Ashoka is the emperor who raised Buddhism to the level of the official state religion and became the founder of vegetarianism in India
Ashoka, the grandson of Chandragupta, famous for being one of the Hindu princes who came to the camp of Alexander the Great on his great campaign, and afterwards established himself as the most powerful sovereign of all Northern Hindustan. According to legend, when Chandragupta left the kingdom to live as a monk, he threw away his sword, but Ashoka found it and kept it, despite his grandfather’s warning that the sword would bring nothing but sorrow.
After ascending the throne, Ashoka expanded the boundaries of the empire, including the territories of present-day Burma, Bangladesh and parts of Afghanistan. Ashoka was rightly considered a wise and just ruler, but during this period of his life he became famous for his insatiable thirst for campaigns in the lands of other rulers, and earned the nickname Chandashok (cruel Ashoka).
After eight years of constant conquests, Ashoka’s army, for reasons that are still unclear, started a war against Kalinga, a state that was proud of its independence and people’s rule. The kingdom refused to recognize Ashoka as king, and in order to subdue his defiant neighbors, Ashoka assembled the largest army that India had ever seen up to that time.
Inhabitants of Kalinga put up incredible resistance! Women and children bravely fought the invaders, but they could not oppose Ashoka’s mighty battle-hardened army. The tsar’s chroniclers claim that 150,000 were captured and more than 100,000 were killed during the battle. Kalinga was looted and destroyed. According to legend, on the morning after the end of the war, Ashoka secretly went out to inspect the city but saw only burnt houses, corpses, and heard the groans of the wounded and the cries of women. The king felt sick and remembered his grandfather’s prophecy about a sword that brings only death and suffering. On one of the manuscripts of that time, the words of Ashoka were engraved: “What have I done? If this is victory, then what is defeat?!”
The Battle of Kalinga was the last war of Ashoka, who swore that he would never take up a sword again and renounced such evil deeds. The power of arms bowed before the power of justice, which led Ashoka to finally accept Buddhism and the laws of Dharma.
According to other sources, the formation of Ashoka’s new worldview was no less influenced by his women. The king’s second wife was the merchant’s daughter, a Buddhist woman who took care of him after his injury and tried in every possible way to soften her husband’s violent temper. Ashoka’s last love is considered to be the mysterious beauty from Kalinga – Korvaki. Either a princess or, on the contrary, a poor girl who tamed the demons in Ashoka’s heart with the power of love, and later, finding herself on the other side of the sword in the hand of her lover, proved to the king by her own example during the last battle the courage of ordinary people and the power of faith.
Transition to Buddhism
After converting to Buddhism, Ashoka became an ideal ruler and until the end of his life sought to bring people enlightenment, justice and spread the teachings of Dharma. The so-called political Model of Asokan consisted in the formation of a just society in which the function of the ruler is reflected as “the debt he owes to all living beings”:
“All people are my children. All that I wish for my children, and I wish them wealth and happiness in this world and the next, I wish for all people as well…”
One of Ashoka’s first actions was to eradicate corruption. He restored the neglected procedure of administrative reports, which he studied at all hours of the day, and required senior civil servants to undertake five-year tours of duty in various regions of the country to gain a personal insight into the lives of nobles and commoners. Ashoka introduced a new class of traveling overseers or ‘Supreme justice commissioners”, who were responsible for handling complaints based on taking into account the needs and customs of certain groups and minorities, promoted training among women as well as among young people.
Throughout his kingdom, as far as Ceylon, a system of free medical care was established for man and beast. Ashoka is praised for building veterinary hospitals. The tsar forbade bloody sacrifices to the gods and canceled the traditional hunting – the entertainment of the nobles at the time, preferring to respect the animal world, including as a transition to a vegetarian diet. The ruler’s own example became an ideal of imitation for maharajas and ordinary people.
According to the orders of Ashoka, a system was implemented against aimless burning of forests. In one of the edict inscriptions, he expressed his wish that all the inhabitants of the forests of his empire live happily. The king’s emissaries around the world collected a large number of medicinal plants and various fruit-bearing trees, which were carefully planted in places where they had not been before. The king sincerely liked to make the country even more beautiful and fertile with his own hands. It is believed that most of the plantations of today’s traditional spices appeared on the territory of India during that period and thanks to Ashoka.
Thanks were given to Ashoka for the rebuilding of cities, the flourishing of architectural art and the new road system throughout India. Bathing tanks, wells and watering places for livestock, shady trees and rest houses for travelers were all acts of social compassion.
”I planted banyan trees along the roads to provide shade and planted mango groves. I arranged wells and hotels, and in various places – water tanks for people and animals. But these are only small achievements. Former kings also created similar benefits. I did it for the sake of people following the Dharma.”
Rock inscriptions record how Ashoka sent missionaries to the extreme borders of barbarian countries to “mingle with soldiers, brahmins and beggars – outcasts and all those who are despised in our kingdom and other states – with all infidels, teaching them better things, for the spread of religion”. Conversion to the teachings of the Dharma was done by persuasion, not by the sword – in striking contrast to Islam. Buddhism was both the most intensive missionary religion in the world and the most tolerant.
The main feature of his religious policy was religious tolerance, and he followed this policy during almost the entire period of his reign. None of the religious or social groups could object to these ethical norms.
“Proper treatment of slaves and servants, respect for teachers is a good deed; refraining (from killing) living beings is a good deed; gifts of love to brahmins and sramanas are a good deed. These and other similar things are the Dharma ceremony. It should be talked about by father, son, brother, master, friend, and relative – even to the neighbor. This is what a good deed is, this is the ceremony that should take place until the goal is achieved.”
Buddhism did not become a state religion – a concept far removed from the ideology of Indians, but the movement grew rapidly at the same time as other people were fascinated by the king’s teachings. Ashoka’s messengers, preachers of the Dharma, were in Syria, Egypt during the Ptolemaic reign, Macedonia, Burma and Kashmir. He sent his own children to the island of Ceylon. As a result of the actions of the king, “an eternal traveler on the paths of the Buddha, whose path has come to an end”, thanks to the dreams of one person who was inspired by the Teachings of the Buddha, this religion spread to all countries of East Asia and far beyond.
Thanks for the inspiration: The Ethics of Diet, Howard Williams, 1883. The Library of Congress