Ashoka: Buddhism in power

- through Francois Leclercq

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India's first unifier, Emperor Ashoka was also the first to associate Buddhism and politics.

It is said that it was on ruins and after a resounding victory over his enemies that Ashoka, Emperor of India, became a Buddhist. Born around 300 BC and died in -232, he was then the most powerful sovereign of his time. He imagines himself conquering the world, like Alexander the Great, who died in -323 after seeing his military momentum broken in India.

When Ashoka came to power, it had already been three generations since the dynasty to which he belonged, that of the Maurya princes, was nibbling away at the Peninsula, subjugating the Indian kingdoms one by one. Only the southern tip of India (Kerala) and the enclave of Kalinga (today Odisha) remain independent. The latter, a state located on the eastern coast of India, is defended by a formidable army. Towards -265, Ashoka orders to put an end to this resistance. It will take a mythical battle and at least 100 dead, an excessive figure for the time, for the Kalinga to submit. According to legend, this bloodbath plunges Ashoka into a dazed stupor. The conqueror, whose Sanskrit name means “Without suffering”, remains prostrate until he is freed by a revelation. The sources do not specify the form of this revelation, but the king therefore implies that he converted to Buddhism.

Ashoka is the first politician to advocate a Buddhist ethic

Tradition distinguishes two phases in Ashoka's life, one before and one after Kalinga. In his early days, Ashoka was not destined to rule, but he seized the opportunity presented by the untimely death of the heir to the Mauryan throne. He manages his empire with an iron fist, being interested in all religions without embracing any and, as a layman, makes donations to the community of Buddhist monks (Sangha), thus establishing himself as its protector. princely.

Ashoka is the first politician to implement a statewide ethic inspired by Buddhism.

Then comes the revelation of the Kalinga: war is abomination. Later inscriptions on stelae that recount this moment in history suggest that Ashoka then embraced the Dharma, yet only practiced by a small minority. Like the Roman Emperor Constantine who institutionalized Christianity in the 1th century, Ashoka was the first politician to implement an ethic inspired by Buddhism on a state scale. He had pillars erected in his kingdom recalling the need for non-violence (ahimsâ), procured all the relics of the Awakened of which he could have knowledge, sponsored a multitude of stupa (XNUMX). He governs with benevolence, forbidding himself to make war, even if out of pragmatism, he does not renounce a threatening diplomacy against his turbulent neighbours.

Finally, he patronized a council in his capital of Pâtaliputra (now Patna), during which it was decided to send Buddhist missions to Burma, Afghanistan and even Macedonia. The most important, led by one of his sons, the monk Mahinda, landed in Sri Lanka around -250. A few years later, Mahinda's sister joined him, carrying a cutting from the tree under which Buddha had attained enlightenment. A relic to nourish the faith of pilgrims, the small branch is planted with care. It grows into a tree, which is said to be still alive. Like this fig tree, Ashoka's legacy has never ceased to thrive in Sri Lanka. Converted to Buddhism following this contact, this country was at the root of the spectacular expansion of Theravada in Southeast Asia.

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Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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