Dharma Data: Asoka

The third emperor of India’s Mauryan dynasty and the first powerful monarch to embrace Buddhism. Asoka was born in about 304 BC and came to the throne in 270 BC after a short power struggle in which at least one of his brothers was killed. In 260 his armies attacked Kalinga (modern Orissa) in an attempt to expand the already huge Mauryan empire. The campaign was militarily successful but it lead to horrific losses of both civilian and military lives and, moved by remorse, Asoka decided to renounce war forever. He converted to Buddhism and launched a campaign to bring about a moral, spiritual and social renewal within his empire. The administrative and judicial systems were reformed, useful public works were initiated, the previously aggressive foreign policy was replaced by one of peaceful co-existence and wildlife reserves were established.

As a part of this renaissance all religions were protected and promoted, especially Buddhism. The Sangha was purified and unified, the third Council was convened and Buddhist missionaries were sent throughout India to Sri Lanka and South-East Asia and to as far west as Cyrene, Egypt, Syria, and Macedonia. Asoka died after a rule of 38 years in the year 232 BC although his memory was kept alive for centuries amongst Buddhists by many works of literature containing legends about his life and good deeds. Asoka’s importance is due to his role in spreading Buddhism throughout India and beyond. He also had a profound influence on polity in Buddhist countries as monarchs throughout Asia were encouraged to look to his tolerant humane style of government as an ideal to be followed.

R. Mookeyi, Asoka. Delhi, 1962; S. Dhammika, The Edicts of King Asoka. Kandy, 1993.