( from Glimpses of World History by Jawaharlal Nehru)





 am afraid I am a little too fond of running down kings and princes. I see little in their kind to admire or do reverence to . But we are now coming to a man who , in spite of being a king and emperor , was great and worthy of admiration. He was Ashoka ,the great grandson of Chandragupta Maurya. Speaking of him in his outline of History, H.G.Wells(some of  romances you must have read) says:


Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousnesses  and serenities and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Ashoka shines, and shines almost alone , a star. From the Volga to Japan his name is still honoured. China,Tibet ,and even India , though it has left his doctrine , preserve the tradition of his greatness. More living men cherish his memory today than have ever heard the names of Constantine or Charlemagne.


This is high praise indeed. But it is deserved, and for an Indian it is an especial pleasure to think of this period of  India’s history.

            Chandragupta died nearly 300 years before the Christian era began. He was succeeded by his son Bindusara , who seems to have had a quiet reign of twenty-five years. He kept up contacts with the Greek world and ambassadors came to his court from Ptolemy of Egypt , and Antiochus , who was the son of  Seleucus  of western Asia. There was trade with the outside world and , it is said , the Egyptians used to dye their cloth with indigo from India. It is also stated that they wrapped their mummies in Indian muslins. Some old remains have been discovered in Bihar which seem to show that some kind of glass was made there even before  Mauryan period.


                        It will interest you to know that Megasthenes , the greek  ambassador who came to the court of Chandragupta , writes about the Indian love of finery and beauty, and specially notes the use of the shoe to add to one’s height. So high heels are not entirely a modern invention.


                        Ashoka succeeded  Bindusara in 268 BC to a great empire , which included the whole of north and central India and extended right up to central Asia. With the desire , perhaps , of bringing into his empire the remaining parts in the south –east and south , he started the conquest of Kalinga in the ninth year of his reign. Kalinga lay on the east coast of India , between Mahanadi , Godhavari and Kistna rivers. The people of  Kalinga fought bravely , they were ultimately subdued after terrible slaughter. This war and slaughter affected Ashoka so deeply that he was disgusted with war and all its works. Henceforth there was to be no war for him. Nearly the whole of India, expect a tiny tip in the south, was under him; and it was easy enough for him to complete the conquest of  this little tip. But he refrained. According to H.G.Wells , he is the only military monarch on record who abandoned warfare after victory.


                        Fortunately for us, we have Ashoka’s own words, telling us of what he thought and what he did. In numerous edicts which were carved out in the rock or on metal, we still have his messages to his people and to posterity. You know that there is such an Ashoka pillar in the fort at Allhabad. There are many others in our province.


                        In these edicts Ashoka tells us of his horror and remorse at the slaughter which war and conquest involve. The only true conquest , he says, is the conquest of self and the conquest  of men’s hearts by the Dharma. But I shall quote for you some of these edicts. They make fascinating reading and they will bring Ashoka nearer to you.


Kalinga was conquered by His Sacred and Gracious Majesty”, so runs on edict, “when he had been consecrated eight years.” One hundred and fifty thousand persons were thence carried away captive, one hundred thousand were there slain, and many times that number died .


Directly after the annexation of the kalingas began His Sacred Majesty‘s zealous protection of  the Law of Piety, his love of that Law, and his inculcation of that Law(Dharma). Thus arose his sacred Majesty’s remorse for having conquered the Kalingas, because the conquest of a country previously un-conquered involves the slaughter, death and carrying away the captive of the people. That is a matter of profound sorrow and regret to His Sacred Majesty


                        The edict goes on to say that Ashoka would not tolerate any longer the slaughter or captivity of even a hundreth of thousandth part of the number killed and made captive in Kalinga.


Moreover, should any one do him wrong, that too must be borne with by His Sacred Majesty, so far as it can possibly be borne with. Even upon the forest folk in his domination s His Sacred Majesty looks kindly and he seeks to make them think aright, for, if he did not , repentence would come upon His Sacred Majesty. For His Sacred Majesty desires that all animate beings should have security, self – control, peace of mind, and joyousness.


Ashoka further explains that true conquest consists of the conquest of men’s hearts by the Law of Duty or Piety , and to relate that he had already won such real victories , not only in his own dominations , but in distant kingdoms.


