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AŚOKA (Skt.; Pali and Prakrit, Asoka), the third and most powerful of the Mauryan emperors who once dominated the Indian subcontinent (fourth to third 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. 270230 bce) laid important structural foundations for subsequent south Asian imperial formation and corresponding transregional 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 proclamations 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 (prakrit ) 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.; Pali, dhamma ; Prakrit, dhama ) 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 (Brahmanical, 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 eighth 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 Kaliga, in eastern India (modern Orissa and eastern Andhra Pradesh), during his eighth year. Henceforth, he pursued "conquest by righteousness" (Prakrit, dhamavijaya ) and, after his thirteenth year, administered the empire through "righteous ministers" (Prakrit, dhamamahāmāta ), 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 eighth regnal year but only began to strenuously exert himself eighteen months later. His inscriptions (and other archaeological evidence) testify to that effort: he constructed stupas and gave other financial support for monks and monasteries, intervened in monastic disputes (and recommended which texts monks, nuns, and fellow laypeople 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" (Prakrit, dhamaguna ), 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 northeastern India from his father, Bimbisāra (c. 298270 bce), and his grandfather, dynastic founder Candragupta Maurya (c. 322298 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 Sri 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 expansionespecially after his eighth yearwere Aśoka's innovative strategies for displaying and maintaining his imperial overlordship, 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 resourcesAśoka'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 visionand 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 a sine qua non 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 two millennia; for more than five 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 visitedsuch as Sāñcī, Sārnāth, Amarāvatī, Bhārhut, Lumbinī, Bodh Gayā, and Kusināracontinued to be developed and improved by influential Buddhist monks, nuns, and wealthy laypeople, including a string of Aśoka's imperial successors, for more than five hundred years after his death. These sites were subsequently transformed into Hindu sites or reclaimed by Buddhists beginning in the late nineteenth 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 third century ce, numerous additional Aśokan imperial strategieswith widely divergent contentpersisted 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 transregional 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 Aśokaand claiming to be his legitimate successorbecame 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 favored 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. Two basic recensions are especially well known. 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 first century ce, then translated into Chinese and Tibetan. The other was preserved in the Sri Lankan and Southeast Asian vasa or chronicle traditions, which originated in central India, were codified in Pali in Sri Lanka, and were also transmitted through vernacular literatures in the region. But contradictions and disagreements about the details abound, even within these two 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 tripaka 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 (fourth to seventh centuries ce); they relate their multiple versions of the Aśoka legend in the context of places he was remembered to have visited or stupas he was remembered to have constructed, many of them far beyond Aśoka's own reach. In Sri 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 ; Pali, pasāda) by the Buddha's dharma. Aśoka created a great Buddhist empire, ceremonially abdicated power to the sagha, and landmarked it by the construction of stupas and the performance of Buddhist liturgies (the northern Buddhist versions focus upon festivals held every fifth year; the southern Buddhist versions highlight constant bodhi tree worship). He also sponsored a recitation of the dharma, which was headed up by a favored 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 favored 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 stupas he built, which liturgies he performed, which recitation of the dharma he sponsored, the identity of his favored 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, beginning with details about Aśoka's ancestry and youth; at least four queens, two sons, and a daughter who are unknown in the inscriptions (wherein are mentioned a queen and her son unknown in the legends); various specifics of his conversion and religious practice; and his old age and death. 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 at the turn of the twentieth 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 colorful 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 twentieth 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 (fourth to seventh 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 fourteenth 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 center of the Buddhist world and what lineage he represented, were simultaneously arguments that this (not that) is the true center 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, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, and even China various powerful Buddhist kings directly modeled 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 stupa 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 premodern Theravāda Buddhist kingdoms in modern Myanmar, Thailand, and Sri 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 honor of Aśoka's son Mahinda (who according to the southern recension of the Aśoka legend brought the religion to Sri Lanka at the conclusion of the Third Council convened by Aśoka's favorite patriarch, Moggaliputtatissa) remains one of the most important annual Sinhala Buddhist festivals. There is premodern 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 favorite 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" Aśokawho has been compared with Constantine, Marcus Aurelius, Charlemagne, Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Saint Paul, and V. I. Lenin, among many othershas been lauded by twentieth-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 four 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.

See Also

Cakravartin; Missions, article on Buddhist Missions; Sagha, article on Sagha and Society in South and Southeast Asia.


