Ashoka visiting Ramagrama stupa, from Sanchi Stupa 1 Southern gateway

Emperor Asoka (born 304 B.C.,ruled 274-236 B.C.) was arguably the greatest ruler in Indian history and was the man who ensured Buddhism success as a world religion. After Asoka conquered the kingdom of Kalinga, in one of most important battles in the history of the world, near the Brubaneswar airport in the state of Orissa, he was so appalled by the number of people that were massacred (perhaps 100,000 or more) he converted himself and his kingdom to Buddhism and sent Buddhist missionaries to the four corners of Asia to spread the religion. The wheel Asoka used to symbolize his conversion to Buddhism is the same one pictured on India's flag today. H.G. Wells, a noted historian as well as science fiction writer, wrote: "Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history ... the name of Ashoka shines, and shines almost alone, a star."

Under Ashoka, Buddhism was widely propagated and spread to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Many Buddhist monuments and elaborately carved cave temples found at Sarnath, Ajanta, Bodhgaya, and other places in India date from the reigns of Ashoka and his Buddhist successors. Ashoka sent Buddhist missionaries to the four corners of Asia to spread the religion, led pilgrimages to all the Buddhist sacred places, repaired old shrines, “stupas” and built new ones. he was a tolerant ruler. He did not campaign against Brahmanism (Hinduism) he just derided some of the Hindu ceremonies and sacrifices as wasteful. To further the influence of dharma, he sent his son, a Buddhist monk, to Sri Lanka, and emissaries to countries including Greece and Syria.

Asoka’s empire covered most of India, including what's now Pakistan, but at least initially not the very south of the India subcontinent. The conversion process from Hinduism and Buddhism was easy in many places because Buddhism borrowed so many ideas and doctrines from Hinduism. When Asoka converted to Buddhism he simply changed Hindu stupas representing Mount Meru into Buddhist stupas that also represented Mt. Meru. Buddhism appealed to merchants and took hold primarily in urban areas. Before its final decline in India, Buddhism developed the popular worship of enlightened beings (heavenly Bodhisattvas), produced a refined architecture (stupas or shrines) at Sanchi and sculpture (Gandharara reliefs 1-400 AD) on the geographical fringes of the Indian civilization. [Source: World Almanac]

Buddhism and Jainism had a profound impact on Indian and Hindu culture. They discouraged caste distinctions, abolished hereditary priesthoods, made poverty a precondition of spirituality and advocated the communion with the spiritual essence of the universe through contemplation and meditation.

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net ; Religious Tolerance Page ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive ; Introduction to Buddhism ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA ; View on Buddhism ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism ; Buddhist Centre; A sketch of the Buddha's Life ; What Was The Buddha Like? by Ven S. Dhammika ; Jataka Tales (Stories About Buddha) ; Illustrated Jataka Tales and Buddhist stories ; Buddhist Tales ; Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by Bhikkhu Bodhi ; Victoria and Albert Museum

Ashoka After His Conversion to Buddhism

Ashoka converted to Buddhism, it is said, because he was horror-striken by the atrocities committed during the Battle of Kalinga and the war to unify northern India. He banned hunting and meat consumption, inscribed his teachings on stone, issued edicts promoting Buddhist principles of justice and morality, spread the religion, governed with wisdom and piety, and organized a third council at Pataliputra in 247 B.C. [Source: A. S. Rosso,; Jones, C. B. New Catholic Encyclopedia,]

Ashoka was one of the most important figures in the history of Buddhism. He not only became a Buddhist himself he also established a model of dharmic kingship that remained an example for all Buddhist rulers that followed. Among other things he established the standard of royal support for the monks by building monastic shelters, planting shade trees and digging wells to aid pilgrims and travelers. Ashoka also promoted a pacifist ideology based on Buddhist principles and ethics. He inscribed this ideology, along with an autobiography of his own spiritual transformation from military leader to pious layman, on the stones and pillars he erected.

