From Peace to Prosperity: Emperor Asoka
Ask anyone what they know about Emperor Asoka, and this is likely what they will come up with: He became a peaceful king after the Kalinga War and he planted trees all along roads.
Those two facts, seemingly unconnected, describe the life of Emperor Asoka (304-232 BC), one of the greatest kings of India, for most of us. His reign was vast, stretching from present-day Afghanistan to Bangladesh and up to parts of Tamil Nadu in the South of India.
Legends lead us to understand that Asoka was the most intelligent among the many sons of his father, Bindusara. He was energetic, fearless, strong, and possessed great military skills. When Asoka was 18 years old, Bindusara appointed him as his Viceroy of the province of Avanti which had its capital at Ujjayini.
For twelve years after accession and especially for eight years after coronation, Asoka ruled the empire as a strong ruler with absolute power in his command. He lived the usual life of a great king in pomp, splendour and pleasure. He did not fight any external war, though he had the power for aggression. He also had no fear of invasion from outside Greek kings with whom there were diplomatic relations since the time of his father. During the first twelve years of his rule he was busy in internal administration. However, it has been described variously that Asoka was a particularly bad-tempered and vicious king.
In 360 BC, Asoka attacked Kalinga, a state covering parts of present-day Orissa and North Andhra Pradesh, which occupied a strategic position controlling the routes to south India by land and sea.
During the war, which Asoka won, nearly 100,000 soldiers were killed, and 150,000 people captured. The destructive nature of the Kalinga war created an emotional shock to Ashoka. He regretted that he had been responsible for so much suffering of the fellow human beings. A famous monologue places him at the battlefield, watching the cinders of burning corpses and hearing the wails of widowed women, berating himself for waging such a destructive war.
When he was in such a penitent mood, he met a Buddhist Monk Upagupta. The Buddhist teachings touched his heart and he became a convert to Buddhism, which preached non-violence. After the conversion he took the vow of serving all human beings. This change of heart of Asoka found its reflection in his internal and foreign policies.
Asoka realised the benefits of Dhamma, the Buddhist technique of meditation, and decided to spread it as much as possible. He sent his children Mahendra and Sanghamitra on missions to spread Buddhism outside India.
Indeed, Asoka’s decision to abandon the policy of war made it possible for some states in the south to maintain their independence. He also pursued a policy of friendship to all nations of the known world. It is noteworthy that this policy of peaceful coexistence did not mar Asoka’s reign in any way, and he continued to rule over most of India.
Asoka’s public welfare policies are emulated even today, as freedom from war likely helped him focus his efforts on improving the lives of the citizens. He brought about many citizen welfare measures, including strengthening the infrastructure across his country and, of course, planted trees, dug wells and improved irrigation systems. He created many veterinary hospitals, banned hunting, as also the slaying of animals for food in the palace.
In many ways, what he did: combining peace and equality for all citizens, two-legged and four, with a focus on sustainability, is something we are still striving for today.