The conversion of two powerful rulers also quieted some of the political wrangling. Converting to Buddhism accorded the rulers a higher religious status than they had held within the traditional caste system. The strict moral expectations of Buddhism also appealed to some rulers because it eased the burden of maintaining social stability. In turn, the Buddha expressed a vision of an ideal society in which selfless and fair rulers would distribute their wealth among the people.

Within a few centuries after the Buddha's death, Chandragupta Maurya of Magadha would unite most of what is now called India into an empire. His grandson, Ashoka, converted to Buddhism a few years after he took the throne. At first Ashoka did not take his conversion seriously, but after leading a bloody conquest of the northeastern state of Kalinga, he experienced remorse and began to take Buddhism to heart. He decided to apply the Buddha's Dharma, or teachings, to his government and to spread the word of the Buddha throughout the empire and beyond. He erected dozens of huge stone pillars inscribed with basic Buddhist teachings, built monasteries, and created shelters for Buddhist pilgrims. Ashoka became the model for many subsequent rulers throughout Asia who affiliated themselves with Buddhism.

Study Questions:
1.     Who was the Buddha?
2.     What were the lessons taught in the Buddha's first sermon?
3.     How did Buddhism initially spread?
4.     What did individuals have to renounce to become a Buddhist? What happened if they couldn't or wouldn't renounce such things?

Back to Religion Library