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Asoka was the son of the Mauryan Emperor Bindusara and a lower ranked queen named Dharma. He had several elder half-brothers and just one younger sibling. All the princes were extremely competitive, but Asoka is said to have excelled in the military and academic disciplines. In fact, he went on the command several regiments of the Mauryan army. After proving himself as a strong military leader, he was named emperor and expanded his empire over the next eight years. It is said that the early part of Asoka’s reign was bloodthirsty. He was constantly invading territory after territory. The particularly bloody battle at Kalinga resulted with the death of100,000 Kalinga soldiers and 10,000 men from Asoka’s army. Thousands of men and women were deported.
According to legend, one day after the war was over, Asoka ventured out to roam the city and all he could see were burnt houses and scattered corpses. This sight made him sick and cried the famous quotation, “What have I done?” Upon his return home, he could get no sleep and was constantly haunted by his actions in Kalinga. This led him to reconsider his strong, brutal military past. Since he was so unsettled by the death of so many, he started to open his mind to the teaching of Buddhism. If Buddha promoted peaceful ways, then Asoka felt his position of power could help spread the idea of Buddhism as well. Therefore, he gave up war and violence. He freed his prisoners and gave them back their land.
For this reason, Asoka, who had been described as “the cruel Asoka” started to be described as “the pious Asoka” (religious). He is credited for building hospitals for animals and people, fixing major roads throughout India, and building universities. Also, as a result of his transformation, he treated his subjects equally, regardless of their religion, politics or castes.
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