Emperor Ashok and Jainism
We know that Mauryan Emperor Ashok got converted to Buddhism after the war of Kaling. But what religion he was following before becoming a Buddhist? A brief history.
Emperor Ashok was the third Emperor of Mauryan dynasty who ruled from 269 B.C.E. to 232 B.C.E. from Patliputra (Present day Patna) in India. He was grandson of Chandragupt Maurya, the founder of the Mauryan Dynasty and a son of Bindusar, the second emperor of the dynasty. Ashok's empire was spread almost all over Indian sub continent, including today's Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangla Desh. He is known as one of the greatest emperors of India.
Kalinga, which is present day Orissa was not a part of Mauryan empire until Emperor Ashok invaded it. He embraced Buddhism after the mass killings of soldiers of both sides in Kaling war. Thereafter, he became a staunch Buddhist and propagated this religion throughout Indian subcontinent.
Now the question remains. What was the religion of Emperor Ashok before he converted to Buddhism?
Before Converting to Buddhism
If you search on the internet and in the books for the religion of Emperor Ashok before Converting to Buddhism, you will find that most of the writers have avoided to mention his ex-religion. Some of them have mentioned that Emperor Ashok converted to Buddhism from Hinduism, i.e. he was a Hindu. The writers who have avoided to mention his ex-religion know that what was it, but do not want to disclose it. Those who think that the Emperor was a Hindu are wrong as there was no religion named Hindu at that time period. If they want indirectly to say that it was the Vedic religion, then also they are wrong, as the Magadhans were never supporters of Vedic religion, and this region was always anti-Vedic. The Mauryans always embraced, supported and propagated Shramanic religions.
We must note that Chandragupt Maurya, the Grandfather of Emperor Ashok was a Jain. This fact is confirmed by Megasthenes, the Greek Ambassador in Emperor Chandragupt's court. Further, there are lot of references to Chandragupt's affiliation with Jainism. In his later days, Chandragupt became a Jain ascetic. (Please read more at: )
Emperor Bindusar, father of Emperor Ashok was follower of Ajivik sect. This sect was another stream of Shramanic tradition. Ajivik sect was later absorbed by Digambar sect of Jainism.
Emperor Ashok was influenced by Jainism because of his grandfather Chandragupt Maurya.
Early Faith of Emperor Ashok
We must note that the evidences of Emperor Ashok's conversion to Buddhism we find are primarily from Buddhist texts. None of his edicts clearly indicates that he was converted to Buddhism. In fact, he was a secular Emperor in his public life who supported all the 4 major religions of that time namely Jainism, Buddhism, Brahminism and Ajivik sect.
According to Buddhist texts, the emperor sent his son Mahendra and daughter Sanghmitra to Sri Lanka for propagating Buddhism. But there is no mention of these two in any of the edicts of the emperor. There is no mention of sending missionaries to Sri Lanka by him in the edicts.
Some scholars have questioned his conversion to Buddhism.
However his few edicts of later period indicate his attraction towards Buddhism. One evidence of his conversion is that he erected rock pillars at Buddhist sites, but at the sites of other religions.
But most of his edicts are influenced by Jainism. We know from his edicts that he was against animal sacrifice and he did a lot of things for animal welfare. Both these things are especially related to Jainism.
Family Religion of Emperor Ashok
It is important to know about the religions of family members of the emperor. According to Jain and Buddhist sources, the emperor had two queens of much importance. Elder was a Jain by religion, younger was Buddhist. The Jain queen had a son named Kunal. He was selected as the successor of the empire by Ashok. As Kunal was a blind, his son Samprati looked after the empire.
Samprati became another great emperor of Mauryan dynasty. He was a staunch Jain, a pupil of the great Jain Acharya Suhasti. Samprati sent Jain missionaries to Andhra and Tamil Nadu. He brought many regions under influence of Jainism.
We must think that why Ashok selected the son of his Jain queen as his successor and sent son of Buddhist queen to propagate Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
Jainism, or The Early Faith of Asoka by Edward Thomas
Asoka's mission to Ceylon and some connected problems By JYOTIRMAY SEN The Indian Historical Quarterly, Vol. 4:4 , 1928
Bharatiy Itihas Ek Drishti by Jyoti Prasad Jain Published by Bharatiy Gyanpeeth New Delhi
Wikipedia on Ashoka
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