Primary and secondary sources for the study of Aśoka abound even in English and other European languages, and especially in Asian languages. A good basic reference for readers of English is Ananda W. P. Guruge, Asoka: A Definitive Biography (Colombo, Sri Lanka, 1993), a massive tome that surveys virtually all the primary sources for the study of Aśoka, including Prakrit (and Greek and Aramaic) texts and English translations of all the known inscriptions and discussions and lengthy translated quotations from Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan legendary materials; this volume also reviews and gives an extensive bibliography of English and other European-language secondary scholarship about Aśoka, and provides Guruge's own judgments on various points debated by scholars of "the historical Aśoka" in the form of a chronological biography that weaves together inscriptional and legendary material into a believable if not uncontestable narrative. A more precise and critical general historical study of the extant sources for Aśoka, his Indian successors, and the legends of Aśoka is Étienne Lamotte, History of Indian Buddhism, from the Origins to the Śaka Era, translated by Sara Webb-Boin (Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, 1988), especially chap. 3. The now classic study of "the historical Aśoka" is Vincent A. Smith, Aśoka: The Buddhist Emperor of India (Oxford, 1901), while the most acclaimed work in the genre remains Romila Thapar, Aśoka and the Decline of the Mauryas (Oxford, 1963; 2d ed., 1973), which together with Guruge and Lamotte provide good points of entry into the larger discourse on the topic.

For texts and translations of the Aśokan inscriptions complete with plates and a text-critical apparatus, readers can consult E. Hultzsch, ed., Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, Vol. 1: Inscriptions of Asoka, New Edition (Oxford, 1925). Wilhelm Geiger, trans., The Mahāvasa, or the Great Chronicle of Ceylon (London, 1901), chaps. 5 and 25, contains the most polished version of the southern recension of the Aśoka legend available in English, dating to about 460 ce; Hermann Oldenberg, ed. and trans., The Dīpavasa: An Ancient Buddhist Historical Record (London, 1879), dating to the early fourth century ce, contains less refined textual fragments (1:2428; 5:5559; 5:82; 5:100102; all of chaps. 68; 11:1216:41; 17:80109) that are probably closer translations of the now-lost and considerably more ancient sources used also by the author of Mahāvasa. The Aśokāvadāna of the northern recension has been masterfully translated by John S. Strong, The Legend of King Aśoka (Princeton, 1983); Strong also provides an important discussion of textual interpretation, the history of the Avadāna collection, and the political and religious dimensions of the Aśokan paradigm contained in that text. Jean Pryzluski, The Legend of Emperor Aśoka in Indian and Chinese Texts, translated by Dilip Kumar Biswas (Calcutta, 1967), also includes an English rendering (inferior to Strong's) of Pryzluski's excellent French translation of Aśokāvadāna (La legende de l'Empereur Aśoka [Aśoka-Avadāna] dans les textes Indien et Chinois [Paris, 1923]), but more importantly makes accessible to English readers Pryzluski's pioneering work on the Kausambian and Mathuran roots of the Kashmiri version of the text as it exists today, and his arguments for its comparative antiquity vis-à-vis the southern recension. The authenticity of the southern recension is championed in the introduction to Geiger's translation of Mahāvasa. Jonathan Walters has examined textual and archaeological evidence for its composition within the first century after Aśoka's death: "Mapping Sāñchi in a Whole Buddhist World," in C. Witanachchi, ed., Lily De Silva Felicitation Volume (Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, 2002), chap. 1. Ronald Inden, Jonathan Walters, and Daud Ali, Querying the Medieval: Texts and the History of Practices in South Asia (Oxford, 2000), chap. 3, contains a critical study of the primary sources in the southern recension, and an appendix that details early Orientalist readings of them vis-à-vis the Aśokan inscriptions. English translations of primary Tibetan texts that contain versions of the Aśoka legend are Lama Chimpa Alaka Chattopadhyaya, trans., Tāranātha's History of Buddhism in India (Delhi, 1990), especially chaps. 68; and George N. Roerich, trans., The Blue Annals (Delhi, 1976), especially pp. 2335. Original texts of the travels of Chinese pilgrims Faxian and Xuanzang, replete with differing versions of the Aśoka legend and important evidence for reconstructing Aśoka's significance to Buddhists across Asia in that period can be found in the much-reprinted but still readable (and usefully indexed) Samuel Beal, trans., Si Yu Ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World (London, 1884; Delhi, 1981). The surveys by Guruge and Lamotte will lead readers to additional, as yet untranslated Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Khotanese, and Chinese primary texts of relevance.

