Story of the Buddha - Edith Holland

The Spread of the Faith

We have seen how the great reformer, Gotama the Buddha, purified the religious beliefs of his native land, and put before his countrymen a higher ideal than was ever realized by mankind before the age of Christianity. To look upon the whole world—upon every living being in it—with feelings of love and sympathy, to overcome even hatred with love, to follow virtue for its own sake, looking for no reward beyond the inward peace and tranquillity of the heart—this is what the Buddha expected of his followers. It seems a great deal to expect of human nature; yet this religion which demands so much, and appears to promise so little, has attracted many followers. For Buddhism prevails over a large part of the continent of Asia—in Ceylon, Burma, Siam, Japan, China, Tibet, and other places, there are five hundred millions of men and women who profess the faith of the Buddha. So far have its conquests extended; yet Buddhism is perhaps the only religion which has never made use of the sword as a means of spreading its doctrines.

When a religion is professed by widely different races of mankind—differing in their ideas and ways of thinking—it is impossible that its practice should be exactly the same in the various countries in which it has taken root. And, as the Christianity of Rome differs from that of a sect like the Quakers, so does the Buddhism of Tibet, with its elaborate rites and ceremonies, differ from the simpler form of the Faith, as practised in Ceylon and Burma. You may think, perhaps, that Buddhism still flourishes in India, the land of its birth, but this is not so. Although the Faith grew and spread on Indian soil during several centuries, in the end Brahminism regained its influence over the people, and at the present time the Buddha's doctrines are almost unknown in the land where he lived and taught for so many years. But though the Buddhist religion is no longer professed by the people of India, its influence is not dead. The Buddha's teaching still survives in principles of love and kindness toward all creatures and in many of the charitable societies of modern Hinduism.

After the Buddha's death, which took place in the year 480 B.C., the small Indian states, of which we have heard in our story, passed through various changes. In the course of many wars and disturbances the Kingdom of Magadha gradually enlarged its boundaries, annexing most of the surrounding states. The capital of Magadha, formerly Rajagaha, was now Pataliputta, a great and splendid city, standing on the site of the present town of Patna. The ruins of Pataliputta have been traced, but, as they lie buried at a depth of nearly twenty feet below the modern town, they are difficult to excavate. Magadha took a leading place among the Indian states, and at the time of the invasion of India by Alexander the Great, in 327 B.C., it was a large and powerful kingdom.

On the death of Alexander his great empire was split up into separate kingdoms, of which there were several in the northwest of India. But within a year of Alexander's death the people in these conquered provinces revolted. Their leader was a young man named Chandagutta, who was related to the royal family of Magadha. He had once been a robber chief, and must have had great abilities, for he succeeded in freeing his countrymen and driving the Greek invaders out of India. When a revolution broke out at Pataliputta, Chandagutta headed the rebels, who proved victorious; the King was dethroned and put to death with all the members of his family, and Chandagutta was proclaimed king of Magadha. He reigned for twenty-four years, and was a capable, though in some ways a harsh, ruler. Chandagutta greatly enlarged his dominions by conquest, and, having for the first time in history brought the greater part of the Indian peninsula under the same rule, he may be called the first Emperor of India. He was succeeded by his son, Bindusara, who reigned for twenty-eight years, but of whom very little is known.

The great Indian Empire, founded by Chandagutta, was now inherited by his grandson, Asoka, who ascended the throne in the year 273 B.C. Like his father and grandfather, Asoka was brought up in the faith of the Brahmins. He proved himself a wise and just ruler, and during his reign of forty years did much for the welfare of his vast dominions.

In the thirteenth year of his reign Asoka made war on Kalinga, a kingdom bordering upon the Bay of Bengal. There was a great deal of fighting and bloodshed before Kalinga was subdued. Those slain in battle numbered a hundred thousand, while many more were carried away captive or died of disease. In the end Asoka's army was victorious, and Kalinga became a province of the Indian Empire.

