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Why King Ashoka devoted himself to peace after the Kalinga War

Written by Ken Lambert, our Peace Correspondent in India

 In India, the history of the Kalinga War is well known. Recently I have been moved by reading more about it and the ruthless ruler who waged it, Ashoka, who went from being one of the cruelest rulers in history to becoming the opposite and promoting peace for the rest of his life. One of the ways he did that was by having inscriptions promoting peace and tolerance carved into pillars, not unlike peace poles. So I wanted to write this blog showing how something as simple as peace poles, like pillars with inscriptions, can have significance and meaning and promote peace.

Ashoka before the Kalinga War

The Kalinga War, fought in what is now a part of India, was one of the most dreadful wars in history. It was fought for wealth, political power, and military dominance. The jealous ruler of the Magadha Empire, Ashoka, waged war on Kalinga in order to dominate what at that time was the state of Magadha. More than 100,000 people were killed, and several lakhs of people (a lakh is a hundred thousand) were imprisoned. Ashoka made sure that his prisoners were subjected to all level of tortures. No one left his prisons alive. The war of Kalinga, waged in 261 BCE, is considered one of the bloodiest and most brutal wars in world history. The Kalinga people put up a valiant defense and fought with honor, but lost.

In the beginning, Ashoka ruled his empire the way his grandfather had ruled, with efficient cruelty. He used his superior military power to expand his territorial rule and encourage sadistic regulations to punish people who didn’t obey.

However, Ashoka, the third monarch of the Mauryan Dynasty, now is considered one of the most exemplary rulers in the history.

Ashoka after the Kalinga War

Ashoka was moved by the massacre. He saw that the Brahmana priests, as well as the Buddhist monks, were affected too, which brought remorse and grief upon him. After the war Ashoka issued an edict expressing his regret for the suffering inflicted. In it Ashoka denounced war and embraced pomoting Dharma. Although exactly what Ashoka meant by Dharma is not clear. Some believe that the mighty King here was referring to the teachings of Buddha and thus later converted into Buddhism. But I believe that with Dharma he is referring to its peace promoting its facets, which were only part of Buddhism. Some of Ashoka’s ways of promoting peace are very similar to peace poles.

Edicts of Ashoka refer to the word Dharma as morals, religious tolerance, and social concerns, more than Buddhism in general. Today, people with the same ideas are trying to promote peace by making peace poles to promote harmony amidst distress and disturbance anywhere in the world.  

The ideology of Buddhism adopted by Ashoka:

After the destruction and sordid methods of establishing his rule, King Ashoka had a turning point. He abandoned physically occupying the land and conquering through cultural confiscation. To state it in technical terms, Ashoka adopted Dhammagosha by replacing Bherigosha. Ashoka started appealing to the frontier and the tribal people to follow Dhamma principles. He stopped treating the conquered dominions as rightfully his as a result of his military conquest.

He started taking steps that were for the welfare of humankind and for animals too, even in foreign lands. Ashoka worked towards establishing peace by sending ambassadors to the Greek Kingdom in Greece and West Asia. He sent missionaries to promote the parts of Buddhism he favored in parts of central Asia and Sri Lanka where inscriptions were put on pillars in support of Ashoka’s peace initiatives, not unlike what is done on today’s peace poles.

After Ashoka’s pillars showing his change of heart after the Kalinga War, the empire experienced 50 years of security and peace. Mauryan India enjoyed religious transformation, social harmony, and the expansion education and science. It just takes a few minutes, or maybe only a few split seconds, for a person’s heart to change and embrace how peace can transform our lives. Ashoka’s is a vivid example with all its mirth and glory. When Ashoka embraced Buddhism as a form of peace, it created a foundation for the reign of political and social harmony, encouraging non-violence across India and other parts of Asia.

Buddhist Kingship of Ashoka:

After Ashoka’s conversion into Buddhism, he believed that religion was beneficial for all, including human beings. The basic notion behind it was to restore peace. Ashoka worked towards building several stupas, viharas, Sangharama, chaitya, and residential places for the Buddhist monks all over Central Asia and South Asia. Peace poles are a great way to carry on his peace initiatives. Ashoka ordered for the construction of more than 84,000 stupas (dome-shaped structures erected as Buddhist shrines) for housing the peace relics of Buddha.

Most of us are not in a position to build stupas and residential places dedicated to promoting peace. However, I believe that our planting peace poles all add up to being a significant voice for peace. The tradition of installing the peace poles started some 50 years back, and more and more people are participating in it.

Edicts of Ashoka explained!

The Kalinga War gave Ashoka the ability to control of all the Indian subcontinents, excluding the extreme southern parts. But he decided against it. The inscriptions of his edicts suggest he was sickened by the slaughter and mayhem of the war. He refused to fight anymore. Ashoka stopped expanding his empire and allowed India to experience peace and prosperity for years.

Ashoka began by issuing one of the most famous edicts in history by what he instructed his officials to carve on pillars and rocks. The carvings employed the local dialects and talked about religious tolerance and religious freedom. He also ordered his officials to help the elderly and the poor by establishing medical facilities for humans as well as animals. He preached obedience to parents, respect for elders, generosity towards priests, and tolerance of all creeds. He planted fruit-bearing trees and built well-dug roads to help the travelers as well.

Read: Peace Poles: Why are they so important to the world?

Bottom Line:

Ashoka started out bloodthirsty, but became an avid follower of the teachings of Buddha. He adopted the path of ensuring peace in the state of Kalinga and all parts of his empire. In the 13 proclamations on pillars and rocks issued by Ashoka, it explains how Ashoka felt greater degrees of regret and sorrow for the family and the friends of the ones who were killed in the war. It caused King Ashoka to take a different path for the rest of his life. It altered his entire personality. Peace became the cause of his empire till the end of his reign.

Just as the 13 edicts of Ashoka were put on pillars, peace poles are being put all over the world, which I believe is an immense contribution towards a greater cause. Midst the turbulence and inhumanity, contributing peace offerings is what we all need. For restoring the sanctity of living and enhancing the matters of human unity, we all need to join hands and work towards restoring peace all across the world.

Written our Peace Correspondent in India, who prefers to go by the name Ken Lambert in spite of our encouraging him to use his Indian name.