Ashoka Maurya’s Conversion to Buddhism: Effect on the History of India

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Ashoka Maurya’s Conversion to Buddhism: Effect on the History of India

Ashoka Maurya was one of the most influential leaders in India’s history. The British historian H. G. Wells in his work The Outline of History said of Ashoka, “amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history… the name of Ashoka shines, and shines almost alone, a star” (94). Ashoka’s eventual aversion to violence and war, his honesty in admitting his mistakes, and his concern for the welfare of his people not only made him shine as brilliantly as a star, but also dramatically changed the history of India.

Yet since many legends were simply nothing more than a popular yearning for an exemplary ruler, none of the references were taken too seriously at first. Ashoka was portrayed as too good to be true: the ruthless, cruel leader who saw the light and transformed into the supreme benevolent ruler. When he was evil, Buddhists legends contended he killed ninety-nine brothers to obtain the throne after his father. As the transformed benevolent king, Buddhist legends claimed he built 84,000 monasteries and almost as many stupas in one day. Scholars did not take this king too seriously.

Renewed interest in this legendary figure came with the discovery of rock and stone pillars containing edicts engraved during the reign of Ashoka. In 1879, Alexander Cunningham published a translation of these inscriptions. Even more engravings were discovered with the latest four found in 1969. These stone inscriptions provided a rare access to the personalized edicts dictated by Ashoka and thus, were a primary source concerning this king. Gradually, as rock and pillar inscriptions were scrutinized, scholars began to consider Ashoka a legitimate historical figure and to evaluate his place in India’s history.

The rock and pillar edicts were critical in understanding and documenting the changes Ashoka brought to India for they were a record in his very own words. Romila Thapar described the benefit of these exclusive inscriptions: “It is rare in Indian history to have access to the personalized edicts of a king… in this we are fortunate” (Thapar 16). Ashoka’s edicts, engraved on rocks and stone pillars between 264 and 262 BCE, were scattered throughout India, Nepal, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The location of the rock engravings was governed by the accessibility of suitable slabs of stone.

The pillars, on the other hand, were placed in very specific locations. For example, one marked the birthplace of Buddha. Others were found near populated areas to be seen by as many people as possible. The pillar edicts, between forty and fifty feet in height, weighed up to fifty tons. They were all quarried between 247 and 242 BCE in the Chunar Hills along the Ganges River and sometimes transported over one hundred miles to the location where they were erected. The pillars were originally capped with a roaring lion, a bull, or a spirited horse.

These stone works reflected the great art and design of the Indian culture. The history regarding Ashoka was chiefly known from these rock and pillar edicts. This research shows the transformation that occurred in the country of India because of Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism. First, this study investigates the three aggressive generations of the Mauryan Dynasty to provide background and to shed light on the caliber of leadership training Ashoka received from his upbringing. One must understanding Ashoka’s family history in order to comprehend the difference he made after his conversion.

Secondly, this research covers the causes of Ashoka’s conversion, which builds an understanding of the personal and political benefits for him. His remorse and shame after a bloody battle, which he instigated and took responsibility for, were the catalyst to his conversion. The methodology for this paper places the highest emphasis on the translations of rock and pillar edicts found throughout the Indian subcontinent. These inscriptions are a primary source: Ashoka’s own words. From numerous readings of these edicts, evolves this research query: how much did India change after Ashoka’s conversion?

The various edicts contain Ashoka’s interpretation of Buddhist doctrine, his personal changes, or India’s policy changes. Not every edict is documented in this paper for there is not room or need to do that. The edicts of primary impact on India are discussed. Scholars and translators have labeled and numbered the rock and pillar edicts inscribed by Ashoka. Most of the rock edicts were catalogued simply by the abbreviation RE with a number. For example, the fourteenth rock edict was labeled RE 14. The pillar edicts were handled the same way only using PE as the abbreviation.

Sometimes the edicts listed the location in front of the abbreviation, as with Kalinga RE 1. This study uses these abbreviations within the text. Gokhale (1966) includes citations from Arthastastra, a book on government and economics written during the Mauryan Dynasty. This book is critical in understanding the impact of the changes Ashoka makes. How Ashoka Maurya’s Conversion to Buddhism Affected the History of India Ashoka Maurya was the third ruler of the Mauryan Dynasty about 263 BCE. After a bloody battle in Kalinga, he renounced brutality and endeavored to rule his empire rule according to the Buddhist doctrine of nonviolence.

