King Aśoka was an Indian emperor in the 3rd century BCE. According to legend, he was a devout Buddhist who explicitly and publicly governed in accord with the Dhamma, or Buddhist teachings. Aśoka has been important to Buddhists – particularly Buddhist rulers – ever since his reign. In this episode I tell you the story of Aśoka according to legend, and then contrast that with what we know from his extant rock edicts (deciphered in the 19th century). In the next episode I’ll continue with the stories of Aśoka’s exploits.
Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
King Aśoka: The Legends and the Evidence
The Legend of Aśoka in the Aśokavadana
The Legend: Conversion and Righteousness
Aśoka of the Edicts: Conversion and Dedication to Dhamma
Aśoka of the Edicts: Governing According to Dhamma
Today’s episode is the eighth instalment of my chronological history series, and it focuses on the famous King Aśoka, an Indian emperor who lived in the 3rd century BCE. According to legend, Aśoka was a devout Buddhist who governed in accord with the Dharma, or Buddhist teachings – championing justice, moral restraint, and generosity. While Aśoka wasn’t the first Buddhist ruler, he was definitely the most powerful, and the first to explicitly and publicly govern according to the “Dhamma.” The legends of Aśoka have been important to Buddhists – particularly Buddhist rulers – ever since his reign, but in the 19th century, edicts carved in stone throughout India were deciphered again after 2000 years and added a historical dimension to what we know about this king.
In this episode I tell you the story of Aśoka according to legend, and then contrast that with what we know from his rock edicts. In the next episode I’ll continue with the stories of how Aśoka built Buddhist memorial mounds throughout India, sent missionaries to spread the Dhamma far and wide, and presided over the Third Buddhist Council in order to purify the ordained Sangha. I’ll also discuss the ongoing debate about whether the king championed and spread Buddhism specifically, or whether he was a master statesman who kept his public life non-sectarian, and was referring to general principles of morality and righteousness when he used the term “Dhamma.”
King Aśoka: The Legends and the Evidence
Aśoka was the third monarch of the Mauryan empire, which consolidated a considerable amount of territory on the Indian subcontinent in the 3rd century BCE through bloody conquest. Aśoka inherited the throne around 270 or 268 BCE, and significantly expanded the empire before adopting a policy of “Dharma conquest” – that is, peaceably spreading the principles by which he governed instead of continuing with military conquest. He ruled over all of what is modern-day India except for its southernmost tip, plus parts of modern-day Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. He reigned for a relatively peaceful and prosperous 38 years, dying around 232 BCE.[i]
For most of the past 2000 years since, the only accounts of Aśoka’s life and exploits were found in Buddhist legends and texts. They maintain the king was a devout Buddhist himself, and an unsurpassed patron of the Sangha, or ordained Buddhist community. He’s also characterized as being an embodiment of a “cakkavattin” (or chakravartin, in Sanskrit), or the Indian ideal of a ruler who governs effectively, wisely, morally, and beneficently. As such he personally exemplified and publicly championed ten royal virtues, or dasarajadhamma: “generosity, moral virtue, self-sacrifice, kindness, self-control, non-anger, nonviolence, patience, and adherence to the norm of righteousness.”[ii] Aśoka has served as an ideal and model for Buddhist rulers ever since, particularly in SE Asia.
Then, in 1837, a man named James Prinsep managed to decipher the mysterious writing on an ancient stone pillar outside Delhi. It turns out it was written in Brahmi script around 2000 years earlier, and although that script had evolved into various forms of modern writing, it had long ago become unreadable to people. At first it wasn’t clear that the writing on the pillar – called an “edict” because it was a presentation by a ruling official, posted for the benefit of the public – was from the King Aśoka of Buddhist legend. This was because, in the edict, the king refers to himself as “Devanampriya,” (beloved of the gods) or “King Piyadasi” (he who looks on with concern).[iii]
Eventually the connection between Aśoka and Devanampriya was made and verified. Many additional edicts were deciphered – in edicts have been found in over 30 places, spread throughout the Indian subcontinent and carved into large stone pillars, boulders, and cave walls. The pillars are particularly remarkable, extending to 40 or 50 feet in height and weighing up to 50 tons. Many had to be hauled from quarries hundreds of miles away, and were typically topped with a sculpture, called a capital (the most famous of these capitals, comprised of four seated lions facing outwards, was adopted as the emblem of India in 1950). Because of their durability, these edicts carved in stone give us an incredibly rare and informative glimpse directly back to the time of Aśoka, and the result is a very different picture of this king – one not incompatible with Buddhist legend, but also open to other interpretations.
