The contacts between India and the western world which Chandragupta Maurya had established continued during the reign of his son, Bindusara. Ambassadors came to the court at Pataliputra from Ptolemy of Egypt and Antiochus, the son and successor of Seleucus Nikator of western Asia. Ashoka, grandson of Chandragupta, added to these contacts, and India became in his time an important international centre, chiefly because of the rapid spread of Buddhism.
Ashoka succeeded to this great empire about 273 B.C. He had previously served as viceroy in the north-western province, of which Taxila, the university centre, was the capital. Already the empire included far the greater part of India and extended right into central Asia. Only the south-east and a part of the south were beyond its sway. The old dream of uniting the whole of India under one supreme government fired Ashoka and forthwith he undertook the conquest of Kalinga on the east coast, which corresponds roughly with modern Orissa and part of Andhra. His armies triumphed in spite of the brave and obstinate resistance of the people of Kalinga. There was a terrible slaughter in this war, and when news of this reached Ashoka he was stricken with remorse and disgusted with war. Unique among the victorious monarchs and captains in history, he decided to abandon warfare in the full tide of victory. The whole of India acknowledged his sway, except for the southern tip, and that tip was his for the taking. But he refrained from any further aggression, and his mind turned, under the influence of Buddha’s gospel, to conquests and adventures in other fields.
What Ashoka felt and how he acted are known to us in his own words in the numerous edicts he issued, carved in rock and metal. Those edicts, spread out all over India, are still with us, and they conveyed his messages not only to his people but to posterity. In one of the edicts it is said that:
‘Kalinga was conquered by His Sacred and Gracious Majesty when he had been consecrated eight years. One hundred and fifty thousand persons were thence carried away as 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 unconquered involves the slaughter, death, and carrying away captive of the people. That is a matter of profound sorrow and regret to His Sacred Majesty.’
No longer, goes on the edict, would Ashoka tolerate any more killing or taking into captivity, not even of a hundredth or a thousandth part of the number killed and made captive in Kalinga. True conquest consists of the conquest of men’s hearts by the law of duty or piety, and, adds Ashoka, such real victories had already been won by him, not only in his own dominions, but in distant kingdoms.
The edict further says:
‘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 dominions His Sacred Majesty looks kindly and he seeks to make them think aright, for, if he did not, repentance 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.’
This astonishing ruler, beloved still in India and in many other parts of Asia, devoted himself to the spread of Buddha’s teaching, to righteousness and goodwill, and to public works for the good of the people. He was no passive spectator of events, lost in contemplation and self-improvement. He laboured hard at public business and declared that he was always ready for it: ‘at all times and at all places, whether I am dining or in the ladies’ apartments, in my bedroom or in my closet, in my carriage or in my palace gardens, the official reporters should keep me informed of the people’s business…. At any hour and at any place work I must for the commonweal.’
His messengers and ambassadors went to Syria, Egypt, Macedonia, Cyrene, and Epirus, conveying his greeting and Buddha’s message. They went to central Asia also and to Burma and Siam, and he sent his own son and daugher, Mahendra and Sanghamitra, to Ceylon in the south. Everywhere an appeal was made to the mind and the heart; there was no force or compulsion. Ardent Buddhist as he was, he showed respect and consideration for all other faiths. He prcclaimed in an edict:
‘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 other people.’
Buddhism spread rapidly in India from Kashmir to Ceylon. It penetrated into Nepal and later reached Tibet and China and Mongolia. In India, one of the consequences of this was the growth of vegetarianism and abstention from alcoholic drinks. Till then both Brahmins and Kshatriyas often ate meat and took wine. Animal sacrifice was forbidden.
Because of the growth of foreign contacts and missionary enterprises, trade between India and other countries must have also grown. We have records of an Indian colony in Khotan (now Sinkiang, Central Asia). The Indian universities, especially Taxila, also attracted more students from abroad.
Ashoka was a great builder and it has been suggested that he employed foreign craftsmen to assist in building some of his huge structures. This inference is drawn from the designs of some clustered columns which remind one of Persepolis. But even in those early sculptures and other remains the characteristically Indian art tradition is visible.
Ashoka’s famous many-pillared hall in his palace at Pataliputra was partly dug out by archaeologists about thirty years ago. Dr. Spooner, of the Archaeological Department of India, in his official report, said that this was ‘in an almost incredible state of preservation, the logs which formed it being as smooth and perfect as the day they were laid, more than two thousand years ago.’ He says further that the ‘marvellous preservation of the ancient wood, whose edges were so perfect that the very lines of jointure were indistinguishable, evoked admiration of all who witnessed the experiment. The whole was built with a precision and reasoned care that could not possibly be excelled today…. In short, the construction was absolute perfection of such work.
In other excavated buildings also in different parts of the country wooden logs and rafters have been found in an excellent state of preservation. This would be surprising anywhere, but in India it is more so, for the climate wears them away and all manner of insects eat them up. There must have been some special treatment of the wood; what this was is still, I believe, a mystery.
Between Pataliputra (Patna) and Gaya lie the impressive remains of Nalanda university, which was to become famous in later days. It is not clear when this began functioning and there are no records of it in Ashoka’s time.
Ashoka died in 232 B.C., after ruling strenuously for forty-one years. Of him H. G. Wells says in his ‘Outline of History’:
‘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.’