One of the early events in Asoka’s life which turned out to be crucial was his conquest of Kalinga. Subjugation of Kalinga (Orissa) was not easy. The war, which according to the 13th rock edict occurred in the ninth year of the king’s reign, has been assigned to 260 bc.
It was an eye-opener for the king, for Asoka mentions in the same edict his regret and remorse at the suffering in Kalinga. Scholars like Eggermont have held that Asoka became a Buddhist before this war.
But others see Asoka’s conversion as an event that occurred in the ninth year of his reign, after the Kalinga war. They are of the view that Asoka’s conversion does not appear to be a sudden, dramatic event, but a gradual process.
In the Bhabra edict, believed to belong to the latter part of the king’s rule, Asoka states that his acceptance of Buddhism meant his identification with the Buddha (whom he called Bhagavat) and his teachings, and his initiation into the Sangha (with which he kept in close touch after his conversion).
We also see that he was keen to impress on the monks the need for a correct explanation of the Buddhist doctrine. He also appointed special officers to propagate Dhamma. There are also some indications that Asoka interested himself in the scriptures of Buddhism and monastic discipline.
Ten years after he became king, that is, in 259-258 bc, he “went to the Sambodhi” (most probably the bodhi-tree as per the Dipavamsa’s use of the term ‘Sambodhi’ regularly in this sense).
According to the eighth rock edict, he refers to the Dhammayatra (the journey made in connection with Dhamma). The 13th rock edict mentions five Hellenistic kings in connection with sending envoys to countries outside his kingdom for preaching the Dhamma.
The Pali sources mention Asoka’s important role in the third Buddhist council held at Pataliputra in 250 bc, probably in the nineteenth year of Asoka’s reign. But some scholars have pointed out that the king does not mention the event in his edicts.
Only the Schism Edict stresses on the unity of the Sangha and recommends that dissidents should be expelled from it. It only suggests that some procedural rules had been adopted to distinguish the dissidents from the orthodox.
It is pointed out that a local council might have been convened under Moggaliputta Tissa and Asoka had no connection with them. These Buddhist monks were sent as missionaries to other regions after the conclusion of the council.
Among them were Majjhima (to the Himalayan region), Maijhantika (to Gandhara and Kashmir), Rakkhita (Vanavasi), Mahadeva (Mahisamandaia), Mahadhammarakkhita (Maharashtra), Yona Dhammarakkhita (Aparantaka), Maharakkhita (Yona), Mahindra (Lanka), Sona and Uttara (Suvarnabhumi). The mission sent to the Himalayan region was a large one.