            The Law, to which reference is made repeatedly in these edicts , was the Law of the Buddha. Ashoka became an ardent Buddhist and tried his utmost to spread the Dharma. But there was no force or compulsion. It was only by winning men’s hearts that he sought to make converts. Men of religion have seldom , very seldom , been as tolerant as Ashoka. In order to convert people to their own faith they have seldom scrupled to use force and terrorism and fraud. The whole of his history is full of religious persecution and religious wars, and in the name of religion and of God perhaps more blood has been shed than in any other name. It is good therefore to remember how a great son of India , intensely religious, and the head of  a powerful empire, behaved in order to convert people to his ways of thought. It is strange that anyone should be so foolish as to think that religion and faith can be thrust down a person’s throat at the point of the sword or a bayonet.

So Ashoka, the beloved of the gods –devanampriya , as he is called in the edicts –sent his messengers and ambassadors to the kingdoms of the West in Asia, Europe and Africa. To Ceylon, you will remember, he sent his own brother Mahendra and sister Sanghamitra, and they are said to have carried a branch of the sacred peepal tree from Gaya. Do you remember the peepal tree we saw in the temple at Anuradhapuram? We are told that this was the very tree which grew out of that ancient branch.


In India Bhuddhism spread rapidly. And as the Dharma was for Ashoka not just the reptition  of empty prayers and the performance of pujas and ceremonies, but the performance of good deeds and social uplift, all over the country public gardens and hospitals and wells and roads grew up. Special provision was made for the education of women. Four great university towns- Takshashila or Taxila in the far north , near Peshawar; Mathura , vulgarly spelt Muttra now by the English; Ujjain in central India; and Nalanda near Patna in Bihar –attracted  students not only from India , but from distant countries –from China to western Asia- and these students carried back home with them the message of Buddha’s teaching. Great monastries grew up all over the country – Vihara they were called. There were apparently so many round about Pataliputra or Patna that the whole province came to be known as Vihara, or, as it is called now, Bihar. But , as often happens , these monasteries soon lost the inspiration of teaching and of thought , and became just places where people followed a certain routine and worship.


Ashoka’s passion for protecting life extended to animals also. Hospitals especially meant for then were erected, and animal-sacrifice was fordidden. In both these matters he was somewhat in advance of our own time. Unhappily , animal-sacrifice still prevails to some extent, and is supposed to be an essential part of religion; and there is little provision for the treatment of animals.


Ashoka’s example and the spread of Buddhism resulted in vegetarianism becoming popular. Till then Kshattriyas and Brahmans in India generally ate meat and used to take wines and alcoholic drinks. Both meat-eating and wine-drinking grew much less.


So ruled Ashoka for thirty-eight years, trying his utmost to promote peacefully the public good. He was always ready for public business “at all times and at all places, whether I am dinning or in the ladies’ apartments, in my bedroom or in any closet, in my carriage or in my place gardens, the official reporters should keep me constantly informed of the people’s business”. If any difficulty arose, a report was to be made to him immediately” at any hour and at any place”, for, as he says, “work I must for the commonweal”.


Ashoka died in 226 BC. Sometime before his death he became a Buddhist monk.


We have few remains of Mauryan times. But what we have are practically the earliest so far discovered of Aryan civilization in India-for the moment we are not considering the ruins of Mohenjo Daro. In Sarnath , near Benares, you can see the beautiful Ashoka pillar with the lions on the top.


Of the great city of Pataliputra , which was Ashoka’s capital, nothing is left. Indeed over 1500 years ago, 600 years after Ashoka, a Chinese  traveller , Fa-Hien, visited the place. The city flourished then and was rich and prosperous, but even then Ashoka’s palace of stone was in ruins. Even these ruins impressed Fa-Hien, who says in his travel record that they did not appear to be human work. The palace of massive stone is gone, leaving no trace behind, but the memory of Ashoka lives over the whole continent of Asia, and his edicts still speak to us in a language we can understand and appreciate. And we can still learn much from them. This letter has grown long and many weary you. I shall finish it with a small quotation from one of Ashoka’s edicts: ” All sects deserve reverence for one reason or another. By thus acting a man exalts his own sect and at the same time does service to the sects of the other people.”