The Legend of Aśoka in the Aśokavadana
Because the stories that cultures and religions tell themselves are significant in and of themselves, I’m going to start off by telling you the legend of Aśoka as recorded in the Aśokavadana, or the The Legend of King Aśoka, a Sanskrit text dating from around the 2nd century CE.[iv] There are other stories and texts about Aśoka, but the Aśokavadana is quite representative of the image long held of Aśoka in the Buddhist tradition. Afterwards, I’ll tell you what we know from his rock edicts.
According to legend, Aśoka was destined for greatness even before he was born. In a previous life, as a little boy named Jaya, he was inspired to make an offering to the Buddha. He picked up a handful of dirt, using his child’s imagination to pretend it was ground meal, and placed it in the Buddha’s begging bowl. The Buddha accepted this sincere offering, and Jaya proclaimed his desire to be reborn as a king so he could pay true homage to the Blessed One. Sure enough, Jaya was eventually reborn as Aśoka.
However, once born as Aśoka, he didn’t start off so nice. He was afflicted with some kind of disfigurement of the skin, so he was very ugly and disliked by his father, King Bindusara. Therefore, he wasn’t actually in line for the throne. Through a plot, however, Aśoka manages to take power, and dispatches the true heir by luring him to his death in a pit of hot coals.
Once in power, Aśoka only gets worse. The Aśokavadana describes how he builds a prison that was beautiful on the outside but a hell on the inside, and grants his sociopathic chief torturer’s wish that no one would ever leave the prison alive. When some members of Aśoka’s harem reject his advances because of his ugliness, he burns all 500 women alive.[v] And these are only a few of the sordid tales of Aśoka’s brutality! His behaviour earns him the nickname “Aśoka the Fierce.” (Scholars through the years have speculated that stories of Aśoka’s cruelty were exaggerated and embellished in order to make his conversion to Buddhism and subsequent righteousness seem more dramatic.)
The Legend: Conversion and Righteousness
One day, Aśoka is called to his torture chamber to witness a miracle. A Buddhist monk had been imprisoned there, and in anticipation of his own suffering and death, the monk had practiced diligently and achieved enlightenment. When his time for torture and death had finally come, he was dumped into a giant cauldron of water, human blood, urine, and excrement. A great fire was lit underneath, but the pot didn’t heat up, and the monk was untroubled and unharmed. In fact, the monk remained seated cross-legged on a lotus flower in the middle of the pot, and was able to demonstrate further supernatural powers to impress King Aśoka. After this display, the king repents, saying:
Aśoka then proceeds to tear down the prison/torture chamber and undertakes a vast project to redistribute the Buddha’s relics into 84,000 stupas, or memorial mounds. The stupas are built for the purpose and placed throughout Aśoka’s realm, thereby helping to spread Buddhism. For the remainder of his reign Aśoka manages to restrain himself from inflicting bloodthirsty punishments on the populace, more or less, with only the occasional flurry of executions. Instead, Aśoka uses clever and compassionate means to convert his brother to Buddhism, generously supports the Buddhist Sangha, and makes a habit of throwing himself at the feet of any Buddhist monks he encounters. The Aśokavadana also recounts how Aśoka went on a pilgrimage with a monk named Upagupta to all the important sites in the Buddha’s life, such as where the Buddha was born, attained enlightenment, taught, and died. At each place Aśoka pays homage, leaves offerings, and in many cases erects monuments. Over time, he becomes known as Aśoka the Righteous.