In 240 B.C., Ashoka became a monk without abdicating his royal office. Although Ashoka did not institute Buddhism as the state religion he did promote Buddhism in a lot of other ways. He required his officials to provide moral training to their subordinates, promote piety among people of all sects, and prevent unjust punishments. His edicts indicate that he attempted to unify the Sangha and prevent schismatic tendencies that could hinder its support of the state's goals. He may have convened a Third Council at the capital city of Pataliputra, which became the basis for the Theravada orthodoxy carried to Ceylon and the Southeast Asian mainland. However, sectarian schisms in India persisted due to doctrinal and institutional issues that ulimately led to split between Theravada Buddhists and Mahayana Buddhists. [Source: Peter A. Pardue, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2000s,]

Ashoka’s Personal Religion

Ashoka's Lion Pillar on the way to the Dhauli Giri

It is said that in the 3rd century B.C., the great Emperor Ashoka was sent to Ujjain by his father Bindusara to subdue an uprising. He was injured and was treated by Buddhist monks, the king's first encounter with Buddhism, a religion he later converted India. Ashoka appears to have never renounced the world, nor ever became a monk, as suggested by some scholars on the authority of the Divjavadana and of I-tsing, Ashoka’s pilgrimages to Sarnath, where the Buddha first “turned the wheel of the Law,” and to Kushinagar,where Buddhists believe Gautama Buddha attained Parinirvana after his death, are not mentioned in his inscriptions.

Ashoka’s link with Buddhism is mainly associated with Kalinga. He himself declares in R.E. XIII that “directly after the conquest of the Kalihgas, the Beloved of the gods became zealous in the pursuit of dharma, love for dharma, and teaching of dharma.” Rama Shankar Tripathi wrote: Sometimes it is doubted if he was a Buddhist, but his attachment to Buddhism is apparent from authentic traditions as well as cpigraphic evidence. In the Bhabru edict he professes devotion to the Buddhist Trinity — the Buddha, the dharma, and the Samgha — and recommends both the Order and the laity certain sections from the Buddhist scriptures for their recitation and meditation.

In the minor pillar edict at Sarnath and its variants, Ashoka speaks almost as the Defender of the Faith, prescribing penalties for any attempts to create schisms in the church. He also performed pilgrimages to Buddhist holy places like Bodhgaya (R. E. VIII) and Lumbini (M. P. E.), and abolished sacrifices and amusements which involved the slaughter of innocent animals (R. E. I.). Lastly, we learn from traditions that Ashoka built a large number of Stupas to enshrine the relics of the Buddha, originally deposited in eight such structures; and to further the cause of Buddhism and settle the canon the Emperor convoked a council, too, under the leadership of Moggaliputta Tissa. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

How Ashoka Helped to Spread Buddhism

Ashoka spread the physical remains of the Buddha throughout India. These remains were particularly important in the spread and growth of Buddhism. Enshrined in chaityas and stupas — burial mounds of varying size — they became objects of devotion and important gathering places, often associated with significant events in the Buddha's life, allowing the monks to spread the dharma to larger and larger groups. [Source: Jacob Kinnard, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2018,]

Ashoka also sent out a number of missionaries, including his own son (or brother), Mahinda, to introduce Buddhism and establish monastic orders in other parts of the world, such as Southwest and Southeast Asia. Ashoka sent Mahinda and other missionaries to spread the faith in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and another group to Western Asia, Greece, Macedonia, and Epirus. Buddhists elsewhere exerted influence on the Gnostic and Manichaean sects after the successful mission in Sri Lanka. Asceticism and missionary movements left a lasting impact in India, from where Buddhism spread throughout Eastern Asia.

Ashoka established a precedent with his Buddhist kingdom. The support of rulers other than himself was an essential to the expansion and longevity of the religion. Kings and princes were drawn to Buddhism in part because of its emphasis on individual morality, lack of caste hierarchy, and symbiotic relationship between the sangha and the state. The monks relied on the rulers for land, food, and protection, while the rulers found moral legitimization of his rule in the sangha. The ideal king was a dharmaraja, just, generous, and moral, upholding and promoting the teachings of the Buddha. This model is still replicated in Buddhist countries today.

