The Righteous Reign: How King Asoka Institutionalized Buddhism Essay, Research Paper
The Righteous Reign:
How King Asoka Institutionalized Buddhism
Buddhism and Jainism in Ancient and Medieval India
?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
?[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. Britannica.com. Asoka
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