The conversion of the Mauryan Indian King Ashoka (ruled 272-231 BC) to Buddhism is rightfully viewed as a significant turning point in world history. Ashoka promoted the relatively new philosophy of Buddhism throughout his realm and allowed it to flourish, which eventually led to its dissemination throughout east Asia. Among the most visible ways in which the king promoted Buddhism was by erecting numerous pillar and rock edicts that detailed his version of Buddhist theology and by constructing various Buddhist monasteries, known as sutpas. Throughout India, they were used to house religious texts and relics.
Before Ashoka converted to Buddhism, though, he was known to be a particularly brutal king who had thousands of people killed with impunity. The difference between Ashoka’s early and later life are striking and leads to the self-evident question – why did Ashoka convert to Buddhism?
The answer to that question can be found in the primary source material. All sources indicate that Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism was legitimate, but the edicts and other inscriptions the king commissioned seem to suggest that it was part of a gradual process that was influenced by the older Indic religions but was ultimately the result of guilt over the lives he took early in his life.
On the other hand, the Buddhist sources depict Ashoka’s conversion as more sudden and the result of instant enlightenment. Although the causes may diverge on the process that brought Ashoka to Buddhism, they both seem to point to the pivotal and bloody war against the kingdom of Kalinga as a turning point.