# 6.10: Ashoka’s Conversion

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### Learning Objective

• Discuss the effects of Ashoka the Great’s conversion to Buddhism

### Key Points

• While the early part of Ashoka’s reign was apparently quite bloodthirsty, he became a follower of the Buddha’s teachings after his conquest of Kalinga.
• According to a contemporary text, the Edicts of Ashoka, Ashoka converted to  Buddhism because he “felt remorse on account of the conquest of Kalinga because, during the subjugation of a previously unconquered country, slaughter, death, and taking away captive of the people necessarily occur.”
• In one source, his conversion is presented as a gradual process coming from intense personal anguish, rather than spurred by a specific event.
• As a Buddhist emperor, Ashoka believed that Buddhism is beneficial for all human beings, as well as animals and plants, so he built a number of stupas. He also well spread Buddhism to neighboring kingdoms.

### Terms

#### Edicts of Ashoka

A collection of 33 inscriptions on the Pillars of Ashoka, as well as boulders and cave walls, made by the Emperor Ashoka of the Mauryan Empire during his reign, from 269 BCE to 232 BCE.

#### Dharma

Cosmic law and order, behaviors that are considered to be in accord with the order that makes life and the universe possible, including duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues, and ‘‘right way of living.” Also specifically signifies the teachings of the Buddha.

# Background: Conquest of Kalinga

While the early part of Ashoka’s reign was apparently quite bloodthirsty, he became a follower of the Buddha’s teachings after his conquest of Kalinga on the east coast of India in the present-day states of Odisha and North Coastal Andhra Pradesh. Kalinga was a state that prided itself on its sovereignty and democracy. With its monarchical parliamentary democracy, it was quite an exception in ancient Bharata where there existed the concept of Rajdharma. Rajdharma means the duty of the rulers, which was intrinsically entwined with the concept of bravery and dharma. The Kalinga War happened eight years after his coronation. From Ashoka’s 13th inscription, we come to know that the battle was a massive one and caused the deaths of more than 100,000 soldiers and many civilians who rose up in defence; over 150,000 were deported. When he was walking through the grounds of Kalinga after his conquest, rejoicing in his victory, he was moved by the number of bodies strewn there and the wails of the bereaved.

# Conversion to Buddhism

Edict 13 on the Edicts of Ashoka Rock Inscriptions reflect the great remorse the king felt after observing the destruction of Kalinga:

His Majesty felt remorse on account of the conquest of Kalinga because, during the subjugation of a previously unconquered country, slaughter, death, and taking away captive of the people necessarily occur, whereas His Majesty feels profound sorrow and regret.

The edict goes on to address the even greater degree of sorrow and regret resulting from Ashoka’s understanding that the friends and families of deceased would suffer greatly too.

Legend says that one day after the war was over, Ashoka ventured out to roam the city and all he could see were burnt houses and scattered corpses. The lethal war with Kalinga transformed the vengeful Emperor Ashoka into a stable and peaceful emperor, and he became a patron of Buddhism. According to the prominent Indologist, A. L. Basham, Ashoka’s personal religion became Buddhism, if not before, then certainly after the Kalinga War. However, according to Basham, the Dharma officially propagated by Ashoka was not Buddhism at all. Nevertheless, his patronage led to the expansion of Buddhism in the Mauryan empire and other kingdoms during his rule, and worldwide from about 250 BCE.

After the Kalinga War and Ashoka’s conversion, the Empire experienced nearly half a century of peace and security. Mauryan India also enjoyed an era of social harmony, religious transformation, and expansion of the sciences and of knowledge. Chandragupta Maurya’s embrace of Jainism increased social and religious renewal and reform across his society, while Ashoka’s embrace of Buddhism has been said to have been the foundation of the reign of social and political peace and non-violence across all of India.

# Buddhist Kingship

One of the more enduring legacies of Ashoka Maurya was the model that he provided for the relationship between Buddhism and the state. Throughout Theravada Southeastern Asia, the model of rulership embodied by Ashoka replaced the notion of divine kingship that had previously dominated (in the Angkor kingdom, for instance). Under this model of “Buddhist kingship,” the king sought to legitimize his rule, not through descent from a divine source, but by supporting and earning the approval of the Buddhist sangha. Following Ashoka’s example, kings established monasteries, funded the construction of stupas, and supported the ordination of monks in their kingdom. Many rulers also took an active role in resolving disputes over the status and regulation of the sangha, as Ashoka had by calling a conclave to settle a number of contentious issues during his reign. This development ultimately led to a close association in many Southeast Asian countries between the monarchy and the religious hierarchy, an association that can still be seen today in the state-supported Buddhism of Thailand, and the traditional role of the Thai king as both a religious and secular leader. Ashoka also said that his courtiers always governed the people in a moral manner.

As a Buddhist emperor, Ashoka believed that Buddhism is beneficial for all human beings, as well as animals and plants, so he built a number of stupas, Sangharama, viharas, chaitya, and residences for Buddhist monks all over South Asia and Central Asia. According to the Ashokavadana, he ordered the construction of 84,000 stupas to house the Buddhas relics. In the Aryamanjusrimulakalpa, Ashoka takes offerings to each of these stupas, traveling in a chariot adorned with precious metals. He gave donations to viharas and mathas. He sent his only daughter, Sanghamitra, and son, Mahindra, to spread Buddhism in Sri Lanka (then known as Tamraparni).

Stupa. Great Stupa (3rd century BC), Sanchi, India. Ashoka ordered the construction of 84,000 stupas to house the Buddhas relics.

# Debate About Ashoka’s Conversion and Rule

The use of Buddhist sources in reconstructing the life of Ashoka has had a strong influence on perceptions of Ashoka, as well as the interpretations of his Edicts. Building on traditional accounts, early scholars regarded Ashoka as a primarily Buddhist monarch who underwent a conversion to Buddhism and was actively engaged in sponsoring and supporting the Buddhist monastic institution. Some scholars have tended to question this assessment. The only source of information not attributable to Buddhist sources are the Ashokan Edicts, and these do not explicitly state that Ashoka was a Buddhist. In his edicts, Ashoka expresses support for all the major religions of his time: Buddhism, Brahmanism, Jainism, and Ajivikaism. His edicts addressed to the population at large (there are some addressed specifically to Buddhists, which is not the case for the other religions) generally focus on moral themes that members of all the religions would accept.

However, the edicts alone strongly indicate that he was a Buddhist. In one edict he belittles rituals, and he banned Vedic animal sacrifices; these strongly suggest that he at least did not look to the Vedic tradition for guidance. Furthermore, many edicts are expressed to Buddhists alone; in one, Ashoka declares himself to be an “upasaka,” and in another he demonstrates a close familiarity with Buddhist texts. He erected rock pillars at Buddhist holy sites, but did not do so for the sites of other religions. He also used the word “dhamma” to refer to qualities of the heart that underlie moral action; this was an exclusively Buddhist use of the word. Finally, he promoted ideals that correspond to the first three steps of the Buddha’s graduated discourse.

Interestingly, the Ashokavadana, presents an alternate view of the familiar Ashoka. In this source, his conversion has nothing to do with the Kalinga War or his descent from the Maurya dynasty. Instead, Ashoka’s reason for adopting non-violence appears much more personal. The Ashokavadana shows that the main source of Ashoka’s conversion, and the acts of welfare that followed, are rooted instead in intense personal anguish, from a wellspring inside himself rather than spurred by a specific event. It thereby illuminates Ashoka as more humanly ambitious and passionate, with both greatness and flaws. This Ashoka is very different from the “shadowy do-gooder” of later Pali chronicles.