Legends of King Aśoka, the first Buddhist emperor (3rd century BCE), have long guided and inspired Buddhists, particularly rulers. In this second episode of two, I continue the story of Aśoka’s exploits: sending missionaries to spread the Dhamma, building a large number of stupas, and sponsoring the Third Buddhist Council. I also discuss the debate about whether Aśoka championed and spread Buddhism as a religion, or kept his public life non-sectarian and used the term “Dhamma” to refer to general principles of morality and righteousness.
Read/listen to Aśoka Part 1
Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
Aśoka and (Peaceful) “Dhamma Conquest”
Aśoka and Stupa Construction
Legend: Aśoka and the Third Buddhist Council
Was Aśoka a Promoter of Buddhism?
The Rock Edict Case for Aśoka’s Buddhism
Legends of King Aśoka, the first Buddhist emperor (3rd century BCE), have long guided and inspired Buddhist, particularly rulers. Hard evidence of his policy of governing according to the Dhamma has been found in rock edicts all over the Indian subcontinent. In the last episode, I presented the legend of King Aśoka, and then shared with you some of what is actually written in his rock edicts regarding his ideals of justice, fairness, compassion, moral behaviour, religious tolerance, animal welfare, and concern for the well-being of all the people in his realm.
In this second episode of two, I continue the story of Aśoka’s exploits. In particular, he is credited with three things in addition to his governance by Dhamma: 1) sending missionaries to other countries to spread the Dhamma far and wide; 2) building a large number of Buddhist memorial mounds (stupas) throughout India, and 3) sponsoring the Third Buddhist Council in order to purify the ordained Sangha. I’ll finish this episode by discussing the ongoing debate about whether Aśoka really championed and spread Buddhism as a religion, or was a master statesman who kept his public life non-sectarian and used the term “Dhamma” to refer to general principles of morality and righteousness.
Aśoka and (Peaceful) “Dhamma Conquest”
One of the things Aśoka is most famous for is his policy of “Dhamma conquest.” This is presented – both in legend and in the rock edicts – as a compassionate alternative to military conquest. In “Dhamma conquest,” Aśoka hoped to spread his enlightened form of moral culture and government not only throughout his realm, but beyond its borders. Buddhists have traditionally credited Aśoka with the first significant expansion of Buddhism-by-missionary, although, as I’ll discuss more later, it’s unclear from the edicts themselves whether Aśoka uses the term Dhamma to refer to Buddhist Dhamma specifically. However, it’s fairly clear from the edicts Aśoka was a Buddhist himself – so in any case, the Dhamma he wanted to spread would have been inspired by, and compatible with, Buddhism.
In rock edict 13, Aśoka mentions specific places where he has sent emissaries to spread the Dhamma (reminder: Aśoka refers to himself as “Beloved-of-the-Gods”):
“Now it is conquest by Dhamma that Beloved-of-the-Gods considers to be the best conquest. And it… has been won here, on the borders, even six hundred yojanas away, where the Greek king Antiochos rules, beyond there where the four kings named Ptolemy, Antigonos, Magas and Alexander rule, likewise in the south among the Cholas, the Pandyas, and as far as Tamraparni… Even where Beloved-of-the-Gods’ envoys have not been, these people too, having heard of the practice of Dhamma and the ordinances and instructions in Dhamma given by Beloved-of-the-Gods, are following it and will continue to do so. This conquest has been won everywhere, and it gives great joy…”[i]
Now remember – this message was carved into rock around 256 BCE! According to footnotes on the Access to Insight website (where you can read all of Aśoka’s edicts), Aśoka is referring to monarchs of Syria, Egypt, Macedonia, Cyrene (a greek city in present-day Libya), and Epirus (an area now shared by Greece and Albania). The Cholas and Pandyas were peoples in Southern India not under Aśoka’s rule, and Tamrapani is an ancient term for the island of Sri Lanka, which is just off the southern tip of India.
The nature and magnitude of Aśoka’s outreach to the Mediterranean world isn’t known, and there’s no evidence his Dhamma, or particularly Buddhism, took root or had significant influence in that area as a result of Aśoka’s efforts.[ii] Of course, that doesn’t mean the presence of emissaries from a Buddhist emperor didn’t have some effect – perhaps subtly, through a cross-pollination with local religions.
