The Righteous Reign How King Asoka Institutionalized

The Righteous Reign: How King Asoka Institutionalized Buddhism Essay, Research Paper

Colin Wood


The Righteous Reign:

How King Asoka Institutionalized Buddhism

Buddhism and Jainism in Ancient and Medieval India

Fall 2000


?Dhamma sadhu, kiyam cu dhamme ti? Apasinave, bahu kayane, daya, dane, sace,

socaye. — Dhamma is good, but what constitutes Dhamma? (It includes) little evil, much

good, kindness, generosity, truthfulness and purity.?

In the third century BC there lived a king described by the historian H.G. Wells as

a ruler who stood out ?amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the

columns of history… and shines almost alone, a star.? Wells was referring to the

legendary Buddhist king, Asoka. The exact dates of Asoka?s birth and death are still

debated by scholars even today. However it is generally excepted that he was born

sometime late in the fourth century BC or early third century BC. Although Buddhist

literature preserved the legend of Asoka, for many years there was not any definitive

historical record of his reign. It was in the 19th century that these records were provided.

Many edicts were found in India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. These edicts were

inscribed on rocks and pillars and exhibited Asoka?s reforms and policies. During his

reign (c. 265-238 BC; also given as c. 273-232 BC) Asoka practiced his policy of

?conquest by Dhamma (principles of right life).? The policy was three pronged;

administration based on Dhamma, instruction in Dhamma for the populace, and personal

practice of Dhamma by the ruler. The results of this practice were instantly visible

among Buddhist circles across India as well as in neighboring countries. The durability

and significance of these edicts are a testament to the legacy of King Asoka and are still

visible in everyday Buddhist life.

I. Administration based on Dhamma

Perhaps the most striking example of Asoka?s policy of administering his domain

based on the Dhamma is his adoption of Buddhist philosophy after his bloody conquest

of Kalinga. Centered in east-central India, Kalinga had recently succeeded from the

Magadhan dynasty in about 321 BC. Shortly thereafter Kings Asoka, in only his eighth

year of reign, reconquered the area in a battle described as one of the most brutal clashes

in Indian history. Supposedly the hardships suffered by the defeated people moved Asoka

to give up violent conquest. It was also about this time that Asoka spiritually embraced

Buddhism. The time was 261 BC Although Asoka had encountered Buddhism and

?formally? converted the year earlier, it was in 260 BC that he truly adhered to

Buddhism?s teachings. The first evidence of this true conversion is found in and edict

released after the war. In it, ?he evinced great remorse at the carnage he had caused, and

expressed the desire to govern, please and protect his subjects according to Dhamma.?

Asoka?s administration took several steps to implement this edict. Governing according

to Dhamma required Asoka to improve the quality of his subject?s lives. He created

public wells and rest houses, supported medical aid for both people and animals, and set

up provisions for the same benefits outside his realm.

Asoka was ever vigilant over his administration. While he worked to strengthen

and unify Buddhism, the occasional schism was unavoidable. In Asoka?s seventeenth

year of rule, differences of opinion arose among some Buddhism monks. ?There were

many lazy and bad monks given to evil ways. These willful sanyasins were a curse to

Buddhism.? Asoka was upset by this trend. In order to save Buddhism from what he

considered a ?total eclipse,? Asoka dismissed many monks. He then invited the

?serious-minded? monks to Ashokarama in Pataliputra for a conference. Asoka met with

each of the current great teachers of Buddhism and asked them ?What did Lord Buddha

teach?? After long discussion, their ideals ?came out clearly and unambiguously.? Asoka

now considered Buddhism stronger as a result of this conference.

While legislation played a large role in his administration, Asoka also relied on

persuasion to further the Buddhist cause. One of the main virtues found in his edicts was

ahimsa, or ?non-injury.? This idea is a central concept of Buddhism and other Indian

traditions. Although Asoka kept his army, he did so only to prevent invasion, never for

the purpose of conquest. One way he used persuasion to influence the populace was to

encourage respect for one?s parents and good behavior towards friends and relatives.

Furthermore, good treatment of servants was encouraged and many game animals were

protected. The virtues supported by Asoka included, ?Mercy, truthfulness, sexual purity,

gentleness, and contentment…? Realizing that the success of his policy rested with the

people, Asoka greatly advanced what was then considered the Buddhist cult practice of

relic worship through the construction of stupas. Richard Gombrich has argued that the

principle point of this practice was to unite an empire which was fundamentally divided.

The tactic seemed to have worked because now there was ?a favorable climate for the

acceptance of Buddhist ideas…? This was probably the greatest contribution Asoka gave

to Buddhism. In fact A.L. Basham has maintained that prior to Asoka?s rule, ?Buddhism

was a relatively minor factor in the religious life of India.? Perhaps a quote conveying the

wishes of Asoka best expresses his ideology, ?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.?

