Ashoka Maurya – UPSC History Guide


Ashoka is also known as the Ashoka the Great, and was an Indian emperor from 268 to 232 BCE. A renowned emperor of the Mauryan dynasty, the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, and an avid promoter of Buddhism across Asia, he has earned the title of one of the greatest emperors of India. The UPSC General Studies History questions often center around the ideologies, beliefs, actions, and effect of Ashoka’s legacy. Let’s take a look at the crucial details of this magical emperor whose realm stretched from Afghanistan to Bangladesh, and different MCQs we can expect.

1st century BCE relief from Sanchi, showing Ashoka on his chariot

The Kalinga War

Chandragupta Maurya had attempted to conquer Kalinga but has not been successful. Time went by, and we enter in the seventh and eighth years of Ashoka’s reign, the years which will be forever remembered in India’s history. In 261 BCE, a war emerged between the mighty Mauryan Empire under the powerful Emperor Ashoka and the state of Kalinga. At that time, Kalinga, today’s Odisha and some part of Andhra Pradesh, was an independent feudal kingdom. It was under the rule of the Nanda Empire who initially ruled the kingdom from their capital at Magadha. On the banks of the Daya River, in Dhauli hills, happened one of the scariest and fierce battles India has ever seen. This war resulted in devastating consequences, with a staggering loss of over 250,000 lives. But from the ashes of this gruesome war rose one of the strongest spirits of peace and love.

Daya River, beside Dhauli Hills, view from Shanti Stupa

The effect of the Kalinga war on Ashoka was profound. The amount of bloodshed was too much for him to bear, more so when he felt that he was the cause of the massacre. There was plunder and destruction all around in Kalinga. It has come to light from Ashoka’s edicts that around 150,000 died on the Kalinga side, and nearly same number on Ashoka’s army. The natives of Kalinga however claim they inflicted double the damage to Ashoka, a claim which has no hard evidence. The edicts of Ashoka hold strong grounds amongst all historians today. Shanti Stupa (Peace Pagoda) in Dhauli today is a remembrance of Ashoka’s transformation from a symbol of military prowess to the emperor of peace. It was built in 1972 by a joint collaboration between Japan Buddha Sangh and Kalinga Nippon Buddha Sangh.

Shanti Stupa in Dhauli

Edicts of Ashoka

The Edicts of Ashoka are a collection of around 33 inscriptions using the expression Dhamma Lipi on the pillars, boulders, and cave walls, attributed to Ashoka. Here Ashoka described in details of his view about dhamma, in an earnest attempt to solve some of the problems faced by a complex society. These edicts were deciphered by British archaeologist and historian James Prinsep (1799 – 1840). Ashoka did this in sets of edicts that helped form the policies of his Mauryan kingdom. These inscriptions were distributed all across today’s Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. As a matter of fact, it is also regarded as the first tangible evidence of Buddhism, reaching as far across as the Mediterranean.

In the context of the UPSC exam, the candidates can expect to be asked question like who of the following had first deciphered the edicts of Emperor Ashoka? Now we know it is James Prinsep.

​1.​ Georg Buehler
2.​ James Prinsep
3.​ Max Muller
4.​ William Jones

Let’s understand how the other options above are not correct. Professor Johann Georg Bühler (1837 – 1898) was a scholar of ancient Indian languages and law. Sir William Jones (1746 – 1794) was an Anglo-Welsh philologist, a puisne judge on the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William in Bengal, and a scholar of ancient India. Friedrich Max Müller (1823-1900) who was a German-born philologist and Orientalist, was one of the founders of the western academic disciplines of Indian studies. He wrote both scholarly and popular works on the subject of Indology.

Languages and Scripts

Languages used were Ashokan Prakrit, Greek, and Aramaic. The Prakrit inscriptions were in Brahmi and Kharosthi scripts. The Kharosthi script was mainly for the area of modern day Pakistan. For the UPSC exam, it is advisable to be well aware of the details mentioned here as the questions can be tricky. Example, without knowing the above it is not possible to detect a false statement like ‘All of the Ashokan inscriptions were in Prakrit and were written in the Brahmi script only’. It is interesting to note that in south India, the local Dravidian idiom was not used, instead Ashoka used the Prakrit language of the North with the Brahmi script to communicate to those territories.

Clockwise from top-left, Brahmi, Kharoshthi, Aramaic, Greek

What question can you expect in UPSC now? The question states, Ashoka was one of the greatest rulers known to history. Consider the following statements about him:

  1. Ashoka was the first ruler to take his message to the people through inscriptions.
  2. All of the Ashokan inscriptions were in Prakrit and were written in the Brahmi script only.
  3. Megasthenes was a Greek ambassador, to the court of Ashoka.

Which of the above statements are correct? Well, option 2 is restrictive of the languages and scripts we studied just now, and Megasthenes was an ambassador to the court of King Chandragupta Maurya in Pataliputra. Option 1 is the correct choice and appreciably so. Let’s explore and see some more UPSC model questions. Ashoka is referred in the inscriptions with titles like Devanampiya (Sanskrit Devanampriya, ‘Beloved of the Gods’) and Priyadasi (Sanskrit Priyadarshi, ‘he who regards amiably’ or ‘of gracious mien’). This is another key area for UPSC questionnaire, where from a set of options we have to identify the name by which Ashoka is referred to his inscriptions is:​

  1. ​Chakravarti
  2. ​Dharmadeva
  3. ​Dharmakirti
  4. ​Priyadarsi

Major, Minor, Rock, and Pillar Edicts

The Edicts of Ashoka can be divided into 4 distinct types based on their size, and nature of inscription.

  • Minor Rock Edict – The minor rock Edicts form the rock inscriptions of the earliest part of the Edicts of Ashoka. They are found profoundly in the areas of modern day Karnataka and southern Andhra Pradesh. The texts of the Minor Rock Edicts are short, and the quality is not great compared to the inscriptions during the later years of Ashoka’s reign. The Minor Rock Edicts are in Prakrit, Greek, and Aramaic. The Maski version is contextually important as it confirmed the association of the title Devanampriya with the name Ashoka. Also in the Gujarra the name of Ashoka is used together with his full title Devanampiya Piyadasi Asokaraja.

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