One place where Aśoka’s Dhamma conquest is believed to have had a lasting effect is Sri Lanka. What we know is Buddhism became established in Sri Lanka around the time of Aśoka and has survived there to this day. Early on, a close relationship was formed between the state and the Buddhist Sangha, with the king supporting the Sangha and even making Buddhism the state religion, and the Sangha’s support lending legitimacy to the state.[iii] According to legend, Aśoka’s own daughter, Sanghamitta, and son, Mahinda, were ordained Buddhist monastics and were sent to Sri Lanka as missionaries. The Sri Lankan king, Tissa, converted, built a large monastery, and helped to spread Buddhism throughout the island. Over the centuries, the monastic tradition in Sri Lanka ended up being a bastion of Theravadin orthodoxy, while Indian Buddhism ended up with considerably more sectarian diversity.[iv]
More on Sri Lankan Buddhism in later episodes, but before I leave the subject of Aśoka’s Dhamma missions to other countries, I should mention that, according to legend, he also sent emissaries to SE Asia – areas which are part of modern-day Myanmar and Thailand. However, although Aśoka is a beloved part of some SE Asian Buddhist lore, there is little evidence Buddhism actually took root in there until later – probably in the early centuries CE, likely being introduced from Sri Lanka.[v]
Aśoka and Stupa Construction
Aśoka is also credited with building a large number of Buddhist stupas throughout India. According to legend, he was bold enough to open up the “original ten stupas” which were built shortly after the Buddha’s death to enshrine his relics, or remains after cremation. Stupas, which Buddhists continue to build to this day, tend to be dome-shaped, and some are quite large and/or elaborate. From the beginning of Buddhism, stupas had been important sites of Buddhist pilgrimage, practice, and worship for both monastic and lay people. Because of the supposed presence of actual physical remains of the Buddha (or in some cases, of other important Buddhist figures), stupas are perceived by many as places of power that give you an opportunity to connect in an immediate and personal way with the person enshrined there.
Apparently, Aśoka was excused for opening the original ten stupas and messing with the holy remains inside them, because he carefully divided up the relics so they could subsequently be enshrined in “84,000” stupas throughout his realm.[vi] While 84,000 is clearly an exaggeration intended to convey the concept of “a huge number,” the legends suggest Aśoka made pilgrimage to Buddhist stupas accessible to many more people on the Indian subcontinent, and possibly spread and strengthened Buddhism by doing so. In his book The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia, Donald Swearer suggests the symbolism of Aśoka’s 84,000 stupas “points to a basic truth that in the Aśokan period the cult of relics became a primary expression of Buddhist piety as well as part of Aśoka’s policy of using Buddhism as unifying instrument of imperial power.”[vii]
Historically, we can’t be sure how many stupas Aśoka actually built, but there is some physical evidence he was involved in the construction of a large stupa in Sanci, India, which still exists[viii] (although Aśoka’s version of the stupa was expanded and built over in later centuries[ix]). It is believed an Aśokan pillar used to stand in front of the stupa. The base of the pillar can still be found at Sanci, and apparently was inscribed with the Aśokan “schism” edict, which was addressed to the Buddhist Sangha and said that any monk or nun causing a schism in the Sangha would be expelled from the monastery and made to return to lay life. However, Swearer mentions the claim that an Aśokan pillar used to stand in front of Sanci is disputed, but he cites another source and doesn’t explain further.[x]
Legend: Aśoka and the Third Buddhist Council
That brings us to the third exploit attributed to Aśoka: sponsoring, or even presiding over, the third Buddhist council. As I’ve talked about in previous Buddhist History episodes, the first Buddhist Council was held right after the Buddha’s death, and established the canon of his teachings and standardized the code of discipline for monastics. The second council was held around 100 years later, to address differences of opinion around the code of discipline. In Episode 39 I discussed this second council and how, even though some sectarian differences were arising in Buddhism around this time with respect to doctrine, Buddhism as a whole was still fairly unified. This was because most Buddhist monastics shared a more-or-less common code of discipline, or Vinaya, and that was considered the unifying factor.
According to an old Pali text called the Mahavamsa, or Great Chronicle, a third council was convened in Pataliputra around 250 BCE,[xi] under Aśoka’s sponsorship, somewhere around 150 years after the second council. Accounts of this council can only be found in Pali sources and it’s possible the whole thing might be apocryphal[xii] (that is, may not have happened at all, or very differently than the way the extant accounts tell it). However, as usual, the legend itself is important to Buddhism so I’ll relate it.