Three collections of essays edited by Bardwell L. Smith have proven seminal in more recent scholarship that treats the legends of Aśoka as sources for understanding his paradigmatic significance to later Buddhists rather than as sources for historical reconstruction of his own period: The Two Wheels of Dhamma: Essays on the Theravada Tradition in India and Ceylon (Chambersburg, Pa., 1972), and Religion and Legitimation of Power in Sri Lanka and Religion and Legitimation of Power in Thailand, Laos, and Burma (both Chambersburg, Pa., 1978). Stanley J. Tambiah, World Conqueror and World Renouncer: A Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand against a Historical Background (Cambridge, UK, 1976) is a monograph-length treatment of how the Aśokan paradigm was played out in actual political and religious practices and ideology in premodern Thailand. John C. Holt, The Religious World of Kīrti Śrī: Buddhism, Art, and Politics in Late Medieval Sri Lanka (New York and Oxford, 1996), examines the same question within the thicket of colonial (eighteenth-century) Sri Lanka. John S. Strong, The Legend and Cult of Upagupta: Sanskrit Buddhism in North India and Southeast Asia (Princeton, 1992) is an important study of the transmission of stories from the northern recension about the figure who represents its "favored patriarch of Aśoka," and their coexistence with the corresponding (and contradictory) claims of the southern recension, as well as a whole range of religious practices surrounding Upagupta in Burma and northern Thailand. Jonathan Walters's Finding Buddhists in Global History (Washington, D.C., 1998), especially chap. 3, theorizes in general terms the pan-Buddhist significance of debates about Aśoka in post-Aśokan Buddhist history. A valuable collection of essays that represent historicist as well as history of religions approaches to the study of Aśoka is Anuradha Seneviratne, ed., King Aśoka and Buddhism: Historical and Literary Studies (Kandy, Sri Lanka, 1994). For a new study of Aśoka's queens see John S. Strong, "Toward a Theory of Buddhist Queenship: The Legend of Asandhimittā," in John C. Holt, Jacob N. Kinnard, and Jonathan S. Walters, eds., Constituting Communities: Theravāda Buddhism and the Religious Cultures of South and Southeast Asia (Albany, N.Y., 2003), pp. 4155.

Jonathan S. Walters (2005)


views updated May 21 2018


Asoka (reigned ca. 273-232 B.C.), the third emperor of the Maurya dynasty, is considered ancient India's greatest ruler. He combined the piety of a saint with the practical qualities of a king, and in the history of Buddhism he ranks second only to Buddha.

By the 3d century B.C. the kingdom of Magadha under the hegemony of the Mauryas controlled almost the entire Indian subcontinent. Only the southern tip of India and Ceylon remained free of the Mauryas' political influence. However, Buddhist missionaries of Asoka extended religious influence into Ceylon, which became a stronghold of Theravada Buddhism through Asoka's efforts.

In his youth Asoka served as viceroy of Taxila and later of Ujain. He came to the throne in 273 B.C., but a disputed succession delayed his coronation until 269. In 261 he annexed Kalinga, a vast tract between the Mahanadi and Godavari rivers, killing over 100,000 people and taking 150,000 captives. This was the only aggressive war of his reign, and so shocked the King's conscience that 4 years later he publicly recorded on various edicts his profound sorrow and remorse. He devoted the rest of his life to the propagation of dharma, the Buddhist law of piety.

Life and Beliefs

To bring his precepts into harmony with his personal practice, Asoka gave up hunting, royal luxuries, and the use of meat in the royal kitchen. He established and endowed hospitals for men and animals, both within his own realm and in those of the neighboring powers. On the highways banyan trees were planted to provide shade, mango groves were laid to provide fruit, wells were dug, watering places constructed, and rest houses established to comfort weary men and animals.

