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Philosophy Essay on Asoka

a) Explain the importance of Asoka for early Buddhism.


(25 marks)
The good that Emperor Asoka did for early Buddhism, especially his
missionary work to Sri Lanka and Macedonia (amongst others), is in no
small part responsible for it being the world religion it is today, despite
his earlier reputation of violence and bloodshed.
Asoka helped to establish early Buddhism, and his empire, as a
place of religious of tolerance, where people of varying faiths would be
free to follow their own deities or teachings without fear of prosecution or
indoctrination. On one of Asoka's 32 rock edicts, edict XII, stated that he
encouraged other faiths or religious systems to flourish, and promoted an
atmosphere where religious freedom was paramount. In Les Inscriptions
d'Asoka, J. Bloch says One should not honour only one's own religion
and condemn the religions of others- a view that certainly seemed to be
held by Asoka. By doing this he also promoted the 4 th precept of 'no false
speech', in this respect towards the beliefs of others.
The widespread acknowledgement of Buddhism as a religion of
peace and caring is also partly down to the work of Asoka, as he helped
to establish the Buddhist (and humanitarian) values of compassion and
lovingkindness, known as karuna and metta respectively in Pali, as well
as non-violence (ahimsa) throughout his empire. This is shown through
his actions such as founding medical and veterinary centres, as well as
welfare services and funding schemes for recently released prisoners. In
addition to this, the principle of ahimsa was held up especially as Asoka
asked that the entire royal household became vegetarian so as to protect
animals, and gentleness and sexual morality were upheld. Crucially,
Asoka also banned the practice of hunting, which was very popular with
monarchs and rulers of the day, but thereby continued to promote nonviolence wherever possible.
The physical and spiritual development of Buddhism was very well
aided by Asoka, as he founded numerous monasteries and invested large
amounts of money into the upkeep of their monks, thereby securing the
religion in ever more parts of India, and the rest of his empire, without
which it may not have survived long after his death, let alone until the
present day. The 32 rock edicts, as well as the thousands of stupas that
contained relics or remains of people of religious significance, were also
crucial in the long term survival of the religion, as they have provided
much of the solid archaeological evidence that we have to determine the
early history of Buddhism.
Perhaps one of Asoka's largest contributions to the spread and
preservation of early Buddhism was the missionary work that he
undertook to stretch the religion to the furthest reaches of Asia and
beyond, into areas such as Egypt, Syria, and Macedonia. Without the

presence of Buddhism in these areas, the later dying out of the religion in
India could have resulted in it being lost for ever. In particular, Asoka sent
his own son and daughter, Prince Mahinda and Princess Sanghmitra, to
Sri Lanka, where they converted the king to Buddhism, and turned the
island into a stronghold where the religion could thrive, despite it's allbut-demise in much of Asia.
Asoka also did much for the reputation of Buddhism, in the respect
that he dealt with the problem of monks and nuns in the Sangha who
joined for purely material reasons, such as the shelter and food that was
provided free of charge, and made for an easier life than having to work
for one's own upkeep. By forcing these parasitic monks and nuns to
leave, via means of the Third Buddhist Council, he preserved the
integrity of the Sangha, and ensured that Buddhism would spread and
ensure its long term survival, and not waste its resources on those who
were only involved for personal gain.
b) Asoka was not a good Buddhist. Discuss.
(10 marks)
While the work of emperor Asoka was undoubtedly paramount to
Buddhism's long term survival, it could be argued that perhaps due to his
past, or because the values he spread were not strictly Buddhist, that he
was not as good as he is often seen to be.
To decide whether Asoka was indeed a good Buddhist, it must be
asked what is meant by the term 'good'. On one side of the argument, it
could be said that the work he did for the spread and recognition of
Buddhism makes him without doubt a good follower of the religion.
Asoka's support of concepts such as metta (lovingkindness), karuna
(compassion), and ahimsa (non-violence), while no doubt helping the
welfare of his empire, could be seen as not unique to Buddhism, and
therefore his actions as specifically a good Buddhist, as opposed to
merely a pacifistic leader, are questionable. By using the term 'good
Buddhist', it is implied that he did something or things which went above
and beyond the call of his religion, whereas some may argue that he was
simply fulfilling his duties, and was not in fact a particularly extraordinary
Buddhist at all.
It could be strongly argued that some of the perhaps unintentional
side effects of Asoka's spread of Buddhism mean that he was not a good
follower. The king of Sri Lanka reportedly said that non-believers were
little more than animals because of their alternative faiths, which while
not a directly result of Asoka's work or orders, could reflect badly on him,
to the extent where he was not considered a good Buddhist.
Perhaps the strongest argument against Asoka's place as a good
Buddhist is the distinct lack of any mention of him in Theravadin
chronicles, as noted by Richard Gombrich in his book Theravada
Buddhism. If this absence does indeed prove that his most well known
contribution is indeed not his at all, then he is of little relevance to
Buddhism's early spread, and is not so much of a saviour for the religion

as is widely believed.
My personal opinion is that while Asoka's past should certainly not
be overlooked, his contribution to the spread of Buddhist values around
Asia is invaluable, although as mentioned above, I believe that he was
simply fulfilling his religious duty, and was not a Buddhist that stood out
from the rest, and perhaps is only recognised specifically today because
of his high political status.