Since my first trip to India four decades back, I’d always been puzzled about why it is that in the birthplace of the Buddha, the source and origin of Buddhism, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of Buddhists in modern India.  How could this be, I wondered?  Today, India’s 1.2 billion people is composed of 966 million Hindu’s, 172 million Muslims, and only 8.4 million Buddhists, admittedly among a plethora of other smaller ethnicities and groups, Jains, Sikhs, etc. etc.  Even Indian Christians outnumber Buddhists in today's India.  Odd, I always thought, since from its origins in the sixth century BCE, Buddhism spread throughout South Asia – Nepal, Burma, Thailand, China, etc. – and remains one of the world’s dominant religions with some 500 million adherents and is the fourth largest religion in the world.  And yet, so few are extant in the motherland that gave Buddhism birth.  

The decline of Buddhism in India is a story unto itself, but it’s growth from a persecuted, minority religion in its birthplace, is the story of Emperor Ashoka, without question one of India’s greatest rulers and arguably one of the greatest, original and innovative monarchs among the world’s legendary ancient rulers.  He and his reign, however, are most often noted solely for establishing the first consolidation of the Indian subcontinent under a single ruler.  Ashoka’s Empire was to be broken up time and again – the Huns, the Moguls, the British – but come Indian Independence in 1947, the then modern map of India was pretty much recognizable as the same nation state he that he ruled from around 270 until 230 BCE, some 2,000 years before.  Ashoka’s Rock Edicts were still being uncovered in the late 1980’s and other imprints of his rule are still being discovered today.  While credited with the consolidation of the Indian state, his influence and his impacts on world history, however, were ever so much more important.  

The Indian flag, adopted in 1947 at the time of India’s independence from England, has two of Asoka’s most widely recognized ancient symbols: the four headed lion column capital and the great Wheel of Learning of the Buddha.  And yet, there were many more well known Hindu and Muslim rulers in India’s long history including such luminaries as Barbur,  Akbar and Harsha, but why, then, is it Ashoka’s symbols that fly embedded in the Indian tricolor?  The answer to this mystery is easy.  India’s first prime Minister and one of the leading voices of Indian independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a devoted fan and studied the reign of Ashoka extensively.  Nehru instinctively understood the role that this ancient ruler played not only in India’s storied history, but in the history of the world as well.  But the story of Ashoka, except for his unification of what at the time was one of the most extensive empires the world has ever known, is not well known even though his revolutionary rule has echoes in today’s modern states with their tenets of tolerance, justice, mutual respect and the care and well-being for the ruled that denotes fair, just and compassionate governance.   

The story of Ashoka is a fascinating one, one that I recently had the pleasure of discovering through a semi-scholarly book entitled simply “Ashoka” by Charles Allen, a prolific author about India and her cultural and religious history.  Ashoka ruled from around 237 BCE for forty some years until his death in or about 270 BCE and extended his rule from the northeastern Gangetic plains of India to the borders of modern Afghanistan, across the breadth of the Himalayas and south to the Indian subcontinent’s tip.  Archeological sites in Kabul and Herat have unearthed artifacts erected by Asoka’s minions and his influence extended to Iran and Baluchistan as well as eastward from the Indian subcontinent over nearly all of South Asia.  His Empire, although a short-lived, forty year one, was extensive, well administered and nothing like it had come before and nothing like it succeeded his reign (arguably) until the dawn of the modern age.   

How, one might ask, did his influence spread so far in such a short period of time?   Like all Indian monarchs who preceded him, Ashoka had a web of diplomatic alliances, a vast army at his beck and call and an extensive administrative bureaucracy that collected taxes, constructed monuments, built towns, irrigated crop lands, and generally saw to it that his wishes were fulfilled.  And yet, unlike so many other Empires, contemporary and otherwise, until the Muslim expansion some 800 to 900 years later, no single monarch upended the world order of the age as did Ashoka.  It was his adoption of the Buddhist religion in historically Brahmin India (today Hindu India) that changed the face of South Asia forever.  But it was not only through this revolutionary act that Ashoka’s influence spread far and wide, it was also his message and the expansive means and methods he employed during his reign for spreading this message that began a surging tide of change, the effects of which are still felt in today’s modern world some 2,200 years later.

The origins of Ashoka’s embrasure of Buddhism are, as with nearly all pre-historical legends, fraught with controversy.  One version has Ashoka’s Buddhist son-in-law convincing him to adopt the then minority religion and another has his exceptionally bloody war campaign against the last holdouts of India’s prior ruling clans, the Kalingas, convincing Ashoka of the error of his bloody warrior ways.  Ashoka’s ascension to the throne of the Maurya kingdom is also unusual since he was not the heir apparent, his older half-brother was.  The untimely death of his brother having been sent to quell a revolt in the north by his father, King Chandragupta, thrust Ashoka into the spotlight but it was not until four years after his ascension to the throne of Maurya that he was coronated as the Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi.

What transpired during the subsequent forty year reign of Emperor Ashoka and the powerful waves of religious and moral tenets his short reign provoked, would change the face of the world forever.   Yet his reign and its vast influences would be suppressed and excised from India’s historical record and forgotten for hundreds of years until the reconstruction bit by bit, clue by clue, during the archeological explorations of the subcontinent, principally by European Orientalists, over the 19th and 20th Centuries, that the true import of Ashoka’s reign would emerge.   Even the documentation and proofs of Ashoka’s startling rule – artifacts uncovered from Kabul to Calcutta, from Kathmandu to Karnataka and eastward through Burma, Ceylon, Thailand and even beyond were often attributed to others, dismissed as insignificant, lost for decades or their significance ignored, were steeped in controversy until such a Mount Meru of proofs emerged as to dispel any and all remaining doubts about this extraordinary monarch’s legacy.

And yet, Ashoka remains relatively unknown and unsung among the stellar Kings, Monarchs and Emperors of human history.   His revolutionary rule, his humane approach to his subjects, his implementation of the Buddha’s philosophy, his radical means and methods of spreading his dogma are largely absent unlike the chronicles of the world’s other great monarchs – Alexander (of which Ashoka was a near contemporary), Egypt’s Darius and Xerxes, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Jesus Christ, Mohammad, and any number of other such world altering leaders.  Charles Allen’s “Ashoka” does much to correct this significant gap in the historical development of human civilization. 

NOTE: I make no claims of accuracy or completeness in the rather slap-dash summary above.  If you are interested in accuracy and completeness I refer you to Charles Allen’s work, “Ashoka,” published in 2012 by Little & Brown.  

More in Part II Soon


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