Emperor Asoka was a famous ruler of India who came to the throne somewhere around 268 B. C. originally he seems to have been a follower of either the Jain religion or Ajivaka religion.The Buddhist tradition is that he developed an interest in Buddhism after he met the young Buddhist novice monk called Nigrodha He is considered the ideal Buddhist king who clearly demonstrated how the teaching of the Buddha , both concerning general virtue and the norms that should be observed by a righteous ruler, could be put into practice. His seryice to Buddhism is two-fold . He helped to spread and establish Buddhism throughout his Maurya Empire . He also contributed to make Buddhism known outside India .
As a ruler he treated all his subjects like his own children. He openly declared that all his subjects are his children , and that his desire is to see them working in unity to achieve success in this world and in next . He was totally dedicated to work for the well-being of his subjects. He was always accessible to the people. His subjects could meet him at any time without even a prior appointment , if they had any urgent matter to inform him. Following the concept of Cakkavatta-raja (Universal King) given in Buddhist books ,he extended his compassion and protection not only to the people , but also to birds and beasts . Being disgusted with war and bloodshed , he practised non-violence (ahimsa). He stopped the slaughter of animals for food even in his own palace .
His concern and compassion for people and even animals was such that he established hospitals for both . He planted numerous kinds of trees that he thought were useful for both human beings and animals . These trees provided not only fruits, but also shade and shelter.
He seems to have been very thorough with his knowledge of Buddhism. He picked up most suitable suttas and displayed them in his inscriptions, so that the people could read and try to follow them. He tried to encourage people to develop good, cordial social relations as taught by the Buddha in the Sigalovada Sutta. He advised the people regarding how to lead a happy and contented life.
His tolerance was such that he never looked down upon any religion. In one of his Edicts he says:
“One should not honour only one’s own religion and condemn the religions of others. One should honour other religions for whatever reason they are worth . By doing this, one helps one’s own religionto grow and serves other religions also. In honouring only one’s own religion and condemning other religions one will be digging the grave of one’s religion and also doing harm to other religions. Whosoever honours one’s own religion and condemn other religions certainly does so with great devotion to his own religion thinking, ‘I will glorify my own religion’ . But ,by doing this he only harms his own religion . Therefore, unity and harmony is good . Let all listen and willing to listen to and be willing to the religions taught by others.”
While protecting and propagating Buddhism he helped other religions also . He gave up harmful practices such as hunting ; and instead went on pilgrimages to sacred places. On such pilgrimages he looked into the problems of his subjects and took immediate steps to solve as much of their problems as he could. He appointed special officers called Dharmamahamatras to be in charge of religious affairs and to see to the religious needs of the people. They monitored all religious activities and their success and kept the Emperor informed about all such activities .It is said that he erected a large number of shrines and monasteries and provided all the requisites for the monks.
One of his greatest contributions is the patronage given to the Third Council held under the Chairmanship of Venerable Moggaliputta Tissa .He extended his co-operation to Venerableb Moggaliputta Tissa to cleanse the Sasana, to rehearse the Dhamma-Vinaya and Abhidhamma, and above all to send Buddhist missions to countries beyond his vast empire and even to countries beyond the sea. The history says that it was he who was greatly responsible for taking steps to establish Buddhism in Sri Lanka. It is said that Emperor Asoka, before the coming of the Buddhist mission to Sri Lanka, sent a personal request king Devanampiyatissa, requesting him to embrace Buddhism as he himself did. Tradition also says that it was he who was responsible in sending his own son, Venerable Mahinda, and daughter Sanghamitta Theri to Sri Lanka. Later Emperor Asoka obliged even by sending a branch from the sacred Bodhi tree.
Thus it is seen that he was a great Buddhist Emperor and that it was he who was greatly responsible for making the world share the teachings of the Buddha.