There was a great King named Vindusar who ruled his kingdom wisely. When he died, his eldest son, Ashoka, became King. Ashoka’s brothers were all handsome and strong, but Ashoka was not at all beautiful. His brothers always used to cut jokes with him because he was not good-looking.
When Ashoka became King with the help of the minister, he wanted to take revenge. So when he got the throne, he killed his brothers one by one. Then he killed all his relatives who spoke ill of him. Whoever spoke ill of him, he killed. He also wanted to be the lord of a vast kingdom, so he went and conquered a place called Kalinga, destroying many Buddhist temples and killing many Buddhists.
One day he was in his palace-fortress when he heard some most pitiful cries. The relatives of the thousands of people whom he had killed were cursing him and lamenting and grieving for their dear ones. Ashoka felt sorry. Suddenly he heard a voice chanting, /Buddham saranam gacchami,/ “I take refuge in Lord Buddha.” Again and again he heard this voice chanting the same words. It was so soothing to him. He thought of the Buddha’s Compassion and he felt that a change was taking place in his life, but he could not account for it.
When he went outside into the streets, he saw one of the greatest followers of the Buddha, Upagupta, chanting nearby. Ashoka approached him and said, “Please forgive me, but I have heard some chanting, and now I wish to be initiated. I want to be a follower of the Lord Buddha.”
Upagupta told him, “It was I who was chanting before.” The King was deeply moved. Upagupta initiated him and he became Upagupta’s disciple.
After that, Ashoka took refuge in the Lord Buddha — in the Buddha’s Compassion and in the Buddha’s Light. He no longer paid any attention to his Kingdom nor to his throne. Eventually he became a religious mendicant. He put on an ochre cloth and roamed from place to place all over the world, chanting the Buddha’s glory and establishing Buddhist temples. He opened up free hospitals for the poor and unreservedly gave away things to the poor and the needy. He became compassion incarnate. Even his own daughter went to Ceylon to spread the Buddha’s Light. Everywhere Ashoka went — even inside mountain caves and on pillars — the Buddha’s message was inscribed: /Ahingsha parama dharma,/ “Non-violence is the greatest virtue.”
GIM 26. 9 January 1979↩