Aśoka is said to have heard complaints about the presence of monks in the Buddhist Sangha who weren’t sincere and were therefore loose in their practice of the all-important monastic code of discipline. Apparently, Aśoka’s generous patronage of the Sangha had attracted some lay-abouts. Aśoka convened the council and chose a conservative elder monk named Moggaliputta Tissa to preside over it. After much debate, the monks put their case to Aśoka and Tissa, and they decided on behalf of the traditionalist monks who were in favour of strict discipline, and expelled the rest from the Sangha – according to the legend, defrocking “no less than sixty thousand adherents of false views.”[xiii] Whether or not any part of this account is true, the belief it’s true helped establish precedent for rulers to interfere in the affairs of the Sangha, particularly in the interest of “purifying” it, and thereby increasing the merit and legitimacy of the ruler in both a worldly and otherworldly sense.[xiv]
Was Aśoka a Promoter of Buddhism?
Now that we’ve covered the basic story of Aśoka as presented in legend and as we can piece together from the facts (particularly, Aśoka’s extant rock edicts), let’s consider the debate about how specifically Buddhist an emperor Aśoka actually was. Buddhist legends and tradition see Aśoka as the original patron of Buddhism specifically, but is that just a sectarian version of events?
As I mentioned earlier, the concept of “Dhamma” is central to the Aśokan edicts. For example, in rock edict 11, Aśoka says:
“There is no gift like the gift of the Dhamma, (no acquaintance like) acquaintance with Dhamma, (no distribution like) distribution of Dhamma, and (no kinship like) kinship through Dhamma.”[xv]
But “Dhamma” isn’t a term limited to Buddhism. In ancient India, and even today, Dhamma can mean duty, law, or righteousness, and it is used in other Indian spiritual traditions. So, it’s entirely possible Aśoka meant to promote morality, discipline, and decency in general, not Buddhism as a religion.[xvi] For example, in rock edict 11 Aśoka goes on to explain:
“And [the Dhamma] consists of this: proper behavior towards servants and employees, respect for mother and father, generosity to friends, companions, relations, Brahmans and ascetics, and not killing living beings.”
Some scholars have suggested Aśoka didn’t favor Buddhism over other religions at all, and have even questioned whether he was a Buddhist.[xvii] In his book Buddhisms: An Introduction, John Strong describes this kind of scholarly scepticism, pointing out that in his rock edicts, Aśoka:
“…sets forth his dedication to the ‘Dharma’ (= ‘righteousness’), which he desires to propagate throughout his realm. Aśoka’s ‘Dharma’ in the edicts does not correspond exactly to the Buddha’s Dharma as we know it; rather it seems to imply an active polity of social concern, religious tolerance, the observance of common ethical precepts, and the renunciation of warfare.”[xviii]
The Rock Edict Case for Aśoka’s Buddhism
The pure “rock edict” case for Aśoka being especially committed to Buddhism is not insubstantial, however. First, it seems pretty clear Aśoka himself was a Buddhist:
- In “minor rock edict 1,” Aśoka states, “It is now more than two and a half years since I became a lay-disciple, but until now I have not been very zealous. But now that I have visited the Sangha for more than a year, I have become very zealous.”[xix] The term translated as “lay-disciple” is the Buddhist term for a male lay follower, upasaka.
- In “minor rock edict 3,” Aśoka says, “Piyadasi, King of Magadha, saluting the Sangha and wishing them good health and happiness, speaks thus: You know, reverend sirs, how great my faith in the Buddha, the Dhamma and Sangha is. Whatever, reverend sirs, has been spoken by Lord Buddha, all that is well-spoken.” Aśoka then goes on to recommend four Buddhist texts that should be studied by both lay and monastic Buddhists in order that “the good Dhamma should last long.”[xx]
There is also evidence that Aśoka favored Buddhism over other religions. I’ll get to that evidence in a moment, but first it’s important to appreciate the context of religious tolerance strongly advocated by Aśoka – otherwise his support of Buddhism can seem fairly subtle. In rock edict 7, Aśoka says he “desires that all religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart.” In rock edict 12, he says doesn’t value gifts and honors as much as “growth in the essentials of all religions.” He goes on in that edict to say, “Whoever praises his own religion, due to excessive devotion, and condemns others with the thought ‘Let me glorify my own religion,’ only harms his own religion.” Given these statements, you can see why people might question whether Aśoka had stone edicts carved throughout his realm endorsing Buddhism.
