Ashoka (fl.269-232 BC) was the third and possibly greatest ruler of the Mauryan Empire, best known for renouncing aggressive war and his efforts to spread Buddhism.
The precise dates of Ashoka's reign are disputed, and are given as either c.265-238 or c.273-232. The key military event of his reign can be dated within that rule, using evidence from the remarkable series of stone inscriptions that he created, and that give us a remarkable picture of his aims as a ruler.
Ashoka was the son of Bindusara, and grandson of Chandragupta Maurya. During his father's reign he served as viceroy on the north-western frontier, with his vice-regal capital at Taxila. During this period he probably ruled the lands west of the Indus, the Punjab and Kashmir. This was a key post, guarding the main invasion route into India from the north-west, and there is some evidence that Ashoka was involved in some fighting while based at Taxila.
Ashoka's next appointment was a viceroy of western India, with his base at Ujjain, on the road from the west coast ports to the interior. According to Sri Lankan tradition Ashoka was at Ujjain when he learnt that his father was mortally ill.
It is possible that Ashoka had to fight to secure his throne. Some traditions state that he had 100 brothers when his father died, and killed 99 of them, but the evidence does not support this - in his stone edicts Ashoka mentions a number of brothers and sisters, some in positions of power. More convincing is the gap of four years between his taking the throne and his official coronation.
Ashoka's only aggressive war came in the twelfth year of his reign (variously given as the eighth or ninth year after his coronation). He had inherited an Empire that stretched from the Hindu Kush in the north-west to the mouth of the Ganges in the east, and south to the latitude of Madras. The only major gap was the kingdom of Kalinga, on the east coast. This was duly conquered, but at a great cost. This turned Ashoka against aggressive war, and for the rest of his reign he focused on maintaining peaceful relations with his neighbours, and on the rule of dharma, or the law of piety.
He became a great patron of Buddhism, visiting the holy places and building thousands of shrines during the rest of his long reign. Towards the end of his reign he probably began a Buddhist monk, although he seems to have continued to rule actively after this.
Ashoka's successors lacked his energy and ability, and the Empire began to decline after his death, virtually disappearing within fifty years.
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