International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
IVU logo

The Ethics of Diet - A Catena
by Howard Williams M.A., 1883

Modern reconstruction of Ashoka's portrait

Asoka - extracts

ASOKA 250 B.C.
(text from the 2nd edition, 1896, scanned by - Asoka was not included in the 1st edition)

THE first great Council of the New Religion, consisting of five hundred of the disciples, was held immediately upon the death of the Master, at Patna, in the year 543. A second great Council assembled, a century later, to draw up the canon of Buddhist Scripture and to settle disputed points of faith or ritual. But it was not until the conversion of Asoka, King of Behar, the (better) Constantine of Buddhism, that it entered upon that career of peaceful and beneficent conquest, which eventually brought under its influence all Asia east of the Ganges.

Asoka, grandson of Chandra Gupta (famous in having been one of the Hindu princes who appeared in the camp of the Greek Alexander, in the Punjab, and who afterwards established himself at Patna as the most powerful sovereign of the whole of N. Hindustan,) embraced the faith of Buddha about the year 257. Of a type very superior to that of kings in general, whether Asiatic or European, he was peace-loving, humane, just, and wise. One of his first acts was to check growing corruptions. At Patna the third and most important Council met at his summons, when one thousand doctors fixed the sacred canon. Royal edicts, confirming the decisions of the Council were published throughout his empire, and some of them are still found engraved on columns and on rocks throughout the peninsula. A minister of Justice and Religion was appointed by him to promote the true faith.

In striking contrast to Brahminism—which has been almost more exclusive and jealous of its caste privileges than even Judaism—"one of the first duties of Buddhism being to proselytize, an officer was especially charged with the welfare of the aborigines to whom its missionaries were sent. Asoka did not think it enough to convert the inferior races, without looking after their material interests. Wells were to be dug, and trees planted along the roads. A system of medical aid was established throughout his kingdom, and the conquered provinces as far as Ceylon, for man and beast. Officers were appointed to watch over public morality [not in the limited European sense of the much abused term,] and to promote instruction among the women as well as the youth. Asoka recognised proselytism, by I, as a State duty. The Rock Inscriptions record how he sent forth missionaries to the utmost limits of the barbarian countries, to intermingle with all unbelievers, for the spread of religion 'They shall mix equally,' enjoins the edict, with soldiers, Brahmins, and beggars—with the outcast and despised, both within the kingdom and in foreign countries, teaching better things. 'Conversion is to be effected by persuasion not by the sword [in striking contrast with the two younger rivals, especially with that of Islam]. Buddhism was at once the most intensely missionary religion in the world, and the most tolerant. This character of a proselytising Faith, which wins its victories by peaceful means, so strongly impressed upon it by Asoka, has remained a prominent feature of Buddhism to the present day."

The same high authority, whom we are here quoting, thus remarks on the influence of the doctrine of the Metempsychosis, as interpreted by the wisest of the followers of Sakya-Muni. "Buddhism carried transmigration to its utmost spiritual use, and proclaimed our own actions to be the sole ruling influence on our past, present, and future states. It was thus led into denial of any external being or God, who could interfere with the immutable law of cause and effect as applied to the soul. But, on the other hand, it linked together mankind as parts of one universal whole, and denounced the isolated self-seeking of the human heart as the heresy of individuality. Its mission was to make men moral, kinder to others, and happier themselves—not to propitiate imaginary deities. Accordingly it founded its teaching on man's duties to his neighbours instead of any obligation to [Gods or] God, and constructed its ritual on a basis of relic worship, or the commemoration of good men, instead of on sacrifice." (History of the Indian Peoples, by Sir W. W. Hunter, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1862).

Of its inherent vitality, as well as of its essentially missionary character, Sir W. Hunter remarks:—"During the last thousand years Buddhism has been a banished religion from its native home. But it has won greater triumphs in its exile than it could ever have achieved in the land of its birth (1). It has created a Literature and Religion for nearly half the human race, and it is supposed by its influence on early Christianity to have affected the beliefs of a large part of the other half. Five hundred millions of men, or forty per cent of the inhabitants of the world, still follow the teaching of Buddha…During twenty-four centuries, Buddhism has encountered and outlived a series of powerful rivals. At this day, it forms, with Christianity and Islam, one of the three great religions of the world, and (by far) the most numerously followed of the three. The noblest survivals of Buddhism in India are to be found not among any peculiar body (2), but in the religion of the people—in that principle of the [Page 54] brotherhood of Man, with the reassertion of which each new revival of Hinduism starts; in the asylum which the great sect of Vaishnays affords to women, who have fallen victims to caste rules—to the widows and the outcast, in that gentleness and charity to all men, which take the place of the Poor Law in India, and give a high significance to the half-satirical epithet of the 'mild' Hindu."

