Emperor Asoka’s empire ran from Afghanistan in the west to Bangladesh in the east. His influence spread throughout India and throughout South-East Asia. No-one however knew anything about him. He had been written out of Indian history. The reason that he was abandoned became obvious when it was discovered that although he ruled initially within the Vedic-Brahmanical tradition of the time he then converted to Buddhism and became an adherent to the concept of 'a wheel turning monarch' creating an age of morality happiness and order.
Ashoka was responsible for making Buddhism the pre-eminent religious faith in India and this influence lasted over many centuries. In Ashoka's time Buddhism spread throughout India Afghanistan and Asia becoming as a faith immensely important. Without Asoka it is likely we also would not be aware of Buddhism today. He built what is now called the Asokan pillar edicts throughout India proclaiming that the land would be governed according to Buddhist principles and that the people were to follow Budhhist dharma. These pillars give most striking evidence not only of Asoka’s existence as a great emperor but also the existence of Buddha the man whose dharma or teachings inspired Asoka so much. Ashoka's life changed monumentally with his conversion to Buddhism and the ripples of this change spread across the whole of Asia. Asoka's influence is undoubtedly the primary reason that Indian philosophies became culturally dominant in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand.
After Asoka’s rule ended the leaders who followed him reverted to Brahmanism and what we would now call Hinduism. Buddhism still held considerable sway in the first 500 to 700 years after Asoka. Thereafter there was a steady resurgence of Brahmanism and by about 800 CE the open hostility of the Brahmins to the
Buddhists had resulted in Buddhism going into serious decline. In the twelfth century the Muslims invaded India and burnt down any remaining Buddhist temples. The coup de grace came in 1197 CE when one of the oldest teaching institutions or universities in the world the Great Buddhist Monastery of Nalanda was burnt down by Muhammad Bakhtyar Khilji. The loss of Nalanda the foremost academic institution in India at the time for Buddhism was an unparalled catastrophe. It rates as the most momentous and disastrous episode in the entirety of Buddhist history. The totality of Indian Buddhist literature and Buddhist historical relics and treasures were housed at Nalanda.There was wanton killing of the Buddhist monks living there accompanied by the complete destruction of the buildings. The nine storey library with its contents took three whole days to burn down. Thousands of irreplaceable Buddhist documents were destroyed. Buddhism in India never recovered. The hostility of the Brahmins, the destruction of Buddhist temples and finally the burning down of Nalanda by Khilji ensured that Buddhism would survive no longer in India.
Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang) the renowned Chinese Buddhist monk had visited Nalanda in 637 CE and spent two years there. He obtained 657 Sanskrit scripts mostly from Nalanda which he took back with him to China. Xuan Zang’s pilgrimage to India is well known mostly due to being popularised by the Japanese television series Monkey shown on BBC television but also from the 2016 film Xuan Zang.
The evidence clearly suggests that historically a man such as Gautama did indeed exist. This man who we call Siddhartha, Gautama or Shakyamuni lived in Northern India and spent almost his entire life wandering the plains surrounding the Ganges river as the Buddha, the enlightened one. He was a spiritual teacher accompanied by an increasingly loyal band of followers. As this group increased in size it spread its influence to wealthy citizens, powerful kings, businessmen, courtesans, farmers and ordinary people, many of whom became both supporters and adherents to this new way of life that the Buddha set before them.
We know that Gautama was born the son of the leader of the Shakyan clan who lived at the foot of the Himalayas in North East India. Gautama accordingly was called Shakyamuni, the son of the Shakyans. The generally stated accounts of his life suggest that he was born into a position of privilege. It seems unlikely however that his father was actually a great king or Maharaja or that Gautama was a prince. In reality his father was the appointed head of his clan although he may well have been addressed as rajah or king. He held what was undoubtedly a privileged position. At Gautama’s birth as tradition dictated Brahmin priests predicted two socially acceptable and respectable occupational possibilities for him. The first was that he would emulate his father and become a great leader like his father or a king. The second was that he would become a great spiritual man. In Indian communities deeply steeped in spiritual belief for centuries religious men had always been highly revered.
Gautama reputedly in comparison to the average Indian lived a life of material abundance and luxury. He was educated to the highest standards possible. He was reputed to have had separate quarters for summer and winter, servants, musicians and concubines. Every appetite that he had was sated. As well as this he was protected from the more unpleasant realities of human life especially where they involved sickness or death.
We are told that Gautama had everything that a human being could possibly wish for. We are also simultaneously told that he remained consistently unhappy and discontented. He found his existence without meaning and his life without cause. The materialism that had surrounded him rather than cheering him oppressed him. He sought a door to a new reality, a reality that would allow him to resolve the personal existential conflicts which plagued him. He sought this opening in order to escape from what he had clearly begun to experience as a personalised form of captivity. As much as he longed to encounter life outside his cloistered world when he did so he was shocked by the brutality of the deprivation that was normal life for ordinary Indian people at the time. One might argue that this almost certainly had a heightened impact on him, given his own life in comparison was one of indulgent splendour. To a person as intelligent and sensitive as Gautama undoubtedly was, the irony of his suffering in the midst of such personal privilege would not have been lost on him. This would have cut deeply, especially as he had now begun to realise that the everyday lives of his fellow Indians held intrinsically little more than the prospect of suffering without end.
The evidence in general suggests that Gautama was compassionate to others. One does wonder however how much of this compassion was inwardly directed. He himself clearly was not immune to suffering even in his privileged environment. Projective identification is something that psycho-therapeutic psychiatrists talk about. This suggests that we often project our unhappiness onto others and then go all out to solve their problems in order to avoid our own. One cannot help but wonder how much Gautama’s feelings lay in that direction.
Irrespective of his own suffering Gautama nevertheless apparently persisted in an attempt to do his own duty, his dharma towards his family, his caste and his people, the Shakyas. He attempted to satisfy his father’s demands. He was expected to marry and have a son which he dutifully did. By then however his discontent had reached its peak. He found his life so utterly meaningless and insignificant that he felt driven to act.