King Asoka was the last significant emperor ruling the Mauryan dynasty in the country of India. King Asoka admittedly supported Buddhism during his reign which is estimated to be around 265 to 238 B.C., but in some references noted as 273 - 232 B.C. He advocated the spread of Buddhism through the area we now call India. Before he completely made his conversion into passionately believing Buddhist teachings, he successfully conquered the Kalinga country on the east coast, now known as Orissa, in the eighth year of his reign. However, Asoka came to reject any form of armed conquest and began a personal policy of “conquest by dharma” as he called it, or by using principals of right life.
Part of his conversion is generally believed to be due to his bloody invasion of Kalinga. The sufferings and pains of war which he witnessed happening to the defeated is said to have deeply moved him emotionally, thus prompting his to adopt his conquest by dharma policy and his respect for life. Right about this time Asoka was exposed to Buddhism and he liked its teachings. He converted soon thereafter.
Asoka had teachings and edicts disseminated through word-of-mouth as well as carvings of them in rocks and on stone pillars. These messages carved into stone became known as the Rock Edicts (and Pillar Edicts). They contain some of his sayings or his thoughts and actions and give insight to his life.
King Asoka also did not generally speak of his religious affiliation with Buddhism to others besides the other Buddhists he associated with. He did not publicly advocate one religious perspective over another, either. In fact he respected the different religious sects and granted them the freedom to live as their beliefs dictate they should. Asoka did however advocate them to respect all other people’s creeds and see the good in others. He tried to spread his teachings of respect and tolerance as far across his lands as possible.
He spoke of, and seriously believed in, a simple list of virtues: honesty, mercy, benevolence, nonviolence, truthfulness, compassion, considerate behavior to everyone, modesty, no harm to animals, and “little sin and many good deeds.” Asoka also preached that people should make an effort to point out the good qualities of others and to to refrain from criticizing the viewpoints and beliefs of other people.
Asoka did not just preach his beliefs, he went out and practiced them as well. He took occasional trips through his kingdom, especially into the rural areas and preached the dharma and helped ease the pains and hardships of the people. He made his officials also go out into the kingdom and help the people as well as their regular duties. He taught those officials, such as his administrative officers, to be in tune with needs and sufferings of the commoners and to be very just. Asoka also appointed people called “dharma ministers” who were special high officers who were to assist in spreading the dharma, to relieve the sufferings of the peoples, and to tend and care to their needs. Asoka kept informed of all matters going on that concerned the welfare of his people constantly and was concerned for the people’s (and animals’) well being. There was even a law he enacted that prevented cruelty to animals, since he believed that they were life to be respected as well.
Asoka started hospitals for his people, and even hospitals for animals. He had trees and groves planted throughout his kingdom and along the roadsides. The digging of wells and building of water sheds and bath houses are also some of the things Asoka did in his land.
He seemed very noble in his cause, since King Asoka also stated that the only glory that he desired was to have lead his people along the path of dharma. Asoka is quoted to have said, "All men are my children. As for my own children I desire that they may be provided with all the welfare and happiness of this world and of the next, so do I desire for all men as well.”
King Asoka was quite the humanitarian, and many of the things he preached as well as practiced were quite remarkably resemble the values and beliefs that Jesus of Nazareth, the founder of Christianity, taught. Much can be learned from King Asoka, especially from Asoka’s radical conversion. He had conquered lands by force and bloodshed, but once he was shown the philosophy and beliefs of Buddhism he made a complete reversal in his personal ways and thinking. He not only led a “good life” but Asoka went out of his way to improve the lives of others and to relieve the burden of human suffering whenever he could. This is something everybody can learn from. Asoka was quite an example of good virtue and high moral integrity. I believe that Asoka has shown how people can always turn around from their unprincipled ways and do what is righteous.
Dhammika, Ven. S., King Ashoka: His Edicts and His Times. Buddhist Publication Society: Sri Lanka. © 1993.