For a long time, till 1837, not much was known about Ashoka. In that year, James Prinsep deciphered a Brahmi inscription referring to a king called Devanampi. Piyadasi (Beloved of the Gods). Further, study of Mahavamsa made it clear that this epithet referred to Ashoka Maurya. Ashoka succeeded his father Bindusara upon his death in 273 BCE. The Asokavadana says that when he was born, his mother Subhadrangi exclaimed “I am now without sorrow’ and that is how he came to be named Ashoka (the one who is without sorrow). During his father’s reign, he was appointed as the Viceroy of Taxila and also Ujjain. It is believed that he was not the crown prince (yuvaraja). He was engaged in a struggle with his brothers for the throne.
Ashoka, like Bindusara before him, inherited a large part of the subcontinent as an empire. The only significant area not under his suzerainty was Kalinga (modern day Odisha). It was in 260 BCE that Kalinga was finally brought under Mauryan control as a result of a fierce campaign led by Ashoka.
Strategically, Kalinga was important. It was rich in forest resources and also lay on the Mauryan trade route with the peninsula through the East Coast. However, the campaign itself was very destructive, with thousands killed, and many more captured as prisoners. The large-scale destruction is said to have filled king Ashoka with remorse. In Rock Edict XIII, Ashoka, however, states that such death and destruction is inevitable when an unconquered area is conquered. He wished that his successors would avoid any more bloodshed. Despite being remorseful, Ashoka issued a warning to the troublesome forest people, reminding them that even in his repentance, he still had the power to punish. It is also noteworthy that Ashoka refrained from engraving his remorse at any location in Kalinga, where the Rock Edict XIII was in fact replaced by the Separate Edicts. The Separate Edicts contain instructions to his officers and emphasize the value of good administration. It was not however an overnight conversion, as Ashoka’s sympathy towards Buddhism had been brewing. He himself states in Minor Rock Edict I that he has been a lay devotee for two and a half years, indicating that he turned towards the Buddha’s teaching only gradually and not suddenly.
The extent of Ashoka’s empire can be traced through the spread of his inscriptions, From their distribution we know that the Mauryan Empire extended up to Kandahar in Afghanistan in the north-west. In the eastern frontier, it extended to Odisha.
According to Rock Edict XIII, the rest of the subcontinent was under Mauryan rule barring the extreme south, which was ruled by Cholas and Pandyas; and according to Rock Edict II by the Keralaputas and Satiyaputras. People of diverse origins and diverse cultures lived in his empire. For example, in the northwest are mentioned the Kambojas and Yavanas. They are mentioned along with other people like the Bhojas, Pitinikas, Andhras and Pulindas who can be located in parts of western India and the Deccan.
The Mauryan empire declined rapidly after Ashoka. The Puranas mention the names of later Mauryan rulers and make it clear that the duration of their reigns was relatively very short. The empire soon became weak and fragmented, and is said to have suffered an invasion by the Bactrian Greeks. The Mauryan dynasty came to an end with the last kind Brihadratha being killed by his own military commander Pushyamitra, who then established the Shunga dynasty in 187 BCE.
Traditional viewpoints saw the Mauryan empire as a centralized, bureaucratic empire. Such empires are characterized by powerful kings who through military exploits bring peace and cohesiveness to the kingdom. They are marked by the presence of allies, enemies, matrimonial relations, diplomatic alliances. Centralized bureaucratic empires are exploitative in nature, with a corresponding element of inequality among social classes. Romila Thapar’s earlier contention that the Mauryan empire was a uniform and centralized administered entity was modified by her in a later study. According to her, at the hub was the metropolitan state of Magadha, broadly an area of the distribution of the pillar edicts. This was the area of maximum centralized administration. Then there were the core areas, which were of strategic importance and agrarian and commercial potential. This second category was less under central control and was under the control of governors and senior officials. Gandhara, Raichur Doab, Southern Karnataka, Kalinga and Saurashtra were such core areas. The third category was those areas which were located at the peripheries. The economy of such regions was not restructured by the Mauryan State. Only the resources were tapped.
