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Religion Library: Buddhism

Exploration and Conquest

Written by: Julia Hardy

Ashoka was a key figure in the transition of Buddhism from a local religion to a force that transformed Asia. Ruler of much of the Indian subcontinent from 260 to 232 B.C.E., he was the grandson of the founder of the Mauryan Empire, Chandragupta, and the son of Bindusara, another great conqueror. Under Ashoka, the Mauryan Empire would encompass almost the entire Indian subcontinent and extend to the northwest beyond Kashmir.

Eight years into his reign, Ashoka waged a bloody war on Kalinga, a region south of Magadha along the eastern coast. According to legends and a few remaining stone inscriptions, when Ashoka looked back on the destruction of this war he experienced remorse. He regretted the deaths of so many good people, and the heartache of so many more who had lost loved ones. Ashoka's remorse led him to take more seriously the Buddhist religion to which he had converted a few years earlier, possibly at the urging of his wife.

Ashoka had thousands of pillars and rocks inscribed with messages expounding the Buddhist dharma placed throughout his empire and beyond, stating, "This Dharma edict has been written on stone so that it might endure long and that my descendants might act in conformity with it." The language of the inscriptions varied according to where they were located; there is even one written in Aramaic and Greek. In the future, Ashoka announced, he would undertake "conquest by righteousness (dharma)" instead of war. Dharma, in this case, refers to the moral teachings of Buddhism rather than to a philosophy or meditative practice aimed toward enlightenment.

One of Ashoka's edicts encouraged respect and obedience of parents, elders, teachers, ascetics, and Brahmin, and respect for friends and servants. Other virtues he had inscribed were kindness, self-examination, truthfulness, gratitude, purity of heart, enthusiasm, loyalty, self-control, and frugality. Character flaws to avoid included violence, anger, cruelty, arrogance, laziness, and jealousy. The inscriptions also advocated religious tolerance, saying that no one should claim one religion to be better than another because doing so will only harm one's own religion, and that contact between different religions is good.

Ashoka also had his devotion to caring for his people inscribed in stone, saying that they were like his children, and that there was no work more rewarding to him than looking out for their welfare. He caused fruit and shade trees to be planted and wells dug to provide places of rest and nourishment for travelers, and he provided medical treatment for humans and animals. He wrote that he had instructed his officials to be fair and impartial, and that he would send inspectors to make sure that they were. He also announced that he had sent people to teach the dharma across his kingdom.

In addition to having the stone inscriptions created, Ashoka gave financial support to monks, built monasteries, and made pilgrimages to important sites in the life of the Buddha, such as his birthplace, the place of his enlightenment, and the location of his first sermon. Following his lead, pilgrimages to these sacred places became a favored practice among Buddhist devotees, and eventually large monastery complexes grew up on these sites.