Ashoka’s Pillars and Edicts

Ashoka erected numerous large stone pillars throughout India with edicts inscribed on them. These edicts laid out many of the basic aspects of the Buddha's teachings as well as guidelines for how to live a good Buddhist life. The aim of Ashoka’s pillar message was to legitimize the authority of the royal house and provide a cultural foundation for a viable social system. It encouraged all men in the empire to work together to achieve socially and economically efficient virtues, while discouraging the use of outdated sacrificial, magical ceremonies and traditional religious customs that supported politically problematic local leaders and the entrenched class of archaic religious practitioners. The ideology did not provide any specific criteria for social integration based on the brahma caste. Instead, it simply urges that brahmas be show respect to everyone. .[Source: Peter A. Pardue, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2000s,]

Ashoka placed rocks and stone pillars engraved with morally uplifting inscriptions on the sides of public roads to demarcate and define his kingdom. It was long thought they carried Buddhist messages but although some mentioned the idea of dharma they dealt mostly with the secular matters such as building wells, establishing rest houses for travelers, planting trees and founding medical services. Many of the commemorative stones pillars—at least 18 rocks and 30 stone pillars— he erected are still standing.

Ashoka’s inscriptions chiseled on rocks and stone pillars located at strategic locations throughout his empire — such as Lampaka (Laghman in modern Afghanistan), Mahastan (in modern Bangladesh), and Brahmagiri (in Karnataka) — constitute the second set of datable historical records. According to some of the inscriptions, in the aftermath of the carnage resulting from his campaign against the powerful kingdom of Kalinga (modern Orissa), Ashoka renounced bloodshed and pursued a policy of nonviolence or ahimsa, espousing a theory of rule by righteousness. His toleration for different religious beliefs and languages reflected the realities of India's regional pluralism although he personally seems to have followed Buddhism (see Buddhism). Early Buddhist stories assert that he convened a Buddhist council at his capital, regularly undertook tours within his realm, and sent Buddhist missionary ambassadors to Sri Lanka. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Throughout his kingdom, the emperor inscribed laws and injunctions inspired by dharma on rocks and pillars, some of them crowned with elaborate sculptures. Many of these edicts begin "Thus speaks Devanampiya Piyadassi [Beloved of the Gods]" and counsel good behavior including decency, piety, honoring parents and teachers and protection of the environment and natural world. Guided by this principle, Ashoka abolished practices that caused unnecessary suffering to men and animals and advanced religious toleration.

Legend of King Asoka in a Former Birth, and His Naraka

According to “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms”: “When king Asoka, in a former birth, was a little boy and played on the road, he met Kasyapa Buddha walking. (The stranger) begged food, and the boy pleasantly took a handful of earth and gave it to him. The Buddha took the earth, and returned it to the ground on which he was walking; but because of this (the boy) received the recompense of becoming a king of the iron wheel, to rule over Jambudvipa. (Once) when he was making a judicial tour of inspection through Jambudvipa, he saw, between the iron circuit of the two hills, a naraka for the punishment of wicked men. Having thereupon asked his ministers what sort of a thing it was, they replied, "It belongs to Yama, king of demons, for punishing wicked people." The king thought within himself:—"(Even) the king of demons is able to make a naraka in which to deal with wicked men; why should not I, who am the lord of men, make a naraka in which to deal with wicked men?" He forthwith asked his ministers who could make for him a naraka and preside over the punishment of wicked people in it. They replied that it was only a man of extreme wickedness who could make it; and the king thereupon sent officers to seek everywhere for (such) a bad man; and they saw by the side of a pond a man tall and strong, with a black countenance, yellow hair, and green eyes, hooking up the fish with his feet, while he called to him birds and beasts, and, when they came, then shot and killed them, so that not one escaped. Having got this man, they took him to the king, who secretly charged him, "You must make a square enclosure with high walls. Plant in it all kinds of flowers and fruits; make good ponds in it for bathing; make it grand and imposing in every way, so that men shall look to it with thirsting desire; make its gates strong and sure; and when any one enters, instantly seize him and punish him as a sinner, not allowing him to get out. Even if I should enter, punish me as a sinner in the same way, and do not let me go. I now appoint you master of that naraka." [Source: “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms” by Fa-Hsien (Faxian) of his Travels in India and Ceylon (A.D. 399-414), Translated James Legge, 1886, /]

