Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Great Ashoka

Ashoka or Asoka, third king of the Maurya dynasty, who ruled almost the whole of the Indian subcontinent from about 269 to 232 bc. Ashoka stands unique among emperors in world history: After successfully concluding a major military campaign, he was so disturbed by the suffering that it had caused that he forsook war and thereafter endorsed nonviolence and peaceful persuasion in consolidating his vast empire.
The major source of documentation for Ashoka’s reign is the succession of edicts that he issued to his subjects in every part of his empire. These edicts were inscribed on rock surfaces and on specially polished columns with handsomely sculpted capitals. They were written in Prakrit languages (a group of ancient Indian dialects) for the Indian population, and in Greek and Aramaic for the Hellenistic Greeks and Iranians in the northwestern part of the empire. Historians have established the extent of Ashoka’s empire through the location of these edicts, as well as by archaeological excavations of artifacts, monuments, and urban sites associated with the Mauryas. In one of his edicts, Ashoka named as his contemporaries five Hellenistic kings, some of whom he had diplomatic contacts with, and this has provided a chronological cross-reference for his reign.

His son Mahinda and daughter Sanghamitta converted the people of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and other missionaries were sent to Southeast Asia and probably into Central Asia as well. He also sent cultural missions to the west, including Syria, Egypt, and Greece. Ashoka built shrines and monasteries and had rocks and beautifully carved pillars inscribed with Buddhist teachings. Buddhist texts composed by monks in Sri Lanka and northwestern India color the narrative of Ashoka’s life and depict him as concerned closely with the spread of Buddhism, which was then a relatively new religion. One of these narratives associates him with astutely handling a rebellion against oppression by local officers in the city of Takshasila, in Gandhara, an ancient region in northwestern India. Ashoka’s administrative experience may have begun with the control of Gandhara. Another source describes him in a similar capacity in central India, governing from the city of Ujjain.

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