Asoka’s religion presents two prominent aspects, namely, his personal faith in Buddhism, and his desire to propagate a universal Dharma or Law.
His personal religion was Buddhism which he embraced after the Kalinga War.
In his Rock Edict at Maski, he described himself as a Buddha-Sakya.
His Bhabru Rock Edict shows his faith in the Buddhist Trinity, namely, Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. In his role as a monarch-missionary he did everything possible to advance the cause of Buddhism. According to tradition, it was Sannyasi Upagupta who converted Asoka, and worked as his spiritual guide, and accompanied the Emperor on pilgrimage to Buddhist holy places.
Asoka, however, did not desire to impose his personal religion on his subject population in India. Instead, he propagated a universal religion, acceptable to the people of all creeds and faiths. In his Edicts he inscribed the substance of this universal religion for the knowledge of the masses. This religion or Dharma was not Buddhism. It had no dogma or rigid doctrines. It was like a code of morals, containing the essence of all religions. It was, in fact, like a lesson in ethics, virtues and morality. The purpose of this religion was the elevation of mankind to a higher level of existence.
It is seen, therefore, that his inscriptions do not contain the Buddhist doctrines of Arya Satya. Noble Eightfold Path or Nirvana, It contained instead the laws of eternal and universal goodness. He preached: “Obedience must be rendered to mother and father, likewise to elders; kindness must be shown towards animals, truth must be spoken, these some moral virtues must be practised. In the same way the pupil must show reverence to the master, and one must behave in a suitable manner towards relatives”. Asoka says in his Pillar Edicts:”Happiness in this world and in the other world is difficult to secure without great love of morality, careful examination, great obedience, and great fear of sin”.
He perched the value of the virtues of life, such as, Daya or kindness, Satyam or truthfulness, Saucham or the inner and outer purity, Sadhuta or saintliness, Samyama or control of senses, Bhauasuddhi or purity of heart, and Samacharanam or equal treatment to all. Asoka himself practised equal treatment to all sects, religions, castes and communities that lived in his Vast empire and worked for the common good of all people. His tolerance towards the Brahmanic faith even when he was a staunch Buddhist is proved by the fact that he was a believer in gods, calling himself as the Beloved of the Gods (Devanam-priya). His respect for Brahmanas and Sramanas and for all ascetics is known from his Edicts.
Asoka’s universal Dharma aimed at spiritualising human character. He instructed, therefore, to give up violence, anger, cruelty, pride anti envy, and to develop gentleness. He did not give importance to outer ceremonies. Punya came from correct conduct. The moral values, not the material, were the true rewards of life. Thus that Asoka thought of and preached a common Dharma or Law for all men. His was a new message acceptable to all. He thus ranks, says Professor Radha Kumud Mookerji, “as the founder or the father of Universal Religion”.
Regarding Asoka as a Buddhist, he decided to preach Buddhism as a missionary. But, he did it not with any sectarian zeal. He preached Buddhism as a code of ethics for the moral elevation of his subject population, of the officers of the state, and also of the people of the neighbouring countries. It was like a spiritual mission on part of a king.
Asoka adopted several measures as a missionary of which the following are noteworthy. These measures resulted both in the spread of Buddhism as a religion, and in the spread of the universal Dharma among the people in general. It should be remembered that the Teachings of Buddha and many doctrines of Buddhism, except its formal aspects, pointed to morality, ethics and virtues of a universal character, meant for all men.
In the past, the kings in their customary way used to go out on pleasure-tours or Vihar-Yatra. Those were mainly meant for hunting animals, sports and games. Asoka gave up this practice. Instead of Vihara-Yataras, he undertook Dharma-Yatra to preach and propagate Dharma. The monarch- missionary travelled to many corners of his empire with Buddhist monks and Bhikshus in this remarkable new campaign.
He visited Bodh-Gaya where Buddha got his Enlightenment. He went to the Lumbini Garden where Buddha was born. He travelled to other holy places, associated with the life of Buddha. Wherever the royal preacher went, he attracted people, and instructed them to follow the Dharma.
