No one except the Buddha himself had a more profound impact on the history of Buddhism than Ashoka, emperor of India (reigned c. 268-232 BC).
While the Buddha is considered the "universal savior" of mankind, Ashoka is the "universal king," whose reign and legend embodies the ideal of the perfect Buddhist ruler. In a sense, he played the role in Buddhism that Constantine played in Christianity.
Yet, ironically, few saints in any religious tradition have had a less auspicious beginning than Ashoka.
The conquest of the Indus valley by Alexander the Great in 327 B.C. created a tremendous political and military crisis in India. For centuries northern India had been divided into small feuding principalities: the traditional "Sixteen Kingdoms."
Alexander's successful invasion demonstrated the danger of this disunity; the petty Indian rulers realized the necessity of political consolidation.
After several years of warfare, northern India was unified by the great conqueror Chandragupta, who drove the Greeks from India and founded the Mauryan dynasty.
In 268 B.C. Chandragupta's grandson, Ashoka, began his reign.
Following in the footsteps of his warlord ancestor, he murdered several of his brothers who were rivals for the throne, after which he launched military campaigns into central and southern India.
The campaign into Kalinga (modern Orissa) was particularly bloody; more than 100,000 people were killed and 150,000 enslaved. Yet the horror of what he had done caused a spiritual awakening in Ashoka.
As he wrote on a biographical monumental inscription, he was "moved to remorse," feeling "profound sorrow and regret because the conquest of a people involves slaughter, death and deportation."
His anguish led to his conversion to Buddhism; he thereafter became a pacifist, proclaiming, "moral conquest is the only true conquest."
Ashoka is remembered in the Indian and Buddhist traditions as one of the greatest rulers of India. His laws and policies are considered models of enlightened statesmanship in an age when most politics were based on the Machiavellian dictum "Big fish eat little fish."
Throughout India he built wells, roads and hospitals, promulgating his laws by inscriptions on tall stone columns. Ashoka was also a great patron of the arts, establishing Buddhist schools and monasteries throughout his kingdom. Buddhist architecture flourished as Ashoka built many monumental stupas (ritual pilgrimage burial mounds of the Buddha). The most famous, the Great Stone Stupa at Sanchi, dates from the first century A.D. but rests on the foundations of an earlier brick one built by Ashoka.
Around 250 B.C. Ashoka patronized the Third Buddhist Council at Pataliputra, which was conducted by his spiritual master, the Buddhist monk Moggaliputta-Tissa. One of the major achievement of this council was the organization of Buddhist missionary efforts, both within India and abroad.
Buddhist missionaries and ambassadors were sent to Syria, Egypt and Greece — where vague notions of Buddhism entered Greek consciousness — as well as to Afghanistan and Ceylon, where Buddhism flourished in the years after Ashoka.
By the mid-2nd century, Menander — the Hellenistic king of Afghanistan (Bactria) and a descendant of the Greek garrison left by Alexander — was converted to Buddhism, which remained the official state religion of Afghanistan for nearly a thousand years.
In one of history's great ironies, Ashoka's pacifist policies contributed to the decline and collapse of the Mauryan empire. In the decades after his death rebels within and rivals outside the empire exploited the military weakness of Ashoka's pacifistic state, bringing about its collapse by 180 B.C., and again plunged India into centuries of warfare between petty kingdoms.
Ashoka's personal conversion and advocacy of Buddhism laid the foundation for it to become one of the great world religions.
For more than a thousand years after Ashoka, Buddhism remained a major religion of India, only declining after the 12th century when it was eventually absorbed into Hinduism.
Ashoka's patronage of Buddhist missionary efforts facilitated its spread into Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and hence to Southeast Asia, where it still flourishes today.
From the missionary seeds planted by Ashoka in Afghanistan, Buddhism was eventually spread by merchants and pilgrims across the Silk Road to China, and from China to Korea and Japan. From the seeds planted by Ashoka Buddhism has become a world religion, and the great international faith of east and south Asia.