Who Was Ashoka (Asoka)?:
Name: अशोक Ashoka (Piyadasi or Priyadarsi "Beloved of the Gods")
Dates: 304 - 232 B.C. Ashoka ruled for thirty-eight years, from c. 270 B.C. until his death.
Ashoka was the 3rd king of that Indian dynasty whose empire, according to Ashoka, borders Tamrapami. This may mean the Mauryan Empire went all the way to Sri Lanka/Ceylon, an island in the Indian Ocean. [More below on the extent of his empire.]
During his lifetime, the king's reputation changed. Early on, he was known for his cruelty, but later, for his great acts and edicts. He emphasized ahimsā, Ghandi-style non-violence (Korom) and tolerance for other religions.
The nobler phase of his reign followed Ashoka's conversion to Buddhism, which came after he had waged a far too bloody war in Kalinga, in c. 265.
Conversion: Originally a Hindu, Ashoka converted to Buddhism in c. 262 (according to "Holy Cow! The Apotheosis of Zebu, or Why the Cow Is Sacred in Hinduism," by Frank J. Korom; Asian Folklore Studies (2000)). In honor of the Buddha, he reduced the tax burden on the village of Buddha's birth, Lumbini (according to "Historical Memory without History," by Romila Thapar; Economic and Political Weekly (2007)). Likened to the Roman Emperor Constantine spreading Christianity, Ashoka helped spread Buddhism beyond the Indian subcontinent into Asia.
Extent of Empire: Ashoka's capital was in Pataliputra, from which he controlled northern India and 14 other states, extending to Bactria and Persia, in the west, and southern India to the Krishna River and eastward to Bengal. The capital city, according to Kautilya's "Arthaśāstra" on War and Diplomacy in Ancient India," by Roger Boesche [The Journal of Military History, Vol. 67, No. 1 (Jan., 2003), pp. 9-37], was the largest city in the world at the time. There were about fifty million people in this empire, making it larger than the later Mughal Empire and the British Empire in India. [See Uruk, which had once, much earlier, held the position of largest city in the ancient world.]
Family: Askoka was the son of the 2nd king of the Indian Mauryan dynasty, Bindusara, and perhaps the Brahman queen Subhadrangi. Bindusara was the son of the founder of the Mauryan dynasty, Chandragupta Maurya, who began his expansion into western India in 322, after Alexander the Great left.
Edicts of Ashoka: Ashoka posted "the edicts of Ashoka" on large, animal-topped pillars, chiseled in the ancient Brahmi script, rather than Sanskrit. Mostly reforms, the edicts also list public works projects, including universities, roads, hospitals, and irrigation systems. In these edits, Ashoka calls himself "Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi," according to King Ashoka - His Edicts and His Times, where you'll find translations of the edits. The edicts are found in India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
Also Known As: Ashoka may be spelled in English with or without an "h". He is also referred to as Ashoka Maurya and Dhammasoka. According to "Asoka and the Buddha - Relics," by T. W. Rhys Davids; The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (1901), Asoka became Dhammasoka after his building of 84,000 vihāras for the relics of Buddha. "Codifying Hindu Law," by Shubha Khandekar: Economic and Political Weekly (1995) says Ashoka's "Dhamma" is a statement of of his state policy, which includes the following:
"(1) There is no attempt by the ruler to impose his personal faith on his subjects.
(2) Likewise, the king repeatedly exhorts his subjects to respect holy men and faiths of other communities. But also,
(3) the king bans such popular practices as animal sacrifice and certain congregations specific to certain communities, on grounds of their being harmful to the state's objective of maintaining communal harmony. In his Jaugada edict he even issues a veiled threat to those commnunities who fail to toe the royal line. In this way, while allowing and promoting internal autonomy for all communities alike, Ashoka firmly places the state above all the various churches."
Read the Edicts in English translation.
Also see "Ashoka — A Retrospective," by Romila Thapar; Economic and Political Weekly , Vol. 44, No. 45 (November 7-13, 2009), pp. 31-37.
Ashoka is on the list of Most Important People to Know in Ancient History.
Also see About.com's Guide to Asian History's biography of Ashoka.