When we read the lives of the great conquerors whose names have become famous in history—Alexander, Napoleon, and others—we see how success increased their thirst for conquest. Regardless of the misery that follows the track of an invading army, they continued to plan fresh campaigns, always longing for more lands to subdue.

Far other was the effect of conquest on the Indian King. Asoka was stricken to the heart by the thought of the misery he had caused in Kalinga, and the results of his remorse were far-reaching. How is it that we know so much of the thoughts of this Indian King, who lived more than two thousand years ago? When Asoka issued his edicts, or proclamations, he ordered them to be cut on rocks and stone pillars. Throughout the length and breadth of India these ancient monuments are found, engraved with the words of the great Emperor Asoka.

Some of the inscriptions are on tall, graceful pillars, often beautifully decorated with carvings of flowers and animals; some are cut on rocks and caves, in wild, deserted spots, over-spread by a tangled network of jungle. For a long time no one understood these records, for they are written in a forgotten language. By degrees, however, after careful and patient study, scholars learnt to read them. Thus it comes about that, at the present day, the actual words of Asoka can be traced and their meaning understood. How strange it seems that these rock-cut letters should be able to tell us the thoughts that were in the King's mind so many centuries ago!

One of the most interesting of the edicts was published four years after the conquest of Kalinga, and we learn of the "deep sorrow and regret "felt by "His Sacred Majesty "for the misery he had caused by the war. In the words of the King, "One hundred and fifty thousand persons were carried away captive, one hundred thousand were slain, and many times that number perished." Asoka goes on to tell us of the remorse he felt for having conquered Kalinga, "because the conquest of a country previously unconquered involves the slaughter, death, and carrying away captive of the people." He regrets that there should be holy men and other innocent persons who, as a result of the war, have suffered misfortune and hardship. But the most important announcement of this edict is that "Directly after the annexation of Kalinga, began His Sacred Majesty's zealous protection of the Law of Piety, his love of that Law, and his giving instruction in that Law." The 'Law of Piety' to which the King refers is the Doctrine of the Buddha. This, then, was the result of Asoka's remorse—he adopted the Faith which seeks, not to kill, but to spare life, which aims at bringing happiness to all living creatures. His sorrow for having been the cause of suffering to innocent people was not an empty, passing regret, for, from the day that he embraced the Faith of the Buddha, Asoka did all in his power to promote the happiness and welfare of his people. "All men are my children," says Asoka, "and just as I desire for my children that they may enjoy every kind of prosperity and happiness in both this world and the next, so also I desire the same for all men." In speaking of the unsubdued tribes on the borders of the empire, Asoka desires that they should not be afraid of him, that they should trust him, and should receive from him happiness, not sorrow. Was not this King, who conquered himself, far greater than those rulers who conquered nations and kingdoms, and left behind them the remembrance of untold sorrow and misery?

For two and a half years after his conversion Asoka was a lay disciple; then he entered the Order, and from that time fulfilled the double duties of monk and ruler of a vast empire. He worked hard for the good of his people, and in many ways improved their condition. Roads and bridges were made, wells were dug, and trees planted. Rest-houses were built along all the high roads, and arrangements made for the comfort of travellers. Hospitals, both for men and animals, were established in all parts of the empire. Perhaps you may not know that Buddhists were the first people to build hospitals, and to give special attention to the care of the sick. To this day there are animal hospitals in several places in India—memorials of the Buddhists' kindness to animals.

