies.

Details about Ashoka's rule have been gleaned from ancient inscriptions, which served as early forms of favorable propaganda, as well as from Buddhist legends written posthumously. These legends aimed to illustrate the profound influence of Buddhism on his governance.

One of the rock edicts of Ashoka, constructed in the 3rd century BC, located in the modern-day village of Shahbaz Garhi in Pakistan

One of the rock edicts of Ashoka, constructed in the 3rd century BC, located in the modern-day village of Shahbaz Garhi in Pakistan

Ashoka's Miraculous Metamorphosis to Buddhist Nonviolence

In 265 BC, Emperor Ashoka launched a ruthless attack on Kalinga, which corresponds to the modern-day state of Odisha in eastern India, in the hopes of expanding the boundaries of the Mauryan Empire. The Kalinga War inflicted staggering casualties, claiming the lives of tens of thousands of people and animals.

Buddhist legend has it that Ashoka personally led the invasion and, the morning after the victory, ventured into the capital city of Kalinga. Witnessing the devastation—ruined houses and nearly 150,000 bloodied corpses of civilians and soldiers—the emperor was deeply disturbed. It was at this moment that he underwent a profound religious epiphany.

Horrified by the devastation caused by his own brutality and confronted with the harsh realities of warfare, Ashoka is believed to have embraced Buddhism and nonviolence, marking a profound shift in his governance. Ashoka underwent a radical transformation that would reshape the fabric of his rule, becoming a proponent of Dhamma, or righteous living.

To communicate his newfound principles, Ashoka inscribed a series of rock edicts across the empire. These served as public proclamations of his commitment to nonviolence, social justice and ethical governance. Strategically placed in locations accessible to the common people, they ensured that the message of peace and tolerance reached the masses.

Ashoka's transformation is a rare episode in history, underscoring how personal reflection and ethical awakening can reshape the legacy of a formidable ruler.

Top image: Representational image of Ashoka the Great.  Source: Luke/Adobe Stock

By Cecilia Bogaard

Cecilia Bogaard's picture


Cecilia Bogaard is one of the editors, researchers and writers on Ancient Origins. With an MA in Social Anthropology, and degree in Visual Communication (Photography), Cecilia has a passion for research, content creation and editing, especially as related to the... Read More

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