For some twelve centuries alternately triumphant and oppressed by the Old Religion, it exercised an extensive and permanent influence, yet perceptible even in the orthodox Hinduism, Contemporary with the ascendancy of Buddhism was that of the (better) science of Medicine. Between the age of Asoka and Siláditya (the Asoka of the seventh century, A.D.,) famous schools of Medicine seem to have been established in many parts of Northern India—and the name of Charaka, an eminent doctor of the science, became as distinguished in Hindustan as Hippokrates in Hellas. At the final expulsion of what may be termed (in its better sense) the Protestant Faith from its original home, at the beginning of the tenth century, Medicine no longer flourished, and soon relapsed into the old stereotyped routine of caste-practice. But in the age of the second restorer of the popular Creed, in the seventh century, it was at its height of prosperity. Its principle seat was the great monastery or rather coenobite establishment of Nalenda, near Gavá in Bengal, the University (as it may be styled) of Hindustan, and which, probably, indirectly influenced, in some sort, the later medicinal Universities of Europe through Arab science. In this vast collection of buildings resided ten thousand students who devoted themselves to the sciences, as well as to the practice of their religious ritual; supported wholly by the revenues granted to them by their royal patrons. Their diet we may reasonably presume to have been of that bloodless sort, which has been imitated in the "monastic" establishments of Christendom only in two or three exceptional instances.

All that is known of the history of Buddhism, in the middle period, is obtained from the records of two enterprising Chinese travellers of that faith. At the beginning of the fifth century of our era, Fah Hian began his remarkably extensive journey through Hindustan, where he found his religion everywhere flourishing. He carried home revised copies of the Buddhist Scriptures, which he had studied at Patali-Poutra (Patna) the centre of the Faith at that epoch. He notes the large number of its public hospitals, where the sick and diseased were received and treated free of expense, and supplied with food as well as medicine. Two centuries later (about 630) a second Chinese monk, a yet more distinguished Buddhist traveller, named Hiouen Tsiang, traversed the same ground, and extended his travels still further. His records of the social life of the peoples whom he encountered are of high interest, and he gives a very favourable report of the influences of Buddhism upon the national manners. There seem to have been no death-sentences—most offences being punishable by fines. His account of the beneficence of the principal Hindu monarch of that period, Siláditya, already mentioned, and of his distribution, every five years, of all his treasures to the poor at the city, now called Allahábad (the Muhammedan name), gives a picture of royal benevolence, not often imitated by kings and emperors. The prince, so we are assured, divested himself of all his royal dress and insignia, and put on the rags of a beggar; thus commemorating the great Renunciation of the Founder of Buddhism (3). Hiouen Tsiang reports of the general condition of the people, and of the encouragement given to Science—and in particular, of the higher practice of Medicine—equally favourably with his predecessor; and, altogether, the Hindu peninsula seems to have been in a happier state then, perhaps, ever before or since.


    1. Another point of resemblance to historical Christianity. For the very close resemblance—no less curious than it is close—ritually of the Papal (and especially its monastic) system to the Buddhist (in its later development), see The Chinese Empire by the Abbé Huc.
    2. Buddhism has left its influence, in the peninsula of Hindustan, in the most interesting and most estimable of its present religions—that of the Jains. They number about 500,000. "Like the Buddhists they deny the authority of the Veda, except in so far as it agrees with their own doctrines. They disregard sacrifice, practise a strict morality, believe that their past and future states depend upon their own actions rather than upon any external deity, and scrupulously reverence the vital principle in man and 'beast.'…Their charity is boundless, and they form the chief supporters of the 'beast' hospitals, which the old Buddhistic tenderness for [other] animals has left in many of the cities of India." Indian Empire, v. Many of the older travellers, and writers on Hindustan, mention those noble humanitarian institutions.
    3. See History of India, by Talboys Wheeler. Cp. Cunningham's Corpus Inscriptionum.

Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index