India saw the rise of a great emperor of the Maurya dynasty about 269 B.C.E. At his birth his queen mother named him Ashoka, meaning “free from sorrow,” to indicate her freedom from sorrow at now having borne the king a son.
At his father’s death, Ashoka killed or otherwise eliminated rival contenders for the throne. Then, having established himself in power, he launched a bloody war of conquest against a reputedly democratic Kalinga people in Eastern India. The conquest left 100,000 people dead and 150,000 deported. At the end of his conquests Ashoka is said to have ruled all of India from Afghanistan to Assam.
Surveying the battlefield after the war, Ashoka is reputed to have felt sorrow over the suffering caused by this war. In one of his inscriptions he says, “His Majesty feels remorse on account of the conquest of Kalinga because, during the subjugation of a previously unconquered country, slaughter, death, and taking away captive of the people necessarily occur, whereat his Majesty feels profound sorrow and regret.” Ashoka did not, however, give back the Kalinga people their independence, indicating that his public statements likely contained the kind of spin government statements all too often use.
Historians say that after this conquest and about six years into his reign, Ashoka began to convert to Buddhism. It was some two and a half centuries after the time of the Buddha, and it may well be that Buddhist monastic communities impressed him with their alternative ethic. And so Ashoka began supporting monasteries and building monuments over relics of the Buddha. He sent a daughter and son to establish Buddhism in Sri Lanka. He helped organize the Third Buddhist Council around 250 B.C.E. Maybe most important, he set up pillar and rock inscriptions across his empire, 33 of which have been found and deciphered.
In these inscriptions he commends the Buddha’s teaching to his subjects. In one inscription he even calls himself an “upasaka,” that is, a follower of the Buddha, a term usually used only for monks. In another inscription he says conquest by Dhamma (Pali for the term Dharma, teaching)… is the best conquest. He calls himself “beloved of the gods” in his inscriptions, refers to himself as a ruler “who regards everyone with affection. He addresses his subjects as his ‘children,’ and mentions that as a father he desires their good.”
In early Buddhist literature (in Sri Lanka, for example) he is lauded as a good Buddhist ruler and helpful promoter of Buddhism. However, though highly revered in the Buddhist world of South East Asia, Ashoka was far from a true Buddhist. He kept a harem of 500 concubines and ruthlessly killed some subjects who merely made an irreverent depiction of the Buddha bowing to the founder of Jainism. For this Ashoka executed 18,000 of the sect from which this depiction came.
My own inclination is to see Ashoka as a pragmatic monarch who found the promotion of Buddhism and Buddhist teaching an effective public policy. In the end his support of Buddhism, perhaps as a means to creating a dutiful society shaped by Buddhist values, did not outlast his own rule. At his death Indian political and military life returned to its usual pattern, and Buddhism eventually died out in the land of its birth. India is now left with only his pillar and rock edicts and the reliquaries he constructed.
Except for one other legacy: The modern flag of India shows the Buddhist wheel of “Dharma” (law, or teaching) that Ashoka displayed on his rock carvings. (Quotations from Wikipedia, “Ashoka”)
Marlin Jeschke is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Religion at Goshen College.