Shakyamuni Buddha taught and guided his followers for fifty years after his Enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree. His fundamental message was simply expressed in his first sermon, but the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path were of such spiritual simplicity that monks and laymen alike found them difficult to practise. The reality of dukha, suffering due to avidya, ignorance, and the possibility of its removal required nothing less than a total, if gradual, self-transformation. Though the goal was clear, the way was beset by every obstacle that ignorance, passion and confusion could engender in mind, body and the psychic nature. Knowing this, the Buddha did not outline a creed, choosing rather to encourage and correct his disciples through dialogues focussed on the practical problems of spiritual striving. His answers, including his steadfast refusal to explore questions which "tend not to edification", turned his followers back upon their own resources even while providing them with everything they could use to be lamps unto themselves. In addition, he established the Sangha, the order which includes all humanity as spiritual aspirants but which sets apart those who have taken vows to achieve Enlightenment and to centre all their energies upon doing so. His teachings provided the wisdom needed, and his Sangha the method required, to assure continuity of effort after his death.
Within a year of the Buddha's Parinirvana, the Sangha gathered together its members and attempted to set down the public teachings of the Enlightened One. Ananda was requested to recite all he knew, since he had been the constant companion and personal attendant of the Buddha. His words, supplemented by the recollections of others, engendered the earliest form of the Tripitaka, the three baskets of doctrine, discipline and exegesis, though probably the first two baskets alone were established at this time. Many monks had received private instructions which were not included in the public teachings, and these constituted the sources of the Mahayana tradition. About a century after this first council, a second was called to resolve numerous questions regarding doctrine and practice, and though the gathering resolved them, seeds of schism were planted. In time, eighteen schools would arise, not counting Mahayana viewpoints.
Within three years of the Parinirvana, Ajatashatru of Magadha conquered the neighbouring republic of Vriji, whose constitution the Buddha had approved, and soon afterward Koshala also came under his rule. His son established his capital at Pataliputra (modern Patna). Around 410 B.C. the populace of the nascent empire revolted and placed Shaishunaga, a Vriji aristocrat, on the throne. He and his descendants extended the scope of their rule, established a rudimentary bureaucracy and made Pataliputra a major city. During the reign of his son Kalashoka (Ashoka the Black), the second Buddhist council convened at Vaishali, and he was persuaded to support the more orthodox standpoint in the deliberations. The dynasty ended when Nanda, a minister close to the last king, assassinated him and seized the throne. The Nandas developed an integrated monarchy, expanded the empire of Magadha, encouraged agriculture, established a sound administrative system and accumulated vast resources of men and money. Alexander of Macedon's invasion of northwestern India, coupled with the increasing unpopularity of Nanda rulers, led to their downfall. Tradition holds that in 326 B.C. a young man named Chandragupta Maurya met Alexander, who recognized in him the potential for a great destiny, for Chandragupta alone understood the full meaning of the Chakravartin, the universal ruler who mirrors on earth the Mahapurusha.
While still a young man, Chandragupta overthrew the Nandas and assumed the throne with the help of Kautilya, who wrote a treatise on statecraft. After fighting Seleucus, Alexander's general and successor in Persia, he concluded a treaty which relieved the empire from Graeco-Persian threats and unwittingly assured himself a respected place in subsequent Greek and Roman histories. He took advantage of the administrative system nurtured by the Nandas, and used his status in the Hellenic world to establish close and amiable contacts with Babylon and lands farther west. Recognized as a brilliant general with command of an army of well over half a million soldiers, he was revered as an equally brilliant king, who matched his genius in uniting India with wise restraint in not pushing beyond the subcontinent. Pataliputra became a cosmopolitan centre of such enormous proportions that Chandragupta created a special section of municipal officials to look after its welfare, and special courts were established to meet its judicial needs. Aelian wrote that Chandragupta's palace exhibited an unequalled aesthetic refinement with which "neither Memnonian Susa with all its costly splendour, nor Ekbatana with all its magnificence, can vie". And Arrian indicated the exceptional character of the Mauryan empire when he noted that "the Indians do not use aliens as slaves".
Though the Greeks knew Chandragupta as a devotee of Brahmanical Hinduism, Indian tradition suggests that he restrained Brahmin power by favouring other religions. Jain records aver that he became a Jain in later life and even that he abdicated after a reign of twenty-four years, placed his son on the throne, retired and fasted to death in ascetic Jain fashion. Bindusara followed his father's foreign policy, retained his chief ministers, including Kautilya, and ruled for at least a quarter of a century. He expanded the empire and consolidated the machinery of government. He was fortunate in having a number of able sons, for he found himself in the awkward position of being personally popular even amongst peoples on the verge of revolt. Provincial ministers sometimes oppressed the populace, and in time they reacted strongly. Rather than suppress such outbreaks through the deployment of his enormous army, he dispatched his sons to act as viceroys in troubled areas. His son Ashoka first demonstrated his kingly skills as viceroy in Taxila. Though Bindusara followed the precepts of Vedic religion, he favoured the ascetic Ajivaka community, using Ajivaka sages as counsellors in the way his father had availed himself of Jain advisors. Though he could not secure an orderly succession to the throne, he guaranteed a continuity in effective government which survived a four-year interregnum and contest for kingship.
