page contents

Next Stop, Nirvana

Maurya and Ashoka

          The Mauryan Empire, in the history of Buddhism, was as Darian (1977) would say, the “champions of Buddhism”. Since the Mauryan Empire played a huge role in spreading Buddhism worldwide, it is important that we understand how Buddhism spread within the Mauryan empire itself which led to changes in their political and social system. This post will talk about the life of Ashoka and how by choosing and practising Buddhism, he introduced the sacred religion to the Mauryan Empire.

 GIF from tumblr

GIF from tumblr

All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.
— Buddha

The Prophecy Untold

Our story begins with a man named Siddhartha Gautama1 (p. 1). Being born into a royal family, he was brought up to be nothing else but a successor - sheltered, and pampered. He was isolated from the outside world and protected from the dangers and misfortune. Ultimately, his curiosity got the better of him and he often snuck out of the palace to see the outside world. During his little escapades, he met a sick man, an aging man and a dying man. Shocked by this revelation, he left the palace entirely to seek true enlightenment. However, his attempts to learn from other holy men by avoiding all physical comforts and pleasures failed and almost costed him his life. Only when he reflected on the compassion he had for insects as a child, did he find a profound sense of peace. He finally reached the highest form of enlightenment, Nirvana.

He recognised that all beings are unified through suffering and the best method to address this is to live in moderation also known as the middle way. After his death, his followers gathered his scripts and other sayings and converted them into guides for new followers. And one of the most prominent followers in time to come, was the Great King, Ashoka.

  1. He was known as “The Enlightened One” or simply, The Buddha.

The Kalinga War

MaxxL, Mauryan Empire, April 18 (2014), Public Domain.

          Ashoka was known as the “Slayer of Enemies”. He was responsible for the province of Ujjain, while his brother Susima was accountable for Taxila during the reign of Bindusara as king. Susima was not successful at suppressing the constant rebellion from the locals and hence, Ashoka was summoned to take over. Ashoka proved himself capable so after the exodus of Bindusara, he was named king. As Ashoka took over in 268 BCE, he realized that his empire was constantly at threat from Kalinga and trade was hindered by the rebellion. Thus, he marched into Kalinga and invaded the land.

As far as the eye could see, there were corpses of elephants, horses, and soldiers. There were streams of blood and wounded soldiers writhing in pain on the ground. Widows and fatherless children were crying.
— Matsuk, Anne Morningstar

          Instead of the usual merriment felt after a victory, Ashoka was filled with deep anguish and remorse from the sight of dead bodies. It created a turmoil within him and at that moment, he knew he needed to search for something greater, spiritually. And so, he searched across the land for something that would ultimately appease his emotional state of confusion and unrest.

The Meeting

With the sheer force of his determination to maintain peace. Ashoka found relief in Buddhism. He found peace with the teachings of Buddha, primarily in The Four Noble Truths1 & Eightfold Path2.

  1. In the buddha’s scripts, The Buddha preached The Four Noble Truths : The Truth of Suffering, The truth of the Cause of Suffering, The Truth of the End of Suffering and the Truth of the path that leads to the End of Suffering.
  2. The Buddha believed that one can move beyond suffering by going through The Eightfold Path . It has followers taking the right actions which includes, Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

          Seeing the need to implement change in his empire, he fused Buddhism and material needs. It was to ensure that the original teachings of Buddha: to see that suffering in humans be lifted. It took years but ultimately, The change would elevate his empire to greater heights.

Why Ashoka Chose to Spread Buddhism

Taking over the empire with the ideals of his ancestors, it was natural for Ashoka to fight battles for expansion. Ashoka was brought up by the tradition of the Mauryans who embraced Jainism 3 and these teachings were passed down to him through the writings and scripts of Kautalya1. The Mauryan empire established severe punishment laws – even imposing the death penalty. However, the Kalinga war became a turning point for him. He realised that he could no longer subscribe to the ritualistic form of Jainism that was spread by the Brahmins2(p. 68). Thus, led him to move towards the non-violent principles of Buddhism.

Similarly, the Mauryans found that they could no longer accept the philosophy of Jainism and became attracted to Buddhism instead. During that time, many of the Mauryans (members of the empire in general) were still embracing Jainism – the most prevalent religion. However, developments of the religion into allowing rituals like animal sacrifice and elevating the status of the Brahmins made the masses lose faith (pp. 22-23). Since Buddha based his preaching on respect and non-violence, it was no surprise that Buddhism resonated well with the people. As a result, many significant changes occurred during Ashoka's ruling after Buddhism came into the picture.

  1. also known as Chanakya, the teacher of Chandragupta (Ashoka's grandfather).
  2. Brahmin is a varna (class, caste) in Hinduism specialising as priests of sacred learning across generations.
  3. Jainism is an ancient Indian religion. The central beliefs are on non-violence and respect for all living beings.


