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Ashoka the Great (also Asoka, Aśoka; reigned 273 BC - 232 BC) was the son of Bindusara, who ruled the Mauryan empire from 269 to 232 B.C. Ashoka reigned over most of the Indian subcontinent, from present day Afghanistan to Bengal and as far south as Mysore.
The name "Ashoka" translates into 'without sorrow' in Sanskrit (a - without, shoka - sorrow)
While the early part of Ashoka's reign was apparently quite bloodthirsty, he became a follower of the Buddha's teaching after his conquest of Kalinga, on the east coast of India in the present day state of Orissa. The brutality of this conquest led him to adopt Buddhism and he used his position to propagate the relatively new philosophy to new heights as far as ancient Rome and Egypt. Prominent in this cause were his son Mahendra and daughter Sanghamitra who established Buddhism in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The remaining portion of Ashoka's reign had an official policy of nonviolence, ahimsa. He is acclaimed for constructing hospitals for animals and renovating major roads throughout India.
The source of much of our knowledge of Ashoka is the many inscriptions he had carved on pillars and rocks throughout the empire. These inscriptions promoted Buddhist morality and encouraged nonviolence and adherance to Dharma (duty or proper behavior). The Ashoka Pillar at Sarnath is the most popular of the relics left by Ashoka. Made of sandstone, this pillar records the visit of the emperor to Sarnath, in the 3rd century BC. It has a four-lion capital (four lions standing back to back) which was adopted as the emblem of the modern Indian republic. The lion symbolises both Ashoka's imperial rule and the kingship of the Buddha.
Following Ashoka's enlightened reign, the reformed Mauryan empire's serenity was exploited by invaders and it soon declined and fragmented. Not until the British rule, some 2000 years later, would such a large portion of the subcontinent be united again under a single ruler.
See also: List of people known as The Great