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Reign of Ashoka in the Mauryan Empire Essay

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Updated: Dec 4th, 2021

The Mauryan Empire is one of the empires that have had a strong effect on the socio-political formation of their countries. During Ashoka’s reign, this empire had great impacts on the social and religious outfits of, not only India but also other neighbors like Greece, China, and Sri Lanka. It is therefore evident to say that Ashoka’s reign changed the administrative and religious system of India.

Background of Indian culture before Mauryan Empire

India was a region that culturally depended on the Buddhist and Jainism teachings which dictated all aspects of their relationships. It was from these laws that leaders governed their subjects. These social cultural and political norms of India were based on the teachings of Dharma, Artha, Karma, and Moksha. These teachings, therefore, dictated the normal lives of India until the invasion of Alexander the Great who brought with him new systems of governance.

In the year 327 BC, India experienced defeat that subjected most of its kingdoms under the power of Alexander the Great. After several years of exploits in India, Alexander eventually made a decision to leave India under the governorship of Seleucus. What caused his withdrawal was not defeated from Indian fighters but it was the dissatisfaction of his own soldiers. Though India remains under the rule of Greece for the next 20 years, one of India’s greatest empires is born during this period. This is the Mauryan Empire (history world parag. 1)

The seizure of the Nanda dynasty’s throne marked the beginning of the Mauryan Empire. The founder, Chandragupta Maurya defeated his enemies to expand his kingdom. After the withdrawal of Alexander, Maurya defeated his general, Seleucus Nicator to conquer part of what had now become a possession of Alexander the Great. Most of this land was ceded to Chandragupta in exchange for 500 elephants thus expanding his empire further. It was after this conquest that there arose a friendship between the ruler of the empire and the governor leading them to sign a treaty of alliance (Draper parag. 2). The kingdom then stayed for a century being ruled by different other kings among them Ashoka. This king ruled the kingdom between 232 BC and 268 BC.

The Span of the Mauryan Empire

Map Showing the Mauryan Empire
Map Showing the Mauryan Empire – 300 B.C (Kamat’s Potpourri).

Ashoka was the son of Bindusara who was the son of Chandragupta. He was born in a family that consisted of 101 sons who were always in a fight aimed at gaining the favor of their father who was the king. Later, Ashoka was appointed the governor of Ujjain and Taxilla which were considered among the most troublesome regions of India. When Bindusara died, Ashoka managed to ascend to power after defeating all his brothers in a battle for the throne in 272BC. According to some sources, among them the Buddha chronicles, it is said that Ashoka had to kill all his brothers in order to get to power (Beck, 2004).

Ashoka was one leader who believed in the leadership of the iron fist. He commanded his subjects with care responsibility but had no mercy on his enemies. Through wars, he conquered almost the whole subcontinent of India save for the southern and southeastern kingdoms of Kalinga. In addition to his iron fist nature, Ashoka ruled with a belief that a ruler had to be hard on his subjects. Among the most disadvantaged were the victims of his invasion. All captured prisoners of war and the conquered subjects were treated without mercy. This was the trademark of the Ashoka rule. And it is through this system that Ashoka is considered one of the greatest rulers of the Mauryan Empire (Missouri parag. 9).

Among the most striking aspects of Ashoka’s rule was the army. During his reign, the army is said to have consisted of 600,000 infantry and 130 cavalries. In addition to this, the army had 9000 elephants that were attended to by 36,000 men. The army consisted of chariots and charioteers that numbered into thousands. All these strong forces were managed by six boards of government (ICRC parag. 5). This is considered an achievement on Ashoka’s part considering the wars during those days. An army of such magnitude could have inflicted real harm on its enemies.

It was until sixteen years on the throne that Ashoka made to attack the Kalinga kingdom. This was the year 256 BC and those are eight years after his consecration. Ashoka attacked the kingdoms and came up with an overwhelming victory that he had to recount later in his stone edicts as great. The war with the Kalingas left more than 150,000 people of Kalinga as captives, 100,000 had been slew and many others were mercilessly killed as a result of the conquest. This information is found in his most famous stone edict of 257 BC also referred to as “the conquest edict.” In which he wrote, “…hundred and fifty thousand persons were…carried away captives…one hundred thousand were…slain, and many times that number died…” (Rock edict VIII, circa 257 BC as quoted by (Draper 1995)

The devastations caused by this overwhelming victory marked a turnaround in the life of Ashoka. He felt the pain and suffering that the people of Kalinga were experiencing. This made his heart cry with sorrow. According to Ashoka, the conquering of a country that had never been conquered previously means great slaughtering and murdering of the subjects and this, according to him, is a matter of great and profound sorrow. This causes sorrow and regrets to the highest (Draper parag.8).

