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Religion Library: Buddhism

Exploration and Conquest

Written by: Julia Hardy

According to legend, Ashoka gathered the remains of the Buddha and redistributed them to 84,000 stupas throughout his empire. Legends also say that he convened the Third Buddhist Council, to reaffirm the rules of monastic discipline, eliminate some monks whose conduct was deemed unacceptable, and reunify the other disparate communities of Buddhist monks. He also sent missionaries to spread word of Buddhism to other lands, including a son, Mahinda, who was a monk, and a daughter who was a nun.

Within fifty years after Ashoka's death, the Mauryan Empire fell, but rulers of various Indian kingdoms continued to support Buddhism. A body of legends about his life and rule emerged and spread to other Buddhist countries, persisting for centuries, and later rulers sometimes modeled themselves after Ashoka. The method of inscribing one's intentions in stone, which also served to mark one's territory (and probably was in use before Ashoka's time), became a standard political strategy in South Asia.

By the end of the 12th century C.E., Buddhism had virtually died out in India. A variety of factors are responsible for this, including a resurgence of Hinduism, which incorporated many of the innovations of Buddhism, and the Muslim invasions. In the meantime, Buddhism had become well-established in Southeast Asia, Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan.

As Buddhism spread throughout Asia, rulers of other countries took Ashoka as a model, and many regarded him as the exemplary Buddhist ruler. In powerful kingdoms within the countries we now call Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Korea, Japan, and Tibet, Buddhism was established and grew with the benefit of official support similar to the support that Ashoka had given, including contributions of land, buildings, and other endowments. Buddhism was attractive to rulers because Buddhism was popular with the people, and because support of Buddhism could help legitimate their rule. It is also possible that rulers were attracted by the fact that both Siddhartha Gautama and Ashoka were scions of powerful military and governing families.

Some rulers were even thought of, or thought of themselves as, living deities, as chakravartin-raja, or wheel-turning kings. The term, which originated in pre-Buddhist India, first referred to a universal ruler who would bring morality and peace to the entire world. Within Buddhism, the term originally referred to one who renounced the role of ruler, as the Buddha had done. The term later was applied to Ashoka, who had spread the dharma but continued to rule as a king, not a monk. In China the Buddhist emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty (r. 501-549 C.E.) was called a cakravartin-raja because of his generous support of Buddhism. In contrast, the Empress Wu of the Tang dynasty (r. 684-704 C.E.) called herself a cakravartin-raja, and even had a scripture fabricated by her lover, a Buddhist monk, to legitimate her right to rule.

Study Questions:
1.     Who was Ashoka?
2.     What political motivations could also explain Ashoka's construction of the Buddhist pillars?
3.     Why did Buddhism simultaneously gain and lose power in Asia?