Feature: An Enlightened Emperor

Apart from the Mughals and then the British many centuries later, no other power controlled more Indian territory than the Mauryan empire. It’s therefore fitting that it provided India with one of its most important historical figures.

Emperor Ashoka’s rule was characterised by flourishing art and sculpture, while his reputation as a philosopher-king was enhanced by the expressive rock-hewn edicts he used to instruct his people, express remorse at the human suffering resulting from his battles, and delineate the enormous span of his territory. Some of these moral teachings can still be seen, particularly the Ashokan Edicts at Junagadh in Gujarat. Most of them mention and define the concept of dharma, variously as good behaviour, obedience and generosity.

Ashoka’s reign also represented an undoubted historical high point for Buddhism: he embraced Buddha's teaching in 262 BC, declaring it the state religion and cutting a radical swath through the spiritual and social body of Hinduism. The emperor built thousands of stupas (spire-topped Buddhist monuments) and monasteries across the region, the extant highlights of which are visible at Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh – on the spot where Buddha delivered his first sermon expounding the Noble Eightfold Path, or Middle Way to Enlightenment – and Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh. Ashoka also sent missions abroad, and he is revered in Sri Lanka because he sent his son and daughter to carry Buddha’s teaching to the island.

After his death and the empire's disintegration, his vision endured as an aspiration, if not a reality. One of this emperor's many legacies is the Indian national flag: its central design is the Ashoka Chakra, a wheel with 24 spokes.