Asoka simplified Buddhism. He told his teacher: ‘For myself, I will follow Buddha’s precepts, but for my people, I will forget all references to sex and alcohol. I have no quarrel with man’s little pleasures. I want them to be happy and to help them see the behavior that brings them grief. They have to stop blindly following the priests and start thinking for themselves.’
Arhat, his teacher, was perplexed. ‘Leave out sex and alcohol? That will encourage immorality.’
‘Arhat, for myself I accept the body’s few glories and and a lot more absurdities. But I want my people to see beyond the body. They have a mind. I want them to see their own prejudices and how they cause themselves and others misery. And see that happiness is possible.’
Great leaders rule by example, petty leaders by bluster and speech. Before asking his people to modify their behavior, Asoka set out to follow his own rules: to abstain from killing, speak truth, respect all religions, and be kind to elders, servants and slaves. This was his “Dhamma”, the Code of Moral Living. It was the essence of all religions.
His conversion to Buddhism surprised the public. He was already forty-one and used to the life of an imperious ruler.
Asoka found that changing lifelong habits was not easy. Frequently assailed by doubts, he had to remind himself that Mara, the tempter of mankind, tantalized the Buddha for years before his enlightenment. He confessed his failing in a Rock Inscription:
“I have been a Buddhist layman for more than two and a half years, but for a year I did not make much progress…”
He started by reducing his consumption of meat. For centuries, meat had been a staple food. Thousands of animals were killed daily in the Palace kitchen to feed guests, residents, staff and guards. ”Why should we, royalty, eat grass?” the princes complained, repelled.
It was not easy for Asoka either, and it took grit and faith. He described the change in an Inscription:
…Formerly, in the kitchens of the ‘Beloved of the Gods’, many hundreds of thousands of animals were killed daily for meat. But now only three are killed, two peacocks and a deer, and the deer not invariably.” The inscription continued “…even these three animals will not be killed in future.”
The sorry plight of animals now distressed him. Having grown up watching animal sacrifices in Vedic rituals, he revolted against the cruelty of this practice. How sad we cannot celebrate ours joys or sorrows without killing animals! In the Council, he proposed an immediate stop to all such killings. A violent debate erupted. Asoka declared adamantly, ‘Whether for the gods or for pleasure and sport, all animal killings must be stopped forthwith. No one—certainly not religion–should tear asunder what God has created.’ Festivals that did not involve animal killings were not affected, and the slaughter of horned cattle and other animals for food continued.
In a talk to his villagers, he outlined his Dhamma: ‘So what is Dhamma? A few simple rules for living. When you know them, you will not have to think every time you face a new situation. You will know what to do. Do rules take away or diminish your freedom? Not so. Freedom gives you the choice to do good or bad deeds. When you sow seeds in your field, you want good results. You do not just run out and recklessly start throwing seeds. You follow certain rules. It is the same with my rules. They will give you good results. Take the rule to speak kindly to others. Speak words that bring you good results and avoid those that bring discord and trouble.’
‘What are these rules? First, do not lie. Call a bull a bull. You will like and respect yourself. What is more, others will like you. You will earn the respect and trust of others. You will not dread getting caught in the web of your lies. Truth will set you free. Truth brings freedom from fear and worry.’
‘Second, don’t kill. Respect life. Killing creates fear in the victim. This fear will reverberate in your thoughts and deeds. Mercy connects you to living things. When you feel this, you will be happy and content.’
‘Respect others’ religion and they will respect yours. If you have the right to practice your religion, others also have that right. We have many religions, because men have varying desires and passions. But in essence all religions are the same. Hating other religions shows a lack of faith– you fear for your religion. You harm your religion by criticizing others. Honor other sects, and you increase the influence of your own; denounce others, and you diminish the influence of your own. Remember the seed!’
‘Respect your parents and be generous to your friends and relatives. The more you expand your world, the happier you will be.’
‘Treat your servants and slaves with kindness. Do not forget their misfortune; do not forget they are human beings like you. The light you kindle in their eyes will sparkle in your own.’
Asoka warned, ‘The rules are easy, but their practice is difficult. Take one rule: respect all religions. Why, you will ask, should I do this? Because the message of all religions is the same: self-control and purity of mind. If you inform yourself about other religions, it will open your mind. You will see the similarities and lose the hatred within you. Living in harmony is good for you. This is what I do: I honor all religious sects, ascetics and laymen with reverence. I listen to them. I give them gifts. But I consider that to visit them in person is more important than any gift.’
In Council he declared, “No child, no man or woman should die of sickness for want of medical care in this land.” His Army went to work and hospitals for men and for animals sprang up throughout the empire, even beyond his borders, as described in an Inscription:
Everywhere in the empire of the Beloved of the Gods, the King Piyadassi, and even the lands on its frontiers– those of the Colas, Pandyas, Satyaputras, Keralputras and as far as Ceylon; and of the Greek King named Antiochus, and of those kings who are neighbors of that Antiochus; everywhere the two medical services of the Beloved of the Gods, the King Piyadassi, have been provided. These consist of the medical care of man and the care of animals. Medicinal herbs, whether useful to man or to beast, have been brought and planted wherever they did not grow; similarly roots and fruit have been brought and planted…
After the Kaliga war, thousands of men and women had become slaves which deeply troubled Asoka. Too many of the young women were raped, and masters had fathered many illegitimate children. He decreed that a master who raped a slave woman must pay her compensation. Furthermore, if a female slave had a child by her owner, even with her consent, both mother and child were to be freed.
Asoka went further. He gave slaves the right to own and inherit property that was acquired by money earned outside the services for the master. A slave could buy freedom with such earnings or by taking a loan, and the children of debtor slaves would be freemen.
To him only Buddhism encouraged the moral life. As the masses, if not their religious leaders, began to follow his messages of non-violence and religious tolerance, this increased his own faith. He made pilgrimages with Upagupta, the head of Buddhist Church, to the Bodhi Tree where the Buddha had achieved Enlightenment and to Lumbini where the Buddha was born. He built pillars there to commemorate his visits.
Once burnt, twice shy, he did not even accept Buddhism as he found it. To infuse it with feelings, he included physical representations of the body of the Buddha in the Stupas, and had the details of the bustling, cheerful life of Buddha’s time carved and painted on stone. These small gestures helped to create an emotional bond between the Buddha and his devotees. The result was far-reaching, and helped to transform what had been a dry, intellectual set of beliefs into a colorful, emotionally satisfying religion.