The Buddhist Emperor, Ashoka


The second Mauryan emperor, Bindusara, ruled for twenty-five years. He warred occasionally, reinforcing his nominal authority within India, and he acquired the title "Slayer of Enemies." Then in the year 273 BCE, he was succeeded by his son Ashoka,, who in his first eight years of rule did what was expected of him: he looked after the affairs of state and extended his rule where he could. Around the year 260 Ashoka fought great battles and imposed his rule on people southward along the eastern coast of India -- an area called Kalinga. The sufferings created by the war disturbed Ashoka. He found relief in Buddhism and became an emperor with values that differed from those of his father, grandfather and others. He was a Buddhist lay member and went on a 256-day pilgrimage to Buddhist holy places in northern India. Buddhism benefited from the association with state power that Hinduism had enjoyed -- and that Christianity would enjoy under Constantine the Great.

Like Jeroboam and other devout kings, Ashoka was no revolutionary. Rather than India changing politically, Buddhism was changing. In the years to come, Ashoka mixed his Buddhism with material concerns that served the Buddha's original desire to see suffering among people mitigated: Ashoka had wells dug, irrigation canals and roads constructed. He had rest houses built along roads, hospitals built, public gardens planted and medicinal herbs grown. But Ashoka maintained his army, and he maintained the secret police and network of spies that he had inherited as a part of his extensive and powerful bureaucracy. He kept his hold over Kalinga, and he did not allow the thousands of people abducted from Kalinga to return there. He announced his intention to "look kindly" upon all his subjects, as was common among kings, and he offered the people of Kalinga a victor's conciliation, erecting a monument in Kalinga which read:

All men are my children, and I, the king, forgive what can be forgiven.

Ashoka converted his foreign policy from expansionism to that of coexistence and peace with his neighbors -- the avoidance of additional conquests making his empire easier to administer. In keeping with his Buddhism he announced that he was determined to ensure the safety, peace of mind and happiness of all "animate beings" in his realm. He announced that he would now strive for conquest only in matters of the human spirit and the spread of "right conduct" among people. And he warned other powers that he was not only compassionate but also powerful.

Ashoka's wish for peace was undisturbed by famines or natural disasters. His rule did not suffer from the onslaught of any great migration. And during his reign, no neighboring kings tried to take some of his territory -- perhaps because these kings were accustomed to fearing the Mauryan monarchs and thinking them strong.

The resulting peace helped extend economic prosperity. Ashoka relaxed the harsher laws of his grandfather, Chandragupta. He gave up the kingly pastime of hunting game, and in its place he went on religious pilgrimages. He began supporting philanthropies. He proselytized for Buddhism, advocating non-violence, vegetarianism, charity and tenderness to all living things.

Ashoka had edicts cut into rocks and pillars at strategic locations throughout his empire, edicts to communicate to passers-by the way of compassion, edicts such as "listen to your father and mother," and "be generous with your friends and relatives." In his edicts he spread hope in the survival of the soul after death and in good behavior leading to heavenly salvation. And in keeping with the change that was taking place in Buddhism, in at least one of his edicts Ashoka described Siddartha Gautama not merely as the teacher that Siddartha had thought of himself but as "the Lord Buddha."

Ashoka called upon his subjects to desist from eating meat and attending illicit and immoral meetings. He ordered his local agents of various ranks, including governors, to tour their jurisdictions regularly to witness that rules of right conduct were being followed. He commanded the public to recite his edicts on certain days of the year.

Ashoka's patronage of Buddhism gave it more respect, and in his empire Buddhism spread. More people became vegetarian, and perhaps there was some increase in compassion toward others. He was not championing the cause of a jealous god and was able to plead for tolerance toward Hindus and Jains. Mindful of the close ties between Buddhism and Hinduism he claimed that the Brahmin's creed deserved respect, and he included Brahmins among his officials.

Not all Brahmins returned Ashoka's kindness. They were displeased with Ashoka's campaign against their sacrificial slaughtering of living creatures. But Ashoka's opposition to such sacrifices did please many among India's peasantry, whose flocks had long been plundered by local rulers seeking animals for their sacrifices.

Ashoka sent missionaries to the kingdoms of southern India, to parts of Kashmir in the northwest, to Persia, Egypt and Greece, but, as Christians were to learn, old habits are not easily broken. Buddhism outside his kingdom took root only on the island of Lanka.

India remained without unifying state institutions as a record of Ashoka's rule. Work, taxation, class relations, government bureaucracy and village politics had changed little. Whether prostitution had ended is unknown. In religion, old habits continued among Buddhists, as they looked to Brahmins to conduct those rites associated with births, marriages and deaths. Ashoka attempted to resolve differences among the Buddhists -- as the Christian emperor Constantine would among the Christians -- but conflicts among the Buddhists remained and would grow.

In the final years of his reign, Ashoka withdrew from public life, and in 232 BCE -- after thirty-seven years of rule -- he died. Memory of his reign might have disappeared but for his sculpted pillars with his messages.

During the reign of his heirs the empire began to split apart, including the breaking away of Kalinga. Why this happened is unknown. Buddhist writings suggest that decay had come before Ashoka's death. Some scholars attribute the decline to economic pressures: revenues from taxing agriculture and trade that were inadequate in maintaining the large military and army of bureaucrats. Perhaps palace politics reduced the ability of Ashoka's heirs to govern. Perhaps Ashoka's heirs inherited from Ashoka a pacifism that discouraged their using force in keeping the Maurya Empire together. Whatever the cause or causes, regions within the empire asserted their independence, and the empire disintegrated while the Maurya family, in Pataliputra, continued to rule.