King Ashoka: Biography, Quotes & Family Tree

Instructor: Mary Ruth Sanders Bracy

Mary Ruth teaches college history and has a PhD.

In this lesson, we will learn about King Ashoka, the emperor of India from 265-238 BCE. Ashoka was a great ruler who renounced armed conquest and tried to rule in line with the requirements of Buddhist teaching.

India's Great King

Have you ever done something, regretted it, and tried to make amends? That's what happened to the great King Ashoka. Ashoka ruled the Mauryan Dynasty in India from 265-238 BCE (296-232 BCE in some sources). After he conquered the Kingdom of Kalinga, Ashoka was very remorseful and embraced Buddhism, a faith that teaches nonviolence. Let's learn more about Ashoka's biography and family tree, and look at some of his famous quotations.

Ashoka the Terrible

Not much is known about Ashoka's early life. We do know that King Ashoka was born in 304 BCE in Pataliputra. He was not the firstborn son, and he had a fairly low position in the household. However, Ashoka quickly grew into a great warrior, and his father named him governor of his own province. There, he married and had children.

When the emperor died, a group of nobles called on Ashoka to assume the throne of the Mauryan Dynasty. To do this, he had to kill all of his brothers so that they would not challenge his authority. Ashoka did this, sparing only his younger brother Vithashoka. With all of this violence surrounding his rise to power, it is not surprising that Ashoka became known as ''Ashoka the Terrible'' and was recognized for his cruelty.

A Change of Heart

But Ashoka had a change of heart. After eight years of conquering the surrounding regions to bring them into his kingdom, he personally directed an assault on the Kingdom of Kalinga. After the battle was over and Ashoka went out to survey his victory, he was crushed. All that he could see was destruction and death, and he vowed then to rule differently. He had been exposed to the ideas of Buddhism in his youth, and he began to rule with a policy that he called ''conquest by dharma''. Dharma means the ''principles of correct life''.

Ashoka laid out these principles in a set of 14 edicts, or proclamations. Some of these were:

  1. Killing or sacrificing living beings (humans or animals) was not allowed.
  2. Medical care was to be provided to all of his subjects.
  3. Monks would tour the Mauryan empire to teach dharma to its subjects.
  4. The people should respect their elders and teachers.
  5. Prisoners were not to be treated badly.
  6. The people should feel free to approach Ashoka with questions about his rule.
  7. All religions were welcomed.
  8. Charitable giving was encouraged.

Ashoka encouraged the people to adhere to these edicts in order to live a happy life. No longer Ashoka the Terrible, he became known as ''Ashoka the Pious''. He sent Buddhist missionaries throughout his kingdom and built great monuments to Buddhism known as stupas. Ashoka ruled over a peaceful and prosperous empire until his death around 232 BCE. After he died, the Mauryan Dynasty disintegrated.

One of the many stupas of Ashoka
One of Ashokas Stupas


Most of King Ashoka's famous quotations reveal his thoughts about dharma and governing within the principles of the correct life. Here are a few of them:

''All men are my children. As for my own children I desire that they may be provided with all the welfare and happiness of this world and of the next, so do I desire for all men as well.''

''No society can prosper if it aims at making things easier. Instead, it should aim at making people stronger.''

''It is forbidden to decry other sects; the true believer gives honor to whatever in them is worthy of honor.''

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