At the end of his life, the Aśokavadana says, Aśoka wants to leave such a large gift to the Sangha, his ministers are afraid he will bankrupt the state. They deny him access to the treasury, so instead Aśoka gives the Sangha everything else he personally owns. Ultimately, all he’s left with is “half a myrobalan fruit” and he gives that, too – in part to demonstrate the ephemeral nature of worldly power and wealth, because even though he’s still technically an emperor, the fruit is all he has left. Aśoka passes away in peace.[vii]
Aśoka of the Edicts: Conversion and Dedication to Dharma
What about the story of Aśoka we can piece together from historical facts and his stone-carved edicts? While the story is less colourful, there’s a way in which it’s even more inspiring.
It appears there was a struggle around succession in the Mauryan empire that lasted at least a couple years, during which other claimants to the throne were indeed killed, including Aśoka’s brother. At the end of the struggle, Aśoka came to power and proceeded to further expand the empire. Under his leadership, in fact, the Mauryan empire reached its greatest extent.
During the last of these expansion efforts, Aśoka’s forces finally conquered the Kalingas, the last major kingdom on the Indian subcontinent still resisting the Mauryans. This battle was drawn out and very bloody, and according to Aśoka’s own account, recorded on pillar edict XIII, his horror at the suffering led to a dramatic change of heart (the following are excerpts):
“Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, conquered the Kalingas eight years after his coronation. One hundred and fifty thousand were deported, one hundred thousand were killed and many more died (from other causes). After the Kalingas had been conquered, Beloved-of-the-Gods came to feel a strong inclination towards the Dhamma, a love for the Dhamma and for instruction in Dhamma. Now Beloved-of-the-Gods feels deep remorse for having conquered the Kalingas.”[viii]
Aśoka goes on to describe how he is deeply pained not just by the killing and deportation, but by the fact that so many otherwise innocent people – people who were respectful and loyal to their families and fellow citizens – were injured, killed, separated from loved ones, or had to witness other people they care about suffer in these ways. Now, Aśoka says, “Beloved-of-the-Gods desires non-injury, restraint and impartiality to all beings, even where wrong has been done.” From now on, he is interested only in “conquest by Dhamma.”
Aśoka of the Edicts: Governing According to Dhamma
What exactly Aśoka means by “Dhamma” is a matter of some debate. Buddhists, of course, have maintained he meant the Buddha’s Dhamma specifically, but most of the language in the edicts is more general than that. Dhamma (the Pali term, Dharma in Sanskrit) was a term that predated Buddhism, and meant duty, law, or righteousness. Aśoka may not have been as personally committed to Buddhism as previously thought, or he was, but made a strategic political decision to state the values he wanted to promote in non-sectarian terms. After all, the empire contained many different cultures and religions.
I’ll go further into the debate about Aśoka’s precise relationship to Buddhism in the next episode, so for now let’s explore how Aśoka governed according to the Dhamma as righteousness in a more general sense, at least according to his edicts. First of all, the edicts themselves were erected as part of a sort of “public education” program, to inform and guide the populace in a positive way. On pillar edict 7, Aśoka admits he wanted the people to grow through the promotion of the Dhamma, and one of the ways he meant to bring that about was by setting up the “Dhamma pillars.”[ix] He explains that of the two ways of getting people to progress in the practice of Dhamma – that is, regulation and persuasion – persuasion has “much more effect.”[x]
The following things can be found on Aśokan rock or pillar edicts, all of them phrased explicitly as statements coming directly from Aśoka, who refers to himself as Beloved-of-the-Gods or King Piyadasi as well as frequently using the first person, “I”:[xi]
- Praise for virtues including kindness, generosity, truthfulness, purity, restraint in the killing and harming of living beings, moderation in spending, proper behaviour toward servants, employees, teachers, and relatives, and zeal in the practice of Dhamma.
- Moral teachings and encouragement, such as the admission that it’s difficult to do good but easy to do evil, and tempting to see only your own good actions while being blind to your bad ones.
