Aśoka | Mauryan Emperor
Aśoka (ca. 300-232 B.C.E.; r. 268-232 B.C.E.), the 3rd Ruler of the Indian Mauryan Empire, became a model of Kingship for Buddhists everywhere:
He is known today for the Edicts he had inscribed on pillars and rock faces throughout his kingdom, and through the legends told about him in various Buddhist sources.
In one of his Edicts, Aśoka expresses regret for the suffering that was inflicted on the people of Kaliṅga (present-day Odisha) during his conquest of that territory:
Henceforth, he proclaims, he will renounce war and dedicate himself to the propagation of dharma.
Just what he meant by this statement has been a subject of debate:
Some have understood the word dharma here to mean the Buddha’s teaching, and so have read Aśoka’s change of heart in Kaliṅga as a conversion experience.
In a few subsequent inscriptions, it is true, Aśoka does refer specifically to Buddhist sites (such as the Buddha’s birthplace, which he visited in person) and to Buddhist texts,
but, in general, for him, the propagation of dharma seems to have implied an active moral polity of social concern, religious tolerance, and the observance of common ethical precepts.
In one Edict, for instance, he orders fruit and shade trees to be planted and wells to be dug along the roads for the benefit of travellers;
In others, he establishes:
- medical facilities for humans and animals;
- he commissions officers to help the poor and the elderly;
- and he enjoins obedience to parents, respect for elders,
- and generosity toward and tolerance of priests and ascetics of all sects.
Throughout the ages, however, Aśoka was best known to Buddhists not through his Edicts but through the legends that were told about him. These give no doubt about his conversion to Buddhism and his specific support of the monastic community.
In Sanskrit and Pāli sources, Aśoka’s kingship is said to be the karmic result of an offering he made to the Buddha in a past life:
In this life, it is his encounter with an Enlightened Buddhist novice that changes him from being a cruel and ruthless monarch into an exemplary righteous king (dharma-rāja), a universal monarch (cakravartin):
As such, he undertakes a series of great acts of merit:
- He redistributes the relics of the Buddha into 84 000 Stūpas built all over his kingdom;
- he establishes various Buddhist sites of Pilgrimage;
- he becomes a supporter of charismatic saints such as Upagupta and Piṇḍola;
- he fervently worships the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gayā; and
- he gives away (and then redeems) his kingship and all of his possessions to the Saṅgha.
In addition, in the Śrī Lankan Vaṁsas (chronicles), he is said to purify the teaching by convening the Third Buddhist council,
following which he sends missionary-monks, including his own son Mahinda, to various lands within his empire and beyond (e.g., Śrī Lanka).
These stories helped define notions of Buddhist kingship throughout Asia, and gave specificity to the mythic model of the Wheel-Turning, Dharma- Upholding Cakravartin.
From Śrī Lanka to Japan, monarchs were inspired by the image of Aśoka as a propagator of the religion, distributor of wealth, sponsor of great festivals, builder of monasteries, and guarantor of peace and prosperity.
In particular, the legend of his construction of 84 000 Stūpas motivated several Chinese and Japanese emperors to imitate it with their own schemes of relic and wealth distribution, which served to unify their countries and ritually reassert their sovereignty.