Gautama Buddha died in 483 B.C., and his teachings were compiled and committed to the memories of the 500 monks who attended the first Buddhist Council immediately after his death. The sponsor of that council was King Ajatasattu, but his kingdom soon gave way to the empire of Chandragupta Maurya. Ashoka, the third Mauryan emperor, sponsored the third Buddhist Council and did much to establish Buddhism. He sent missionaries abroad to spread the Dharma.

The Reign of Ashoka

Ashoka was the grandson of Chandragupta and became emperor after assassins left all other claimants to the throne dead. At the beginning of his reign, he was a ruthless despot and fierce warrior, extending the Mauryan empire through most of the Indian subcontinent. The bloodiest of his battles occurred at Kalinga in 262 B.C. Despairing over the carnage there, he renounced violence and became a convert to Buddhism. After his conversion, Ashoka underwent a radical transformation to become a model ruler, and he is remembered as one of India's greatest emperors.

Pillars and Edicts

Ashoka considered the Dharma, as taught by Buddha, to be the principle under which people should unite in a spirit of peaceful righteousness. He began to spread it throughout his kingdom by erecting a series of pillars and rocks inscribed with edicts and teachings he wished to impart. The edicts encouraged people throughout the land to adopt Buddhist values in their political and administrative affairs, such as nonviolence, peace, honesty, kindness and tolerance. The pillars, 19 of which are still standing, bore ornate designs that usually included lions and a spoked wheel called a dharmachakra, a Buddhist symbol. The most famous pillar is at Sarnath, where Buddha gave his first teaching. It is the emblem of the Republic of India.

Ashoka's Envoys

Besides spreading Buddhist values throughout his own land, Ashoka also sent missionaries to other countries. According to one of his rock inscriptions, he sent envoys to such Mediterranean countries as Syria, Egypt and Macedonia, which were ruled by the Greeks at that time. No record exists of these envoys having had any effect, however. On the other hand, Ceylon -- present-day Sri Lanka -- was very receptive to the mission led by Mahinda, who was either Ashoka's son or brother, and the island nation converted to Buddhism. That conversion was important for the subsequent spread of the Buddhist Dharma.

Buddhism Spreads

Ashoka's envoys may have had little effect in the Mediterranean, but they found an audience in the countries that surrounded India, including Nepal and Burma, and Buddhism gradually spread to these countries. In addition, the spread of the Dharma was aided by the establishment of a written record of the teachings of the Buddha and the disciplines to be followed by monks, undertaken at the fourth Buddhist Council in Ceylon. From there, Theravada Buddhism spread to Thailand, Cambodia and other countries in southeast Asia. Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, gradually began to spread north to China and Tibet around the beginning of the Christian era.