- Many proclamations regarding animal welfare, including a prohibition against animal sacrifice and the killing of particular species which were not used for food or other purposes (such as parrots), and limitations on the time and manner of the killing of animal species for food.
- Statements about material actions Aśoka has taken for the benefit for all people throughout his realm, including making medical treatment available for humans and animals, digging wells, planting trees, and building rest-houses along roads.
- Proclamations regarding Aśoka’s concern for justice, including a description of how he sends officials out to work for the proper treatment and release of prisoners; instructions – publicly posted but directed specifically to his judicial officers – ordering them to act with impartiality and make sure no one suffers from “unjust imprisonment” or “harsh treatment;” a statement that he desires “uniformity in law and… sentencing” and has instituted the right of appeal for prisoners sentenced to death.
- Declarations of Aśoka’s concern for the “welfare of all,” pointing out that he allows himself to be interrupted anytime or anywhere for reports on the affairs of the people, and instead of going on extravagant pleasure trips, he visits and brings gifts to religious ascetics and the aged. At one point he states, “All men are my children. What I desire for my own children… that I desire for all men.”[xii]
- Statements about Aśoka’s support for all religions and his desire that people should listen to and respect people from other faiths, as he himself does, plus instructions telling people to refrain from praising their own religion and criticizing those of others.
Presumably, the compassionate and just society portrayed by Aśoka’s edicts was far from perfect. We have no idea how fully they reflected the reality of life for Aśoka’s subjects, but at the very least it’s remarkable that an emperor would publicly profess such ideals – going so far as to carve them in stone and place them in conspicuous public places throughout his realm.
While the Buddhist legends portray Aśoka as an extremely devout lay Buddhist, his lasting legacy is the perception that he used Buddhist principles – particularly truthfulness, compassion, generosity, and moral restraint – to shape all aspects of his government. Buddhism can sometimes be viewed solely through the lens of renunciation, where the practitioner lets go of attachment and desire for the world in order to achieve personal liberation and peace. While there are a few suttas in the Pali Canon addressed specifically to lay people their concerns (such as family relationships, money, and business), Aśoka stands out as an exemplar of how to apply Buddhist ideals in the worldly realm.
Aśoka’s story doesn’t end there, of course! Next week I’ll talk about how Aśoka reputedly was the first patron of Buddhism to send missionaries far and wide in order to spread the religion – what he called “Dhamma conquest.” I’ll also cover the legends and evidence regarding his creation of Buddhist memorial mounds and other structures throughout his realm, and his patronage and role in a Third Buddhist Council. Finally, I’ll discuss the scholarly debate over just how specifically Buddhist Aśoka’s “Dhamma” really was.
Bechert, Heinz and Richard Gombrich (eds.). The World of Buddhism: Buddhist Monks and Nuns in Society and Culture. London: Thames and Hudson, 1984.
Mitchell, Donald and Sarah Jacoby. Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, Third Edition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Robinson, Richard R., Willard L. Johnson, and Thanissaro Bhikku. Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction. Fifth Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2005.
Skilton, Andrew. A Concise History of Buddhism. Cambridge, UK: Windhorse Publications, 1994.
Strong, John S. The Legend of King Aśoka: A Study and Translation of the Aśokāvadāna. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1983.
Strong, John S. Buddhisms: An Introduction. London: Oneworld Publications, 2015.
Swearer, Donald K. The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia, Second Edition. New York, NY: State University of New York Press, 2010.
[i] Bechert and Gombrich, p82
[ii] Swearer, p73
[iii] Strong 1983, p11
[iv] Strong 1983
[v] Strong 1983, p211
[vi] From the Aśokavadana, Strong 1983, p218
[vii] All Aśokavadana stories from Strong 1983
[viii] “The Edicts of King Asoka”, an English rendering by Ven. S. Dhammika. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/dhammika/wheel386.html.
[x] Ibid (Pillar Edict 7)
[xii] Ibid (Kalinga Rock Edict 1)