Buddhism and Ashoka (273-232 BCE), the great Mauryan ruler, has indeed become a synonymous association when it comes to explaining the spread of Buddhism throughout the Indian subcontinent and beyond. Though his successors also patronized Buddhism, the fact remains that Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism marked the beginning of its widespread popularity and acceptance.
Originally a Saivite, Ashoka is said to have emerged as the sole contender to succeed his father’s throne and vast empire after allegedly putting to death his brothers (according to traditional accounts). Like any other ruler, he expanded the Mauryan territoriy through conquests and matrimonial alliances.
Ashoka’s tryst with Buddhism began in the thirteenth year of his rule (230 BCE) when he was campaigning in Kalinga (Orissa) to expand his territory. Though victorious, the horrific slaughter and untold sufferings Ashoka witnessed in this campaign, is said to have disturbed and saddened him so much. He is then said to have embraced Buddhism after renouncing war forever. Thus with Ashoka’s conversion, Buddhism received a great impetus.
Ashoka’s patronage of Buddhism played a great role into having a profound influence in the Indian subcontinent and beyond begins with his practical approach towards the humane ideals. In his zeal to propagate peace, he dispatched Buddhist emissaries to Burma, Ceylon, Afghanistan, Nepal, Mesopotamia, Syria, China, Tibet, Egypt, Persia, Macedonia and Emirus after the Third Buddhist Council (3rd century BCE). Moreover, he is said to have sent his son Mahindra daughter Sanghamitra to Ceylon to spread Buddhism. The popularity of Buddhism under the Mauryas led to the establishment of many Buddhist centers at places like the present day Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh, Varanasi, Orissa, Mysore, and Karnataka.
Ashoka’s policy of Dhamma, which encapsulated all the moral and social virtues for the common good, and his direct patronage were responsible for the widespread popularity of Buddhism. Assuming the title “Devanampriya” (Beloved of the Gods), several rock and pillar edicts of his Dhamma or the law of piety issued by Ashoka were erected. These included the co-existence and the toleration of all walks of life.
With the Mauryan Emperor embracing Buddhism, and with the cessation of all political conquests, Buddhism thrived well under their patronage. The Archaeological remains of Buddhist Stupas and monasteries set up during the Mauryan period indicates that the Buddhist centers functioned as bases for propagating Buddhism into South-east Asia and Central Asia. The development of the Gandhara School of Art, an out come of the Greco-Buddhist contact in present day Afghanistan also took place during the Mauryan period.
Though sources are scanty on the fate of Buddhism under the Mauryan rulers after Ashoka, the spread of Buddhism under this Mauryan Emperor is believed to have greatly influenced the religious history of South-east Asia. The spread of Buddhism beyond the borders of Indian subcontinent during the Mauryan period ensured its survival even after Buddhism lost hold after the Muslim conquest and the revival of Hinduism.