kids encyclopedia robot

Ashoka the Great facts for kids

Kids Encyclopedia Facts
Quick facts for kids
Ashoka the Great
Priyadarśin Devanapriya Chakravartin
Ashoka's visit to the Ramagrama stupa Sanchi Stupa 1 Southern gateway.jpg
A c. 1st century BCE/CE relief from Sanchi, showing Ashoka on his chariot, visiting the Nagas at Ramagrama.
3rd Mauryan Emperor
Reign c. 268 – c. 232 BCE
Coronation 268 BCE
Predecessor Bindusara
Successor Dasharatha
Born c. 304 BCE
Pataliputra, Mauryan Empire (adjacent to present-day Patna, Bihar, India)
Died 232 BCE (aged c. 71 – 72)
Pataliputra (modern-day Patna), Bihar, India
  • Devi (Sri Lankan tradition)
  • Karuvaki (own inscriptions)
  • Padmavati (North Indian tradition)
  • Asandhimitra (Sri Lankan tradition)
  • Tishyaraksha (Sri Lankan and North Indian tradition)
  • Mahendra (Sri Lankan tradition)
  • Sanghamitra (Sri Lankan tradition)
  • Tivala (own inscriptions)
  • Kunala (North Indian tradition)
  • Jalauka (Rajatarangini)
  • Charumati
Dynasty Maurya
Father Bindusara
Mother Subhadrangi or Dharma
Religion Buddhism

Ashoka (or Asoka) was India's great emperor of the Mauryan Dynasty of India who ruled from 304-232 BC. His name means "He who is loved by the Gods and who is friendly to everyone".

Ashoka is often cited as one of India's greatest emperors. After a number of military conquests, he reigned over much of present-day India. He fought a war with the kingdom of Kalinga in which there were said to be 200,000+ casualties.

Afterwards, shaken by his brutal victory, he decided to become a Buddhist and lead with peace, not war. To do this, he set up hospitals for animals and humans, created shaded and rested areas along roads for weary travelers to rest, and dug wells in villages. We know these things about his life through various inscriptions (writing) on rocks and pillars.

Early life

Ashoka's own inscriptions do not describe his early life, and much of the information on this topic comes from apocryphal legends written hundreds of years after him. While these legends include obviously fictitious details such as narratives of Ashoka's past lives, they have some plausible historical information about Ashoka's period.


Khalsi rock edict of Ashoka
The Major Rock Edict No.13 of Ashoka, mentions the Greek kings Antiochus, Ptolemy, Antigonus, Magas and Alexander by name, as recipients of his teachings.

The exact date of Ashoka's birth is not certain, as the extant contemporary Indian texts did not record such details. It is known that he lived in the 3rd century BCE, as his inscriptions mention several contemporary rulers whose dates are known with more certainty, such as Antiochus II Theos, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, Antigonus II Gonatas, Magas of Cyrene, and Alexander (of Epirus or Corinth). Thus, Ashoka must have been born sometime in the late 4th century BCE or early 3rd century BCE (c. 304 BCE),

Pataliputra at the time of Ashoka
Ruins of pillared hall at Kumrahar site at Pataliputra.
The Pataliputra capital, 4th–3rd c. BCE.
Ashoka was probably born in the city of Pataliputra. Remains of the city from around that time have been found through excavations in central areas of the modern city of Patna.


Ashoka's own inscriptions are fairly detailed but make no mention of his ancestors. Other sources, such as the Puranas and the Mahavamsa state that his father was the Mauryan emperor Bindusara, and his grandfather was Chandragupta – the founder of the Empire. The Ashokavadana also names his father as Bindusara, but traces his ancestry to Buddha's contemporary king Bimbisara, through Ajatashatru, Udayin, Munda, Kakavarnin, Sahalin, Tulakuchi, Mahamandala, Prasenajit, and Nanda. The 16th century Tibetan monk Taranatha, whose account is a distorted version of the earlier traditions, describes Ashoka as the illegitimate son of king Nemita of Champarana from the daughter of a merchant.

Ashokavadana states that Ashoka's mother was the daughter of a Brahmin from Champa, and was prophesized to marry a king. Accordingly, her father took her to Pataliputra, where she was inducted into Bindusara's harem, and ultimately, became his chief queen. The Ashokavadana does not mention her by name, although other legends provide different names for her. For example, the Asokavadanamala calls her Subhadrangi. The Vamsatthapakasini or Mahavamsa-tika, a commentary on Mahavamsa, calls her "Dharma" ("Dhamma" in Pali), and states that she belonged to the Moriya Kshatriya clan. A Divyavadana legend calls her Janapada-kalyani; according to scholar Ananda W. P. Guruge, this is not a name, but an epithet.

According to the 2nd-century historian Appian, Chandragupta entered into a marital alliance with the Greek ruler Seleucus I Nicator, which has led to speculation that either Chandragupta or his son Bindusara married a Greek princess. However, there is no evidence that Ashoka's mother or grandmother was Greek, and most historians have dismissed the idea.

