Aśoka (ca. 300-232 BCE.), the 3rd and most powerful of the Mauryan emperors who once dominated the Indian subcontinent (4-3rd centuries BCE),
figures centrally in historical as well as legendary accounts of the early Buddhist community’s transformation into a world religion.
Aśoka’s landmark reign (c. 268-232 BCE) laid important structural foundations for subsequent South Asian imperial formation and corresponding trans-regional Buddhist networks, while his memory has continued to inspire and shape Buddhist practices and politics into modern times.
Scholars possess invaluable evidence for reconstruction of Aśokan history in the form of edicts issued in Aśoka’s own voice and inscribed on rocks, stone slabs, and ornate carved pillars
that have survived in scattered places throughout what was once Aśoka’s Empire, spreading from central India to the Northwest Frontier province of Pakistan.
These inscriptions, which are the oldest surviving South Asian written documents of any kind,
were composed in the vernacular language (Prākrit) of Magadha (northeast Indian), where Aśoka lived and ruled, modified as appropriate in the various regions where they were inscribed or erected (one of them also appeared in Aramaic and Greek).
Aśoka intended them to be read aloud, announcing his policies, laws, decisions, and especially his religio-political philosophy to all his subjects in a language they could understand.
The central conception underlying the philosophy of these inscriptions is Dharma (Skt.; Pāli, dhamma; Prākrit, dhaṁma) or “righteousness,” through which Aśoka claimed to rule.
The question of whether this Dharma should be taken as a secular philosophy of Aśoka’s own invention or equated with the specifically Buddhist usage of that term (to mean “doctrine,” “truth,” “the Buddha’s words”) is much debated and unresolved,
as is the question, given his generous support of non-Buddhist (Brahmin, Jain, and Ājīvika) as well as Buddhist practitioners, whether he was genuinely or exclusively Buddhist in personal practice.
But it is certain that at least after the 8th year of his reign Aśoka strongly supported, and gained support from, the teachings and practices of the Buddha’s followers, and later legendary accounts celebrate him primarily as a paradigmatic supporter of Buddhist monks and institutions.
Aśoka states that his commitment to Dharma was wrought in the regret he felt at the suffering he caused by conquering Kaliṅga, in Eastern India (modern Odisha and eastern Andhra Pradesh), during his 8th year:
Henceforth, he pursued “conquest by righteousness” (Prākrit, dhaṁma-vijaya) and, after his 13th year, administered the Empire through “righteous ministers” (Prākrit, dhaṁma-mahāmāta),
effecting laws and policies that, as mentioned, reflected Aśoka’s piety and sincerity (or, as some scholars have argued, his shrewd self-presentation).
In personal practice, he tells us, he became a Buddhist lay devotee (upāsaka) in his 8th regnal year but only began to strenuously exert himself 18 months later.
His inscriptions (and other archaeological evidence) testify to that effort:
- he constructed Stūpas and
- gave other financial support for monks and monasteries,
- intervened in monastic disputes (and recommended which texts monks, nuns, and fellow lay- people ought to study), and
- made pilgrimages to sites of significance in the Buddha’s life.
The Buddhist spirit behind Aśoka’s Dharma is also manifest:
His inscriptions recommend:
- kindness to all creatures including plants:
(he tried to eliminate all killing of animals, birds, and fish in his dominions, and protected and planted forests and medicinal herbs even outside his own domains);
- respectfulness and obedience:
(toward parents, elders, teachers, Brahmins, and mendicants, and royal authority);
- liberality, truthfulness, impartiality, frugality and lack of acquisitiveness, and reverence and faith;
- avoidance of violence, cruelty, anger, arrogance, hastiness, laziness, and jealousy;
- and similar “righteous virtues” (Prākrit, dhamma guṇa), which left an indelible mark on South Asian religions even outside the Buddhist context.
Though the Mauryan dynasty did not long outlast Aśoka himself, his hope that his
“sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons
will increase [his] practice of Dharma
until the end of a universal aeon”
did come true in this and several additional ways, and Aśoka’s life and deeds remained foundational for subsequent South Asian and Buddhist political and religious history.
First, Aśoka’s own imperial strategies were appropriated and developed by his post-Mauryan successors, effectively constituting Aśoka’s Empire as the one that all subsequent kings struggled to remake for themselves.
