King Ashoka is known as the first Chakravarti Samrat of India. This title means ‘the universal ruler’. Ashoka’s rule extended to the whole Indian subcontinent. Considered the greatest Indian king by many, Ashoka’s life was no short of a rollercoaster ride. The Great Ashoka lived a life of two polar opposite halves. His first half of life bears no resemblance to his second half.
Ashoka was born to King Bindusara. Bindusara loathed Ashoka because of his rough skin. He never saw him as his predecessor. But as Ashoka grew up, his skills in leading men impressed one and all. Keeping his resentment aside, Bindusara was forced to use Ashoka in difficult military situations. Ashoka used this opportunity to gain the popularity and loyalty of his fellow soldiers. When an elderly Bindusara declared Susima, his eldest son as King, the military overthrew him and put Ashoka on the throne. The cunning Ashoka knew that he had to finish his competitors. He killed ninety-nine of his brothers and half-brothers including Susima.
This violent and cruel act of Ashoka earned him the name Chanda Ashoka, meaning ‘heartless Ashoka’.
The Mauryan empire was well established by the time Ashoka came to power. The only real obstacle to further expansion was the Kingdom of Kalinga (the modern-day state of Odisha). He advanced on the Kalinga with his mighty force. His military was divided into regiments of two. The horse regiment led from the front making swift attacks while Ashoka led the elephant regiment. The Elephant regiment was bigger in number and moved slower. The army of Kalinga fought and won over the horse regiment but they were unaware of the second regiment.
The army of Kalinga was worn out and reduced in half. The elephant regiment under the lead of Ashoka annihilated the opposition. More than one lakh human and animal casualties were reported. According to folklore, the water of the river Mahanadi turned red with blood.
The scenes on the battlefield were gruesome. Ashoka couldn’t believe the destruction he had caused. This changed something within the great ruler. He walked towards the river Mahanadi with his sword in his hand. Realization hit him hard and he dropped his sword into the water. This incident marked the starting of the second phase of his life.
Before the war of Kalinga, one of Ashoka’s most trusted commanders had turned into a Buddhist monk. This decision had not made sense to Ashoka till the battle of Kalinga was over. Inspired by him, Ashoka too accepted the ways of Buddhism. He kept his position as King but renounced violence. His new mission became the expansion of Buddhist ideologies. He started touring his kingdom to spread the words of Buddha. He started with the place where it all started. In the middle of the battlefield of Kalinga, he created a Buddhist shrine on top of the Dhauli hills.
In years to come Ashoka sanctioned many more Buddhist monuments across India. Under his rule, the death penalty and animal cruelty were abolished. He also made the planting of Banyan and Ashoka trees a popular practice. The banyan tree holds a special place in Buddhism as Buddha achieved enlightenment under a banyan tree.
His son Mahindra became a monk too. Ashoka sent Mahindra to preach Buddhism on the island of Sri Lanka. Mahindra’s effort made Buddhism a major religion in Sri Lanka. Ashoka also sent messengers to far-out countries of Greece and Japan.
In his last few years, Ashoka donated all of his possessions to Buddhist charity. On his deathbed, he donated his last food to charity funds as well. According to legends, Ashoka’s body burned for seven days after the cremation ceremony. Lakhs of people gathered to pay him tribute.
Today the wheel in the centre of the Indian flag honours Ashoka. His principles of peace and brotherhood are still valued by his nation.
Ashoka’s life is an example that it’s never too late to do the right thing. His first ten years as a king saw violence and death. The other thirty saw peace and prosperity. His reputation and diplomacy defended his kingdom. In these years of peace, Ashoka never faced threats of foreign invasion. In search of repentance, Ashoka ended up saving more lives than he destroyed. Today the world rightly remembers him as ‘Ashoka the Great.’