As a prince

According to the Ashokavadana, Bindusara disliked Ashoka because of his rough skin. One day, Bindusara asked the ascetic Pingala-vatsajiva to determine which of his sons was worthy of being his successor. He asked all the princes to assemble at the Garden of the Golden Pavilion on the ascetic's advice. Ashoka was reluctant to go because his father disliked him, but his mother convinced him to do so. When minister Radhagupta saw Ashoka leaving the capital for the Garden, he offered to provide the prince with a royal elephant for the travel. At the Garden, Pingala-vatsajiva examined the princes and realised that Ashoka would be the next king. To avoid annoying Bindusara, the ascetic refused to name the successor. Instead, he said that one who had the best mount, seat, drink, vessel and food would be the next king; each time, Ashoka declared that he met the criterion. Later, he told Ashoka's mother that her son would be the next king, and on her advice, left the kingdom to avoid Bindusara's wrath.

While legends suggest that Bindusara disliked Ashoka's ugly appearance, they also state that Bindusara gave him important responsibilities, such as suppressing a revolt in Takshashila (according to north Indian tradition) and governing Ujjain (according to Sri Lankan tradition). This suggests that Bindusara was impressed by the other qualities of the prince. Another possibility is that he sent Ashoka to distant regions to keep him away from the imperial capital.

Rebellion at Taxila

Aramaic inscription at Taxila Museum
The Aramaic Inscription of Taxila probably mentions Ashoka.

According to the Ashokavadana, Bindusara dispatched prince Ashoka to suppress a rebellion in the city of Takshashila (present-day Bhir Mound in Pakistan). This episode is not mentioned in the Sri Lankan tradition, which instead states that Bindusara sent Ashoka to govern Ujjain. Two other Buddhist texts – Ashoka-sutra and Kunala-sutra – state that Bindusara appointed Ashoka as a viceroy in Gandhara (where Takshashila was located), not Ujjain.

The Ashokavadana states that Bindusara provided Ashoka with a fourfold-army (comprising cavalry, elephants, chariots and infantry) but refused to provide any weapons for this army. Ashoka declared that weapons would appear before him if he was worthy of being a king, and then, the deities emerged from the earth and provided weapons to the army. When Ashoka reached Takshashila, the citizens welcomed him and told him that their rebellion was only against the evil ministers, not the king. Sometime later, Ashoka has similarly welcomed in the Khasa territory and the gods declared that he would go on to conquer the whole earth.

Takshashila was a prosperous and geopolitically influential city, and historical evidence proves that by Ashoka's time, it was well-connected to the Mauryan capital Pataliputra by the Uttarapatha trade route. However, no extant contemporary source mentions the Takshashila rebellion, and none of Ashoka's records states that he ever visited the city. That said, the historicity of the legend about Ashoka's involvement in the Takshashila rebellion may be corroborated by an Aramaic-language inscription discovered at Sirkap near Taxila. The inscription includes a name that begins with the letters "prydr", and most scholars restore it as "Priyadarshi", which was the title of Ashoka. Another evidence of Ashoka's connection to the city may be the name of the Dharmarajika Stupa near Taxila; the name suggests that it was built by Ashoka ("Dharma-raja").

The story about the deities miraculously bringing weapons to Ashoka may be the text's way of deifying Ashoka; or indicating that Bindusara – who disliked Ashoka – wanted him to fail in Takshashila.

Governor of Ujjain

According to the Mahavamsa, Bindusara appointed Ashoka as the viceroy of present-day Ujjain (Ujjeni), which was an important administrative and commercial centre in the Avanti province of central India. This tradition is corroborated by the Saru Maru inscription discovered in central India; this inscription states that he visited the place as a prince. Ashoka's own rock edict mentions the presence of a prince viceroy at Ujjain during his reign, which further supports the tradition that he himself served as a viceroy at Ujjain.

Panguraria Top View Closeup detail
The Saru Maru commemorative inscription seems to mention the presence of Ashoka in the area of Ujjain as he was still a Prince.

Pataliputra was connected to Ujjain by multiple routes in Ashoka's time, and on the way, Ashoka entourage may have encamped at Rupnath, where his inscription has been found.

According to the Sri Lankan tradition, Ashoka visited Vidisha, where he fell in love with a beautiful woman on his way to Ujjain. According to the Dipamvamsa and Mahamvamsa, the woman was Devi – the daughter of a merchant. According to the Mahabodhi-vamsa, she was Vidisha-Mahadevi and belonged to the Shakya clan of Gautama Buddha. The Buddhist chroniclers may have fabricated the Shakya connection to connect Ashoka's family to Buddha. The Buddhist texts allude to her being a Buddhist in her later years but do not describe her conversion to Buddhism. Therefore, it is likely that she was already a Buddhist when she met Ashoka.

