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History of Buddhism: The Mauryan Period



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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 Buddhism.

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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