His grandfather and father did not follow Buddhism. Chandragupta, Ashoka’s grandfather, was the founder of the Mauryan Dynasty about 325 BCE. After Ashoka’s father, Bindusara, ruled for approximately twenty-five years, he handed the empire over to Ashoka. Northwestern India, in the fourth century BCE, consisted of independent tribes ineffective in uniting against outside resistance. Alexander conquered one tribe after another like a tornado ripping through the country. Yet after he returned to Greece, the leaders he left in place were soon murdered or overthrown.

There was not enough support to sustain Alexander’s conquests. The significance of the Greek invasions and aftermath for India was that “Alexander had shattered the power of numerous petty kingdoms… and created a military turbulence and a political weakness that were soon exploited by Chandragupta Maurya” (Gokhale 25). The young, strong, and ruthless Chandragupta, an opportunist with Kautalya’s encouragement, took advantage of this time to seize power. Under Chandragupta, the empire enjoyed great success. Much of the wealth came from widespread foreign trade with Greece, Rome, and China.

The affluence was not gained for him, but he used the wealth to improve his empire, including irrigation systems and new roads. His example of investing in the empire would later be seen with Ashoka. Megasthenes, a Greek historian living in India at the time, recorded his personal observations concerning the Mauryan rule in Indika. Gokhale quoted excerpts from Indika: Ashoka’s father, Bindusara, extended the Mauryan Empire and conquered the land between the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea. At the time of Bindusara’s death, about 273 BCE, almost the entire Indian subcontinent was part of the Mauryan Dynasty.

The only troublesome territory was Kalinga on the eastern coast. His son, Ashoka, would eventually obtain this area by brutal force and regret thisaction for the rest of his life. Ashoka was next in line to rule the flourishing Mauryan Dynasty. During the first years of Ashoka’s rule, he was as warlike as his grandfather conquering tribes in the east and earning the name “one without sorrow. ” The province of Kalinga, a rich and fertile land outside Ashoka’s empire, remained independent and was particularly troublesome to him.

Ashoka determined that the future of his empire was threatened, if he did not control Kalinga. Another motive for wanting control of this province was that valuable trade routes passed through it. About 261 BCE in the eighth year of his reign, Ashoka marched towards Kalinga. King Ashoka’s reaction to the battle was unique. “Never before in the history of humanity, nor afterwards, has a king publicly expressed genuine grief for a deed commonly regarded as the legitimate business of kings. The war of Kalinga was the first and last war waged by Ashoka” (Gokhale 59).

History did not record exactly when Ashoka converted to Buddhism, but his own words in stone certainly recorded the impact this battle had on his moving towards the non-violent doctrine of Buddhism. Some historians believed that Ashoka had already converted before the battle at Kalinga. Scholars felt his commitment to the non-violent doctrine of Buddhism simply grew after he witnesses the destruction (Guruge 52). Using the dates of K. Rangaswami, Ashoka was crowned as king and joined the Buddhists as a laymen the same year, 269 BCE (145). The battle at Kalinga was fought three years later.

Rock inscriptions found in three different sites said: “I did not progress well for a year. ” Another important piece to understanding why Ashoka chose Buddhism was his upbringing. His early education under Hindu beliefs paralleled particular Buddhist doctrine, including the importance of one’s dharma, or moral duty. Ashoka was raised under the teachings Kautalya, a Brahmin and a contemporary of Aristotle. Kautalya’s ideologies regarding a king’s responsibilities were recorded in his book, Arthashastra, literally meaning principles of wealth.

The writings expanded beyond wealth to a pragmatic philosophy regarding all the responsibilities of statehood: taxation, administration, law, diplomacy, trade, labor, and land occupancy. The Arthashastra explained that a king had two objectives: “one of which was the exercise of power, and the other the practice of benevolence” (Gokhale 39). This balance was ingrained in the Mauryan rulers as all three were raised under Kautalya’s principles of statehood. Kautalya taught that power “could be legitimate only if used in pursuit of the dharma” (Gokhale 38). Dharma was a central concept in both Hinduism and Buddhism.