The Mahavamsa states that Devi gave birth to Ashoka's son Mahinda in Ujjain, and two years later, to a daughter named Sanghamitta. According to the Mahavamsa, Ashoka's son Mahinda was ordained at the age of 20 years, during the sixth year of Ashoka's reign. That means Mahinda must have been 14 years old when Ashoka ascended the throne. Even if Mahinda was born when Ashoka was as young as 20 years old, Ashoka must have ascended the throne at 34 years, which means he must have served as a viceroy for several years.

Ascension to the throne

Legends suggest that Ashoka was not the crown prince, and his ascension on the throne was disputed. According to the Sri Lankan texts Mahavamsa and the Dipavamsa, Ashoka ascended the throne 218 years after the death of Gautama Buddha and ruled for 37 years. The date of the Buddha's death is itself a matter of debate, and the North Indian tradition states that Ashoka ruled a hundred years after the Buddha's death, which has led to further debates about the date.

Assuming that the Sri Lankan tradition is correct, and assuming that the Buddha died in 483 BCE – a date proposed by several scholars – Ashoka must have ascended the throne in 265 BCE. The Puranas state that Ashoka's father Bindusara reigned for 25 years, not 28 years as specified in the Sri Lankan tradition. If this is true, Ashoka's ascension can be dated three years earlier, to 268 BCE. Alternatively, if the Sri Lankan tradition is correct, but if we assume that the Buddha died in 486 BCE (a date supported by the Cantonese Dotted Record), Ashoka's ascension can be dated to 268 BCE. The Mahavamsa states that Ashoka consecrated himself as the king four years after becoming a sovereign. This interregnum can be explained assuming that he fought a war of succession with other sons of Bindusara during these four years.

Reign before Buddhist influence

Both Sri Lankan and North Indian traditions assert that Ashoka was a violent person before Buddhism. Taranatha also states that Ashoka was initially called "Kamashoka" because he spent many years in pleasurable pursuits (kama); he was then called "Chandashoka" ("Ashoka the fierce") because he spent some years performing evil deeds; and finally, he came to be known as Dhammashoka ("Ashoka the righteous") after his conversion to Buddhism.

Kalinga war and conversion to Buddhism

Kanaganahalli inscribed panel portraying Asoka (perspective)
Kanaganahalli inscribed panel portraying Asoka with Brahmi label "King Asoka", 1st–3rd century CE.

Ashoka's inscriptions mention that he conquered the Kalinga region during his 8th regnal year: the destruction caused during the war made him repent violence, and in the subsequent years, he was drawn towards Buddhism.

The war

According to Ashoka's Major Rock Edict 13, he conquered Kalinga 8 years after ascending to the throne. The edict states that during his conquest of Kalinga, 100,000 men and animals were killed in action; many times that number "perished"; and 150,000 men and animals were carried away from Kalinga as captives. Ashoka states that the repentance of these sufferings caused him to devote himself to the practice and propagation of dharma. He proclaims that he now considered the slaughter, death and deportation caused during the conquest of a country painful and deplorable; and that he considered the suffering caused to the religious people and householders even more deplorable.

Reign after Buddhist influence

Construction of Stupas and Temples

Stupa of Sanchi. The central stupa was built during the Mauryas, and enlarged during the Sungas, but the decorative gateway is dated to the later dynasty of the Satavahanas.

Both Mahavamsa and Ashokavadana state that Ashoka constructed 84,000 stupas or viharas. According to the Mahavamsa, this activity took place during his fifth–seventh regnal years.

The Ashokavadana states that Ashoka collected seven out of the eight relics of Gautama Buddha, and had their portions kept in 84,000 boxes made of gold, silver, cat's eye, and crystal. He ordered the construction of 84,000 stupas throughout the earth, in towns that had a population of 100,000 or more. He told Elder Yashas, a monk at the Kukkutarama monastery, that he wanted these stupas to be completed on the same day. Yashas stated that he would signal the completion time by eclipsing the sun with his hand. When he did so, the 84,000 stupas were completed at once. [[File:Bharhut relief with Diamond throne and Mahabodhi Temple around the Boddhi Tree.jpg|thumb|Illustration of the original Mahabodhi Temple temple built by Asoka at Bodh Gaya.

Propagation of dhamma

Ashoka's rock edicts suggest that during his eighth–ninth regnal years, he made a pilgrimage to the Bodhi Tree, started propagating dhamma, and performed social welfare activities. The welfare activities included establishment of medical treatment facilities for humans and animals; plantation of medicinal herbs; and digging of wells and plantation of trees along the roads. These activities were conducted in the neighbouring kingdoms, including those of the Cholas, the Pandyas, the Satiyaputras, Tamraparni, the Greek kingdom of Antiyoka.

The edicts also state that during his tenth–eleventh regnal years, Ashoka became closer to the Buddhist sangha, and went on a tour of the empire that lasted for at least 256 days.


According to the Sri Lankan tradition, Ashoka died during his 37th regnal year, which suggests that he died around 232 BCE.

Images for kids

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Aśoka para niños

kids search engine
Ashoka the Great Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.