Reclaiming Ashoka
Posted on October 19th, 2011

by Harish Singhal and Paul Chaffee,ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ October 14, 2011 Courtesy:ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  Buddhist Channel

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ New Delhi, India — Approximately 2280 years ago, Emperor Ashoka, third regent of IndiaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s Maurya Dynasty, ascended the throne. This Iron Age family ruled IndiaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ first empire, stretching from eastern Iran to Burma, including most of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. Scholars dispute the details but agree that Ashoka ruled for about four decades in the middle of the third century BCE.

Once in power, Ashoka proved a tyrant. Growing up in the Kshatriya warrior caste, the young prince had burnished his reputation as a fierce, merciless fighter and hunter. Though one of the youngest of King BindusaraƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s many sons, he proved his fatherƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s best protector, mastering both negotiation and an iron fist for keeping the hinterlands quiet. He out-maneuvered his brothers, who perished by his hand, and developed strong enough allies in the court so that when the king died, fatherƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s succession wishes were upended and King Ashoka took over. For most of the next decade he marched his armies through west and south Asia, becoming the most powerful, fearsome man on Earth.

Eight years into his reign Ashoka fought a bloody war to conquer Kalinga (roughly equivalent to the state of Orissa today), a small, sophisticated kingdom that had kept its freedom and had a significant army. It had no chance, though, against AshokaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s military machine. ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-One hundred and fifty thousand were deported, one hundred thousand were killed and many more died (from other causes),ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ the king later confessed.

A Stunning Transformation

AshokaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s conversion story after Kalinga is nearly unprecedented in the annals of religious history, though one comparison comes to mind. Several hundred years later a Jewish leader, Saul of Tarsus, was converted on the road to Damascus and became known as St. Paul, the point-person for spreading Christianity throughout the Middle East and Europe.


Within a year of KalingaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s defeat , Emperor Ashoka converted to Buddhism and transformed from tyrant to philosopher-king. He changed what it meant to be king from divine representation to servant of the sangha, the Buddhist community. He envisioned and implemented a culture of peace that cares for all living beings. Along the way, his well-funded proselytizing took Buddhism from Italy to his west to Vietnam to his east.


What generated such a incredible turnaround!? Competing explanations abound, as one might imagine. One legendary answer, frequently quoted, provides this confession: What have I done? If this is a victory, whatƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s a defeat then? Is this a victory or a defeat? Is this justice or injustice? Is it gallantry or a rout? Is it valor to kill innocent children and women? Do I do it to widen the empire and for prosperity or to destroy the otherƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s kingdom and splendor? One has lost her husband, someone else a father, someone a child, someone an unborn infant…. WhatƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s this debris of the corpses? Are these marks of victory or defeat? Are these vultures, crows, eagles the messengers of death or evil?

Whatever the details, AshokaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s violent ambition morphed into a benevolent support for citizens of the empire and those beyond. For next 30 years, he turned into the good ruler people have dreamed about for centuries, or so the legend went. Of course, for nearly 2000 years most of what was known about Ashoka came from Buddhist texts written four to six hundred years after his death. The Vedic community, which he had abandoned, paid him no attention until 1915, when a linguistic puzzle was finally solved and AshokaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s historic legacy finally swung into view.

The story goes back to 1828 when a brilliant Anglo-Indian archeologist and philologist, James Prinsep, managed to translate the ancient Brahmi language. Brahmi was the preferred language for the 33 ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-Edicts of Ashoka,ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ inscriptions we have today, carved in stone on huge, 50-ton ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-Ashoka Pillars ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…- as well as massive boulders and cave walls. Some of the inscriptions are brief, others run to hundreds of words. They were carved repeatedly in sites across the empire. The collection of 14 ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-GirnarƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ edicts, for instance, has been found at five sites and a shortened version in two others.

In these ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”lettersƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ to his people are more intimate than official. Ashoka refers to himself ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-Beloved by the Gods, King Piyadasi,ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ which means, ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-he who regards everyone with affection.ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ Not until 1915, when the last of the Edicts was discovered, do we find reference not just to King Piyadasi, but to Ashoka, confirming his connection to them all. What had been consigned to legend gained historic currency. Who emerged was a leader who championed equality, social just, religious tolerance and more. H.G. Wells wrote, “Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousnesses and serenities and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Asoka shines, and shines, almost alone, a star.”

The discovery woke India up to its hidden historical treasure. By the mid-twentieth century AshokaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s reputation throughout south Asia returned to what it was over 2200 years ago. At the center of IndiaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s flag is the Ashoka Chakra (see left), an image found on a number of the Edicts, representing virtue. Though he became a Buddhist, AshokaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s achievements as a ruler are a matter of national pride today.

