Ashoka and Buddhism
Emperor Ashoka was the first ruler in ancient India who embraced Buddhism as a tool for the consolidation of his empire. In the reign of Bimbasara and Ajatasatru Buddhism was taking shape into a Sangha. Early Buddhism was not concerned with laymen. Asoka in contrast sought the support of Buddhism, having correctly evaluated its importance to improve the social and spiritual life of laymen.
Maurya Emperor Ashoka expressed his commitment to Buddhist Dhamma, Sangha and the Lord Buddha. While Buddhism was a regional religion prior to Ashoka, which spread only in the Gangetic valley embracing mostly monks, in Ashoka’s time the influence of the creed vastly expanded. The relation between the Buddhist Sangha and the society acquired a new character. Buddhism was transformed from a purely monkish religion and monastic movement assumed a social and great ethical character influencing the life of laymen as well, due to the zeal and labors of Ashoka. It overflowed the geographical frontiers at India.
Ashoka was full of remorse for the terrible loss of human lives in the Kalinga War. He found solace in the doctrine of non-violence of Buddhism. The doctrine of non-violence and the principles of Buddhism awakened in his mind a sense of philanthropy and a spirit of welfare for the people. Ashoka maintained that there is no higher duty than the welfare of the whole world.
Ashoka became a Buddhist in the 9th year of his reign i.e., a year after the conquest of Kalinga. It is important to remember that Ashoka’s personal attachment to Buddhism as a lay worshipper and his propagation of Dhamma are not one and the same thing. Ashoka started the propagation of his Dhamma in his 12th year of reign.
Towards the end of his reign, he started to patronize Buddhism more openly than before. He strove to restore unity in the Buddhist church. He prohibited the celebrations where meat eating was practiced.
Ashoka never sought to impose his personal religious belief on the people. One thing needs to be mentioned here that in his edicts Ashoka never refers to the name of any Buddhist saint or teacher who first converted him to Buddhism.
Looking at the inscriptions of Maurya Emperor Ashoka, we find that Ashoka did not take much effort to expound the principles of Buddhism. But he took much labor to explain the principles of his Dhamma i.e. pious behavior for the people. While outliving these moral principles, Asoka made use of the ethical non-disputing principles.