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A Buddhist Emperor and the end of Mauryan Rule

Chandragupta's dynasty lived on with his rule passing to his son, Bindusara, and twenty-five years after that, in 273 BCE, to his son, Ashoka. Bindusara is believed to have reigned as a Hindu rather than a Jain. And he expanded the Maurya Empire to much of the south of the continent, acquiring the title "Slayer of Enemies." His successor, Ashoka, in his first eight years of rule did what was expected of him, but there were always changes, and with Ashoka there was to be an attitudinal break with the devotion to conquest and war of his father and grandfather.

This happened around the year 260 BCE when he was fighting battles to imposed Maurya rule on people southward along the eastern coast of India — an area called Kalinga. The sufferings created by the war disturbed him, and he found relief in Buddhism, became a Buddhist lay member and went on a 256-day pilgrimage to Buddhist holy places in northern India.

He held on to his conquest of Kalinga. He did not allow the thousands of people abducted from Kalinga to return there. He offered the people of Kalinga a victor's conciliation: he erected a monument in Kalinga which read:

All men are my children, and I, the king, forgive what can be forgiven.

Ashoka mixed his maintaining power with the Buddha's desire to see suffering among people mitigated: Ashoka had wells dug, irrigation canals and roads constructed. He had rest houses built along roads, hospitals built, public gardens planted and medicinal herbs grown. He also maintained his army, the secret police and network of spies that he had inherited as a part of his extensive and powerful bureaucracy.

Ashoka associated his power as an emperor with peace and the happiness of people and all "animate beings." But he announced that he would now strive for conquest only in matters of the human spirit and the spread of "right conduct." He postured as a defender not an aggressor, warning other powers that he was not only compassionate but also powerful.

Ashoka was to rule for more than three decades, and his reign would be undisturbed by famines or natural disasters. Nor was his rule disturbed by the warrior-nomads that had created so much havoc in the Middle East or that the Gauls had imposed on the Romans, or that Germanic warrior-migrants would impose on the Roman Empire in centuries to come. During Ashoka's reign, no neighboring kings tried to take any of his territory – perhaps because these kings were accustomed to fearing the Mauryan power.

During Ashoka's reign, peace helped extend economic prosperity. Ashoka relaxed the harsher laws of his grandfather, Chandragupta. Instead of the kingly pastime of hunting game he went on religious pilgrimages. He advocated vegetarianism. He had edicts cut into rocks and pillars at strategic locations throughout his empire, edicts to communicate to passers-by the way of compassion, edicts such as "listen to your father and mother," and "be generous with your friends and relatives." His edicts spread hope in the survival of the soul after death and in good behavior leading to heavenly salvation. And in keeping with the change that was taking place in Buddhism, in at least one of his edicts Ashoka described Siddartha Gautama not merely as the teacher that Siddartha had thought of himself but as "the Lord Buddha."

The Mauryan empire, writes historian Yuval Harari, "took as its mission the dissemination of Buddhist teachings to an ignorant world." It is possible that within India some Hindus saw Ashoka as a threat to Indic civilization. Brahmans (Hindu priests) were displeased by Ashoka's opposition to their animal sacrifices. Poor peasants threatened by requisition of their animals for sacrifices were pleased. But the Brahmans continued to have rites to perform associated with births, marriages and deaths.

Ashoka attempted to resolve differences among the Buddhists much as Emperor Constantine would among the Christians — but among the Buddhists ideological difference would remain and grow.

In the final years of his reign, Ashoka withdrew from public life, and after thirty-seven years of rule, in the year 232 BCE, he died. Buddhist scholars were to express great interest in his reign and the strength of what he had established. There are writings suggest that decay had come before Ashoka's death. Some scholars attribute the decline to economic pressures: revenues from taxing agriculture and trade that were inadequate in maintaining the large military and army of bureaucrats. Perhaps palace politics reduced the ability of Ashoka's heirs to govern. Perhaps Ashoka's heirs inherited from Ashoka a pacifism that discouraged their using force in keeping the Maurya Empire together. Whatever the cause or causes, regions within the empire asserted their independence, and the empire disintegrated while the Maurya family, in Pataliputra, continued to rule.

In 185 BCE, rule by the Maurya dynasty ended when an army commander-in-chief, Pusyamitra Sunga, murdered the last Maurya king during a parade of his troops. Pusyamitra's rise to power has been described as a reaction by Brahmans to the Buddhism of the Maurya family. However accurate this description, Pusyamitra gave his support to orthodox Brahmanism and appointed Brahmans to state offices. With Pusyamitra's rule, animal sacrifices and other outlawed activities returned, including the musical festivals and dances that had been outlawed.

CONTINUE READING: Fragmented India, 185 BCE to 321 CE

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