Asoka became a convert to Buddhism probably in the ninth year of his coronation, which is a year after his conquest of Kalinga. According to Sri Lankan chronicle Mahavamsa Asoka was converted to Buddhism by Nigrodha, a boy monk who was just seven years old and afterwards he came into contact with Moggaliputta Tissa, who presided over the third Buddhist Council called by Asoka.
Mahavamsa relates that after this Council Asoka sent Buddhist missions to various parts of India and to Sri Lanka, where he sent his son Mahendra and daughter Sanghamitra for the propagation of Buddhism. Historically, Buddhism for the first time went outside India during the reign of Asoka.
After his conversion to Buddhism the other members of his family also embraced Buddhism. We learn from the Buddhist sources that Asoka’s brother Tissa, his son, daughter and Queen Karuvaki also became converts to Buddhism. The famous Queen’s (Minor/Pillar) Edict describes the sacred donations made to the Buddhist Samgha by his second Queen Karuvaki.
Asoka’s relation with the Buddhist Samgha was that of a great royal patron and in this context he tried to rigidly enforce the unity of the Buddhist Samgha. In his Minor Rock Edicts he repeatedly warned that “whosoever, monk or nun, breaks up the Samgha, after being clothed in white garments shall be expelled out of the Samgha”. After his conversion to Buddhism he went on pilgrimages to various Buddhist sacred places and built several stupas and viharas.
His Policy of Religious Toleration:
Though Asoka was a devout Buddhist, on religious matters he was tolerant and believed in the basic unity of all religions. Asoka himself says in the seventh Rock Edict: “All sects desire both self-control and purity of mind”.
In the twelfth Rock Edict he pronounces his policy of religious toleration more clearly: “The Beloved of the Gods, the king Piyadassi, honours all sects and both ascetics and laymen, with gifts and various forms of recognition.” Again, “whosoever honours his own sector disparages that of another, wholly out of devotion to his own, with a view to showing it in a favourable light, harms his own sect even more seriously”.
In Pillar Edict VI he asserts: “I devote my attention to all communities, for the followers of all denominations are honoured by me. Nevertheless, showing personal regard for them is the chief thing in my opinion.” What he clearly wishes for is the growth of the essentials, Sara Vadhi, amongst all religions.
He seems to have carefully studied the doctrines of all the religious sects and had come to the conclusion that there was a basic unity in all religions, because they all aim at self-restraint and purification of heart and inculcate the same moral virtues and the same moral practices.
After the Kalinga war, the greatest ideal and objective before Asoka were the propagation of Dhamma, for the fulfilment of which he worked relentlessly. The Dhamma as explained in Asoka’s Edicts is not a religion or religious system, but a ‘Moral Law”, ‘a Common Code of Conduct’ or an ‘Ethical Order’, which is a common meeting ground of all religions.
In Pillar Edict-II, Asoka himself puts the question: Dhamma is good. And what is Dhamma (Dhamme Sadhu Kiyam Chu Dhamma Ti)? Then he enumerates the two basic attributes or constituents of Dhamma: fewer evils or sins (Apan- sinave) and many good deeds (Bahu Kayane).
Then in the present and other Edicts he enumerates the Asinavas or sin, such as rage or fury, cruelty, anger, pride and envy, which are to be avoided and many good deeds (Bahu Kayane)- kindness, liberality, truthfulness, gentleness, self- control, purity of heart, attachment to morality, inner and outer purity, etc.-which are to be pursued vigorously. The above two attributes con- stitue the ‘Doctrinal’ or Negative (Asinavas) and Positive (Bahu Kayane) aspects of Asoka’s Dhamma.