Pillars of Ashoka

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on December 21, 2015.)

The Pillar of Ashoka at Jing'an Temple, Shanghai

Ashoka, king of the Mauryan Empire (322 to 185 BCE), ruled most of what is modern India, including the area where the historical Buddha had been active about three centuries before.

Like many a young prince, Ashoka was trained in the military arts. Legend says he single-handedly killed a lion with only a wooden stick. His father chose him over his elder half-brothers and sent him off to settle problems in a distant province. When their father died, he battled with his brothers for succession to the throne. Another legend says he killed 99 of them, sparing only one. These violent tendencies earned him the nicknamed "Ashoka the Fierce," and he expanded his empire in brutal battles.

But after the conquest of Kalinga, in which over 100,000 soldiers died, something happened. Ashoka was saddened when he saw the results of his "victory," and became a Buddhist. He spent the rest of his reign spreading the Buddha's teachings.

One of his acts was to distribute the relics of the Buddha far and wide. China claims several of these "Ashokan Relics," and Ayuwang (King Ashoka) Temple in Ningbo is named for the one there.

His other notable act was to erect "Ashokan Pillars" throughout his empire. Many were ascribed with the "Edicts of Ashoka," a series of proclamations of the Buddha's teachings.

Although only a handful of the pillars were capped by animal figures, the replicas we see today, such as the one at Shanghai's Jing'an Temple, have lions on top, resembling the "Lion Capital of Sarnath" which has been adopted as a national symbol of India, and is seen on that nation's flag.

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