Ashoka, the Righteous King

When King Ashoka assumed the throne in the year 269 BCE as Emperor of the Maurya dynasty in India, he inherited a kingdom that had already been substantially expanded by his predecessors. He already dominated a large portion of India, but there was a particular kingdom that resisted domination, the Kingdom of Kalinga.

The Convertion

Ashoka took as his responsibility to bring the people of Kalinga into the empire. He waged a very bloody and cruel military campaign to bring the Kalinga people under his domination. The brutality of this campaign apparently provoked Ashoka to convert to Buddhism. He accepted the Buddha’s Dharma with its implicit idea of no violence.

King Ashoka

After his conversion, Ashoka proclaimed himself a Righteous King, a protector of the Dharma. Ashoka advocated a policy of conquest by Dharma. Ashoka’s position has been recorded on a series of rock carvings that were placed in strategic locations around his empire. This is nice for us, we can take all of them and read them.

The Edict 30 gives an account of his conversion. It is interesting to read about Ashoka’s convertion in his own words:

“Eight years after his coronation, King Devanampriya Priyadarsi (a way of designating himself) conquered the country of Kalinga. One hundred and fifty thousand people were deported. One hundred thousand were killed, and many times that number perished. Now that the Kalingans have been taken, Devanampriya came to feel a strong inclination towards the Dharma, a love for the Dharma and for instruction in Dharma. Devanampriya feels sorrow at having conquered the Kalingans. Indeed, Devanampriya considers conquest by Dhamma to be the best conquest.”

The Promotion of The Dharma

This is the basic theme of conquest by the Dharma rather than conquest by force of arms. Other Edicts talk about his policy to promote the Dharma. You can see that his view of Dharma is not complicated. It has to do with rather simple Buddhist values. It has to do with respect for others and their welfare:

“King Devanampriya Priyadarsi says: I have had banyan trees planted along the road to provide shade for beasts and people and I have had mango groves planted. I have had wells dug, rest-houses built in every mile. I have had watering-holes made for the use of animals and men. Of course previous Kings have sought as well to please the people with such facilities, but I’m doing this so people may follow the Path of Dharma.”

This explicitly links his concern for the welfare of the people with his policy to promote the Buddha’s Dharma. As part of this policy, King Ashoka sent missionaries out to spread the Buddhist teaching in India and elsewhere in South East Asia. His actions have served as models for righteous kings throughout the Buddhist world.

The Righteous King

What a Righteous King would be like? A Righteous King protects and promotes the Dharma. In return, the king is recognized and legitimated by the religious authorities. There is a ritual way monks can designate this guy as somebody whom people should respect and trust. This is an important two-way relationship. The king supports the monks, the monks support the king. This makes it possible for the king to develop a sense of trust and loyalty among his people.

In some situations, the king disciplines and reforms the Sangha, to make sure that it doesn’t interfere in the affairs of the state. Ashoka himself set an example for this reformist function when he says in one of his edicts: “Any monk or nun who causes a schism in the Sangha would have to wear the white robes of a lay person and would no longer be able to dwell in a monastic residence.”

We will see this ideal of the Righteous King throughout the Buddhist world, not just in South East Asia, but also in China, Tibet and Japan. It is an important component in the complex structure of Buddhist society.

This article is part of the series about Theravada Buddhism.

Copyright © Buddhism Through Buddhist Eyes
Question or Comment? Do not doubt to contact me.
Template by bloggertheme