King Asoka undertook an unprecedented attempt to institutionalize a religion.

However some scholars have pointed out the Asoka?s edicts bare a strong resemblance to

the teachings of Ven. Moggaliputta-tissa, a Buddhist teacher of the time.

Whether King Asoka selected the edicts on his own or at the advice of his mentor,

Ven. Moggaliputta-tissa, no one knows. Still it is possible to gain some insight into the

Dhamma of which Asoka approved, whether or not it originated with him. One of the

main points of Asoka?s edicts is that Dhamma is ?a quality of a person, rather than of

doctrines or ideas.? The central passage in the edicts, (and its only extended poem, ?The

Sage,?) paints a picture of the Dhamma as personified in the deeds, words, and attitudes

of the people who practices it. Only if the Dhamma finds concrete expression in people’s

lives will it last and have value. It was for this reason that Asoka undertook the

instruction of his populace in Buddhist traditions.

II. Instruction in Dhamma for the Populace

India in the third century BC was not a particularly humanitarian time. There was

ritual animal sacrifice, a huge number of neglected orphans, the accepted reality of

underprivileged women, and forgotten destitute elderly. In addition the courts regularly

handed down biased sentences based on the judges own personal beliefs. Punishment for

many crimes was severe, even to the point of torture and death. Asoka set out to right

what he perceived as injustices, and his primary means of doing so was to appoint several

high ranking Dhamma Ministers. These ministers, (including his own son and daughter),

were sent to various parts of his empire as well as to outlying countries to ?encourage

virtue, look after old people and orphans, and ensure equal judicial standards throughout

the empire.? By encouraging virtue, Asoka did not expressly promote Buddhism.

Actually he was tolerant of all ?harmonious? religious practices and insured that all of his

subjects could adhere to whatever creed they so chose. Asoka had such an interest in the

instruction of his people that he ordered matters concerning public welfare to be reported

to him at all times. His interest in the elderly and orphans seems to come only from his

wish that they suffer no discomfort. In some cases his protection even extended to

condemned prisoners.

?[T]hey work among all religions for the establishment of Dhamma, for the promotion of

Dhamma, and for the welfare and happiness of all who are devoted to Dhamma. They

work among the poor, the aged and those devoted to Dhamma — for their welfare and

happiness — so that they may be free from harassment. They (Dhamma Mahamatras)

work for the proper treatment of prisoners, towards their unfettering, and if the

Mahamatras think, ?This one has a family to support,? ?That one has been bewitched,?

?This one is old,? then they work for the release of such prisoners. They work here, in

outlying towns, in the women’s quarters belonging to my brothers and sisters, and among

my other relatives. They are occupied everywhere. These Dhamma Mahamatras are

occupied in my domain among people devoted to Dhamma to determine who is devoted

to Dhamma, who is established in Dhamma, and who is generous.? This zeal was for

neither personal nor political gain. The only glory he sought, according to Asoka, was for

having led his people along the path of Dhamma.

The Rock and Pillar edicts issued by Asoka were not randomly placed nor

randomly ordered. They were set up to portray a particular message, with the placement

and order reinforcing and strengthening this message. One edict in particular, the Bhabru

Rock Edict, explains how Dhamma can be carried on throughout time. The edict, ?That

the True Dhamma Might Last a Long Time,? explains the idea nicely. The title of the

first passage, the Vinaya samukase, explains that the principles of Buddhism are innate.

They arise of their own accord, they are implicit. Moreover this means that whether or

not a Buddah arises to ?rediscover? these virtues, they are valid in and of themselves.

The second passage, ?The Traditions of the Noble Ones?, emphasizes the idea of time, a

recurring theme throughout Asoka’s selections. It relies on the past to show how

venerable, time-tested, and pure the traditions of the Dhamma are. The four discussions

on ?Future Dangers? present a warning — it is imperative to practice the Dhamma as soon

as one encounters it. By no means should the practice be put off because there is no

guarantee that opportunities for practice will exist in the future. These dangers can be

broken down into two categories. The first set of dangers include ?death, aging, illness,

famine, and social turmoil in one?s own life.? The second category of dangers centers

around the ?religion? of Buddhism itself. Primarily, that Buddhism will decay or

degenerate as a result of improper exercise by its practitioners. ?When those who are

supposed to practice it ignore the noble traditions and teachings, and instead do many

unseemly, inappropriate things simply for the sake of material comfort.? The point of

these passages is to give a sense of urgency to the practice of Buddhism, so that an effort

will be made to take advantage of the teachings while one can. The next passage, ?The

Sage? is a poem which presents the ideal of inner safety, ?an ideal already embodied in

the lives of those who have practiced the religion in full.? It stresses that true happiness

comes not from relationships, but from the peace gained in living a solitary life, existing

off alms and free to meditate in the wilderness. The fifth passage, ?Sagacity? analyzes

the ideal presented in ?The Sage? into three qualities; body, speech, and mind.

