H.G. Wells called Asoka the greatest king in world history–not Julius Caesar, not Augustine, not Napoléon. Like all kings of his time, he fought a war and killed half-a-million men. The bloodshed led him to reflect on wars and also on his own religion. He gave up his war-mongering Vedic religion, and became a Buddhist–a religion without God. There would be no Buddhism today without Asoka. Asoka is relevant today because of widespread religious intolerance and misunderstanding that plague our world.
Perhaps, Asoka did not find the hoped-for glory in war–just as America did not find it in the Vietnam or even the Iraq war. It was a time when religion ruled every society, every life. In Buddhism Asoka found equality of man, and compassion for all human beings. Asoka embraced Buddhism and made it mainstream religion–much to the outrage of the wealthy priestly class–the Brahmins. Asoka’s Buddhism was simple–just a few moral rules; it was free from dogma. Millions converted to Buddhism and freed themselves from the chains of Vedic caste system. Missionaries were sent to foreign countries like Ceylon, Central Asia, and the Far-East. So Buddhism took root–in India and in foreign countries.
Asoka inscribed the moral rules on exquisitely carved and polished rocks and pillars across the country. He exhorted people to ask: how moral is my religion? Does it promote peace or violence? If their religion caused turbulence or discord in the society, it would not be moral. But Asoka realized that people do not want others to criticize their religion. So he respected all religions, disapproved of criticizing other religions, wanted people to “control their speech so as not to extol one’s own religion or disparage another’s religion.” He promoted equality and social justice, and provided medical care for all. In 3rd century B.C!!
Asoka also drew attention to the practice of cruelty to animals. Animals were killed routinely for sports and sacrificed for religion; he prohibited killings (but not for food) for religion and sports by legislation.
Buddhism continued to flourish long after Asoka’s death. A few centuries later, Hinduism was forced to fold Buddhism into its own belief-system in order to survive–in the process Hinduism itself became gentler.
My novel describes the fascinating life of Asoka, the Kalinga war, and Asoka’s personal transformation from a tyrant to a compassionate king.