By Coleen Crncich
Buddhism in India would not be complete without including the story of the great emperor Asoka who reigned over the largest empire in India up to that time. (c.265-238 B.C.E.)
“The legend associated with the emperor goes that his birth had been predicted by Buddha.” Asoka grew to be a gifted warrior and statesman which angered his elder brothers who worried that he would become the next emperor. His oldest brother Prince Susima, convinced his father, Emperor Bindusara, to send Asoka away to control the uprising in Takshashila province. When Asoka arrived in the province, he was embraced by the militia and the uprising ceased which angered his brothers even more.
Prince Susima began to turn his father against Asoka who was then sent into exile in Kalinga. Asoka was called out of exile to assist with another uprising in Ujjain where he was injured. “It was in Ujjain that Asoka first came to know the life and teachings of Buddha.”
Asoka’s father became deathly ill the following year and Asoka assumed the crown. “Asoka began his reign by fighting to consolidate the Mauryan Empire founded by his grandfather, Chandragupta Maurya.” That battle in Kalinga was a success but says Dhammika, “the loss of life caused by the battle, reprisals, deportations and the turmoil that always exists in the aftermath of war so horrified Asoka that it brought about a complete change in his personality.”
“Buddhist Emperor Asoka received instruction from members of the Buddhist community, or sangha; and he came to embody the ideal ruler.” according to Clarke. An ideal ruler in the Buddhist teachings is one who creates a society of peace, harmony and generosity allowing his people to follow the path to enlightenment. He abolished the death penalty, planted trees and dug wells on well travelled roads so that travelers would have access to water. Says Clarke, “He continues to be considered by Buddhists as both an ideal ruler and an ideal layperson for his moral integrity and support of the sangha.”
Asoka’s views on how to live according to Buddha’s teachings were clearly seen by the people in the numerous inscriptions carved in rocks and pillars throughout India. He wanted to teach people “righteousness or dharma and even appointed officials to read the text to villagers and encourage them to live as the words suggested” according to Clarke.
Inscriptions such as “Asoka now teaches you to respect the value of sacredness of life, to abstain from killing animals and from cruelty to living things.” And another, “I desire men of all faiths to know each other’s beliefs and acquire sound doctrines themselves. By honouring others, one exalts one’s own faith and at the same time performs a service to others.”
Clearly, we see the gift Emperor Asoka gave to his people by way of these inscriptions, one of his own humility and respect for the individual and for all living things.
The national symbols of the Indian state today are of lions and wheels and include the wheel on the flag. Notes Clarke, “This is a clear indication of the esteem he is held in by all Indians, Buddhists and non-Buddhists.”
History of the Ashoka. Retrieved October 1, 2010 http://www.articlesbase.com/culture-articles/history-of-the-ashoka-477475.html
The Edicts of King Asoka, an English rendering by Ven. S. Dhammika ©1994-2010. Retrieved October 1, 2010. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/dhammika/wheel/386.html
Clarke, Peter B., (1993). The World’s Religions: Understanding the Living Faiths, pages 154-155