The legends and traditions from India, Greece, Tibet, China and Sri Lanka which becloud Ashoka's life also testify to the lustre of his rule and to his remarkable character. Although Ashoka left carved rocks and pillars throughout his empire, they were inscribed in the Brahmi script and in local dialects. The script was abandoned within three centuries, and the dialects were forgotten as well. Ashoka's edicts remained unread until James Prinsep successfully deciphered an inscription in 1837. Stories of Ashoka flourished from the time of his death and grew more fanciful with the passing centuries. Even though the legends do not always agree with one another or with the edicts, together they afford considerable insight into his reign.
Ashoka, whose name means 'free from sorrow', was born about 304 B.C., in the last years of Chandragupta's rule. His childhood is unknown, though he must have been a brilliant child amongst remarkable siblings, for Bindusara strengthened his reign and the empire by dispatching his sons to serve as viceroys in distant provinces. Ashoka was sent to Taxila (Takshashila) to pacify a rebellion that Crown Prince Susima had been unable to quell. After successfully restoring order and gaining the good will of the people, Ashoka became viceroy of Ujjain. Though Buddhist legends tend to blacken Ashoka before his conversion and to depict him as a saint afterwards – extremes not justified by other evidence, including the inscriptions – doubtless his resolve and strength of will manifested themselves distinctively in different phases of his life. Tradition avers that Ashoka was given to pleasures and enjoyments as a young man, and earned the semi-derisive name Kamashoka. Nonetheless, the Taxila experience left a strong impression on Ashoka, convincing him that he alone would be able to govern the Mauryan empire. When Bindusara fell ill, Ashoka assumed effective government from Ujjain, in part because Susima was again in difficulties at Taxila. Ashoka seized the throne upon Bindusara's death, but his brother and designated heir to the throne enforced his claim with his army. A violent struggle ensued, involving perhaps a number of brothers – though the legendary claim that Ashoka slew ninety-nine male siblings is probably an exaggeration – and four years passed before Ashoka emerged as the undisputed ruler of the Mauryan empire.
Ashoka became emperor in about 272 B.C., but he postponed his coronation (abhisheka) until he had consolidated power. Then he took the throne-name of Devanampriya Priyadarshin and the title raja. Devanampriya means 'dear to the gods' and Priyadarshin can be rendered 'he who looks benevolently'. He had inherited an empire which stretched from modern Afghanistan across Kashmir and included Nepal, subsumed the whole Gangetic plain and extended into Bengal. It crossed the whole of the Indian subcontinent and encompassed all of it save for the modern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The years of internecine struggle encouraged laxity and perhaps rebellion, and it appears that Ashoka worked to restore order in the empire. The Kalinga empire to the south, sufficiently famous for Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to the Mauryan court, to describe its military prowess, may have made incursions into Mauryan domains. Ashoka realized that the future of Indian civilization lay with one or the other of these two mighty empires, and in the eighth year of his reign he determined to conquer Kalinga. The firmness of his rule and the harshness of the Kalinga war earned him the epithet Chandashoka (Ashoka the Fierce). Within two years Kalinga was reduced to submission, but only at the cost of a hundred thousand deaths in battle, the slaughter of civilians, untold numbers of wounded and the deportation of another one hundred and fifty thousand men.
Though his singular victory secured the Mauryan empire peace on all sides and assured it of lasting influence in India – indeed, India was united for the first time in recorded history – Ashoka was horrified by the carnage. His nominal adherence to Vedic religion and his tolerant support of Jains and Ajivakas had not prepared him to confront and understand human suffering on such a vast scale.
Whether Ashoka was transformed all at once, or whether the impact of his conquest affected him over time, it had two radical consequences. Spiritually, he became a follower of the Buddhadharma, the Teachings of the Buddha. Politically, he renounced war and conquest as acceptable methods for preserving the empire and sought to replace them with the inculcation of Dharma. He synthesized these two commitments in a threefold devotion to dharmapalana, dharmakarma and dharmanushishti, protection of Dharma, action according to Dharma and instruction in Dharma. Rather than follow in the footsteps of his grandfather and renounce the world, his understanding of Dharma held him responsible for the welfare of all his subjects, and he translated this general duty into an attempt to exemplify dharmarajya, the rule of Dharma. Long after his specific policies and works were forgotten, Buddhist tradition revered him as the first and ideal Dharmaraja – the Buddhist counterpart of the Hindu idea of the Chakravartin – and bestowed upon him the name of Dharmashoka.
