Ashoka (c. 304–c. 232 BCE,) also spelled Aśoka, was an Emperor of India. Considered ancient India’s greatest monarch, he transformed himself from a callous conqueror into a wise, pacific ruler after his conversion to Buddhism, and shepherded the rise of Buddhism into a major world religion.
The grandson of the founder of the Maurya dynasty, Ashoka was a ruthless warrior who murdered his way to the throne. From 270 BCE to 233 BCE, Ashoka’s kingdom spanned every part of the Indian subcontinent with the exception of the southernmost region. His influence extended into Sri Lanka and beyond present-day Afghanistan.
After his successful, but rampaging invasion of the eastern province of Kalinga (modern Odisha state,) in which his army killed more than 100,000 men, Ashoka was revolted by the bloodshed of war. The sufferings that the war inflicted on the defeated people moved him to such repentance that he abruptly converted to Buddhism and renounced armed conquest.
Ashoka organized Buddhism as the state religion, and give freedom to other religious sects. His spirited patronage of Buddhism during his long reign furthered the expansion of that religion. He supported his new faith by building more than 84,000 stupas, donating millions of pieces of gold to the monastic order, and inscribing edicts on rocks and pillars. The only glory he sought after, he declared, was for having led his people along the path of dharma.
Ashoka’s inscriptions, deciphered only in the nineteenth century, are the source of much knowledge about ancient India and its chronology. The four-lion capital of the pillar found at Sarnath is the emblem of the Republic of India. Too, the Aśoka Chakra (“Wheel of Ashoka,”) depicted on many of the artifacts from his kingdom, was placed in the center of the flag of India.
Because of Ashoka’s patronage, Buddhism, until then just a small sect limited to specific regions, spread throughout India and later beyond the frontiers of the country.
I have enforced the law against killing certain animals and many others, but the greatest progress of righteousness among men comes from the exhortation in favor of non-injury to life and abstention from killing living beings.