He made pilgrimages to India's holy places, preaching the law of piety to his subjects along the way. Often he was absent from his capital for as long as 10 months. He appointed a special class of officers, dharma mahamatras, to propagate morality. He asked them to be teachers first, magistrates afterward. Declaring all his subjects to be his children, he considered himself to be the trustee of their welfare rather than a ruler. But Asoka, while utilizing the full force of his administration, recognized frankly that permanent improvement was to be based on genuine change of heart, not on royal measures. He exhorted his subjects to meditate; to practice nonviolence and noninjury toward fellowmen and animals; to revere parents, teachers, mendicants, and elders; to be kind to inferiors such as servants, serfs, and beasts of burden; to be truthful; and to respect the beliefs of fellowmen. He did not seek to establish a sectarian creed and lavishly gave to all religious sects.

Monuments of Faith

From the sixteenth year of his reign Asoka permanently recorded ethical doctrines by inscribing them on rocks, sandstone pillars, and cave walls in the various regional languages. There were Fourteen Rock Edicts incised at seven different places in the remoter provinces of the empire. Some of these are preserved practically complete to this day. The second great series is that of Seven Pillar Inscriptions, six of which exist in six copies each, engraved on monolithic sandstone pillars erected at various localities in the home provinces. The seventh, perhaps the most important edict, is found on one pillar only. The remaining inscriptions consist of two Kalinga Edicts in two recensions, or critical revisions, three Cave Inscriptions, two Tarai Pillar Inscriptions, and several minor pillar and rock edicts in several recensions. The number of distinct documents is perhaps 35. Some inscriptions are in Greek and Aramaic. Bilingual inscriptions have been discovered on many pillars, making possible the decipherment of Brahmi and Kharosthi scripts. Many of the pillars contain Arabic numerals, India's gift to mathematics.

Asoka is reported to have built over 8,000 temples and more than 1,000 stupas, or tombs in honor of the Buddha. The stupa at Bhilsa still survives. The surviving gray sandstone pillars of his palace at Patliputra (modern Patna) display marvelous technical execution and brilliant art detail. The huge blocks of hard stone have an exquisite polish unmatched in India since the Asokan era. Asoka's lion seal carved on the Sarnath pillar has become modern India's state seal, and Asoka's wheel is represented on the central stripe of India's flag.

Anxious to spread his message across India, Asoka sent embassies to the Near East. His edicts mention Antiochus II, Theos of Syria, Ptolemy II, Philadelphos of Egypt, Magas of Cyrene, Antigonos Gonatas of Macedonia, and Alexander of Epirus. His son Mahendra and daughter Samghamitra went to Ceylon, which has been a Buddhist country since. A mission was sent to Burma, while others went to the Himalayan region and beyond. On the Indian subcontinent he sent his views to the Cola, Cera, and Pandya rulers.

Asoka's Empire

The empire Asoka ruled comprised, in modern terminology, Afghanistan south of the Hindu Kush, Baluchistan, Sind, Kashmir, the area of the lower Himalayas, and the whole of India and Pakistan proper except the southern extremity below the latitude of Madras. The central regions were governed directly from Patliputra, the outlying domains were divided among four viceroys, who were close relatives of the imperial family. A council of ministers advised the King, but in addition there was a well-defined bureaucratic structure, and five cadres are mentioned. In spite of Asoka's personal commitment to nonviolence, a standing army was maintained, the Kalinga Edict clearly enjoined people not to rebel for the Emperor "even in his remorse" had the power to crush them, and the death penalty was retained.

Not much is known about Asoka's family life. His inscriptions speak of two queens; Buddhist legends mention several. Very little is known about his sons, and how many they were. It is also not known how, when, and where the king-turned-evangelist died. A Tibetan tradition maintains that he died at Taxila. Two grandsons, Dasratha and Samprathi, succeeded him and divided the empire. But within 50 years of Asoka's death, a Brahmanical reaction, led by Pusyamitra, brought the dynasty to an end.

Further Reading

The most authoritative study of Asoka is Romila Thapar, Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas (1961), which contains complete translations of the known inscriptions. B. G. Gokhale, Asoka Maurya (1966), discusses the influence of Asoka's personal philosophy on his empire. Asoka is discussed at length in Gertrude Emerson Sen, The Pageant of India's History (1948). See also Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India (1946). □


views updated May 21 2018


Aśoka (ca. 300–232 b.c.e.; r. 268–232 b.c.e.), the third ruler of the Indian Mauryan empire, became a model of kingship for Buddhists everywhere. He is known today for the edicts he had inscribed on pillars and rock faces throughout his kingdom, and through the legends told about him in various Buddhist sources.

