The Indian emperor Ashoka underwent one of the most remarkable religious conversions in history.
Before he became a Buddhist, Ashoka was brutal.
He killed a lion with just a wooden rod. Ashoka later got rid of the legitimate heir to the throne by tricking him into entering a pit filled with live coals. He built Ashoka’s Hell, an elaborate torture chamber described as a “Paradisal Hell” due to the contrast between its beautiful exterior and the acts carried out within by his executioner. After witnessing the 100,000 deaths and 150,000 deportations of the Kalinga War, which he himself had waged out of a desire for conquest, he embraced Buddhism.
Ashoka renounced armed conquest and adopted a policy he called “conquest by dharma” (i.e., by principles of right life). Ashoka went on tours preaching to rural people and relieving their sufferings. He founded hospitals for men and animals, supplied medicines, planted roadside trees, dug wells, and built watering sheds and rest houses. He issued orders for curbing public laxities and preventing cruelty to animals. Because he banned hunting, created many veterinary clinics and eliminated meat eating on many holidays, the Mauryan Empire under Ashoka has been described as “one of the very few instances in world history of a government treating its animals as citizens who are as deserving of its protection as the human residents.”
Professor Charles Drekmeier cautions that the Buddhist legends intend to dramatize the change that Buddhism brought in him, and therefore, exaggerate Ashoka’s past wickedness and his piousness after the conversion. In fact, in a legend eerily reminiscent of the Charlie Hebdo killings of 2015, Ashoka may have burned alive a non-Buddhist (and his family) who drew a picture showing the Buddha bowing at the feet of the founder of Jainism.
Regardless of the truth or falsity of the legends, it is a remarkable story.
One sidenote: I disagree with the idea of treating animals as if they have the same rights as humans. I believe that rights come from the ability to make moral choices. Since animals act by instinct and are incapable of making moral decisions, they are not equal with humans. Such a view doesn’t mean that we should be cruel to animals: Our reason for restraint is not because animals have been elevated but because humans are demeaned by such cruelty.
(Sources: EB but mostly Wikipedia)