Aśoka inherited an already sizeable kingdom in north-eastern India from his father, Bimbisāra (c. 298-270 BCE),
and his grandfather, dynastic founder Chandragupta Maurya (c. 322-298 BCE), whose court was visited by ambassadors of Alexander the Great (providing a synchronism with Western chronology upon which much of ancient Indian history is still dated).
But, ruling from his capital at modern Patna in northern Bihar,
Aśoka was the first known Indian king of any dynasty to expand the Empire to embrace the whole subcontinent (except, in Aśoka’s case, the modern Tamil Nadu, Kerala, southern Karnataka, Assam, and Bangladesh),
and he pushed its borders northwest into what is now eastern Afghanistan.
He maintained diplomatic relations even farther afield, sending embassies to rulers in the far South and Śrī Lanka, and also throughout the eastern Hellenistic world, which established Aśoka among the most powerful monarchs of his day.
More important than military conquest in this expansion - especially after his 8th year - were Aśoka’s innovative strategies for displaying and maintaining his imperial over-lordship, always in the context of his proclamation of the Dharma.
One of the most important imperial strategies, whose significance is often overlooked by scholars, was the practice itself of erecting stone inscriptions, which must have involved considerable mobilization of resources –
- Aśoka’s pillar capitals rank with India’s earliest and most treasured art; the technology of preparing and inscribing the various surfaces is sophisticated;
and the attempt to broadcast the same messages in a local idiom which thereby functioned as a lingua franca across such a wide expanse of territory
- demonstrates enormous internal organization and vision - and was unprecedented in Indian history (it has been argued that Aśoka imitated Persian and Hellenistic predecessors).
But the practice allowed Aśoka to physically and permanently mark his authority over the different regions whose submission he won, to address the subjects of these regions directly (and lovingly), and to make them feel sheltered by his single royal umbrella.
This practice of inscribing decisions, donations, and eulogies in stone, and simultaneously landmarking key sites in important monarchs’ territories, became an essential mark of subsequent South Asian political formation, especially at the imperial level.
The vast corpus of South Asian epigraphs that today constitute the most important primary evidence for South Asian history literally continued Aśoka’s discourse in stone for more than 2 millennia;
for more than 5 centuries after Aśoka this lithic discourse even continued to use essentially his same alphabet and language.
Similarly, a number of key Buddhist sites Aśoka constructed or visited - such as Sāñcī, Sarnath, Amarāvatī, Bhārhut, Lumbinī, Bodh Gaya, and Kuśinagara –
- continued to be developed and improved by influential Buddhist monks, nuns, and wealthy laypeople, including a string of Aśoka’s imperial successors, for more than 500 years after his death.
These sites were subsequently transformed into Hindu sites or reclaimed by Buddhists beginning in the late 19th century; these remain important places of worship even today.
In like fashion, even after Hindu disciplinary orders had come to dominate the ideology of Indian imperial formation beginning in the 3rd century CE,
numerous additional Aśokan imperial strategies - with widely divergent content - persisted into modern times,
including engaging in imperial processions to the various regions and holding festivals and conspicuous displays in them, summoning kings and other representatives of those regions to the imperial court,
constructing public works such as roadside rests and wells,
centralizing the administration of outlying regions, making laws, employing royal symbols and epithets, practicing public and much-publicized charity to the poor and religious mendicants,
freeing prisoners, adjudicating sectarian disputes, and facilitating trans-regional diplomacy, trade, and intellectual and artistic exchange,
- especially through the employment of a universal language.
In addition to the imperial strategies that Aśoka himself employed,
talking about Aśoka - and claiming to be his legitimate successor - became an important post-Aśokan imperial strategy in its own right.
Aśoka’s founder status in the imperial struggles that concerned later kings made claims about his life and legacy politically and religiously significant, quite apart from their correspondence or lack of correspondence to the historical Aśoka.
These claims developed in communities of monks and nuns favoured by strong kings, and were textualized as the famous legends of Aśoka,
a second important means by which he continued to impact political and religious thinking long after his inscriptions had become illegible antiques.
2 basic recensions are especially well known:
1) One was preserved in the northern Buddhist traditions of Kashmir, Central Asia, and later East Asia and is epitomized by the Aśokāvadāna of the Divyāvadāna collection, composed in Buddhist Sanskrit in about the 1st century CE, then translated into Chinese and Tibetan.