Given Aśoka’s support for religions in general, then, the following things are particularly significant:
- He erected a pillar edict at Lumbini which still stands today and read: “Twenty years after his coronation, Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, visited this place and worshipped because here the Buddha, the sage of the Sakyans, was born. He had a stone figure and a pillar set up and because the Lord was born here, the village of Lumbini was exempted from tax…”[xxi] As far as we know, Aśoka did not erect monuments at sites significant to any other religion, but he’s believed to have put monuments at additional Buddhist locations.[xxii]
- Several of the edicts are addressed specifically to the Buddhist Sangha, and no other religion is addressed in this way.[xxiii] The most dramatic of these is Aśoka’s “schism” edict, mentioned earlier, in which he warns that any monk or nun causing a schism would be expelled from the Sangha.
- Although the Vedic religions of Aśoka’s time also used the term “Dhamma,” their versions of duty and righteousness relied heavily on ritual, including animal sacrifice, and Aśoka’s edicts prohibit animal sacrifice.[xxiv]
My best guess? Aśoka wanted to promote and spread a culture of morality and righteousness and reflect that culture in his government. He may have been a devout Buddhist himself, secretly hoping (as many of us do), that many people would find and walk the Buddhist path. However, he was also a realistic and master statesmen and, as Robinson et al write in the book Buddhist Religions, “Aśoka’s purpose was to formulate an ideology that would bring his empire together. Had he tried to force his beliefs on members of other religions, it would have proven politically divisive. Thus, in [his] edicts he generally focuses on themes that members of all religions would accept…”[xxv]
Whatever favor Buddhism enjoyed during Aśoka’s reign, according to legend his successors didn’t continue that support. One legend even holds that the Mauryan king five generations later, a direct descendant of Aśoka, set out to destroy the Buddhist religion but was killed by a Dharma-protecting demon to prevent that from happening, thus ending the Mauryan dynasty.[xxvi]
While Aśoka’s impact on the physical fortunes of Buddhism may not have lasted long, Buddhists have never forgotten the fact that such a powerful ruler supported and practiced Buddhism and made public efforts to rule in accord with the Dhamma. Many subsequent Buddhist kings and political leaders in SE Asia, China, and Japan, right up to the present day, have modelled themselves on Aśoka (or at least publicly presented themselves as doing so).
Not all of Aśoka’s legacy in this regard is positive. In The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia, Swearer discusses how SE Asian rulers have sometimes followed up violent and bloody efforts to consolidate power with high-profile actions to support, enrich, and purify the Buddhist Sangha – inspired in no subtle way by the legend of how Aśoka started out as a cruel and violent despot but redeemed himself through his support of the Dhamma.[xxvii] The legend of Aśoka sponsoring and even acting as judge at the third Buddhist council also sets the precedent for rulers interfering with Sangha affairs, and throughout the history of Buddhism in Asia the religion has often had a close – and frequently problematic – relationship with the state.
However, overall the ideals championed by Aśoka were quite positive. At the very least, he helped establish a model for how Buddhist principles might be enacted in government. He also is remembered as a devout Buddhist who – far from being a renunciate monastic – was a powerful and active lay person, fully engaged in “worldly” affairs. As Robinson et al point out in Buddhist Religions, these are “models that later Buddhists never forgot. Thus, alongside the Sangha and its monastic ideals, there developed a parallel tradition whose goals involved achieving the Dharma’s ends in social and political contexts.”
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] “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.
[ii] Robinson et al p61
[iii] Skilton p149
[iv] Mitchell and Jacoby 91
[v] Mitchell and Jacoby 94
[vi] Strong 2015, p170
[vii] Swearer p77
[viii] Robinson et al p60
[ix] Swearer p78
[xi] “Theravada Buddhism: A Chronology”. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/history.html.
[xii] Strong 2015, p204
[xiii] Strong 1983, p23
[xiv] Swearer 2010, p 76
[xv] “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.
[xvi] Strong 1983, p14
[xviii] Strong 2015, p169
[xix] “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.
[xxi] “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.
[xxii] Robinson et al p59
[xxvi] Strong 1983
[xxvii] Swearer p76