Ashoka was the great Indian king whose kingdom was far and wide, from Tamil Nadu, parts of North India, Sri Lanka, part of Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

In the beginning, Ashoka was a hard ruler. He used his military to expand the empire and created sadistic rules for criminals.

A Chinese traveller named Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang) who visited India in the 7th century CE, said that 900 years after Ashoka 's death, many still remember the prison the king built in the north, nicknamed, "Ashoka's hell". He had ordered that prisoners should be subject to all imagined and unimagined tortures and nobody should ever leave the prison alive.

It was during the war against Kalinga (present day Orissa) that lead to a pivotal moment in Ashoka's life and in the course of human history. He wanted to conquer Kalinga because it was something that his grandfather attempted to do but failed.

Determined, he led the war without mercy - the conflict took place around 261 BCE and it is considered one of the most brutal and bloodiest wars in world history. Ashoka's army was too powerful for the Kalinga to defend themselves and in the end, there were around 300,000 casualties, the city devastated and thousands of men, women and children prisoners.

Although the king managed to achieve something that his grandfather failed, the aftermath of that war left him horrified. He issued a declaration expressing his regret for the suffering he inflicted on the people of Kalinga and renounced wars.

Instead, he turned to the teachings of Dharma to make amends with his violent past. Instead of focusing on expending his empire, he turned his kingdoms into a prosperous and peaceful empire and encouraged the flourishing of Buddhism.

Ashoka began to issue one of the most famous laws in the history of government and instructed his officials to carve them on rocks and pillars, in line with the local dialects and in a very simple fashion.

The new laws were on about religious freedom and religious tolerance, he instructs his officials to help the poor and the elderly, establishes medical facilities for humans and animals, commands obedience to parents, respect for elders, generosity for all priests and ascetic orders no matter their creed, orders fruit and shade trees to be planted and also wells to be dug along the roads so travellers can benefit from them.

However noble that may be, not many were happy with the laws. Brahman priests view them as a serious limitation to their ancient ceremonies involving animal sacrifices, and hunters along with fishermen were equally angry about this. Even ordinary citizens were upset when they were told that "chaff must not be set on fire along with the living things in it". Brutal or peaceful, it seems that no ruler can fully satisfy the people.

However, Buddhism has a lot to thank Ashoka for. He had established many Buddhist pilgrimage sites, he had a central role in organising the Third Buddhist Council; he supported Buddhist missions all over the empire and even beyond as far as Greece, Egypt and Syria. The Buddhist Theravada tradition claims that a group of Buddhist missionaries sent by Emperor Ashoka introduced the Sthaviravada school (a Buddhist school that no longer exists) in Sri Lanka, about 240 BCE.

Ashoka turned Buddhism into a state religion - Buddhism was a minor religion in India before Ashoka took interest in it and some scholars have proposed that the impact of the Buddha while he was alive was small. Even archaeological evidence for Buddhism between the death of the Buddha and the time of Ashoka is very little but after the time of Ashoka, it became abundant.

He served as an inspiring model of a righteous and tolerant ruler that influenced monarchs from Sri Lanka to Japan. A particular story tells that Ashoka built 84,000 stupas (commemorative Buddhists buildings used as a place of meditation), served as an example to many Chinese and Japanese rulers who imitated Ashoka's initiative.

Eventually, Buddhism died out in India sometime after Ashoka's death, but it remained popular in other Asian countries. The history of mankind changed because a violent king repented his ways and decided to change for the better, thus spreading one of the world's largest spiritual traditions in existence today.

Photo source: Ancient World History