This was originally posted as an answer to the question Why is Ashoka Maurya given the title of ‘Great’? on Quora.
In India under Ashoka, we witness the successful culmination of an ambitious first experiment in empire-building. Much has been written about the aggression and cruelty that marked his reign prior to his conversion to Buddhism, and how this conversion was to play a silent role in the subsequent decline of the Mauryan empire.
These contentious issues apart, my personal belief is that Ashoka should forever be remembered for trying to persuade his subjects to adopt Dhamma, a social ethic that tried to unite them by invoking virtues of tolerance and respect for human dignity.
At the time, Mauryan society had visible divisions based on caste, regional and ideological differences. Ever since its inception in the mid-second millenium BC, Caste had been (and continues to be) a permanent fixture of Indian society. A number of unorthodox new sects including Buddhism and Jainism that flourished under Mauryan rule, did not endorse the caste system. None of them managed to eradicate it however. On the other hand, they ended up inviting strong disapproval from communities practising Vedic Brahmanism, an early form of Hinduism that was prominent at the time. Moreover, the vast Mauryan empire consisted of a number of culturally disjoint regions, from the former Greek territories in the north-west, to Kalinga in the south-east.
It was as a response to these differences that Ashoka formulated his policy of Dhamma, which professed among other things: - an equal respect for the sects and a plea for practicing tolerance, as also to respect one’s elders - the uselessness of ritual ceremonies and animal sacrifice - the need for non-violent conquest by Dhamma, as opposed to conquest by war
It is another matter entirely that Ashoka received little success with the implementation of his policies. What matters is that unlike many rulers who came after him, he tried and that his attempt marks a rare effort in the direction of establishing unity in the subcontinent.
Moreover, the manner in which he communicated these ideas to his subjects – through a number of rock and pillar inscriptions that were read out to them by literate locals on his behalf – was quite a direct form of public address which was rarely ever practiced after his death. For me, his greatness lies in the fact that using Dhamma, he tried to set an example for future generations of rulers. An example that, to this day remains largely ignored and forgotten.