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Ancient India and The East
King Asoka of India (?273-232 BC)

Modern reconstruction of Ashoka's portrait

Indian Emperor who elevated Buddhism to the official state religion.

from The Extended Circle by Jon Wynne-Tyson.

I have enforced the law against killing certain animals and many others, but the greatest progress of righteousness among men comes from the exhortation in favour of non-injury to life and abstention from killing living beings. - Asoka's Edicts

Extract from India - a concise history, by Francis Watson

Under Chadragupta [founder of the Mauryan dynasty] and his son Bindusura power was pushed southwards, thrusting in some form as far as the Mysore plateau. To be productive on this scale, military force required the organisation of an elaborately authoritarian state.

. . . On these remarkable foundations the great Emperor Ashoka, second in succession from Chandragupta, built something of a different quality. The edicts carved for Ashoka, with a clearly permanent intent, upon imperishable rock, the inscriptions upon the pillars of inimitably polished sandstone which he set up throughout his vast dominions, yield a new concept of kingship and indeed of the nature of man. Even when the Arthashastra's robust avoidance of cant has been conceded, its cynicism is rebuked in the contemplation of the Ashokan model: an equitable society in which the function of absolutism is translated by the ruler as 'the debt that I owe to all living creatures'.

During his first few years as emperor, Ashoka, who had previously served as governor in two secondary capitals, Taxila and Ujjain, maintained the methods of his predecessors and exerted himself to round off their legacy of an empire stretching from sea to sea, and from Kashmir to the southern Deccan, somewhat north of the present alignment of Madras and Bangalore. All that was required was the final and hard-fought subjection of the Kalingas (occupying today's Orissa on the Bay of Bengal). And it was this operation which provoked what one of his inscriptions described as 'His Sacred Majesty's remorse . . . because the conquest of a country hitherto unsubdued involves the slaughter, death and carrying away captive of the people'. The 'Law of Piety' which he thereupon adopted, and inculcated in the three or four peaceful decades remaining to his reign, was a public acceptance of the message preached two centuries before by the Buddha whose name, however, was nowhere mentioned in the inscriptions.

The postulate of a moral political economy, substituting for violent suppression a practical assault on poverty and insecurity, is one of the early features of the Buddhist canon, not implausibly ascribed to Gautama himself Ashoka's public works - the provision of free hospitals and veterinary clinics, bathing-tanks, wells and drinking places for cattle, shade trees and rest-houses for road travellers - were acts of social compassion without respect to quick returns. His revulsion from warfare, in an empire freed for the time from internal threats, reduced an extravagant army to a defence force concentrated where it might be needed, in the north-west. For the peace and settlement of his dominions, especially of the tribal areas, Ashoka introduced a new class of travelling supervisors (Kosambi translates them as 'High Commissioners of Equity') responsible for examining and redressing complaints on a basis of regard for the needs and customs of particular groups and minorities. Caste was something about which none of the Maurya dynasty seemed rigid (Chandragupta is thought to have been of mixed origin), but the tyrannizing bureaucracy of the system had produced social tensions, and Ashoka's evident objective was the reconciliation of classes. He restored the neglected routine of administrative reports, which he was ready at all times to receive and study, and he required the higher civil servants to make quinquennial tours of the different regions. His own wide and frequent journeys helped to temper the centralization of a system in which the only appearance of the ruler in the countryside had been in war or the lavish pursuit of game.

Ashoka's abandonment of the royal tradition of the chase was in line with the reverence for animal life that he showed by a vegetarian table. To his subjects blood sacrifices were forbidden, but hunting was not, except of 'non-edible' beasts and birds on protected lists. Outside the imperial household beef and other meat was openly available: the cow was not then sacred.

Buddhism did not become a state religion - a concept foreign to Indian ideas, then as now; but the movement grew rapidly with the prestige of Ashoka's support, and became known beyond India with the Emperor's missionary-embassies to Seleucid Syria, Ptolemaic Egypt and other Hellenistic kingdoms, Ceylon (where he sent his own son) and probably Nepal. Several of the innumerable stupas set up in Ashoka's reign were regarded as his personal foundation, among them the inner brick core of the Great Stupa at Sanchi. The multiplying monasteries were self-governing institutions, protected and at intervals guided by the ruler, but mainly financed - now that the rule against cash offerings had lapsed - by the laity, rich and poor. The Jains (bitter rivals in the Buddhist chronicles) also enjoyed Ashoka's patronage, pillar, and he was on good terms with the brabman priesthood, with whom remained the ritual functions connected with birth, death, marriage and at an initiation which like sacrifices were rejected in the Buddha's doctrine.

Another religious group that flourished under the benign Emperor was the resolutely independent ascetic sect of the Ajivikas. The Barabar caves in Bihar, assigned to Ajivika use by Ashoka, are the earliest in the great succession of India's rock-cut architecture. Like the railings and gates at Sanchi they imitate in stone the wooden structures which in Ashoka's reign began to be replaced also by free-standing buildings of stone. One of the fine commemorative columns, carved at this time, under evident Persian influence, bears on one of its capitals a group of four lions, today the emblem of the Republic of India.