Ashoka rock edict in Gujarat

“Soon after this a bhikshu, pursuing his regular course of begging his food, entered the gate (of the place). When the lictors of the naraka saw him, they were about to subject him to their tortures; but he, frightened, begged them to allow him a moment in which to eat his midday meal. Immediately after, there came in another man, whom they thrust into a mortar and pounded till a red froth overflowed. As the bhikshu looked on, there came to him the thought of the impermanence, the painful suffering and insanity of this body, and how it is but as a bubble and as foam; and instantly he attained to Arhatship. Immediately after, the lictors seized him, and threw him into a caldron of boiling water. There was a look of joyful satisfaction, however, in the bhikshu's countenance. The fire was extinguished, and the water became cold. In the middle (of the caldron) there rose up a lotus flower, with the bhikshu seated on it. The lictors at once went and reported to the king that there was a marvellous occurrence in the naraka, and wished him to go and see it; but the king said, "I formerly made such an agreement that now I dare not go (to the place)." The lictors said, "This is not a small matter. Your majesty ought to go quickly. Let your former agreement be altered." The king thereupon followed them, and entered (the naraka), when the bhikshu preached the Law to him, and he believed, and was made free. Forthwith he demolished the naraka, and repented of all the evil which he had formerly done. From this time he believed in and honoured the Three Precious Ones, and constantly went to a patra tree, repenting under it, with self-reproach, of his errors, and accepting the eight rules of abstinence. /

“The queen asked where the king was constantly going to, and the ministers replied that he was constantly to be seen under (such and such) a patra tree. She watched for a time when the king was not there, and then sent men to cut the tree down. When the king came, and saw what had been done, he swooned away with sorrow, and fell to the ground. His ministers sprinkled water on his face, and after a considerable time he revived. He then built all round (the stump) with bricks, and poured a hundred pitchers of cows' milk on the roots; and as he lay with his four limbs spread out on the ground, he took this oath, "If the tree do not live, I will never rise from this." When he had uttered this oath, the tree immediately began to grow from the roots, and it has continued to grow till now, when it is nearly 100 cubits in height.” /

Patna Car Parade and Asoka's Spirit-Built Palace

According to “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms”: “King Asoka had a younger brother who had attained to be an Arhat, and resided on Gridhra-kuta hill, finding his delight in solitude and quiet. The king, who sincerely reverenced him, wished and begged him (to come and live) in his family, where he could supply all his wants. The other, however, through his delight in the stillness of the mountain, was unwilling to accept the invitation, on which the king said to him, "Only accept my invitation, and I will make a hill for you inside the city." Accordingly, he provided the materials of a feast, called to him the spirits, and announced to them, "To-morrow you will all receive my invitation; but as there are no mats for you to sit on, let each one bring (his own seat)." Next day the spirits came, each one bringing with him a great rock, (like) a wall, four or five paces square, (for a seat). When their sitting was over, the king made them form a hill with the large stones piled on one another, and also at the foot of the hill, with five large square stones, to make an apartment, which might be more than thirty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, and more than ten cubits high. [Source: “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms” by Fa-Hsien (Faxian) of his Travels in India and Ceylon (A.D. 399-414), Translated James Legge, 1886, /]