2) The other was preserved in the Śrī Lankan and Southeast Asian Vaṁsa or chronicle traditions, which originated in central India, were codified in Pāli in Śrī Lanka, and were also transmitted through vernacular literatures in the region.
But contradictions and disagreements about the details abound, even within these 2 main lines of transmission and especially between them,
while scattered evidence in the accounts of Chinese pilgrims to India, as well as additional texts preserved in the Chinese Tripiṭaka and the Tibetan historical annals,
- indicate that this pan-Buddhist discourse about Aśoka was much wider and more varied still.
The accounts of Chinese pilgrims make clear that claimed associations with Aśoka still mapped most of Buddhist Asia even in their day (4-7th centuries CE);
they relate their multiple versions of the Aśoka legend
- in the context of places he was remembered to have visited
- or Stūpas he was remembered to have constructed,
- many of them far beyond Aśoka’s own reach.
In Śrī Lanka, Nepal, and Southeast Asia such associations have persisted into modern times.
Despite the wide variation among them, all the extant versions of the Aśoka legend share a basic narrative structure, which in places bears partial affinity to the historical Aśoka known through the inscriptions.
These legends all maintain that Aśoka was originally a cruel king who experienced a transformation into Dharmāśoka (“Righteous Aśoka”) after being pleased (Skt., prasāda; Pāli, pasāda) by the Buddha’s Dharma.
Aśoka created a great Buddhist Empire, ceremonially abdicated power to the Saṅgha, and landmarked it by the construction of Stūpas and the performance of Buddhist liturgies
(the northern Buddhist versions focus upon festivals held every 5th year;
the southern Buddhist versions highlight constant Bodhi tree worship).
He also sponsored a recitation of the Dharma, which was headed up by a favoured patriarch,
who then effected the dissemination of that Dharma and with it Aśoka’s imperial legacy to all of Asia in general and especially to some favoured region that had been predicted by the Buddha himself to be of extraordinary significance during later history;
- a close kinsman of Aśoka’s played some special role in this paradigmatic sequence of events.
But within this detailed basic agreement the texts disagree furiously about:
- when Aśoka lived,
- which teachings of the Buddha effected Aśoka’s transformation
(and served as the basis of his imperial power),
- which regions were directly embraced by Aśoka,
- which specific Stūpas he built,
- which liturgies he performed,
- which recitation of the dharma he sponsored,
- the identity of his favoured monk,
- the location of the privileged region predicted to be of significance in later history,
- the name of the kinsman and his relationship to Aśoka, and
- the nature of the role this kinsman played in the king’s transformation.
The scholars who first deciphered the Aśokan inscriptions in the 1830s already knew these legends, and relied upon them for vocabulary and syntax, as well as for numerous “facts” left out of the inscriptions.
But given the disagreements among the different versions, this required scholars to privilege one over the others, generating a number of influential theories about which version was in fact the earliest or most authentic, and attacks on the others as derivative or fabricated.
Beginning with the work of Vincent Smith (1848–1920) at the turn of the 20th century, however, scholars grew more cautious about using the legends as historical sources;
their sometimes great distance from the time of Aśoka himself, the various miraculous, supernatural or otherwise difficult-to- believe aspects they contain, and especially their disagreement over details with each other and with the inscriptions,
- led many scholars following Smith to dismiss all of them as having any relevance to the historical study of Aśoka.
Other scholars continued to treat them, at best, as colourful footnotes to the hard evidence of the inscriptions.
While divorcing the legends from the inscriptions was no doubt crucial for the reconstruction of Aśokan history proper, in the later 20th century scholars returned to them with more fruitful questions than what facts about Aśoka they can provide.
John Strong has shown that in the time of the Chinese pilgrims (4-7th centuries CE) Aśokan pillars were still remembered as Aśokan, but could no longer be read;
the information the pilgrims gathered was all based on the legends, even when it was presented to them as a reading of some inscription.
By the 14th century even the association with Aśoka had been lost;
now- dominant Hindus and Muslims were providing alternative legendary accounts of the pillars (and had reduced Aśoka to a mere name in their lists of Mauryan kings).
Thus for most of history the Aśoka known and admired by Buddhists has been the Aśoka of the legends, not the inscriptions.