Ashoka portrays a great sense of nobility in terms of his feelings towards the suffering people of Kalinga. He purports that despite the religion of a person, as long as he hearkens to the voice and respects his seniors including teachers, and parents and also treats his friends, relatives, comrades, servants, and slaves, and this steadfast devotion continues even after the separation, injury or violence befalls them causes regrets and sorrow to the majesty. This is because whatever the religion they believe in, injury to any of these subjects is bad irrespective of the religion (Draper parag.8).

It was at this point in life that Ashoka decided to be converted into Buddhism. The sorrows that he had witnessed during the war with Kalinga had turned his heart and filled it with remorse. He changed completely to a non-violence campaigner. He spent most of his life writing stupas that contained injunctions and imperatives of morality which he strategically placed at sights of pilgrimage and borders of his kingdom (Draper parag.10). He later joined the membership of the Buddhist order. It should be noted that he never left his role of governance, instead, he changed the tactics of governance from the violent nature that he had used to a completely peaceful; society that campaigned against violence.

The teachings of Buddha led to the formation of what Ashoka called the “law of piety.” This rule was based on Buddhist teachings that brought into the system an idealist approach to human life. It did not only take root in India but also the neighboring states like Sri Lanka, China, and as far as Greece. It marked a point of turning in the civilization of the East. The imperatives of this law were aimed at creating a well-networked relationship between human beings and animals. It dictated that all forms of life be respected. This included human beings who were backward and even animals within and without the kingdom. Humane treatment was a must to all of the named forms of life. Every member of the kingdom was obliged to give respect to every one who deserved it. This includes teachers, parents, leaders and all people in power. There were censors who were given the responsibility to ensure that the law was adhered to. They were also in the palace as the rule applied also to the king and his family. Ashoka took it as his responsibility to ensure that the law of piety was followed by ensuring that it was publicized and enforced (Draper parag 15).

Ashoka’s law of piety brought reforms to the empire. Among the reforms was in the judicial system. Although the criminal law maintained its magnitude allowing for executions, the person to be executed had to be tried fairly so that his people do not sorrow because of his death that was not fair. In addition, convicts were given three days before being executed to give them chance to meditate (India directory parag 13).

Ashoka ensured that he straightened the administrative abilities of his government officials. He ensured that they conformed to the laws of piety and also the people under them observed the same laws. He did not condone injustice, idleness and obstructing people’s endeavors. Strict measures were put up to ensure these laws were observed. On the other hand, Ashoka promised rewards to those who performed exemplarily well thus smoothening further the issue of administration (India directory parag 13).

He enacted the first central government in India that was strong and powerful. In his administrative system, the whole northern states of India were united into one central government with divisions of smaller administrative units that contained a number of officials arranged in a beaurocratic manner. Their core responsibilities were collection of tax, army maintenance, maintenance of irrigation projects and ensuring that law and order is maintained (India directory parag 13).

Ashoka’s law of piety also made reforms in the field of foreign affairs. He sent thousands of missionaries to spread the word of humanity as dictated by the law to other places like China and Greece. In addition to this, Ashoka conquest was done not by war and violence but through the conquest law which also brought delight in the heart of the conquered (Draper parag 15).

Ashoka died in 231 BC and his successors failed to uphold the standards of the law leading to its losing of vigor and eventual disappearance (Draper parag 15).

In conclusion, Ashoka will be known for his reformatory measures that brought changes not only in India but the whole East. He put up idealistic laws that raised the standards of human relations within and without the Mauryan Empire. He therefore is to be remembered as one of the greatest promoters of dignity of human life and nonviolence.


Beck, S., (2004) India & South East Asia to 1800. (vol. 2) World Peace Communications: Goleta, CA

Draper, G. International Review of the Red Cross. (2009). Web.

India Directory. Mauryan Rulers. (2009). Web.

History World. (2009). Web.

Kamat’s potpourri. (2009). Web.

Missourri State University. The Fortunes of Empire in Classical India. History Dept. (2009). Web.

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