Asoka (əsō´kə), d. c.232 BC, Indian emperor (c.273–c.232 BC) of the Maurya dynasty; grandson of Chandragupta. One of the greatest rulers of ancient India, he brought nearly all India, together with Baluchistan and Afghanistan, under one sway for the first time in history. According to legends, after his bloody conquest (c.261 BC) of the state of Kalinga, Asoka was remorseful for the suffering he had inflicted; accepted Buddhism and abandoned wars of conquest. Knowledge of Asoka's rule is obtained chiefly from the many boulders and pillars inscribed with his pious exhortations; a notable example is at Sarnath. In these inscriptions, he proclaimed his belief in ahimsa, or nonviolence and advocated tolerance of all faiths. He erected numerous Buddhist monasteries and stupas, regulated the slaughter of animals, and softened the harsh laws of his predecessors. He sent Buddhist missionaries throughout India and its adjacent lands and as far as Syria, Egypt, and Greece. His own son or brother headed the mission to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). It is said that under his auspices a great Buddhist convocation was held at his capital, Pataliputra; its purpose was probably to suppress heresy and to confirm the Buddhist canon. India prospered and art flourished under the reign of Asoka, who, beyond his many imperial accomplishments, is most celebrated for his elevation of Buddhism from a simple Indian sect to a world religion. After his death the Mauryan empire swiftly declined.
See studies by V. A. Smith (1909, repr. 1964), R. Thapar (1961), R. D. Mookerji (3d ed. 1962), B. G. Gokhale (1966), and J. Strong (1989).