Asoka’s Dharma-Yatra yielded three main results. The holy places of Buddhism received greater attention and special veneration from the people at large. Secondly; the spiritual discourses which followed such visits drew numberless men towards the religion of Buddha. And, thirdly, the Buddhist Sangha at all those places received a new vigour for more enthusiastic activities.
A much more permanent and effective measure than the religious tours was the erection of the Dharma-Stambhas or the pillar of religious sayings. With unlimited resources at disposal Asoka undertook the construction of such pillars at different places of his empire.
The noble principles of virtuous conduct and moral living were engraved on imperishable stones to exist for generations and centuries. Those writings on the pillar were the Dharma Lipis or sacred letters depicting the essence of the universal law. The Dharma Stambhas stood like a source of instruction to countless men who saw and read them. Containing the lessons for a truly pious life, those pillars left their deep impact on people’s mind.
Asoka appointed a set of officers known as the Dharma Mahamatras for propagation and promotion of Dharma among the common people. These officials were like the educators of the subjects and like their guides for their moral and material well-being. In the length and breadth of the Maurya Empire, there lived people of many faiths and many sects.
Asoka wanted them to live together in peace and happiness and practice their faiths rightly. The Dharma Mahamatras were instructed to look to that work, and to regulate good relations among different people while keeping them all on right lines. These officers were also required to discharge charitable and philanthropic duties, and to carry a spiritual consciousness to the mind of men.
It was the intense desire of Asoka that his subjects should hear and know the actual meaning of Dharma. For this he ordered the royal officers, such as, the Rajukas, Pradesikas and the Dharmayuktas to go out on tour every five years to preach religious doctrines among the people.
These instructions were of moral and ethical nature for leading a nobler life. When the higher officers of the state moved about teaching Dharma, people in large number felt attracted to it. It had a deep influence on people’s mind. Asoka was thus not only a missionary himself but also he turned his officers into missionaries for the cause of universal Dharma.
The earlier kings showed their power and terrified other people on their frontiers by the Bheri Ghosha or the ‘Rever beration of the War Drum’. It was like a threat of invasion or war, and of conquest by force of arms. Asoka gave up this customary practice of the stronger kings. Instead, he adopted the practice of Dharma-Ghosha or the ‘Reverberation of the Dharma or Law’. The aim of this new policy was to conquer others by the force of love.
Inside Asoka’s Empire there were many turbulent tribes who lived in dense forests and were afraid of no power. Such people also lived on the outskirts of the empire. Outside the frontiers of the empire there were hostile peoples as well. Towards such people, both internal and external, Asoka adopted the policy of peace. He wanted to convert them to his new universal religion for a non-violent and peaceful existence.
He sent Buddhist monks to preach among those people the gospels of Dharma. His Dharma-Ghosha announced the policy of peace towards all. He called upon the forest dwellers as well as the outside elements not to expect any show of force from him, while asking them to come nearer to the Dharma. Asoka’s Dharma-Ghosha was indeed a new and novel experiment in political history.
For monarchs everywhere, conquest by war was a necessary virtue. The powerful kings knew no limit to their ambition for conquests. They wanted to extend the frontiers of their territory as far as possible. In ancient India, the Dig-Vijaya was regarded as the kingly duty of any powerful king.
Asoka, in his new role after the Kalinga War, gave up the policy of Dig-Vijaya. He adopted in its place the principle of Dharma-Vijaya. It was an ambitious mission on his part to extend his conquest by Dharma to far-away lands across countries and continents.
Asoka sent his ambassadors of peace or Dharma-Dutas to the courts of his contemporary kings who ruled in the Western Hemisphere. The success of his mission pleased the Emperor so much that he proudly proclaimed his achievement in his Thirteenth Rock Edict in the following words:
“The Beloved of the Gods considers victory by Dharma to be the best victory. Moreover, the Beloved of the Gods has obtained such victory in all outlying states to a distance of six hundred yojanas where reigns the Yavana (Greek) King named Antiyoka (Antiochus) and beyond the realm of that Antiyoka in the lands of the four kings named Turamaya (Ptolemy), Antikini (Antigonus), Maga (Magas) and Alikasundara (Alexander), and in the south over the lands of the Cholas and Pandyas as far as Tamraparni (Ceylon). While satisfied with his success abroad, Asoka also felt proud to see the effect of his Dharma-Vijaya inside the country.