“The cities and towns of this country are the greatest of all in the Middle Kingdom. The inhabitants are rich and prosperous, and vie with one another in the practice of benevolence and righteousness. Every year on the eighth day of the second month they celebrate a procession of images. They make a four-wheeled car, and on it erect a structure of four storeys by means of bamboos tied together. This is supported by a king-post, with poles and lances slanting from it, and is rather more than twenty cubits high, having the shape of a stupa. White and silk-like cloth of hair is wrapped all round it, which is then painted in various colours. They make figures of devas, with gold, silver, and lapis lazuli grandly blended and having silken streamers and canopies hung out over them. On the four sides are niches, with a Buddha seated in each, and a Bodhisattva standing in attendance on him. There may be twenty cars, all grand and imposing, but each one different from the others. On the day mentioned, the monks and laity within the borders all come together; they have singers and skilful musicians; they pay their devotion with flowers and incense. The Brahmans come and invite the Buddhas to enter the city. These do so in order, and remain two nights in it. All through the night they keep lamps burning, have skilful music, and present offerings. This is the practice in all the other kingdoms as well. The Heads of the Vaisya families in them establish in the cities houses for dispensing charity and medicines. All the poor and destitute in the country, orphans, widowers, and childless men, maimed people and cripples, and all who are diseased, go to those houses, and are provided with every kind of help, and doctors examine their diseases. They get the food and medicines which their cases require, and are made to feel at ease; and when they are better, they go away of themselves. /

“When king Asoka destroyed the seven stupas, (intending) to make eighty-four thousand, the first which he made was the great stupa, more than three le to the south of this city. In front of this there is a footprint of Buddha, where a vihara has been built. The door of it faces the north, and on the south of it there is a stone pillar, fourteen or fifteen cubits in circumference, and more than thirty cubits high, on which there is an inscription, saying, "Asoka gave the jambudvipa to the general body of all the monks, and then redeemed it from them with money. This he did three times." North from the stupa 300 or 400 paces, king Asoka built the city of Ne-le. In it there is a stone pillar, which also is more than thirty feet high, with a lion on the top of it. On the pillar there is an inscription recording the things which led to the building of Ne-le, with the number of the year, the day, and the month.” /

Tolerance of Religion in Ashoka’s Empire

Though Ashoka had himself embraced Buddhism, he was by no means an intolerant zealot. On the contrary, he bestowed due honours and patronage on all the sects then prevailing. He granted cavedwellings to the Ajivikas, and inculcated the virtues of liberality and seemly behaviour towards the votaries of different creeds — Brahmanas, Sramanas, Nirgranthas, etc. He believed that the followers of all sects aimed at “restraint of passions and purity of heart,” and, therefore, he desired that they should reside everywhere in his empire (R. E. VII). Above all, he exhorted his subjects to exercise self-control, be “bahuSruta,” i.e., have much information about the doctrines of different sects, and avoid disparaging any faith merely from attachment to one’s own, so that there may be a growth in mutual reverence and toleration (R. E. XII). Truly, these are lofty sentiments, which may bring solace even to the modern distracted world. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

Owing to this catholicity Ashoka did not seek to impose his personal religion upon the people. Indeed, nowhere in his edicts does he mention the chief characteristics of Buddhism, to wit, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and the goal of Nirvana. The “Dharma”, which he presents to the world is, so to say, the essence or sara of all religions. He prescribes a code of conduct with a view to making life happier and purer. He laid great stress on obedience and respect for parents, preceptors, and elders. Liberality and proper treatment of Brahmanas, relations, friends, the aged, and the distressed, were highly commended. Ashoka defines the “Dharma” as comprising charity, compassion, truthfulness, purity, saintliness. self-control, gratitude, steadfastness, and so on. Negatively, it is freedom from sin, which is the outcome of anger, cruelty, pride), and jealousy. These ate points common to all religions, and so Ashoka can hardly be accused of utilising his vast resources as sovereign in the interests of any particular creed. To him, therefore, goes the credit of first conceiving the idea of a universal religion, synonymous with Duty in its broadest sense. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