The Mauryan realm covered diverse ethnic groups, including the non-indigenous yavanas, as well as different linguist groups. This is corroborated from the fact that Ashoka’s edicts are found in at least three languages, Prakrit, Greek and Aramaic Ashoka’s edicts also corroborate the presence of multiple religious beliefs and practices, including Buddhism, Jainism, Vedic and Brahmanical practices, Ajikivism and smaller cults.
The key difference between a kingdom and an empire is present in the fact that a kingdom draws maximum profit from existing resources. An empire, on the other hand, makes considerable effort in restructuring resources to get maximum revenue. The financial needs of administering an empire are considerable. Mauryan empire, this restructuring took place through the extension of agriculture, and introduction of wide-reaching commercial exchange (Thapar, 2002). Moreover, the governance of such a vast realm was aided through multiple foci of administration. Thus, regional variations and diversities were accommodated by the Mauryan rulers into their polity. While an empire accommodates and integrates these diversities on the one hand, at the same time, it also favours homogeneity as a binding force. Thus, imperial systems make attempts to draw together the ends of empire, to encourage foremost the movement of peoples and goods (Thapar, 2002). This includes the use of script, punch-marked coins in exchange transactions and the projection of a new ideology that sets new precepts. In the case of Mauryan empire, the State attempted cultural homogeneity through the introduction of the policy of Dhamma.
The Great Mauryan ruler Ashoka embraced Buddhism (as a part of shraman tradition) and the immense Buddhist missionary activities that followed during his rule paved the way for the development of Mauryan sculptural and architectural styles. King Ashoka patronized the shraman tradition in the third century BCE.
The shraman tradition refers to several Indian religious movements parallel to but separate from the historical Vedic religion. It includes Jainism, Buddhism, and others such as Ajivikas, and Carvakas.
Pillar Edicts and Inscriptions: Ashoka’s 7 pillar edicts: These were found at Topra (Delhi), Meerut, Kausambhi, Rampurva, Champaran, Mehrauli:
Pillar Edict I: Ashoka’s principle of protection to people.
Pillar Edict II: Defines Dhamma as the minimum of sins, many virtues, compassion, liberality, truthfulness, and purity.
Pillar Edict III: Abolishes sins of harshness, cruelty, anger, pride, etc.
Pillar Edict IV: Deals with duties of Rajukas.
Pillar Edict V: List of animals and birds which should not be killed on some days, and another list of animals which have not to be killed at all.
Pillar Edict VI: Dhamma policy
Pillar Edict VII: Works done by Ashoka for Dhamma policy.
Minor Pillar Inscriptions
Rummindei Pillar Inscription: Ashoka’s visit to Lumbini & exemption of Lumbini from tax.
Nigalisagar Pillar Inscription, Nepal: It mentions that Ashoka increased the height of stupa of Buddha Konakamana to its double size.
Major Pillar Inscriptions
Sarnath Lion Capital: Near Varanasi was built by Ashoka in commemoration of Dhammachakrapravartana or the first sermon of Buddha.
Vaishali Pillar, Bihar, single lion, with no inscription.
Sankissa Pillar, Uttar Pradesh
Lauriya-Nandangarth, Champaran, Bihar.
Lauriya-Araraj, Champaran, Bihar
Allahabad pillar, Uttar Pradesh.
Depiction of Buddha at Stupas
Symbols: In the early stages, Buddha was represented through symbols that represented the different events of Buddha’s life like footprints, lotus thrones, chakras, stupas, etc.
Jataka Stories: Later on, Jataka stories (stories associated with the previous birth of Buddha) were portrayed on the railings and torans of the stupas.
The Jataka stories that find frequent depiction are Chhadanta Jataka, Sibi Jataka, Ruru Jataka, Vessantara Jataka, Vidur Jataka and Shama Jataka.
The chief events from Buddha’s life which are narrated in the arts are birth, renunciation, enlightenment, the first sermon (dharmachakrapravartana) and mahaparinirvana (death).