273? - 232 BC
The warrior king turned Buddhist pacifistby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
Ashoka, the third, and greatest, ruler of the great Mauryan Empire, left a dichotomous legacy as both a bloodthirsty conqueror and a peaceful propagator of Buddhism. (Ashoka, pronounced Ashok, is also called Asoka, Piyadasi, or Priyadarshi.) Born sometime before 273 BC as a son of Bindusara, Ashoka ruled the Mauryan Empire for about 41 years, dieing about 232 BC. Ashoka's grandfather, Chandragupta, established the Mauryan Empire in northern and central India and spread it as far west as modern-day Afghanistan. When Chandragupta renounced the crown to become an ascetic, Bindusara became the ruler and further expanded the empire to the south. By the time Ashoka was born, the Mauryan Empire was recognized as master of India by other powerful civilizations such as the Egyptians and the post-Alexandrian Greeks. Throughout his life, Ashoka continued to expand the empire until he abruptly converted to Buddhism and dedicated his life to spreading the word of Buddha instead. 1
After his birth, Ashoka trained in warfare and statecraft and eventually became a popular, powerful military commander. Despite having no traditional claim to the throne as one of Bindusara's youngest sons, his older brothers feared him as a rival. During a revolt, Bindusara sent Ashoka to restore order in the highly volatile northern capital of Taxila, even though a larger force had already been defeated there. Instead of being defeated, he was welcomed by the militias and was able to restore order in the city without a fight. Some time after this, legends state that Buddhist monks treated him after he was wounded in a battle. This is said to have been one of the main experiences that eventually caused him to convert to Buddhism. In 272 BC, Bindusara died, igniting a small power struggle among the royal brothers, which Ashoka won. As the new ruler, he continued to expand the empire for 8 years, almost reaching the southern tip of India.
After these relatively uneventful eight years, Ashoka decided to attack the neighboring nation of Kalinga. Leading his massive army, he attacked Kalinga and eventually swamped it, despite the heroic defense put up by the defending armies. It is said that Ashoka went out and walked on the battlefield and was appalled by the unbelievable suffering and death he saw there. The realization that all of this had been done because of his orders magnified the horror. Deeply disturbed by what he had done and seen, he returned to the capital city with his army. In later public inscriptions, Ashoka expressed deep remorse for his actions. Shortly after the end of the war with Kalinga, Ashoka officially converted to Buddhism and swore to exchange military conquest with the peaceful spreading of Buddhism. 2
After his embrace of pacifism and Buddhism, Ashoka dedicated himself to convincing his people and neighboring people to do the same. He established laws forbidding violence. He outlawed the killing of animals, except for eating, and even this was discouraged. He funded the construction of irrigation systems, educational facilities, and even hospitals for both humans and animals. Throughout all this, he preached a simple version of Buddhism to the masses, focusing on good living and tolerance of other religions. His primary means of spreading this preaching was through numerous inscriptions in rocks, caves, and pillars that endure even today. The inscriptions all carried messages saying things like:
Respect for mother and father is good, generosity to friends, acquaintances, relatives, Brahmans and ascetics is good, not killing living beings is good, moderation in spending and moderation in saving is good. 3
In addition to spreading Buddhism within his own country, he sent missionaries to many neighboring nations. He sent two of his own children to what is now Sri-Lanka where they are said to have converted the royalty, along with most of the population. After this, they, and other missionaries, took Buddhism to other countries such as Egypt, Syria, and the Greek world. Ashoka remained a devout Buddhist until his death around 232 BC, although it is said that he was unhappy in his old age due to his grandchildren's squabbling over whom was to be the next ruler. Less than 50 years after Ashoka's death, the Mauryan Empire fell apart.
Even though he had little lasting political effect, Ashoka left a significant legacy. His most visible contributions to history are the scores of inscriptions all over India. While most of these inscriptions were on simple caves or boulders, some were on elaborate pillars and other ornate constructions. The most famous design from his time was a pillar capital made of four lions standing back-to-back. This design is now a prominent part of the Indian flag. Ashoka's most obvious and farthest-reaching accomplishment was that of taking the relatively unknown Buddhist religion and spreading it around his world. Although some of the core principles of Buddhism are also important to Christianity, many other doctrines are in direct opposition to those in the Bible.
Buddhism continued to be largely exiled from India despite the efforts of Ashoka. Christian missionaries who arrive in places where Buddhism's man-centric views have dominated the culture, describe these areas as spiritually dark and nearly impenetrable to Christian teachings.
Despite the enormous military and political power of Ashoka's empire, he is remembered almost exclusively for his peaceful, religious activities. This serves as a good reminder that physical accomplishments, such as Ashoka's many conquests, are temporary and easily forgotten. Spiritual accomplishments, such as the large-scale Buddhist conversions accomplished on Ashoka's order, are much more lasting.
The brief revival of Buddhism under Ashoka's reign allowed for toleration of other religious ideas such as the coming of Christianity two centuries later. Tradition states that Thomas, the disciple who initially had doubted the resurrection of Jesus, came to the area of India that Ashkoa had pacified long ago. Still, the ancient traditions of Hinduism largely rejected Chist's teachings as they had Buddha's teachings.
Because of inscriptions in stone, Ashoka, the great warrior king of the Mauryan Empire who became a peaceful Buddhist, will always be remembered for the impact of his short lived but far-reaching promotion of Buddhism.