The Edicts themselves offer a personal glimpse into AshokaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s world and what he hoped to engender. They tend towards the practical. In the first of the Girnar inscriptions, we read, ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-Formerly, in the kitchen of Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, hundreds of thousands of animals were killed every day to make curry. But now with the writing of this Dhamma edict, only three creatures, two peacocks and a deer are killed, and the deer not always. And in time, not even these three creatures will be killed.ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  Promoting vegetarianism, but gradually.

What makes Ashoka singularly fascinating among great reformers in history is that he actually had the power to give expression to his vision. A practical administrator, he built accountability systems into his reforms. From the Edicts we can discern thatƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚¦

  • He promoted equality, peacemaking, social justice, womenƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s rights, religious freedom, education, science, kindness to prisoners, sustainability, and universal free medical care for animals and birds as well as people.
  • He developed major public works projects including hospitals, clinics, and universities. Rest houses between cities were built with wells, fruit trees and shade trees for weary travelers.
  • He banned deforestation, most hunting, and sought to improve the lives of slaves.
  • Socially, he called for respectful behavior, generosity, and moderation as consumers.
  • Personally he advocated kindness, self-examination, truthfulness, gratitude, loyalty, and self-control, claiming that the power of love is greater than the power of the sword.

An Interfaith-Friendly Empire

AshokaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s religious conversion changed his life and IndiaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s. His Edicts, while steering away from rituals, dogma, and festivals, promoted Buddhist values in everyday living. His broad agenda expressed his understanding of Buddhist ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-dhammaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ (from Pali) or ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-dharmaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ (from Sanskrit), a word rich in meanings about the disciplines which make life fulfilling and meaningful. Dhamma, in essence, calls for kindness to all life, truth telling, respect, and generosity. To promote the Dhamma, Ashoka built thousands of stupas (Buddhist worship sites) throughout the empire. He sent Buddhist teachers and priests to Syria, Iran, Egypt, Greece, and Italy; to Nepal, Tibet, and China; to Miramar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and he sent his daughter, Sanghamitta, and his son on Mahinda, both ordained monastics, to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The young king, and the nation followed. Essentially, AshokaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s missionary efforts transformed a young Buddhist reform tradition into a world religion.

Buddhist proselytizing sounds oxymoronic today, to be sure, but AshokaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s doesnƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢t fit your stereotype of a missionary. He was not a philosopher or priest, instead working to improve peoples day-to-day living, albeit, with Buddhist values. Simultaneously, he had an interfaith agenda he pursued as seriously as Buddhism. He called for mutual respect among us all, regardless of religion. He encouraged non-Buddhist educators and asked all schools to teach about and appreciate all religions. Hindus, Jains, and Pagans were as fully welcome in this empire as Buddhists. He observed that harming someone elseƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s religion harms your own.

AshokaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s new kind of civilization faded away, becoming legendary within 50 years of his death. Gradually Hinduism in India absorbed Buddhism back into the mother faith, and Buddhism was left to thrive beyond IndiaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s borders in lands where Ashoka had sent missionaries.

Then 22 years after the 1893 WorldƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s Parliament of Religions, historyƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s veil rolled back more than two millennia to reveal a global leader who achieved a peaceful, constructive, interfaith culture that lasted the better part of a century. His achievement is a prod for those who share similar dreams about the future. We should all be studying the Edicts of Ashoka.

Quotations from AshokaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s Edicts were translated by the Ven. S. Dhammika in his The Edicts of King Asoka: An English Rendering (1993), which is freely distributed online by Dharmanet International. Bhikkhu Dhammika is spiritual director of the Buddha Dhamma Mandala Society in Singapore
Courtesy:ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  Buddhist Channel

11 Responses to “Reclaiming Ashoka”

  1. Fran Diaz Says:

    What an inspiring story – the transformation of a gifted but bestial King to a virtual Sage/Ruler through the eternal Teachings of the Buddha. Here is hope for anyone, to change one’s life through the Eternal Truths. The Dharma itself is living within each human Heart and on being awakened guides anyone who turns towards It with a sincere Heart. The rewards are here and now, and manifests as Peace, Contentment, and all those wonderful aspects that the human Heart longs for.

  2. Dham Says:

    “Essentially, Ashoka’s missionary efforts transformed a young Buddhist reform tradition into a world religion.”
    Very true. World did not hear about this great religion until then. This is a religion anyone with clear eyes can see.

    Why did the religion dissapeared within 50 years after the great king ? Because of Nibbana or because of strong rooted Brhaminism based cast system of India ?

  3. Fran Diaz Says:

    Dham: I think it is the Hindu based Caste System and all its attendant conveniences that removed Buddhism. A great pity. but India has retained the Asoka Flag and “Truth Wins” as motto of the country.