As he says:
“Likewise, here in the imperial territories among the Yonas (Greeks), Kombojas, Nabhakas and Nabhapamits, among the Bhojas and Pitinikas, Andhras and Paradas, everywhere people follow the inculcation of Dharma of the Beloved of the Gods. Even in those lands where the envoys of the Beloved of the Gods have not paid visit people hearing of the account of Dharma, the precepts and inculcation of Dharma of the Beloved of the Gods act according to Dharma and would continue to do that”.
Asoka’s Dharma Vijaya thus, was a unique exercise for the spread of morals inside and outside. His peace missions to West Asia and the Greek main lands no doubt carried the Influence of Indian thoughts about universal peace, piety, non-violence, and human brotherhood to the Western mind. No monarch of ancient world could have thought of such a cultural conquest by contact. It is obvious that the first lessons of Buddhist philosophy entered into Western Asia and beyond through Asoka’s ambassadors of peace.
Spread of Buddhism Outside:
While the above noted activities of Asoka awakened a new spiritual consciousness among the Indian people, and also outside, Asoka played a more direct role in the spread of Buddhism outside the geographical frontiers of India. The conversion of the people of Sri Lanka or Ceylon to Buddhism was due to Asoka’s remarkable missionary zeal. No monarch could have done what Asoka did in that respect. He sent his own son Mahendra and daughter Sanghamitra to that island- kingdom to preach Buddhism. Describing the event of Sanghamitra’s journey to Ceylon as mentioned in the Ceylonese Chronicles, the historian W.A. De Silva writes the following in his ‘History of Buddhism in Ceylon’:
“Emperor Asoka decided on sending a token of the Great and Enlightened One (Buddha) to the land of Lanka and prepared a branch of the Bodhi Tree under which the Lord attained Enlightenment. He planted the branch in a golden vessel and when it had taken root, conveyed it to the ship, himself carrying the branch of the tree on his head and deposited within the ship….Princess Sanghamitra and her attendants embarked on the same ship….. The ship sailded from Tamralipti and arrived at the port of Lanka in seven days”.
Being the richest emperor of the world at that time, Asoka sent his daughter as a bhikshuni to Ceylon where she preached Buddhism for many years till her death. An entire country outside India thus embraced the religion of Buddha.
It is known form the Ceylonese Chronicles, Mahavamsa and Dipavamsa, that Asoka sent his missionaries to preach Buddhism in Suvarnabhumbi or Lower Burma. The names of those two preachers were Sona and Uttara. It was through Lower Myanmar that Buddhism made its way to South-East Asian countries which in course of time embraced that religion.
The Tibetan traditions uphold a theory that Asoka himself visited Khotan. But there are no evidences to establish the truth of the story. According to Buddhist traditions, Asoka’s monk-missionary named Maharakshita visited the Yavana or Greek countries for perching Buddhism.
Thus that from Asoka’s time, Buddhism entered into its future role as a mightily world religious movement.
Asoka held the Third Buddhist Council at Pataliputra. Moggaliputta Tissa presided over it. It was decided in the Council to send Buddhist Missions to various part of India, such as, Kashmir and Gandhara, Himalayan lands, Maharashtra, Mahishmandala (Mysore) and Vanavasi (North Kanara) and to outside countries, such as, Yavana or Greek country, Suvarnabhumi and Lanka. Names of some of the leaders of the missions have survived till now.
The role of Asoka as the missionary of a universal law as well as of Buddhism had no parallel in history. While his political empire had long disappeared into the darkness of the past, his religious domain remains as bright as ever, having enshrined his memory in human mind as the beloved of men.