(304-232 B.C.E.)

One must not exalt one’s creed discrediting all others, nor must one degrade these others without legitimate reasons. One must, on the contrary, render to other creeds the honor befitting them.

wpid-Ashoka-the-Great-full.jpgAshoka was the Indian emperor of the Maurya Dynasty whose religious conversion to Buddhism led to such a transformation that the one who used to be called “the cruel Ashoka” was called “the pious Ashoka.” Through his transformed rule he earned the appellation “Ashoka the Great.”

Born in 304 B.C.E., Ashoka rose to the thone in 273 B.C.E. He launched many military conquests, forging an empire that covered most of modern-day India and stretched even through Pakistan, Afghanistan and into Persia. In a war against Kalinga on the east coast of India his troops slaughtered over 100,000 people. Beholding the destruction the emperor lamented, “What have I done?” Haunted by the horrors he had perpetrated he began a spiritual quest that led him to convert to Buddhism. He abandoned war and violence and committed himself to an official policy of nonviolence or ahimsa (a term Mahatma Gandhi later utilized).

His policy, termed Dharmashoka, was based on a morality of nonviolence, truthfulness, mercy, egalitarianism and respect for all people. Even with neighboring empires Ashoka shifted his policy to one of respect, establishing good relations especially with the Hellenic societies to the west. He was an excellent administrator and a philanthropist. He established universities and instituted the protection of wildlife.

Ashoka was a strong promoter of the Buddhist religion, boosting the local religion in northern India into a world religion. He built thousands of stupas and monasteries for the Buddhist communities throughout his realm. He sent missionary monks to spread Buddhism in all directions. Ashoka’s monks took Buddhism to Sri Lanka and Thailand, still major Buddhist countries to this day. He also claimed to have brought Buddhism to Greece and Egypt, but there is no record of this in the West, just the records of Ashoka himself. However, many Greeks who settled in India from the days of Alexander’s conquests adopted Buddhism.

Though he was such a strong proponent of Buddhism,

as a ruler Ashoka established policies of tolerance toward all religions. During his time India had Hindus, Jains, Ajivikas as well as Buddhists. Ashoka’s edicts were inscribed on stone pillars throughout India, and his pillar at Sarnath with four lion heads at the top has become the symbol of today’s Indian republic. Ashoka addressed religious tolerance directly and extensively in his edicts. He said, “All religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart.” Another edict stated, “Contact (between religions) is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. Beloved-of- the-Gods, King Piyadasi (official titles of Ashoka) desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions.” He inscribed, “One must not exalt one’s creed discrediting all others, nor must one degrade these others without legitimate reasons. One must, on the contrary, render to other creeds the honor befitting them.”

Ashoka the Great left a legacy of both religious fervor and religious tolerance. Holding a deep passion for one’s own faith, particularly in his case a missionary faith, at the same time as encouraging the respect and learning about other religions was as unusual then as it is now.

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This profile on Ashoka comes from the pages of Interfaith Heroes 2. Interfaith Heroes 2 is one of the three books that inspired this website. Learn more about Daniel Buttry’s series of books on global peacemakers.