  4. Fran Diaz Says:

    I also think the various Moghul and other invasions into India and the need to return to intense warfare for defense brought about the religious changes in India.
    What happens in warfare ? Do not all citizens of a country who defend that country share the karmic consequences of what soldiers have to do in war, in order to defend the citizens of their country ? Therefore, whatever the religion and belief system, truth prevails, and all share in the travails of war. It does not make sense to change ones religion because of war.

  5. ranjith Says:

    Dham & Franz Diaz,

    Buddhism’s disappearance was not only the caste system, but also the non-proclamation of God’s existence in Buddhism.

    Buddhism lacks far behind to other religions with regard to the theory of God’s existence.

    Any dogma or religion without God, definitely it bound to be perished, according to Hindu scholars.

  6. Fran Diaz Says:

    Remember that when the Buddha walked the earth about 2,500 yrs ago, the 3,000 yr old Caste system (with the Untouchables) was already in existence in India. The Caste System, unfortunately attached to the Hindu religion through the Laws of Manu, proclaimed that a certain sector of society be Untouchables (now known as Dalits). We all know how the Untouchables were/are treated in India. Since the Hindu religion proclaimed the existence of God and yet espoused the Caste System, and the Buddha denounced the Caste System, and he has called the God energy by another name, Truth, to separate his Teachings from the old Belief System in Hinduism. The Buddha said “a person is high born or low born only by his actions”.

    The word ‘God’ seems to be used by wily leaders to rouse passions for war. In reality, War has nothing to do with God. Wars are usually waged because of Fear of the Other, and sometimes because of Egoistic leaders, or to gain resources & slaves.

    The quotation “A rose by any other name will smell as sweet”. God/Truth/Allah is the same. Ranjith, you say : “Any dogma or religion without God, definitely it bound to be perished, according to Hindu scholars”. We say that these Hindu scholars must be Upper caste people who want the Caste System to continue by ‘eliminating’ Buddhism ! We can say with confidence that Buddhism or no Buddhism, the Caste System will be eliminated as it is false.

    Buddhists should not get dragged into the Hindu Caste Wars. Caste Wars are Hindu peoples problem and should be settled between them. Hindu people who do not like the Caste System are welcome to become Buddhists, and worship God with the new name, Truth.

  7. Fran Diaz Says:

    Also, see the different definitions of the word ‘God’. As a Buddhist, I do not believe that God is a Being up in the Heavens pulling the strings on poor human beings. To me God/Truth is that Power or Energy within us all and is in our Hearts and exists as our Life Force.

  8. Fran Diaz Says:

    If ‘God’ (Truth) is Omnipresent, Omniscient & Omnipotent, this energy must be in human beings too, isn’t it ? In the Masters & Teachers, past and present, this Recognition is fully Awakened. Jesus said “the Kingdom of Heaven is within You” , and the Buddha said “Truth is within You”, and the word Islam means “Peace” (felt within You).
    Jesus Christ also said that the “Meek and Humble shall inherit the Earth”. We wonder why he said that ?

  9. ranjith Says:


    You may aware, in India, Dr Ambethkar who was from low caste converted to Buddhism along with thousands of Dalit Hindus, because of social discrimination by upper caste Hindus.

    Even they converted to Buddhism, even today they were labelled as Dalit Buddhists.

    That is the destiny of Dalits.

  10. ranjith Says:


    God is omniscient and omnipotent, but not omnipresent.

    Human beings are beautiful creations of God.

    But, human beings have not, even atom weight of power and energy of God.

  11. Fran Diaz Says:


    Dr Ambedkar’s inspired leadership helped many thousands of Dalits of India convert to Buddhism and leave Caste prejudices behind. One such person who benefitted was the father of Dr Narendra Jadhav, who was of Dalit background. Dr Jadhav’s father, a laborer with the Indian Railways, escaped from his narrow village outlook which dumbly accepted the Caste System, to the city of Bombay (Mumbai), and managed to educate his children while living in squalor in the city of Bombay. Dr Jadhav rose in scholarly stature, gaining the respect and admiration of one and all to become the Director of the Reserve Bank of India. This is just one instance of great perseverance and human endeavor. There are many such stories, but Dr Jadhav records his father’s life story with compassion and love in his book “Untouchables: My Family’s Triumphant Escape from India’s Caste System”. There are many such stories set in India.

    Converted Buddhists of India are classified as part of Scheduled Castes (SC). SC’s receive special privileges in India via the Indian government. A large number of Buddhists of India have grown out of the Caste System and are enjoying a new life.
    In Sri Lanka, as we all know, Buddhists here are the majority & also the leaders of this land. Therefore, it is worthwhile converting to Buddhism in Sri Lanka, if anyone wishes to do so.

    Also, what keeps each of us alive ? It is the divine spark of Life which keeps us breathing, without which we die. And what is this divine spark in each of us that keeps us alive enabling us to feel joy, love, hope, work and help others ? For further clarity on this subject, please check in on website at, and follow through.

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