Ashoka was less concerned with the details of Buddhist doctrine than with translating Buddhist standpoints into individual exemplification and government policy. For him, this effort was compatible with cosmopolitan civility and religious tolerance. His court maintained friendly relations with the yavana (foreign, specifically Greek) king of Persia, with Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt, Antigonus II Gonatas of Macedonia, Magas of Cyrene and Alexander of Epirus (or perhaps Corinth). Eventually, he sent Buddhist teachers – some of them from his own family – to those centres, though without lasting influence. More importantly, he formed a close and lasting friendship with Devanampiya Tissa, King of Sri Lanka. Tissa sent a mission to Ashoka, who in turn sent his favourite son, Mahendra, and grandson Sumana, both monks, to Sri Lanka. Tissa was converted to the Buddha's Teaching, and soon Ashoka's daughter, Sanghamitra, joined the mission to instruct the women of the royal household. She bore with her a branch of the Bodhi Tree, which took root and survives in Sri Lanka to the present day.
Dharmarajya, as Ashoka understood it, permitted him to be devoted to the Buddha's Teaching and to revere and support the Sangha, but it required him as monarch to nurture and support all religious traditions in his realm. To this end, he inscribed edicts throughout the empire exhorting the people to practise Dharma, but kept the explicit content of that concept sufficiently universal to include Hindu, Jain, Ajivaka and other interpretations of it. Though he gave land, food and money to the Buddhist Sangha, he similarly supported the other spiritual traditions. Thus the Pillar Edicts mention gifts to the Sangha, and the Cave Inscriptions deed sites to the Ajivakas. Legend maintains that a third Buddhist council was convened in his reign and that he laboured intensely to preserve the unity of the Sangha – an effort that ultimately failed – but the Edicts speak only of purifying the order. Scholars tend to believe that no third council took place, or that Ashoka had little to do with it, but the absence of detailed testimony in the Edicts may only show that he saw no value in recounting publicly his role in the inner affairs of the Sangha.
Ashoka did not neglect public works or administration. Though he retained capital punishment for extreme offences, he devised a system of appeals to give every chance for a revised judgement that might replace execution with a fine. He reformed the tax system so that each region and village could appeal for relief when harvests and commerce had declined, reorganized the bureaucracy so that individuals could not wield power arbitrarily, and devised a new class of official. The mahamatras, literally 'great in measure', were established to monitor the operations of government. They travelled throughout the empire to ensure that officers and officials performed their duties efficiently, fairly and non-violently. Some were assigned to look after the welfare of the Sangha, and they even journeyed outside the realm to do so. Others saw to the well-being of other religious sects. Some reviewed the judicial administration, taxation department operations, municipal government and public works. They reported directly to Ashoka, who took interest in the details of his empire. Ashoka established rest-houses, dug wells, planted trees and founded hospitals along major roads. It seems that he even inaugurated a rudimentary social security system. He promulgated rules for the protection of cows, forbade animal sacrifices and abolished hunting for sport. He replaced the royal hunt with the royal pilgrimage and visited Bodh Gaya and many other sacred sites.
Both tradition and the Edicts suggest that Ashoka sent many of his trusted intimates on extended missions, and a large proportion of his family entered the Sangha. When his chief queen, Asandhimitra, died, he was bereft of his strongest support. Karuvaki, always less interested in Ashoka's aims, assumed this powerful position, and though she supported the Sangha, she insisted on proclaiming it in the Queen's Edict. The last chief queen, Tishyarakshita, is said to have grown so jealous of Ashoka's devotion that she attempted to destroy the Bodhi Tree, which Ashoka personally nurtured back to health. Whether or not the ageing emperor was held a virtual prisoner in his own palace, as tradition states, it seems that his last years were sad and lonely. When he died about 232 B.C. after forty years of illustrious rule, the light went out of the Mauryan empire. Neither legend nor the scanty records which survive can agree on who succeeded him, or when or in what order. Apparently several kings ruled in fairly rapid succession, and then the Mauryan line disappeared into oblivion.
Ashoka's empire soon passed out of memory. But the ideal he upheld as aryaputra (prince) and dharmaputra (son of the Dharma) increased in lustre with each passing epoch. Generations which could not recollect the Mauryans, nor point out the boundaries of their realm, nor even read the Edicts, nonetheless remembered the great king, "beloved of gods", who taught Dharma and lived what he espoused, who had set the standard against which subsequent rulers were measured and often found wanting, and who had promulgated a simple yet fundamental doctrine of tolerance and civility based upon respect for the spiritual aspirations of all people to adhere to the Dharma. They recalled that there had been a minor golden age, and knew that it was possible for human beings to experience a golden age again.