?Sariputta’s (Upatissa’s) Question,? the sixth passage, shows these ideals in action. Ven.

Assaji ?simply by the graciousness of his manner, inspires Sariputta the wanderer to

follow him; and with a few will-chosen words, he enables Sariputta to gain a glimpse of

the Deathless. This is thus no empty ideal.? While the fifth passage best expresses the

goal of training one?s actions in body, speech and mind, the sixth passage contains what

is considered to be the most succinct expression of the Four Noble Truths; suffering, its

cause, its cessation, and the path to its cessation. The last passage, ?Instructions to

Rahula,? show how these goals may be realized by focusing on two main qualities –

truthfulness and constant reflection. These qualities underlie every aspect of Buddhist

practice. The idea of the passages combined is meant to inspire Asoka?s subjects.

Although the early passages portray the monk as the ideal, the message as a whole show

that practice in Dhamma builds upon the qualities in everyone — the lay follower and the

monk; men, women and children. The message also emphasizes again the theme of time,

or more appropriately, the timelessness of the Dhamma. ?Whoever in the past, future or

present develops purity — or sagacity — in thought, word or deed, will have to do it in this

way, and this way only. There is no other.?

Asoka?s edicts show something of the educational strategy Asoka recommended

for the use of his Dhamma officials, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist, to make the

Dhamma a reality in their lives. Asoka?s edicts follow a pattern to impress on their

listeners first that the ideals of the Dhamma are timeless and well-tested, and that there is

a need to embrace them as quickly as possible. Then they analyze the ideal, present a

picture of it in action, and end with the basic principles for putting it into practice. This

approach matches Asoka?s three pronged approach to governing based on the Dhamma.

III. The Personal Practice of Dhamma by the Ruler

Buddhism was perhaps the most influential force in Asoka?s life. Asoka viewed

his reforms as being part of the duties of a Buddhist. Although he tolerated most

religions, he nevertheless hoped that his subjects would adopt Buddhism for themselves.

Asoka undertook several pilgrimages to Lumbini and Bodh Gaya to spread the word of

Dhamma. He also sent monks to various regions in India and beyond with the same

purpose. Asoka?s commitment to Buddhism was such that he familiarized himself with

enough of the sacred texts to recommend some of them to the monastic community.

Some scholars have advanced that Asoka had a simplistic view of Dhamma. Their

claim, that the edicts say nothing about the philosophical aspects of Buddhism. The

purpose of the edicts however was not to promote philosophical discourse among the

monks, but rather to inform and educate Asoka?s subjects, ?to encourage them to be more

generous, kind and moral.? As such, there was no reason for Asoka to delve into the deep

philosophy underlying Buddhism. Asoka was concerned with being an administrator and

a Buddhist more than a source of original Buddhist insight. He took ?as keen an interest

in Buddhist philosophy as he did in Buddhist practice.?

Another example of Asoka?s personal adherence to Buddhist principles can be

found in Asoka?s court. Prior to Asoka, hunting was commonly accepted as the royal

sport. In accordance with his ideal of non-injury, Asoka replaced this practice with a

pilgrimage to sites associated with the Budda. It was during some of these pilgrimages

that Asoka erected his edicts and according to some, even erected the original ten stupas

said to contain relics of the Budda. Furthermore, Asoka demanded that his entire royal

household become vegetarian. The Brahmanical practice of animal sacrifice was

prohibited in the capital, and a large number of animals enjoyed protection, similar to the

endangered species laws of today.

Asoka has come to represent the ideal Buddhist monarch. He combines the

leadership qualities of a strong leader with the compassion of a saint. The edicts of Asoka

are testament to a standard of morality seldom seen throughout history. The path which

led Asoka into the pages of history started with his administration based on Dhamma.

Administration however is not enough to convince a populace and transform a religion.

Asoka realized this and took the next logical step, educating his people in the Dhamma.

Once again though Asoka knew that any movement is only as good as its leader. That is

why Asoka so reverently adhered to Buddhist principles in his own life.

Insight and inspiration. Reverance and respect. These ideals led Asoka to

greatness and Buddhism to the rank of ?world religion.? In light of current political

situations around the world as well as in the United States, a ruler like Asoka could be

just what our time needs — a uniter.

Babb, L.A. Absent Lord: Ascetics and Kings in a Jain Ritual Culture. U of Cal., 1996.

Dundas, P. The Jains. Routledge, 1992.

ENCYCLOP?DIA BRITANNICA. Asoka,5716,10007+1+9884,00.html?kw


North Park University History Department, History Department. Asoka Rock and Pillar


That the True Dhamma Might Last a Long Time

Ven. S. Dhammika. The Edicts of King Asoka An English rendering


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