In one of his edicts, Aśoka expresses regret for the suffering that was inflicted on the people of Kaliṅga (present-day Orissa) during his conquest of that territory. Henceforth, he proclaims, he will renounce war and dedicate himself to the propagation of dharma. Just what he meant by this statement has been a subject of debate. Some have understood the word dharma here to mean the Buddha's teaching, and so have read Aśoka's change of heart in Kaliṅga as a conversion experience. In a few subsequent inscriptions, it is true, Aśoka does refer specifically to Buddhist sites (such as the Buddha's birthplace, which he visited in person) and to Buddhist texts, but, in general, for him, the propagation of dharma seems to have implied an active moral polity of social concern, religious tolerance, and the observance of common ethical precepts. In one edict, for instance, he orders fruit and shade trees to be planted and wells to be dug along the roads for the benefit of travelers. In others, he establishes medical facilities for humans and animals; he commissions officers to help the poor and the elderly; and he enjoins obedience to parents, respect for elders, and generosity toward and tolerance of priests and ascetics of all sects.

Throughout the ages, however, Aśoka was best known to Buddhists not through his edicts but through the legends that were told about him. These give no doubt about his conversion to Buddhism and his specific support of the monastic community. In Sanskrit and Pāli sources, Aśoka's kingship is said to be the karmic result of an offering he made to the Buddha in a past life. In this life, it is his encounter with an enlightened Buddhist novice that changes him from being a cruel and ruthless monarch into an exemplary righteous king (dharmarāja), a universal monarch (cakravartin). As such, he undertakes a series of great acts of merit: He redistributes the relics of the Buddha into eighty-four thousand stūpas built all over his kingdom; he establishes various Buddhist sites of pilgrim-age; he becomes a supporter of charismatic saints such as Upagupta and Piṇḍola; he fervently worships the bodhi tree at Bodh GayĀ; and he gives away (and then redeems) his kingship and all of his possessions to the saṅgha. In addition, in the Sri Lankan vaṃsas (chronicles), he is said to purify the teaching by convening the Third Buddhist Council, following which he sends missionary-monks, including his own son Mahinda, to various lands within his empire and beyond (e.g., Sri Lanka).

These stories helped define notions of Buddhist kingship throughout Asia, and gave specificity to the mythic model of the wheel-turning, dharma-upholding cakravartin. From Sri Lanka to Japan, monarchs were inspired by the image of Aśoka as a propagator of the religion, distributor of wealth, sponsor of great festivals, builder of monasteries, and guarantor of peace and prosperity. In particular, the legend of his construction of eighty-four thousand stūpas motivated several Chinese and Japanese emperors to imitate it with their own schemes of relic and wealth distribution, which served to unify their countries and ritually reassert their sovereignty.

See also:Councils, Buddhist; India; Sri Lanka


Barua, B. M. Asoka and His Inscriptions, 2 vols. Calcutta: New Age, 1946.

Li Rongxi, trans. The Biographical Scripture of King Asoka. Berkeley, CA: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 1993.

Nikam, N. A., and McKeon, Richard, eds. and trans. The Edicts of Asoka. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

Strong, John S. The Legend of King Aśoka. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Thapar, Romila. Aśoka and the Decline of the Mauryas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961.

John S. Strong


views updated Jun 11 2018

Aśoka (3rd cent. BCE). Indian ruler of the Mauryan dynasty who converted to Buddhism and did much to promote the faith, while at the same time allowing freedom of worship to all creeds. He proclaimed his ethical principles throughout his empire by means of Edicts inscribed upon rocks, pillars, and walls of caves. From the Edicts it may be seen that the content of Aśoka's Dharma is essentially that of a lay Buddhist: it consists of ‘Few sins and many good deeds, of kindness, liberality, truthfulness and purity’ (Pillar Edict 2). But no reference is made to the technical aspects of Buddhist doctrine as expounded in the Four Noble Truths.


views updated May 29 2018

Asoka emperor of India c.269–232 bc, who was converted to Buddhism and established it as the state religion.
Asoka pillar a pillar with four lions on the capital, built by the Emperor Asoka at Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh to mark the spot where the Buddha publicly preached his doctrine, and adopted as a symbol by the government of India.


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asoka Saraca asoca, a sacred Indian tree. See SARACA.