At Sarnath, between two and three hundred years after Shakyamuni Buddha first turned the Wheel of Dharma, the Emperor Ashoka erected a pillar. The four lions at its crown, representing the "lion's roar of the dharma" (shakyasimha) in the cardinal directions, were adopted by modern India as the national coat of arms. At the lions' base in the Wheel of Dharma, reproduced at the center of the Indian flag. Image courtesy of Archeological Survey of India.
At Sarnath, between two and three hundred years after Shakyamuni Buddha first turned the Wheel of Dharma, the Emperor Ashoka erected a pillar. The four lions at its crown, representing the “lion’s roar of the dharma” (shakyasimha) in the cardinal directions, were adopted by modern India as the national coat of arms. At the lions’ base in the Wheel of Dharma, reproduced at the center of the Indian flag. Image courtesy of Archeological Survey of India.

“Asoka, the greatest of kings. . . ,” wrote H. G. Wells in A Short History of the World, “one of the brightest interludes in the troubled history of mankind.”

Not being a historian, I presume to write about an Indian emperor who reigned in the third century B.C.E. only because I am an Indian, and modern India defines her sovereign status by two symbols from Ashoka’s reign—the wheel in the center of our flag and the pillar crowned by four lions stamped on our coins. As children, we were often told by our parents that these 2,300-year-old symbols were not mere deference to antiquity; they were to inspire us to create a country governed by righteousness.

We were also taught they symbolized Ashoka’s conversion to the teachings of the Buddha. Still, it was not patriotism that made us love the story of the Buddha as children. Which child could fail to be fascinated by a queen who dreamed one night that a white elephant had entered her womb, or by a troubled king who consulted diviners for the significance of his queen’s dream only to learn that his unborn son could be the greatest conqueror known to history—but if ever he witnessed suffering he would become the teacher of compassion, the Enlightened One, the Buddha?

Later, we would study history and marvel at an era filled with remarkable conquerors and remarkable teachers. A mere 150 years after the death of the Buddha, a romantic young European conqueror, privileged to have the philosopher Aristotle as his tutor, would embark upon a conquest of India. History would call him Alexander the Great. Five years later, when his general Seleucus came to consolidate his Indian dominions, he would be repulsed by a romantic young Indian conqueror, Chandragupta, privileged to have the philosopher Chanakya as his guide. (Happily, the warlike encounter would end with the Greek general giving his daughter in marriage to the Indian emperor.)

 Lauriya-Nandagarh in the North Indian state of Bihar is one of many sites across the Indian subcontinent at which Ashoka's edicts have been discovered. On the fifty-foot column are inscribed injunctions concerning the prohibition of animal slaughter, the establishment of hospitals and gardens, the appointment of special Ministers of Morals, and a statement of purpose: "There is verily no duty which is more important to me than promoting the welfare of all men." Image courtesy of Archeological Survey of India.
Lauriya-Nandagarh in the North Indian state of Bihar is one of many sites across the Indian subcontinent at which Ashoka’s edicts have been discovered. On the fifty-foot column are inscribed injunctions concerning the prohibition of animal slaughter, the establishment of hospitals and gardens, the appointment of special Ministers of Morals, and a statement of purpose: “There is verily no duty which is more important to me than promoting the welfare of all men.” Image courtesy of Archeological Survey of India.

Yet of all the great conquerors and great teachers of that era—Chandragupta and Chanakya, Alexander and Aristotle—it would be Chandragupta’s grandson, Ashoka, who would be memorialized not just as India’s greatest conqueror but also as one of her greatest teachers. And for sheer romance, what can match the story of that conversion from conquest to teaching?

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