How Buddhism influenced governance and policies during Ashoka's rule

As a ruler, Ashoka made use of his power as king to his advantage. During his reign, the way of governance was changed quite significantly, a different, but not necessarily disadvantageous change. Due to the complexity of the term “dhamma” (or also known as "dharma"), Ashoka had to find a way to clarify his comprehension in order to spread it to his subjects (p.31). As such, he expressed his understanding through changes in regulations. However, according to Thapar in Ashoka -- A Retrospective (2009), even though Ashoka comprehended dhamma as a “code of ethical behaviour and the benefits thereof”, in public, dhamma and Buddhist teaching were not likened (p.31). This is interesting as while there are several sources which discuss that Ashoka did explicitly spread Buddhism during his rule, Thapar suggested otherwise, and that Ashoka never made similarities between the two publicly to keep some form of neutrality. In addition, during his rule, Ashoka often emphasised about having “unequal relationships”, which is intriguing since at that time, the Mauryans lived by the social caste system (p.32). Furthermore, Buddhism appealed to rulers of kingdoms as there is no caste system that would determine rank and power. Therefore, Buddhism diminishes the authority and power of conventional rank castes (p.230). Consequently, it intrigued other political leaders to find out more about Buddhism, eventually leading to Buddhism being spread outside of India.

How Buddhism affected the lives of Mauryans

Additionally, Buddhism also influenced the lives of the Mauryans positively. Ashoka established a class of officers whom he labelled as “Dharmamahamatras" 1. Not only were they tasked to ensure that people abided to the King’s Law of Piety, but also to ensure the well-being of his subjects (p.32). After converting to Buddhism, Ashoka also banned festival meetings where sacrificial killings were often created (p.27) since Buddha often preached about treating animals with more care. Ashoka was attentive to the well-being of animals too and ordered for several animal hospitals to be built (p.33). It is evident that Ashoka made great efforts to integrate the teachings of Buddhism into the society through the political system.

    1. otherwise known as "superintendents of morals".


How Buddhism was further spread through the creation of Ashoka's pillars

Burjor Avari, Edicts of Ashoka (2007). CC BY-SA 3.0.

You may also have heard about the edicts of Ashoka built during his regime. However, unlike their political system, the edicts of Ashoka 1 did not have much impact on the Mauryans’ lives, but instead, it served as a platform to spread Buddhism within and outside of the Mauryan Empire, which is one of our main topic of discussions in this blog post. Most of the edicts were written in Prakrit 2 . As a result, the use of Prakrit in the engravings allowed for the messages to reach and be understood by a sizable amount of readers (p.37). Ashoka’s spreading of Buddhism didn’t stop even until his last edict, the Seventh Pillar Edict3. Interestingly, the Rock Edicts tell a story of the progress of the political system during the Mauryan period too. For instance, “officers of Dhamma” did not exist before that but was later introduced by Ashoka and written in Edict V4.

Additionally, other regulations such as always keeping the king up to date with any business transactions, have since been modified (p.68). As can be seen in the picture above, the edicts of Ashoka were spread out around the Mauryan territory, but were mostly located near the borders of territories. As such, Buddhism was able to “spill-over” to neighbouring countries too. The existence of these edicts increased the awareness of not only the locals, but also foreigners/visitors, of the underlying Buddhism’s teachings in them.

  1. The Edicts of Ashoka are a collection of 33 inscriptions on the Pillars of Ashoka as well as boulders and cave walls made by the Emperor Ashoka of the Mauryan Empire during his reign from 269 BCE to 232 BCE.
  2. Through the use of Prakrit, it overcame political barriers and even religious-related ties.
  3. The Seventh Pillar Edict spoke about how dhamma had taught its followers about values through law and constitutions(niyama), and also through assurance and persuasiveness (nijjhatti) (p.37).
  4. which was discussed in the previous section of this post.


Buddhism is popular today in many parts of the world. However, in the past, it was a pretty uncommon sight, having few monks and nuns meditating in nature. Ashoka, after converting to buddhism, spread the religion through various ways such as making use of his political authority and even creating the “pillars of Ashoka”, built around Mauryan territory, in hopes that others would experience the same thing he did. Thanks to his efforts, Buddhism eventually spread throughout the world, even after his death, and branched into two forms, Mahayana 1 Buddhism and Theravada 2 Buddhism.

  1. one of the two major traditions of Buddhism, now practised especially in China, Tibet, Japan, and Korea. The tradition emerged around the 1st century AD and is typically concerned with personal spiritual practice and the ideal of the bodhisattva.
  2. Theravada Buddhism is strongest in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Burma (Myanmar). It is sometimes called 'Southern Buddhism'. The name means 'the doctrine of the elders' - the elders being the senior Buddhist monks.



Burnouf, Eugene. History of Buddhism in India (n.d.). Publishing info: American Oriental Society

Darian, Jean. Social and economic factors in the rise of Buddhism. (Autumn 1977). Publishing info: Oxford University Press

Gohain, Hiren. Ashoka in Retrospection. (December 5-11, 2009). Publishing info: Economic and Political Weekly

Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism. (November 2012). Publishing info: Cambridge University Press

Matsuk, Anne Morningstar. A study of ashoka maurya of India: How his conversion to buddhism affected the history of India.  (Summer 2005) Publishing info: ProQuest Dissertations Publishing

Selvanayagam, Israel. Aśoka and Arjuna as counter figures standing on the field of dharma: A historical-hermeneutical perspective. (August 1992). Publishing info: The University of Chicago Press

Scialpi, Fabio. The Ethics of Aśoka and the Religious Inspiration of the Achaemenids. (September 1984). Publishing info: Istituto Italiano per l'Africa e l'Oriente (IsIAO)

Thapar, Romila. Ashoka -- A Retrospective. (November 7-13, 2009). Publishing info: Economic and Political Weekly