Ashoka, “Beloved of the Gods,” and Religion’s Power for Good
By Daniel C. Peterson

According to John Lennon’s rather silly song “Imagine,” if we only believed in “no heaven,” if we had “nothing to live or die for” and were merely “living for today,” we might finally have a shot at establishing the “brotherhood of man.”

Militant atheists have recently been making the case that “religion poisons everything,” and seeking to lay the blame for virtually every human evil and every specimen of human cruelty at the feet of religious faith. And, frankly, they’ve had considerable help in their campaign from certain kinds of religious believers. It’s useful, accordingly, to consider spectacular counterexamples to this claim – and, perhaps especially, counterexamples that are little known in the West.

No one except the Buddha himself had a more profound impact on the history of Buddhism than Ashoka, the emperor of India who reigned between roughly 268 and 239 BC.  The Buddha is considered the “universal savior” of mankind, but Ashoka is the “universal king.” His reign is thought to embody the ideal of the perfect Buddhist ruler. Yet, ironically, few saints in any religious tradition have had a less auspicious beginning than Ashoka did.  

The conquest of the Indus valley by Alexander the Great in 327 BC created a tremendous political and military crisis in India. For centuries, northern India had been divided into small feuding principalities traditionally known as the “Sixteen Kingdoms.”  Alexander’s successful invasion demonstrated the danger of this disunity; the petty Indian rulers realized the necessity of political consolidation.  

And, after several years of warfare, northern India was indeed unified by the great conqueror Chandragupta, who drove the Greeks from the subcontinent and founded the Mauryan dynasty.

In 268 BC, Chandragupta’s grandson, Ashoka, began his reign.  Following in the footsteps of his warlord ancestor, he murdered several of his brothers to eliminate them as rivals for the throne, after which he launched military campaigns into central and southern India.  The campaign into Kalinga (modern Orissa) was particularly bloody; it is reported that over 100,000 people were killed in the course of it and 150,000 enslaved.

Spiritual Awakening

Yet the horror of what he had done caused a spiritual awakening in Ashoka.  As he wrote in a monumental biographical inscription, he was “moved to remorse” at his actions and their consequences, feeling “profound sorrow and regret because the conquest of a people involves slaughter, death and deportation.” His anguish led to his conversion to Buddhism; thereafter he became a pacifist, proclaiming that “moral conquest is the only true conquest.”

Ashoka is remembered in the Indian and Buddhist traditions as one of the greatest rulers of Indian history.  His laws and policies are considered models of enlightened statesmanship in an age when most policies were based on the Machiavellian dictum: “Big fish eat little fish.”  

Throughout India, he built wells, roads, and hospitals, promulgating his laws by means of inscriptions on tall stone columns. Ashoka was also a great patron of the arts, establishing Buddhist schools and monasteries throughout his kingdom. Buddhist architecture flourished, as Ashoka built many monumental stupas (ritual pilgrimage burial mounds of the Buddha).  The most famous of all Indian stupas, the great stone structure at Sanchi, dates from the first century AD, but may rest on the foundations of an earlier brick one erected by Ashoka.

Missionary Efforts

The great emperor is also noted for his missionary efforts, both within his empire and abroad. Buddhist missionaries and ambassadors were sent to Syria, Egypt, and Greece – where vague notions about Buddhism entered Greek consciousness – as well as to Afghanistan and Ceylon, where Buddhism flourished in the years after Ashoka.  

By the mid-second century, Menander – king of Afghanistan and a descendant of the original Greek garrison left behind by Alexander – was converted to Buddhism, which remained the official state religion of Afghanistan for centuries.  (Afghanistan is now a Muslim country, where the militantly fundamentalist Taliban militia who ruled much of the nation until recently systematically, and brutally, attempted to eradicate all traces of its non-Muslim past – including, unfortunately, the great Buddhist statues at Bamyan.)

In one of history’s great ironies, Ashoka’s pacifistic policies contributed to the decline and collapse of the Mauryan empire.  In the decades after his death, rebels within and rivals without the empire exploited Mauryan military weakness, causing their collapse by 180 BC and again plunging India into centuries of bloody and destructive warfare between petty kingdoms.

But Ashoka’s conversion and his advocacy of Buddhism laid the foundation from which it grew into one of the great world religions.  For more than a thousand years after Ashoka, Buddhism remained a major religion in India, declining only after the twelfth century, when it was absorbed into Hinduism.  

Ashoka’s patronage of Buddhist missionary efforts facilitated its spread into Southeast Asia, where it flourishes today.  From the missionary seeds planted by Ashoka in Afghanistan, Buddhism eventually spread across the famous Silk Road to China, and from China to Korea and Japan, thereby becoming the great international religion of East Asia.