Buddhism Aśoka
Kumkum Roy, Romila Thapar, Naina Dayal
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 October 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0203


Aśoka has attracted more scholarly and popular attention than any other king known from ancient Indian history. This has persisted through nearly two centuries, since the first decipherment of the Aśokan inscriptions in the 1830s by James Prinsep. Belonging to the Mauryan dynasty, which ruled over large parts of the subcontinent from c. 321 to 185 BCE, Aśoka was the third and best-known ruler of the first historically documented empire in the subcontinent. His name is spelled in a variety of ways: Aśoka is the Prakrit form of his personal name; Aśoka or Ashoka is the corresponding Sanskrit form. What makes Aśoka relatively accessible to scholarship is the corpus of inscriptions he left behind. These inscriptions were found on rock surfaces and pillars over an area spreading from Afghanistan in the northwest to Orissa in the east, and from the foothills of the Himalayas in the north to Karnataka in the south. Apart from these, memories of Aśoka were preserved in Buddhist traditions in a variety of languages, notably Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan. These sources have been supplemented not only by other records on the Mauryas preserved in Greek and Latin, as well as with references in later Sanskrit literature. One of the preoccupations of scholars has been with trying to collate and establish concordances among these diverse sources. Many of these have been used to reconstruct biographies of Aśoka. Some of these are almost hagiographical, others are more critical, and still others try to contextualize the ruler within the sociopolitical world he inhabited and attempted to shape. Assessments and reassessments continue to be made periodically and are enriched by fresh perspectives. Other specific areas that have attracted attention include Aśoka’s administrative policies: one of the perennial questions has been the extent to which this matched the centralized system laid down in the Arthaśāstra. Aśokan inscriptions, as well as traces of material culture in terms of architecture, and sculpture, have been used to address these issues. Another set of questions relates to the extent to which Aśoka’s dhamma coincided with or diverged from Buddhism. Not surprisingly, answers to these questions have been varied. And linked to this are the debates about the extent to which Aśoka can be regarded as a pacifist and the implications and limitations of his pacifism. Often explicit in many of these studies is an attempt to claim Aśoka as a role model for the present. The legacy of Aśoka still fascinates even after more than two millennia. While there are important works on Aśoka in Chinese, French, German, Japanese, and Russian, this article’s focus is primarily on material available in English.

General Overviews

Overviews of Mauryan history such as Sastri 1987 are central to accounts of dynastic and political histories of early India. These appear regularly and are frequently reprinted. Online versions of some of the older works are available, and the interested reader can locate these easily. One of the themes discussed in these overviews is the nature of Mauryan polity and administrative structures and the extent to which Aśoka introduced changes in these areas. Related to this is the issue of the influence of Buddhism on Aśoka. While these preoccupations remain, more recent scholarship has tended to broaden the frame within which the Mauryan Empire and Aśoka can be understood. This has led to analyses of the socioeconomic context, as well as cultural practices, and has included attempts to integrate archaeological analyses with textual and inscriptional sources. Smith 1901, cited under Biographical Studies, sparked interest in assessing the emperor’s policies and their significance. One such influential assessment was provided by Raychaudhuri 1996, which argued that the founder of the Mauryan Empire, Candragupta Maurya, had successfully followed policies of military expansion or digvijaya. These policies differed from those of his grandson Aśoka, whose policy of dhamma vijaya (or conquest through disseminating knowledge about dhamma) led to a weakening of the army and the consequent collapse of the empire. This conclusion was not accepted by scholarship such as Thapar 1987 and Thapar 2006. Thapar suggested that the decline of the empire needed to be understood in terms of problems of succession as well as administrative stresses. Thapar also drew attention to the complex nature of imperial administration, suggesting that Aśoka’s dhamma was intended to act as a binding force in an empire that was characterized by diversity. Chattopadhyaya 1977 followed earlier scholars in his description of Mauryan administration and polity, basing himself on Greek and Latin sources to argue that the Mauryas exercised absolute power. Questions of polity were also addressed by Mukherjee 2000, based on the use of inscriptional sources and texts such as the Arthaśāstra, which according to Mukherjee was composed as a manual of administration. A somewhat different set of issues was explored by Bongard-Levin 1985. Locating the empire within preceding and succeeding developments, Bongard-Levin’s work incorporated insights from Soviet scholarship, including a discussion on modes of production. Allchin 1995 was significant in drawing attention to the archaeological evidence of the Mauryan Empire, among other things. The Mauryan Empire is contextualized in terms of earlier and later developments, with a focus on cities and state formation.

  • Allchin, F. R., ed. The Archaeology of Early Historic South Asia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

    Within a relatively vast canvas, the Mauryan imperial structure is reconstructed from inscriptional sources, reiterating earlier views on administrative divisions. Textual descriptions of Pāṭaliputra are correlated with the earlier excavations at the site. Detailed diagrams of forts, cities, and stūpas are provided. The plea for more problem-oriented research is well taken.

  • Bongard-Levin, G. M. Mauryan India. New Delhi: Sterling, 1985.

    Based on a discussion of a wide range of sources, the author attempts to apply Marxist categories of modes of production to understand socioeconomic changes. He argues for the coexistence of various modes of production during the Mauryan period.

  • Chattopadhyaya, S. Bimbisāra to Aśoka. Calcutta: Roy and Chowdhury, 1977.

    A political history of the period covered by the reigns of the two kings mentioned in the title, with more space given to Aśoka. The volume contains useful appendices including discussions on the Purāṇas and the Greek and Aramaic inscriptions of Aśoka.

  • Mukherjee, B. N. The Character of the Mauryan Empire. Calcutta: J. B. Enterprises, 2000.

    This study discusses chronology, the character of the empire, Aśoka’s dhamma and the world beyond the subcontinent, using inscriptions, especially those in Greek and Aramaic. An appendix on the date of the Arthaśāstra suggests that the author(s) belonged to the Mauryan period (4th to 3rd century BCE).

  • Raychaudhuri, H. C. Political History of Ancient India. Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1996.

    Discussing the Mauryan polity as an early empire, the author argues from a nationalist perspective that Aśoka’s policy of dhamma led to the transformation of his administrators into “superintendents of piety.” This weakened the empire and made invasions from the northwest possible. Originally published in 1923, the 1996 edition features a commentary by B. N. Mukherjee.

  • Sastri, K. A. N., ed. A Comprehensive History of India: The Mauryas and Sātavāhanas. 2d ed. Vol. 2. New Delhi: Peoples’ Publishing House, 1987.

    The first three chapters are on the Mauryas and deal primarily with political and dynastic history. There are separate chapters on north and south India. Thematic subjects are also discussed. These include political organization, economic conditions, social life, language and literature, art and architecture, coinage, colonial and cultural expansion.

  • Thapar, R. The Mauryas Revisited. Calcutta: Bagchi, 1987.

    A set of two lectures. The first argues that the structure of the empire was complex and consisted of metropolitan, core, and peripheral areas. The second opens up Megasthenes’s description of contemporary Indian society to critical scrutiny, suggesting that it is best understood in terms of contemporary Hellenistic discourse.

  • Thapar, R. “The Mauryan Empire in Early India.” Historical Research 79.205 (2006): 291–305.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2281.2006.00394.x

    The author draws attention to the vastness and diversity of the Mauryan Empire. She argues that the diversity in the variety of societies and economies within the empire was addressed by developing a flexible administrative system to both accommodate and control people and resources.

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