Ashoka did not, however, give to all the current religious practices and beliefs the stamp of his recognition. In pursuance of the principle of non-injury to sentient beings, he did not hesitate to suppress entirely the performance of sacrifices accompanied with the slaughter of animals (R. E. I). This may have meant a real hardship to some of his people, who believed in their efficacy, but Ashoka was not prepared to make any compromise on this cardinal doctrine. He also condemned certain ceremonies as trivial, vulgar, and worthless. Mostly they were performed by womenfolk on occasions of births, deaths, marriages, journeys, etc. According to Ashoka, true ceremonial consisted of proper conduct in all relations of life. Similarly, he tried to change the popular idea of gifts and conquests. He declares that there is no such gift as dharma-d&na, which consists of “proper treatment of slaves and servants, obedience to mother and father, liberality to friends, companions, relations, Brahmana and Sramana ascetics, and abstention from slaughter of living creatures for sacrifice”

Ashoka Promotion of Buddhism and the Third Buddhist Council

Ashoka propagated the “Dharma” with the zeal and earnestness of a missionary, and he claims in Minor Rock Edict I that as a result of his strenuous exertions for a year, indeed for more than a year, “human beings who were unmixed were caused to be mixed with gods throughout Jambudvlpa.” He achieved this extraordinary success on account of his well-planned measures. He exhibited “spectacles” of celestial chariots, luminous balls of fire, and elephants, representing the kinds of bliss, which the virtuous enjoyed in heaven. He believed that these shows would attract people to the path of righteousness. He himself gave up pleasure-tours, consisting of hunting and other diversions, and substituted for them “ dharmaja tras” to foster dharma and a spirit of liberality in’ the country by his precept and personal example. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

Ashoka embarked on a programme of benevolent activities to relieve the distress of man and beast. We have already referred to his prohibition of sacrificial slaughter, and R. E. I further says that he gradually eliminated the non-vegetarian items from the royal menu. All Samajas, involving meat-eating, dancing, music, etc., were strictly stopped. Similarly, P. E. V. mentions certain regulations which he prescribed in order to restrict the killing and mutilation of animals. He gave largess to ascetics, the poor, and the oppressed; and he employed superior officers (Mukhas) for supervising his charities as well as those of his queens and the princes. According to R. E. II, Ashoka instituted “medical treatment” of two kinds — one for human beings and the other for the lower creation — in his dominions and in those of his frontier neighbours.

One of the notable events, which took place in the 17th year of Ashoka’s coronation, was the convocation of the third Buddhist council to resolve the differences between the various sects of Buddhism. It met at Pataliputra (near present-day Patna) and after nine months’ deliberations the issues were decided in favour of the Sthaviras (an early Buddhist school).

Buddhism Spreads Out of India

At the conclusion of the Third Buddhist Council, the council leader organised and dispatched evangelical missions to distant lands. For instance, Majjhantika went to Kashmir and Gandhara, Majjhima led the party to the Himalaya country, Mahadeva was deputed to Mahisamandala (Mysore), Sona and Uttara to Suvarnabhumi (Burma), Mahadharmaraksita and Maharaksita were sent to Maharastra and the Yavana country respectively, and Ashoka’s son Mahendra, who had become a monk, was sent along with others to Lanka (Ceylon). Subsequently the Emperor’s daughter, Samghamitra, is said to have taken there a branch of the sacred Bodhi Tree. The propagation and promotion of Buddhism in Ashoka’s time must have largely been due to the zeal and perseverance of these indefatigable missionaries. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