Asoka did a great deal for the bodily welfare of his people, but the best gift he could make them was, he thought, instruction in the Buddha's doctrine. So he sent teachers into all parts of the Empire, for Buddhism had not, as yet, spread over the whole of the Indian Peninsula. Laws were made to insure the keeping of the Buddha's precepts, especially with regard to the kind treatment of animals. Beasts were no longer to be slaughtered for sacrifice, and it was forbidden to kill certain kinds of birds and animals which were of no use for food. The Royal Hunt was abolished, and the King, instead of going on hunting expeditions, as he had been used to do before his conversion, made pilgrimages to the sacred places of the Buddhists. Twice he visited the birthplace of the Buddha, where he erected a pillar with the inscription, "Here was the Holy One born." Asoka made pilgrimages to the scenes of the chief events in the Buddha's life—the sacred Bo-tree beneath which Gotama obtained wisdom, the Jeta Monastery where so much of his teaching was given, and the sala grove at Kusinara, where the Buddha passed away. Many monasteries and stupas were erected by Asoka, and near the sacred Bo-tree he built a beautiful temple whose remains can still be traced.

Though Asoka was so attached to the faith he had adopted, he always showed a tolerant spirit toward those who professed different beliefs. One of his edicts on the subject of toleration begins thus: "His Sacred and Gracious Majesty does reverence to men of all sects." In accordance with the Buddha's teaching Asoka valued right conduct above forms and ceremonies; that a man should act up to his beliefs was, he thought, the thing of chief importance.

During Asoka's reign a great church council was held at Pataliputta. At this council the Buddhist Scriptures were recited, and the Doctrine clearly laid down, for there had been heresies and divisions in the Buddhist Church as in all other religious communities. This was the third council held by the elders of the Church since the Buddha's death.

Not content with having established the Faith in his own dominions, Asoka now set forward a scheme for spreading the Buddha's teaching in foreign lands. Think of the vast size of such an undertaking in days when the means of travelling were so different from those of our own time! Missionaries were dispatched to the Himalayan region and the border lands to the northwest of the Empire, with the result that, in time, the Faith penetrated into Tibet, China, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan, in which places it still flourishes. Missions were also sent into Western Asia, Eastern Europe, and even to Northern Africa. To the island of Ceylon, Asoka sent his son (or, as some say, his younger brother) Mahinda, who had joined the Order of Monks twelve years before. Mahinda landed in Ceylon with a band of monks, and was well received by the King, who, before long, became a convert to Buddhism, many of his subjects following his example. The capital of Ceylon was, in those days, Anuradhapura, and there the King built a great monastery and a magnificent dagaba, which is still to be seen.

Mahinda passed the remainder of his life in Ceylon. Not far from Anuradhapura is a beautiful hill, standing high above the surrounding plains; on the western slope of this hill a little chamber has been hollowed out of the rock; this quiet retreat, far removed from the din of the great city, was Mahinda's study. Here, also, he died, after a long life spent in labouring for the good of others.

You will remember that, when the Buddha first learned the wisdom which enabled him to become a teacher of mankind, he was seated, meditating, under a peepul-tree on the borders of the Uruvela jungle. This tree, since called the Bo-tree, or Tree of Wisdom, was looked upon with great veneration, for was it not beneath its branches that the Buddha entered into the Great Peace! It was natural that the new converts in Ceylon should wish to plant a cutting of the sacred tree, and they sent to King Asoka to beg for a branch. The King's daughter, who had entered the Order, came to Ceylon with a band of nuns, and brought the precious cutting with her. It was planted at Anuradhapura, where it grew and flourished, and there it is still to be seen—the oldest historical tree in the world. The monks who live in one of the old monasteries still carefully tend the tree, now over two thousand years old, which they treasure as a memorial of their beloved Master. There is now little to be seen of the once magnificent city of Anuradhapura, for most of it lies buried beneath a network of jungle.

Though Buddhism may differ in many ways from our own creed, we cannot but reverence a Faith which has been the guiding light of so many of our fellow-men. Like Asoka, let us honour those, of whatever sect, who follow the truth which has been given them.

A man who was seeking the Truth once went to the Buddha and asked him: "Where, in the midst of this troubled river of life, encompassed by death and decay, can I find an island—a refuge from the evil of the world?

There is an island, the Buddha told him, where death has no power—Nirvana, the everlasting Peace. And since those words were spoken many myriads of men and women have steered their course for that 'other shore,' secure in the Buddha's promise that there they shall find Peace!