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Was Ashoka the Great's conversion to Buddhism sincere?

Ashoka's Life Before His Conversion Ashoka was born into a royal family (304 B.C.E), whose father was the Mauryan emperor Bindusara. Being born into the royal family meant that Ashoka was brought up and taught important life skills. Ashoka was probably meant to lead the empire next, that he grew up to be the favourite of his grandfather, Chandragupta Maurya, because of his excellence in both intellectual and warrior skills. With those important skills in hand, Ashoka was trained into a perfect warrior general and a shrewd statesman, after which he went on to command several regiments of the Mauryan army. He was indeed successful throughout his entire duty as a general and statesman.

Once, Emperor Bindusara’s kingdom was engaged in a violent battle that occurred in Ujjain. He believed that Ashoka is the best person to lead his army into battle, thus he summoned Ashoka to make his way to Ujjian. And so, Ashoka fought, but unfortunately he got injured during the battle. He was then treated in hiding to ensure his safety. By whom was he treated? The Buddhist. Ashoka was treated by the Buddhist monks (Bhikkhus) and nuns (bhikkunis), and this was when he first encountered the teachings of Buddha.

c. 268 B.C.E, Ashoka ascended the throne and became the ruler of the Maurya empire, which grew significantly during his rule. It extended from the present day boundaries of Bangladesh and the state of Assam in India in the east all the way to the territory of present day Iran and Afghanistan in the west, as seen from the map above.

Kalinga War - The Turning Point

Ashoka then continued his conquest of Kalinga (c. 260 B.C.E) during his 8th year of rule. The attack began because of the betrayal of trust committed by one of Ashoka’s brothers, Susima, as he fled to Kalinga to seek refuge there. Initially, Ashoka sent a letter to the King of Kalinga to ask for full submission of Kalinga to the Mauryan empire. The king, however, rejected the submission because Kalinga was seen as the most powerful state which can never be defeated. Because of this, Ashoka marched a huge army to Kalinga and defeated even the most skilled commander-in-chief of Kalinga. The whole state of Kalinga was then turned into a bloody battlefield, the most violent of all battles which resulted in the death of 100 000 people including 10 000 from Ashoka’s army.

Ashoka's Conversion - Sincere or Strategic?

When discussing accounts of conversion of historical figures, we must always be wary and critical of these accounts as they tend to elevate these figures. After all, the Ashokavadana, the Indian Sanskrit-language text that described his life, has been known to greatly exaggerate his viciousness before conversion and then his piousness after. However, in the case of Ashoka, his conversion to Buddhism seemed to be sincere, as he was given the title Dharmasoka (“the pious Ashoka”) after his conversion, which is no doubt a step up from his previous tile, Chandasoka (“the wicked Ashoka”). Despite his almost undeniable sincerity though, we have to question if his implementation of policies based on Buddhist ideals was a result of his sincerity or if the policies were mainly strategies he adopted to maintain periods of stability in his kingdom.

Around 260 BCE, Ashoka made Buddhism the state religion by developing and implementing policies that mirrored the teachings of Buddha. He published 14 edicts into his policies by carving the inscriptions onto rocks, pillars and caves, and these edicts were based largely on Buddha’s ‘Ten Royal Virtues’ (“Dasa-Raja Dhamma”). His 14 edicts preached the importance of peace, honesty and respect by teaching Dharma. The Mauryan empire thrived under these policies, not only gaining economic prosperity, but also political. His peaceful approach also ensured the establishments of educational institutions that spread the Buddhist teachings. While many may argue that these acts were tools psychological tools for social cohesion, we believe that these educational institutions serve as further proof of his pure intentions to spread Buddhism. They served as evidences of his efforts to spread peace by sending mercenaries and in some sources, even his sons and daughters, to educate his people.

Another reason critics doubt his sincerity is because they have argued that Ashoka was afraid of the prospect of more violence and bloodshed after the Kalinga War. Hence, by implementing Buddhist policies that spread peace, the Mauryan Empire would not be subjected to conflicts with its’ neighbours and would therefore be spared of further bloodshed. While it is true that the Buddhist policies deterred further bloodshed, we also cannot ignore the fact that Asoka’s pacifism did not undermine the military strength of his kingdom. The Mauryan Empire continued to be one of the strongest empires among its neighbours, such as the Seleucid Empire and the Greco-Bectrian Empire. Therefore, this could demonstrate Ashoka’s sincerity as he was in the position to start wars and conquer other kingdoms but instead, he chose peace through the establishment of ties.

Finally, what is the most heated debate when it comes to Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism? It is whether or not he even converted in the first place. Many historians have little to no doubt about his conversion, in which they have cited that the 14 edicts he published could not have been written if he was not a Buddhist. Ashok Kumar Anand, the author of ‘Buddhism in India: From the Sixth Century BC to the Third Century AD’, could not be clearer when he remarked that the Buddhist could have chosen any other rulers to exalt their religion but it is Ashoka that is in their scriptures because he was a Buddhist. On the other hand, there are historians such as Romila Thapar who make their case by pointing out that edicts do not directly address Ashoka’s stance himself but instead address the Buddhists monks and nuns, as well as the citizens of the empire. Also, Thapar argues that Ashoka had based the edicts on Dhamma, which were more of social ethical codes than the actual teachings of Buddha. However, there seems to be more evidences that support the former more than the latter. This can be proven from the collection that Ashoka had of Buddha relics, his devotion to the Bodhi tree and his commitment to Sangha (living like Buddhist monks).

Therefore, from what we have gathered, Ashoka’s implementation of policies based on Buddhism seemed to have been sincere. The sources point to his devotion to Buddhist teachings. Social cohesion was a result of these policies, whether he intended for them to be or not. If anything, Ashoka carried the burden of his past brutalities on his shoulders after the Kalinga War, and Buddhism served as a pathway that he followed for himself and his people in order to steer clear of the disastrous results of violence and war.