Khalsi Ashoka rock edict

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: ““In the first century A.D., the Kushans, nomadic warriors from Central Asia, conquered the ancient Gandharan region (which includes parts of modern Pakistan and Afghanistan) and much of northern India. Different styles of art emerged from the two Kushan capitals, one in the Peshawar area of Gandhara and the other at Mathura further southeast in India. The Gandharan style adapted forms from late Hellenistic and Roman art, perhaps a legacy of Alexander the Great’s successors in the area, but largely because the major trade routes from the Roman Empire to India and China passed through the region, bringing peoples and ideas from the West. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

“In Andhra, on the southeastern coast of India, the Ikshvaku kingdom (A.D. 1st– 3rd century) prospered through the exchange of goods from local ports on the sea routes to Rome. There, as in Gandhara, Buddhist merchants and devotees financed the building of stupas decorated with narrative stone reliefs depicting the Buddha in a distinctive fashion. Andhran Buddhist art influenced the art styles of Sri Lanka and images of the Buddha in Andhran style have been found in Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia. By the end of this period, Buddhism was spreading along the silk route to China and later to Korea and Japan. Along with written accounts of the Buddha’s teachings (called sutras), monks and merchants carried small portable works of art—mainly sculptures of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and shrines—which greatly influenced early Chinese and Central Asian Buddhist sculpture.

The Chinese monk Fa-hsien ventured as far west as India around A.D. 400 to study Buddhism. He traveled from Xian to the west overland and cross into India over Himalayan passes and sailed back to China on route that took him through present-day Indonesia. The the spread of Buddhism—a peaceful process in itself—periodically met with hostility. In China, in A.D. 842, the Tang Emperor Wuzong began to persecute foreign religions. Some 4,600 Buddhist monasteries were annihilated, priceless works of art were destroyed, and about 260,000 monks and nuns were forced to return to lay life.

Hindu Revival and the Death of Buddhism in India

Within fifty years after Ashoka’s death the Mauryan empire collapsed due to various factors, including barbarian invasions, economic decline, internal political conflict, and a resurgence of brahma power. Following this, the principles behind the caste system were further rationalized and the system reclaimed its grip on society. The king's responsibility became increasingly tied to maintaining the social order in accordance with caste criteria. Buddhism’s egalitarian social theory lost influence, except for the occasional legitimation of invading monarchs and their courts such as the Sákas and Pahlavas. [Source: Peter A. Pardue, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2000s,]

Centuries after it took hold in India Hinduism made a comeback in India namely at Buddhism’s expense. Vedic traditions were combined with the worship of a multitude of indigenous gods (seen as manifestations of Vedic gods), the caste system was reintroduced and Buddhism gradually disappeared. Before its final decline in India, Buddhism developed the popular worship of enlightened beings (heavenly Bodhisattvas), produced a refined architecture (stupas and shrines) at Sanchi. By the 11th century Buddhist had disappeared from India. . The Muslim invasions may have played a role in its demise there

The Gupta Empire (A.D. 320 to 647) was marked by the return of Hinduism as the state religion. The Gupta era is regarded as the classical period of Hindu art, literature and science. After Buddhism died out Hinduism returned in the form of a religion called Brahmanism (named after the caste of Hindu priests). Vedic traditions were combined with the worship of a multitude of indigenous gods (seen as manifestations of Vedic gods). The Gupta king was worshiped as a manifestation of Vishnu, and Buddhism gradually disappeared. The caste system was reintroduced. Brahmans held great power and became wealthy landowners, and a great many new-castes were created, in part to incorporate the large number of foreigners that moved into the region.

Buddhism all but disappeared from India by the A.D. 6th century. Attempts to reform Hinduism only led to new sects that still follow the basic tenets of the Hindu mainstream. During medieval times, when Hinduism was influenced and threatened by Islam and Christianity, there was a movement toward monotheism and away from idolatry and the caste system. The cults of Rama and Vishnu grew in the 16th century out of this movement, with both deities being regarded as supreme gods. The Krishna cult, known for its devotional chants and song meetings, highlighted Krishna’s erotic adventures as a metaphor for the relationship between mankind and God. [ World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated January 2024

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