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.