Ashoka embraced the doctrine of dharma before his conversion for this belief was part of Kautalya’s training. Buddhism was appealing to this king because he was comfortable with dharma. The Mauryan king eventually rejected the Brahmin’s teaching regarding the necessary show of force, and became infamous for proclaiming dharma in every area of government. Who was personally responsible for Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism? The rock and pillar inscriptions did not give one-person credit. History recorded a few personal encounters Ashoka had with Buddhists: his nephew, a monk in northern India and his first wife.

These experiences were a positive influence in his choice of Buddhism. Ashoka throughout his whole life, before and after conversion, was tolerant and respectful of all religions. Not only did he permit all faiths to worship freely, he often invited them to the palace for their advice. Mahavamsa, a Sri Lankan Buddhist text from the fifth century CE, told the tale of how dissatisfied Ashoka was after a session with Brahmins and holy men of other sects regarding the distribution of charity moneys (Gokhale 61). He stood by the palace window and noticed a young man, Nigrodha.

It turned out that Nigrodha was his nephew, the son of Ashoka’s elder brother, who had been killed in a struggle for the throne after Bindusara. Given audience with the king, his nephew preached a sermon; Ashoka heard Buddhist doctrine from a family relation. The Sanskrit Buddhist text, Divyavadana gave a monk, Upagupta, the credit for Ashoka’s conversion. A whole sequence of Buddhist stories concerning Ashoka, the proverbial poster child for this religion, was quite contradictory making it hard to give them much credence. Buddhist texts tended to glorify Ashoka’s conversion (understandably so for he was great advertisement).

Regardless, one can imagine that a personal encounter with a very convincing monk made an impression on Ashoka. The most historically documented encounter Ashoka had with Buddhism was with Devi, his first wife. At approximately age eighteen, Ashoka was given the responsibility to govern Avanti, a province in central India. Here tribal villages were often rebelling against their incorporation into the Mauryan Dynasty. Avanti was vital to the Mauryan Empire for its agriculture (wheat in particular), its trade, and its commerce (Gokhale 39).

This province was a center for Buddhism with two major monasteries located near important trade routes that connected southern and western cities. The deeply entwined political and religious climate during Ashoka’s lifetime was an important clue in understanding his choice of Buddhism. Hinduism, the major religion at the time of Ashoka, began between 2000 BCE and 1500 BCE with the entrance of the Aryans, nomadic herders from central Asia. By the third century BCE, Buddhism (still considered a sect) was emerging as an adversary to many Hindu social values, in particular the priestly hierarchy.

History would later show that it was Ashoka’s attention to Buddhism that was the catalyst for its growth into a major religion in India. Economically, Buddhism was advantageous to Ashoka, also. Partially due to the Buddhist influence, the Indian social hierarchy started to see a transfer in power. Buddha’s teachings encouraged the people to reevaluate the Brahmin traditions, including the need for priests. The authority of the Brahmins was slowly shifting away to favor the merchant class. Prior to the Mauryan Dynasty and certainly during it, India was enjoying strong economical advantages.

The development of trade and commerce was partially due to the growth of several trade routes crisscrossing northern, central, and western India. Many factors contributed to Ashoka’s conversion and choice of Buddhism. Ashoka had many emotional, pre-existing connections to move him in the direction of a non-violent philosophy. The battle at Kalinga produced a deep-rooted emotional response as he declared in a rock edict that he was filled with remorse, sorrow and regret. His personal encounters with a nephew, a monk, and, most importantly, a woman he loved, Devi, all contributed to favorably looking towards Buddhism.

As the ruler of the Mauryan Dynasty, he wanted to provide the best for his people, and politically, Buddhism was becoming more popular than the ritualistic Brahmin ways. With many encounters with this rising religion, it was not surprising to see the third ruler of the Mauryan Dynasty embrace Buddhism. Ashoka Maurya transformed himself and his state before the very eyes of his people. He changed from a ruler trained in the Indian tradition of military conquest to a benevolent monarch. His desire for his people was inscribed in stone: “All men are my people…

I desire that they be provided with complete welfare and happiness in this world” (Kalinga RE 1). India for him was now a large family over whom he presided with the Buddhism as his guide. The concept of dharma was not solitary to Buddhism alone. Hindus, Jains and other popular sects at that time included a code of ethics. Dharma was part of the currency of ethical norms propounded by various teachers (Thapar 32). What made Ashoka unique was that as the most powerful man on the Indian subcontinent, he adopted a policy of goodness to all (previous enemies included) and non-violence in domestic and foreign affairs.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 22 September 2016

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