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In about 260 BCE Ashoka waged a bitterly destructive war against the state of Kalinga (modern Odisha).[2] He conquered Kalinga, which none of his ancestors (starting from Chandragupta Maurya) had done. His reign was headquartered in Magadha (present-day Bihar). He embraced Buddhism after witnessing the mass deaths of the Kalinga War, which he himself had waged out of a desire for conquest. "Ashoka reflected on the war in Kalinga, which reportedly had resulted in more than 100,000 deaths and 150,000 deportations."[3] Ashoka converted gradually to Buddhism beginning about 263 BCE at the latest.[2] He was later dedicated to the propagation of Buddhism across Asia, and established monuments marking several significant sites in the life of Gautama Buddha. "Ashoka regarded Buddhism as a doctrine that could serve as a cultural foundation for political unity."[4] Ashoka is now remembered as a philanthropic administrator. In the Kalinga edicts, he addresses his people as his "children", and mentions that as a father he desires their good.

Ashoka is referred to as Samraat Chakravartin Ashoka – the "Emperor of Emperors Ashoka." His name "aśoka" means "painless, without sorrow" in Sanskrit (the a privativum and śoka "pain, distress"). In his edicts, he is referred to as Devānāmpriya (Pali Devānaṃpiya or "The Beloved of the Gods"), and Priyadarśin (Pali Piyadasī or "He who regards everyone with affection"). His fondness for his name's connection to the Saraca asoca tree, or the "Asoka tree" is also referenced in the Ashokavadana.

H.G. Wells wrote of Ashoka in his book A Short History of the World: "In the history of the world there have been thousands of kings and emperors who called themselves 'Their Highnesses', 'Their Majesties', 'Their Exalted Majesties', and so on. They shone for a brief moment, and as quickly disappeared. But Ashoka shines and shines brightly like a bright star, even unto this day." Along with the Edicts of Ashoka, his legend is related in the 2nd-century Ashokavadana ("Narrative of Asoka," a part of Divyavadana), and in the Sri Lankan text Mahavamsa ("Great Chronicle"). Ashoka played a critical role in helping make Buddhism a world religion.[5] The emblem of the modern Republic of India is an adaptation of the Lion Capital of Ashoka.

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