By Jayaram V
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This article describes the history of Buddhism during
the Mauryan period and how the efforts of Asoka contributed to the
spread of Buddhism outside the Indian subcontinent to other parts
of the world.
By the time Asoka became the emperor, Buddhism was already
a well established religion in several parts of the Indian subcontinent,
competing vigorously with other religious movements, especially
the dominant Brahminical religion with its roots deep in several
parts of the subcontinent, and the nascent Jainism that was competing
for supremacy in certain pockets of the country having secured the
support of eminent personalities like Chandragupta Maurya and the
royal patronage of the kings of Orissa in the east.
Asoka began his career in a controversial manner. We do not have
detailed accounts of his ealry life, but it seems his accession
to the throne was not smooth. According to traditional accounts,
he had to wage a war of succession against his own brothers for
nearly four years and kill them all before ascending the throne.
During the early part of his reign he led several campaigns either
to suppress rebellions or expand his empire. He established
friendly relations with foreign powers but maintained a policy of
conquest within the subcontinent.
The Kalinga war brought a radical change in his thinking and
approach heralded an era of peace within the subcontinent. He became
convinced about the evils of war and converted to the path of Buddhism
and the philosophy of non-violence. His direct involvement with
Buddhism, led to the expansion of Buddhism on unprecedented scale
to the far corners of India and the outside world.
Available evidence suggest that although he was converted to
Buddhism, he maintained a very tolerant attitude towards other faiths
and treated his subjects fairly irrespective of their religious
beliefs. He preached and propagated a form of Dhamma or the
law of piety in his empire which was partly Buddhist, partly Brahmnical
and partly administrative or empirical in its approach.
While personally following the teachings of the Buddha and spending
time in the company of the Buddhist monks, Asoka maintained a very
tolerant attitude towards other religions. Despite his interest
in the Buddhist way of life, he did not abdicate his responsibilities
as the emperor. His inscriptions suggest that he worked relentlessly
for the welfare of the people whom he considered as his children.
He gave them generous donations and allowed them to preach and practice
their respective religions in his empire. He also gave donations
for building cave dwellings for a religious sect named Ajivakas.
Although he propagated his law of piety with the flavor of Buddhism,
he called himself devanampriya or the beloved of the gods.
In many ways his law of piety was above sectarian approach. It represented
his effort to resolve the social, moral and religious issues of
his time in a secular manner without adding to the religious tension
that was already brewing between the orthodox and the the heterodox
sections of society. Asokas' Dhamma was more a code of conduct
used to inculcate moral discipline and social responsibility among
his people than a theological sermon intended to convert them to
However there is little doubt that his commitment to the
cause of Buddhism was unquestionable. He gave up vihara yatras or
tours of pleasure and instead went on dharma yatras or tours of
piety to preach Buddhism. He replaced his policy of political
conquest with that of Dhamma Vijaya or the conquest of the
Dhamma. He instructed important members of his administration to
go on tours and preach the Dhamma to the masses. He got the relics
of the Buddha recovered from the earlier stupas and redistributed
them at various other places by building several new stupas. He
also played a prominent role in convening the third Buddhist Council
to resolve several issues concerning Buddhism. Because of his direct
patronage, Buddhism became very popular in various parts of India
and led to the establishment of several Buddhist centers, especially
the places like the present day Andhrapradesh, Maharashtra, Madhyapradesh,
Orissa and Karnataka. He dispatched Buddhist missions to various
parts of the world, such as present day Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt,
Cyrene, Macedonia and Emirus. Within the subcontinent, he sent missionaries
to several places. like Kashmir, the Himalayan country, Maharashtra,
Varanasi, Mysore and so on.
While we do not know much about the impact his missions to other
countries created, his mission to Ceylon was a great success. It
contributed directly to the spread of Buddhism in the island country.
Because of his efforts, Buddhism was an instant success in Ceylon.
According to the Chronicles of Ceylon, Mahendra (Mahinda), who was
either a brother or son of Asoka, went to Ceylon, where he converted
the king and his 40000 subjects to Buddhism. It was followed by
another mission, which was headed by Sanghamitra, who was said to
be a daughter of Asoka himself. According to tradition she carried
along with her a branch of the original Bodhi tree under which the
Buddha got enlightenment and planted it there in the Ceylonese soil.
The tree that grew out of the sapling is still there for visitors
to see. Sanghamitra converted many female members of the Ceylonese
royal family to Buddhism.
Post Mauryan Period
After the death of Asoka, the Mauryan empire declined. But Buddhism
grew in strength. The Sungas succeeded the Mauryans in the north.
They were staunch supporters of the orthodox Brahmincial religion
and revived the vedic practices. Some of them were very hostile
to Buddhism. Pushaymitra Sunga, one of the most prominent Sunga
rules and hero of the literary work "Malaviakagnimitram",
said to have indulged in the religious persecution of Buddhist monks
in his empire and rewarded those who persecuted the Buddhist monks.
The Bactrian Greeks who invaded India during this time, brought
under their control the whole part of what is now known as Western
Pakistan and parts of northern India comprising Malwa, parts of
Rajastahn, modern U.P and Bihar. Little is known about their religious
and social institutions. Some of them adopted Buddhism and supported
it like king Menander who ruled Punjab, with Sakala as his capital
and was acclaimed by the Buddhist texts as a great warrior king.
The famous Pali Buddhist text, Milindapatha, records his conversations
with monk Nagasena.
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Suggested Further Reading