1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Asoka

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4568571911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 2 — AsokaThomas William Rhys Davids

ASOKA, a famous Buddhist emperor of India who reigned from 264 to 228 or 227 B.C. Thirty-five of his inscriptions on rocks or pillars or in caves still exist (see Inscriptions: Indian), and they are among the most remarkable and interesting of Buddhist monuments (see Buddhism). Asoka was the grandson of Chandragupta, the founder of the Maurya (Peacock) dynasty, who had wrested the Indian provinces of Alexander the Great from the hands of Seleucus, and he was the son of Bindusāra, who succeeded his father Chandragupta, by a lady from Champā. The Greeks do not mention him and the Brahmin books ignore him, but the Buddhist chronicles and legends tell us much about him. The inscriptions, which contain altogether about five thousand words, are entirely of religious import, and their references to worldly affairs are incidental. They begin in the thirteenth year of his reign, and tell us that in the ninth year he had invaded Kalinga, and had been so deeply impressed by the horrors involved in warfare that he had then given up the desire for conquest, and devoted himself to conquest by “religion.” What the religion was is explained in the edicts. It is purely ethical, independent alike of theology and ritual, and is the code of morals as laid down in the Buddhist sacred books for laymen. He further tells us that in the ninth year of his reign he formally joined the Buddhist community as a layman, in the eleventh year he became a member of the order, and in the thirteenth he “set out for the Great Wisdom” (the Sambodhi), which is the Buddhist technical term for entering upon the well-known, eightfold path to Nirvana. One of the edicts is addressed to the order, and urges upon its members and the laity alike the learning and rehearsal of passages from the Buddhist scriptures. Two others are proclamations commemorating visits paid by the king, one to the dome erected over the ashes of Konāgamana, the Buddha, another to the birthplace of Gotama, the Buddha (q.v.). Three very short ones are dedications of caves to the use of an order of recluses. The rest either enunciate the religion as explained above, or describe the means adopted by the king for propagating it, or acting in accordance with it. These means are such as the digging of wells, planting medicinal herbs, and trees for shade, sending out of missionaries, appointment of special officers to supervise charities, and so on. The missionaries were sent to Kashmir, to the Himalayas, to the border lands on the Indus, to the coast of Burma, to south India and to Ceylon. And the king claims that missions sent by him to certain Greek kingdoms that he names had resulted in the folk there conforming themselves to his religion. The extent of Asoka’s dominion included all India from the thirteenth degree of latitude up to the Himalayas, Nepal, Kashmir, the Swat valley, Afghanistan as far as the Hindu Kush, Sind and Baluchistan. It was thus as large as, or perhaps somewhat larger than, British India before the conquest of Burma. He was undoubtedly the most powerful sovereign of his time and the most remarkable and imposing of the native rulers of India. “If a man’s fame,” says Köppen, “can be measured by the number of hearts who revere his memory, by the number of lips who have mentioned, and still mention him with honour, Asoka is more famous than Charlemagne or Caesar.” At the same time it is probable that, like Constantine’s patronage of Christianity, his patronage of Buddhism, then the most rising and influential faith in India, was not unalloyed with political motives, and it is certain that his vast benefactions to the Buddhist cause were at least one of the causes that led to its decline.

See also Asoka, by Vincent Smith (Oxford, 1901); Inscriptions de Piyadasi, by E. Senart (Paris, 1891); chapters on Asoka in T. W. Rhys Davids’s Buddhism (20th ed., London, 1903), and Buddhist India (London, 1903); V. A. Smith, Edicts of Asoka (1909).  (T. W. R. D.)