In one sense these legends about Aśoka can be read as post-Aśokan political ideology,
privileging the authority of an Empire-building Buddhist king and the monks most closely associated with him to command Aśoka’s imperial space.
The questions engendered by this discourse were simultaneously questions about the then-present, an actual interregnal Buddhist world that all Buddhists agreed to frame according to the Aśokan legacy.
Arguments about when Aśoka lived, who that patriarch was, where he established the centre of the Buddhist world and what lineage he represented,
- were simultaneously arguments that this (not that) is the true centre of the Buddhist world, the true lineage from the Buddha, correct practice, correct doctrine.
The debate raged over details because Buddhists (especially Buddhist kings and courtiers) in different regions, and even within the same region,
had different ambitions as regards the “this,” the particular hierarchical constellation of Buddhist polities and schools to which any particular version of the Aśoka legend committed them.
But in another sense these legends were more than political posturing:
they could be championed in a politically significant way only to the extent that they were believed to paint the truest picture of an Aśoka who was admired and revered as paradigmatic across the Buddhist world.
There is plentiful evidence that in India, central Asia, Śrī Lanka and Southeast Asia, and even China various powerful Buddhist kings directly modelled themselves after the legendary Aśoka,
either explicitly (as in their inscriptions or official chronicles) or implicitly, through their imitation of his paradigmatic activities in the legends, such as:
Stūpa construction; Bodhi worship; gift-giving; the convening of festivals, conferences, and recitations of the Dharma; and integrity and personal piety.
Taking Aśoka as exemplary of proper Buddhist kingship was so common in pre-modern Theravāda Buddhist kingdoms in modern Myanmar, Thailand, and Śrī Lanka,
- in fact, that scholars have theorized a specifically Aśokan model of kingship, social order, and imperial formation that has even been invoked by contemporary politicians in these regions to a variety of political and personal ends.
Outside politics altogether, aspects of these legends of Aśoka, especially those popularized in vernacular literature (and art), have inspired generations of Buddhists in a variety of ways:
Individual monks associated in these legends with Aśoka and the Aśokan dissemination of the Dharma have been worshiped throughout the Buddhist world.
Pilgrimage in honour of Aśoka’s son Mahinda
(who, according to the southern recension of the Aśoka legend, brought the religion to Śrī Lanka at the conclusion of the Third Council convened by Aśoka’s favourite patriarch, Moggaliputta Tissa)
- remains one of the most important annual Sinhala Buddhist festivals.
There is pre-modern Burmese evidence of veneration of Sona and Uttara, who according to the southern recension brought the religion to that land, and likewise of Madhyantika in Kashmir.
A wide variety of religious practices surrounding Upagupta, Aśoka’s favourite patriarch according to the northern recension of the Aśoka legend, were once widespread in the northern Buddhist world and survive in contemporary Burma and northern Thailand.
Stories about Aśoka’s conduct as king, and that of his queens, have been invoked as both positive and negative paradigms for then-present royal conduct; as an exemplar of religious giving (dāna) more generally, Aśoka is virtually unexcelled in Buddhist hagiography.
Stories about Aśoka’s past-life deeds and their consequences in the present have also enjoyed this more general religious significance in Buddhist countries.
The post-1830s Orientalist project of reconstructing “the historical Aśoka” has opened yet another avenue through which that ancient Indian emperor’s influence continues to be felt today,
for he emerged there as a model of virtues worth imitating universally, even outside the cultural and religious context to which both the historical and the legendary Aśokas belonged.
These virtues include:
globalism, religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue, diplomacy over violence, support for the poor, commitment to truth and liberty, personal integrity, and environmentalism.
This “Great Man” Aśoka - who has been compared with Constantine, Marcus Aurelius, Charlemagne, Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Saint Paul, and V. I. Lenin, among many others
- has been lauded by 20th century luminaries including H. G. Wells, who said “the name of Aśoka shines, and shines almost alone, a star” among all the great monarchs of history,
and Jawaharlal Nehru, for whom Aśoka exemplified the sort of secular federalism that India adopted at independence (an Aśokan pillar capital with 4 lions constitutes India’s official seal).
Aśoka is ubiquitous in academic and popular accounts of Indian and Buddhist history ranging from scholarly monographs to comic books.