Conversion of the Emperor Asoka
Around 270 BC, a warrior named Asoka (sometimes spelled Ashoka) became emperor of the powerful Mauryan dynasty in India. Emperor Asoka began his reign by working to expand the empire his grandfather had established. He was very successful and soon he ruled a sizeable portion of India.
But one particular battle resulted in such loss of life that Asoka was filled with remorse for what he had done. This event caused him to undergo a spiritual transformation that would be instrumental in the spread of Buddhism. Asoka not only personally converted to Buddhism (which he had learned about from a monk), he applied Buddhist principles to the way he ruled his empire.
An Asoka pillar in Lumbini, India.
After his conversion to Buddhism, Emperor Asoka ceased all military conquest and violence. He focused his efforts instead on building schools, hospitals and wells for his people. He went on pilgrimages to Buddhist holy sites, and directed that stupas (monuments) be built in Buddha's honor. He sent emissaries to spread Buddhism beyond India.
Finally, Asoka carved "edicts" on pillars, rocks and caves throughout his empire promoting Buddhist values. One such edict encourages "few sins and many good deeds, of kindness, liberality, truthfulness and purity." (Pillar Edict 2). Interestingly, none of these edicts mention any of the Four Noble Truths. The only pillar that remains complete and in its original location can be seen in the small town of Lauriya Nandangar, about 22 km northwest of Bettiah, India.
As would happen with Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity 600 years later, Asoka's conversion led to the conversion of many of his subjects. This is especially significant because Buddhism had previously appealed primarily to upper-class, well-educated people. Once the Emperor became a Buddhist, it became a religion of the common people as well.
In 2002, a Hindi movie entitled Asoka was released on DVD. It is highly fictionalized and focuses more on Asoka's rise to power rather than his life as a Buddhist (it ends with his conversion).
- John Bowker, ed., The Cambridge Illustrated History of Religions (Cambridge UP, 2002), p. 80.
- "Buddhism." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004. <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?tocId=9105944>
- "Lauriya Nandangar: Where Emperor Asoka raised a great pillar." BuddhaNet Buddhist Studies, 2005. <http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/pilgrim/pg_16.htm>.