asoka/ (worksheet 1)

Asoka’s role – the early spread of Buddhism. Who was Asoka? Buddhism’s most powerful patron – came to power as Emperor in 268BCE. He died in 239BCE. Brutal and violent military campaigns established land across much of modern India until he grew sickened by the violence and converted to the non- Because he was THE single ruler of such a vast sub-continent he was well placed to ensure the spread of Buddhism once he adopted it as his own guideline.

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Page 1: Asoka/ (worksheet 1)

Asoka’s role – the early spread of Buddhism.

Who was Asoka?Buddhism’s most powerful patron – came to power as

Emperor in 268BCE.

He died in 239BCE.

Brutal and violent military campaigns established land across much of

modern India until he grew sickened by

the violence and converted to the

non-violent values of Buddhism.

Because he was THE single ruler of such a vast sub-continent he was well

placed to ensure the spread of Buddhism once he adopted it as his own


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Asoka’s achievements.

Asoka’s contribution to Buddhism falls into two

broad categories:

1. He was responsible for the spread of Buddhism.

2. He was responsible for the beneficial application of Buddhist values to social economic and political life.

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Asoka’s achievements – the spread of Buddhism

Missionaries were sent to ‘conquer according to dharma’ to Syria, Egypt ,Macedonia, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Burma & other

parts of central and SE Asia.

Their work effectively made Buddhism a major world religion.

Asoka sent his son, the monk Mahinda, to Sri Lanka around 250 BCE – as a result of the union formed between Asoka and Prince Tissa on the island it became known as the homeland of Therevada Buddhism.

Asoka’s daughter is said to have brought a cutting of the original bodhi tree there and from the subsequent tree many cuttings have been taken for use in worship and shrines.

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….the spread of Buddhism.

• During his reign, Ashoka became an avid Buddhist practitioner, building 84,000 stupas across his empire to house the sacred relics of the Lord Buddha. State resources were given to build the stupas and also monasteries

• He sent his family on religious pilgrimages to foreign places, and staged massive assemblies so holy men from the world over could converse upon the philosophies of the day.

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Spread of Buddhism….projects in the Empire.

Once his empire was established Asoka initiated many social projects:

• Wells, reservoirs and trees for fruit & shade.

• Welfare services appeared

• Temporary financial support for ex-prisoners

• Rest houses for travellers

• Old people and orphans had to be cared for.

• Justice was made fair and equitable and torture was banned.

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Spread of Buddhism….ethical principles.

Asoka applied this to humans and animals and its believed the

entire royal household was asked

to become vegetarian.

Non-food animals such as

fish and birds were protected

Gentleness, sexual morality

and contentment were


This could be seen as a

‘compassionate society’ and was the first attempt ever to employ

Buddhist principles across an entire society.



Animal sacrifice and hunting was banned and its possible he may also have banned the death


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Asokas Edicts.

One should not only honour ones own

religion…..whoever honours his own religion and

condemns other religions does so…thinking ‘I will

glorify my own religion.’ But on the contrary , in doing so

he injures his own religion….

32 of the edicts Asoka carved have been discovered ranging from historical events to proclamations about how to live together morally – one edict exhorted a climate of religious tolerance…

Elsewhere edicts stipulate that:

Buddhists should behave responsibly, obey parents and superiors, help the poor and sick, and be generous and fair.

There are 14 Rock edicts/2 Kalinga Rock edicts/3 Minor Rock edicts/7 Pillar edicts/2 Minor Pillar


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Asokas edicts….

Some rock edicts such as the Lumbini pillar to commemorate

the Buddhas birthplace, gave specific support to Buddhists.

Without this and the many Buddhist stupas Asoka had built,Buddhists then and now, would have had little in the way ofpilgrimage sites to focus upon and there would have been

noevidence pointing to the Buddha’s birthplace."Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, has caused this Dhamma edict

to be written. Here (in my domain) no living beings are to be slaughtered or offered in sacrifice. Nor should festivals be held, for Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, sees much to object to in such

festivals, although there are some festivals that Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, does approve of.

Formerly, in the kitchen of Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, hundreds of thousands of animals were killed every day to make curry. But now with the writing of this Dhamma edict only three creatures, two peacocks and a deer are killed, and the deer not

always. And in time, not even these three creatures will be killed.

Asokas First Edict at Girnar

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The Importance of Asoka

Such ethical ideas were revolutionary at thetime of Asoka when a King was a militaryleader and protectorate of his people.

Asoka changed this notion to one of protectinghis people morally and directing resources andedicts to ensure a peaceful life for all.

This was an early form of socialismand early example of modern ‘engaged Buddhism.’

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Asoka’s role in the early spread of Buddhism

• Asoka’s contribution to the development of Buddhism was on balance a positive one? Consider

reasons for and against.

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1. Asoka’s edicts promote moral and virtuous living but there is no reference to the Buddha’s teaching.

• Edward Conze writes:

“There is no mention of the four holy Truths, the eightfold path, the chain of causation, or even of Nirvana, or of the supernatural qualities of the Buddha.”

Buddhism: A short History

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Criticisms2. Asoka’s missions in about 250 BCE to the Greek

Kingdoms of Egypt, Macedonia etc were ineffective and left no trace of Buddhism.

• Edward Conze claims that any awareness of Buddhism in Greek authors was probably due to later trade connections between India and the Mediterranean in Roman times.

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Criticisms3.Some historians have questioned how Buddhist

Asoka was, not only did he adhere to Buddhism but he also supported other world faiths.

• Basham, in ‘The wonder that was India,’ claims:

“ in fact, the Dharma officially propagated by Ashoka was not Buddhism at all but a system of morals consistent with the tenets of most of the sects of the empire and calculated to lead to peace and fellowship in this world and heaven in the next.”

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Criticisms4. Denise Cush, Buddhism argues that

Asoka’s patronage did much for the spread of Buddhism, but points out that there are disadvantages in becoming an established religion:

• She writes: “ It can be formalised and lose its inner spirit and the standard of commitment can become lower as people join for social reasons.”

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Supporting views1. Asoka’s missionary activity in Sri Lanka helped to

establish Buddhism for a longer stretch of time than elsewhere.

• Sri Lankan monasticism was responsible for committing the Pali canon to writing, therefore not only helping to preserve the Buddha’s teaching, but also facilitating its further growth throughout SE Asia and other parts of the world.

• The Pali canon provides the doctrinal basis for all types of Buddhism, Theravada and Mahayana alike.

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Supporting views2. Asoka’s edicts (a total of 33 inscriptions carved on

pillars, rock, and caves) provide the first tangible historical evidence of Buddhism

3. The edicts of Asoka are essentially that of a lay person, so it could be argued that its precisely because of their non-sectarian and universal nature, that they have mass appeal - they capture the heart of the Buddha’s teaching e.g. compassion & ahimsa

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Supporting views

4. According to the ‘schism edict’ Asoka was instrumental in organising the Third Buddhist Council which took place in Pataliputra around 250BCE.

• Asoka is said to have expelled itinerant or “lazy and lax monks” from the Sangha, who were causing division because they were deviating away from the Buddha’s teaching, thus uniting and strengthening the Sangha and helping to preserve the distinctive appeal of the Dharma.

"The Sangha cannot be split. Whoever, whether monk or nun, splits the Sangha must be made to wear white clothes and live

somewhere other than in a monastery."

This language is Prakriti – a medium between Sanskrit and vernacular (local) dialects.

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Supporting views5. Asoka’s architectural legacy in the form of

monuments known as stupas also provides early historical evidence for Buddhism as well as centres of pilgrimage and popular devotion e.g. the Buddha’s birthplace at Lumbini

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