After Alexander the Great died, Candra Gupta established the beginnings of the Mauryan Empire (c. 321-185 BCE). At its greatest extent, the empire encompassed the entire Indian subcontinent except for the southern territory of the Tamil. Asoka was the last and most historically significant emperor of the dynasty.
Asoka began his long reign (c. 265-238 BCE) as a classic warrior-king. Disgusted by a successful but destructive military campaign against a kingdom on India’s east coast in the 8th year of his reign, he renounced the path of the warrior-king. He instead embraced a policy that he called “conquest by dharma (principles of right life).”
To spread his new understanding, Asoka gave speeches and engraved the messages on rocks and pillars sprinkled strategically throughout his vast territory. To indicate their importance, the lion capitol of one of these Rock and Pillar Edicts, as they are called, has become India's national emblem. The frank and sincere nature of these missives to the future convinces the reader of their validity.
As well as beliefs, these inscriptions also contain autobiographical material. According to his own account, Asoka suffered such remorse for pain and suffering that he inflicted upon the native population that he adopted the principles of Buddhism. . Under this influence, he resolved to live and preach the dharma, which included serving his subjects and all humanity.
Asoka repeatedly declared that dharma is associated with the energetic practice of social virtue. These dharmic virtues included honesty, compassion, nonviolence, and consideration for all humans, especially women, the poor and the weak. Alternately, he excluded acquisitiveness, extravagance and violence towards animals from the dharma path.
Although his change in perspective was due in part to his exposure to Buddhism, Asoka never identified any particular creed or set of beliefs in his speeches and inscriptions. While he spoke of Buddhism privately, it was not part of his public dialogue. Instead he stressed religious tolerance, which included respect for the spiritual practices of others. As ruler, he guaranteed his citizens the full freedom to live according to personal principles, as long as this didn’t infringe upon the rights of others. He felt that success was better attained through reasoning than from issuing commands.
Asoka actively practiced his social dharma. He founded hospitals for humans and animals; planted roadside trees and groves; and dug wells. More importantly, his government actively protected the peace and attempted to dispense justice fairly and quickly to all classes of his citizens. Besides traveling to the countryside to attend to the needs of his citizenry, he appointed a special class of officials called ‘dharma ministers’. It was their duty was to foster dharma work by the public. This meant relieving suffering wherever it was found, whether at home or in neighboring tribes and countries.
It was evident from Asoka’s utterances that he was committed to serving his populace. Not only did he strive to relieve suffering and improve external circumstance, he also attempted to set up social conditions that would encourage and enable his subjects to follow the dharma path. According to the inscriptions, this is the only glory that Asoka sought. The following sample quotation indicates his noble intentions:
“All men are my children. As for my own children, I desire that they may be provided with all the welfare and happiness of this world and of the next, so do I desire for all men as well.”
In Buddhist teachings, a Bodhisattva is an enlightened being who is committed to assisting humanity to also achieve enlightenment. In the sense that he was committed to encouraging his people to follow the dharma path, Asoka was the first Bodhisattva king. The Bodhisattva king becomes very important in Southeast Asian politics. As Asoka epitomized this notion and was also instrumental in spreading Buddhism to Southeast Asia, he could have easily served as a very important role model for their rulers. The Bodhisattva king has a long tradition in Southeast Asia's territories. The current king of Thailand continues this time-honored tradition.
With Asoka’s death, his empire began to crumble and his work was discontinued. His most enduring accomplishment was in relationship to Buddhism. Before Asoka, Buddhism was only a small sect practiced in particular localities with very little influence in India or abroad. After Asoka, Buddhism became widespread throughout India. His vigorous patronage included building a number of stupas and monasteries throughout his enormous empire. He also erected pillars that were inscribed with Buddhist teachings. In addition, Asoka took strong measures to prevent schisms and even prescribed a course of Buddhist study.
More importantly for our purposes, Asoka encouraged Buddhists to take their message overseas and abroad. To indicate his enthusiasm, he sent his own son and daughter as Buddhist missionaries to the island of Sri Lanka/Ceylon. According to inscriptions, Asoka also sent Buddhists to the ‘Golden Land’ with their message. Most likely, ‘Golden Land’ refers to the Mon temples located in the fertile delta of the Irrawaddy River Valley in southern Myanmar/Burma.
Relatively independent of India and its long traditions, both territories were open and receptive to these new ideas. Spread from both Sri Lanka and India, the Mon culture of lower Myanmar embraced Buddhism. From Burma, it spread across the mountain range to their cousins in Thailand. The Mon culture continued to be the spreading center for Buddhism throughout Southeast Asia, especially the mainland, for nearly 2 thousand years. In other words, Asoka’s efforts introduced the Mon culture to Buddhism, which in turn transmitted the Buddhist message to the remainder of Southeast Asia’s mainland cultures.
Besides spreading Buddhism south to Sri Lanka and east to Myanmar, Asoka’s Buddhist missionaries also traveled north and west. While the missionary work in the west had no apparent effect, the northern efforts exerted a particularly strong effect upon the inhabitants of Central Asia, especially the residents of Bactria (modern day Afghanistan) and the Tarim Basin (western China). In fact, Central Asia became the northern spreading center for Buddhism, particularly into China.
Following this original extension from India, China received the Buddhist message from two directions: north across the Silk Road from Central Asia and south from Southeast Asia, presumably both by land and sea. Although exposed to this foreign religion from multiple directions, it was only after the Chinese digested Buddhism into their own culture that it became a significant religion in China.
Due to their reverence for the written word, this digestion process had less to do with persuasive verbal efforts and more to do with translating key texts, mostly sutras, into their own language. Entire schools of Chinese Buddhism were based around these translations. For instance, the Diamond Sutra, first translated in 401 CE by Kumarajiva, inspired a culture of artwork, sutra veneration and commentaries in China.
Although originally inspired by foreign sources, Chinese Buddhism is unique from Southeast Asian Buddhism or the Indian Buddhism that spread from the north. This unique form of Chinese Buddhism is called Mahayana. Because of China’s dominant cultural prestige, Mahayana spread to the other Eastern Asian cultures: Japan, Vietnam and Korea. Mahayana is still the dominant form of Buddhism practiced in Eastern Asia.
Summarizing: Due to Asoka’s imperial patronage, Buddhism spread north and east from India. From the north Buddhism eventually reached Eastern Asia, where it became Mahayana. The eastern spread of Buddhism took it to Southeast Asia’s mainland, where it became Theravada. Mahayana and Theravada are still the predominant forms of Buddhism in each of these regions. More significantly, Buddhism, whether Theravada or Mahayana, is the primary religion in both Eastern Asia and Southeast Asia’s mainland.
It could be argued that without Asoka’s considerable influence that Buddhism would have remained just another Indian religion with only local influence. Indeed Buddhism eventually faded out in India and is only recently experiencing a resurgence in popularity. In this sense, it is fair to say that Asoka established Buddhism as a world religion. While Buddha/Siddhartha provided the inspiration, Asoka provided the political clout that was necessary to spread the teachings to the world.