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Emperor Ashoka's missionaries and the establishment of Buddhism in pre-Christian Britain and Ireland

"I'm gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the riverside.
I ain't gonna study war no more.

I'm gonna walk with the Prince of Peace, down by the riverside.
I ain't gonna study war no more"

- Traditional folk song

Two thousand three hundred years ago a battle took place in India between the Mauryan empire of King Ashoka and the republic of Kalinga, which was to have profound effects thoughout southern Asia, and eventually as far away as pre-Christian Britain and Ireland.

As Gita Mehta explains [1]:

'Through a series of brilliant and  bloodthirsty campaigns Ashoka extended an empire stretching from Afghanistan to Nepal into the south of the Indian subcontinent.

He finally met his fiercest resistance in the south eastern republic of Kalinga. In that dreadful war every able-bodied male in Kalinga fought against Ashoka ... and, when the final battle was lost , more than a hundred thousand warriors lay dismembered next to a river running red with blood.....

The emperor walked the battleground that night, glorying in his massacre. Suddenly a beggar stepped out of the red water of the river carrying a dripping bundle in his arms.

"Mighty King" the beggar said, approaching Ashoka and holding up his bundle. "You are able to take so many thousands of lives, surely you can give back one life - to this dead child"

Some say the beggar was a Buddhist monk, some say the beggar was the Buddha Himself. All that is certain is that Ashoka never raised his sword again. And to this day the river is called Daya - compassion'

With the zeal of a convert, Ashoka set to work. He banned animal sacrifices and had water supplies and shelters provided for the benefit of both man and beast at frequent invervals along the roads.  He established free hospitals and dispensaries throughout his empire, where all could obtain treatment regardless of ability to pay. Over two thousand years later these policies were to exert their influence on the British Fabian movement as a model for a National Health Service.  

H.G. Wells was a particular Ashoka fan:
'In the history of the world there have been thousands of kings and emperors who called themselves 'Their Highnesses', 'Their Majesties' and 'Their Exalted Majesties' and so on. They shone for a brief moment, and as quickly disappeared. But Ashoka shines and shines brightly like a bright star, even unto this day.'

Though remaining tolerant of other beliefs,  Ashoka promoted Buddhist teachings throughout his dominions by having edicts carved on rocks and pillars:
'Do not perform sacrifices or do anything else that might hurt animals .... Be generous to your friends .... Do not get involved in quarrels and arguments ...Try to be pure of heart, humble and faithful.... Do not think only of your good points, remember your faults as well and try to put them right' [2].

He also spread the teachings of the Buddha outside his empire by sending missionaries to both the East and West. According to Donald Mackenzie [3], it was Ashoka's western evangelists who were responsible, directly or indirectly, for establishing Buddhism in pre-Christian Britain. Of course Britain never became Buddhist in the way that Sri Lanka or Burma did. The distances were too great and lines of communication too tenuous.   But it seems likely that Celtic Buddhism, as known to the Druids, prepared the way and influenced the development of Celtic Christianity in Britain and Ireland.

Shirley Toulson [4] describes Celtic Christianity as a church which 'neither inflicted suffering nor encouraged bitter theological disputes. It was marked by compassion and moderation in all its dealings.'   The Celtic church was suppressed by Rome at the Council of Whitby in 664, which marked the end of tolerance, compassion and moderation in Western Christianity for over a thousand years.

Bad moon rising
A more brutal fate was later to befall Buddhism in India, which was destroyed in a series of jihads in the 12th century.  The monks were massacred, works of art smashed, libraries destroyed and Buddhist colleges burned. The artistically brilliant Greco-Buddhist civilisation of neighbouring Afghanistan was obliterated, though its most enduring monuments - the Buddhas of Bamiyan - lasted until the 21st century, by which time the jihadists had developed sufficient technological expertise to destroy what the Buddhists had created 1500 years previously.


Buddhist Resources


Notes and References

[1] Mehta, Gita (1998) In the footsteps of the Buddha, Tricycle Vol. VIII, Number 2, pp 21 - 24.

[2] Snelling, John (1998) The Buddhist Handbook p.94, publ Rider, London, ISBN 0 71 2671129

[3] Mackenzie, Donald A, (1928) Buddhism in Pre-Christian Britain p. 41, publ Blackie and Son, Glasgow.

[4] Toulson, Shirley (1992) The Celtic Alternative - A Reminder of the Christianity We Lost p 1. publ Rider, London ISBN 0-7126-1478-8


If we regard Buddhism as a combination of a philosophy, psychology and religion, then how much mileage can we get from the first two aspects before we have to start invoking religious faith?


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Buddhism in Everyday Life
The Daily Meditation