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  • Topic: India, Ashoka the Great, Buddhism
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  • Published : March 9, 2005
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Asoka was one of the greatest rulers of ancient India. He was the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya of Magadha who established the first Indian empire. Chandragupta reigned for twenty-four years before relinquishing his throne in favor of his son, Bundusara (Asoka's father), who left no noticeable mark upon the empire. Asoka was born in 304 B.C. and was known in his youth as Canda Asoka (the fierce Asoka) because of his aggressive nature.

Asoka came to the throne in 270 B.C. after a power struggle that ended in the death of one of his brothers. He was at first disposed to follow the example of his father and grandfather and complete the conquest of the Indian peninsula. In about 256 B.C. Asoka attacked Kalinga, a country on the east coast of Madras, in order to expand his empire, which he ruled as a tyrant at the time. Asoka succeeded in conquering Kalinga in the bloody war in which 100,000 men were killed, 150,000 injured, and thousands were captured and retained as slaves. The sight of the slaughter involved in his conquest deeply distressed Asoka and deeply affected his mind. Overwhelmed by the carnage, he changed his way of life.

Asoka, who practiced Brahmanism, renounced war forever and sought peace in Buddha's preachings of love and ahimsa. The war developed in him a hatred of all kinds of violence so he gave up hunting and the slaughtering of animals. He became a strict vegetarian. His son, Mahinda, became a Theraveda monk and was sent to introduce Buddhism to Sri Lanka. Asoka spent time piously retracing the steps of the Buddha and raising stupas inscribed with moral injunctions and imperatives at holy places of pilgrimage, and for some two years he became a member of a Buddhist order without relinquishing his role as Emperor.

Asoka's conversion to Buddhism, affected with the help of his own teacher, Upragupta, was gradual. Even though he did little to change the system of government he inherited, he introduced a novel and powerful moral...
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