One of the great paradigms for Buddhists is the historical Buddha, Gotama / Gautama. His teaching and the way he led his life is very inspirational to Buddhists. However, it is stories of his previous lives that people use as a guide for social behaviour. The Jataka stories, in the Pali Canon, comprise 542 poems in roughly ascending length. They show the Buddha as a bodhisattva in a number of previous lives, in both animal and human forms. Each story has a moral message with the bodhisattva acting wisely and compassionately, sometimes even giving up his life for others. These stories are very important for Buddhists as they show how small acts of kindness, that we are all capable of, can eventually lead to salvation.
Aside from the Buddha, one of the most important historical people who has become a paradigm for good Buddhist behaviour is King Asoka / Ashoka. Asoka / Ashoka (c. 304-232BCE) ruled most of present-day India after a number of bloody military conquests. However, he later dedicated himself to the propagation of Buddhism and, rather than military excursions, went on Dhamma / Dharma conquests. The social ethics propagated by Asoka can be found in Buddhist scriptures and verified by inscriptions of his edicts. He advocated non-violence, not just to humans, but to animals as well (he had no meat at the palace and gave up hunting). Enormous rest houses were built where travellers and pilgrims could stay at free of charge. Asoka / Ashoka also showed mercy to those imprisoned, allowing them outside one day each year. He attempted to raise the professional ambition of the common man by building universities for study and water transit and irrigation systems for trade and agriculture. He treated his subjects as equals regardless of their religion, politics and caste. In the Mauyan empire citizens of all religious and ethnic groups were treated equally and all had the rights of freedom, tolerance and equality. Thus Asoka / Ashoka is particularly important as a model of the perfect Buddhist leader. Many subsequent rulers have attempted to follow this model and advocate the values, rights and responsibilities that he advocated