Asoka (c. 300-232 BCE) was born into the Mauryan royal family. After his father’s death, he became in 270 BCE the ruler of an empire extending from Afghanistan to Bengal, and covering the Ganges plain and the Deccan plateau. He pushed out the boundaries of his empire during the next decade, conquering Kalinga in 262 BCE. In this way he unified nearly all of India under his rule. He converted to Buddhism in 260 BCE and thenceforth propagated ideals of tolerance, equality, and public service.
After his conversion, Asoka promulgated the main ethical teachings of the Buddha, expressed in what Asoka referred to as the Dharma. He did this by means of traveling ministers (Dharma-Mhamatras) and by having edicts setting forth his philosophy carved into stone pillars and cliff faces. He expressed remorse over the loss of life and suffering caused by his seizure of Kalinga, and decreed that in future the only form of conquest should be by the diffusion of Buddha’s teachings. In keeping with his philosophy, Asoka instituted various public works—such as the digging of wells and planting of shade trees—and attempted to provide health services for all.
What we know of Asoka’s life comes from the stone edicts, which contain his own words, and from legends that were initially handed down orally but later were set down in manuscripts. Most of the legends appear to be the words of monks anxious to impress the laity with stories of the miraculous. But there is also an account of a third Buddhist council convened by Asoka, where an attempt was made to reconcile the practices of the many different Buddhist sects emerging over three centuries.
The interpretation Asoka gave to the teachings of the Buddha can only be inferred from the inscriptions that remain. He makes no mention of the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Way, but emphasizes the everyday, practical parts of the latter. In general, Asoka appears to have interpreted the Dharma as law, duty, and...