King Ashoka & the First Unification of India Video

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  • 0:02 Ashoka's Predecessor
  • 1:05 Conquests & Conversion
  • 2:35 Ashoka's Legacy
  • 4:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

While often thought of as one of the most peaceful kings in history, Ashoka had a bloodthirsty past and a family heritage to match. Learn more about this king and his influence on Buddhism.

Ashoka's Predecessor

Historians make a great deal of the transformation of Ashoka from a bloodthirsty warlord into a peace-loving philosopher king, but it wasn't really that easy. It would have been very difficult for Ashoka to have had such an attitude had he not already been one of the most powerful people in history. To understand why, we must go back to the time of Ashoka's grandfather, Chandragupta. Chandragupta was not only the founder of the Mauryan Empire, he was also a student of a certain other great military leader named Alexander the Great. Chandragupta was able to apply what he had learned from studying the wars of Alexander, but instead of moving west, where the successor states of Alexander fought for the crown, Chandragupta instead moved south, further into India. Playing off existing tensions between petty rulers, Chandragupta was able to build an empire that stretched from Afghanistan down to the tip of India, leaving only a few pockets of the Subcontinent outside of his control.

Conquests and Conversion

By the time that Ashoka rose to the throne some years later, the empire was in clear need of expansion and consolidation. Ashoka worked to expand his empire's borders, and did so quickly and efficiently. Unfortunately, quickly and efficiently in ancient warfare often mean bloodily and brutally, which themselves are equally apt descriptions of Ashoka's conquests. He was able to conquer the Kalinga region, a significant chunk of land on the Indian coast of the Bay of Bengal, but unlike his other victories, this lacked a celebratory dimension. Surveying the battlefield after his men had won the day, all Ashoka could see was death and suffering. So many lives had been destroyed, but only for the gain of a few miles of extra land. More troubling was the fact that he was the direct cause for such suffering, and many of those who were strewn across the field had no choice but to follow his orders to the death.

Ashoka despondently returned to his capital and began to search for a philosophy that would help him understand how to prevent such suffering from happening again. Ultimately, Ashoka found the answers he was looking for in Buddhism, a religious tradition native to India, but still relatively unpopular among Indians. Ashoka sought to immediately change that, and began spreading Buddhist teachings throughout India. He built a number of stupas, which are shrines that housed remains of the Buddha, as well as places from which Buddhist teachings could be taught.

Ashoka's Legacy

However, the stupas would not be the most lasting legacy of Ashoka's association with Buddhism. Ashoka set out to educate his people on the tenets of Buddhism through edicts as well, with some of them given the soberingly appropriate title of the Kalinga edicts, meant to evoke the tragedies of the battles against Kalinga. In these texts, Ashoka not only discussed traditional Buddhist belief, but also emphasized his own teachings as well.

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