Ashoka ［阿育王］ (r. c. 268–232 b.c.e.) (; Aiku-ō): The third ruler of the Indian Maurya dynasty and the first king to unify India. He was the grandson of Chandragupta, the founder of the Maurya dynasty, and the son of the second king, Bindusāra. Ashoka began as a tyrant but later converted to Buddhism and governed compassionately in accordance with Buddhist ideals. He is said to have put to death his ninety-nine half brothers upon ascending the throne. In 259 b.c.e., nine years after becoming king, he conquered the kingdom of Kalinga, where he is reputed to have killed about 100,000 people and imprisoned 150,000.
Though Ashoka had converted to Buddhism two years earlier, seeing the tragedy his forces had brought upon the conquered populace of Kalinga awakened him to his own cruelty and led him to become a devout Buddhist. He renounced conquest by force, adopted “conquest by Dharma” (principles of right life), and thereby established a peaceful reign. Proclaiming a policy of public works, he founded hospitals for people and animals and, along major trade routes, planted trees, dug wells, and built resthouses and other facilities. Every five years he dispatched officials to outlying areas to ascertain the people’s condition. He sent Buddhist missionaries to southern India, Kashmir, Gandhara, and Sri Lanka, and even as far away as Syria, Egypt, and Macedonia. To Sri Lanka he sent his son Mahendra and his daughter Samghamitrā, who spread Buddhism there, while to Kashmir and Gandhara he sent a Buddhist monk named Madhyāntika.
Though devoted to the spread of Buddhism, he did not enforce Buddhism as a state religion, but protected the religious freedom of the Jains, Brahmans, Ājīvikas, and others. The Third Buddhist Council for compiling the Buddha’s teachings was held at the Mauryan capital, Pātaliputra, under Ashoka’s patronage. His achievements and views are recorded not only in Buddhist scriptures but also in the many edicts inscribed on rock surfaces and pillars that have been discovered.