Ashoka and the First Schism

Note: Accompanying my book Sects & Sectarianism I wrote a series of short articles on related matters. I recently came across these, tidied them up, and present them here for your enjoyment.

Every analysis of the schisms that I have read by modern scholars places the schisms before Aśoka. Thus Bechert says, speaking of the Third Council: ‘After the individual Sanghas (of whom many had been divided as a result of saṅghabheda, i.e. “splitting of the Order” or “schism”) were reunited in this manner’.1 But the Third Council narrative says nothing about the existence of several distinct ‘Sanghas’. Again, Bechert says: ‘the first schism, which must be placed before Aśoka’.2 Prebish concurs: ‘Now we all know that a schism did take place around this time.’3 And Cousins also agrees: ‘Even if it is now clear that the schism between the Mahāsaṅghikas and the Sthaviravāda is not connected with the Second Council, it cannot have been long after.’4

Nevertheless, I think this event must be placed after Aśoka. Such a mass of authority cannot be discarded lightly, and I should explain why I have come to different conclusions. Strangely enough, I have never come across an explicit argument for exactly why the root schism must be pre-Aśokan, but the reasoning must go something like this.

The texts as we have them ascribe the schisms to one of three periods relative to Aśoka: before (Dīpavaṁsa and Bhavya III), during (Vasumitra and probably the Sarvāstivāda generally), or after (Śāriputraparipṛcchā). Two sources place the schisms before Aśoka. This includes the Sinhalese tradition, which is more historically reliable. Vasumitra places events in the time of Aśoka, but this is a short chronology text. The calendar date of the schism according to Vasumitra is about 100 AN. This roughly agrees in years with the Dīpavaṁsa (100+ AN) and Bhavya III (137 AN). Vasumitra therefore has the date approximately right, but following the tradition of his school, he thinks that this was the reign of Aśoka. Apparently this tradition confuses the Vajjian ‘Kāḷaśoka’ of the Second Council with the famous ‘Dharmāśoka’ of Magadha. The Śāriputraparipṛcchā is closely related to this tradition, but in placing the schism later is confused in its chronology. The ‘Schism edicts’ indicate that either Aśoka was not fully aware of what was going on—which was sometimes the case5—or that he is referring to a mere party dispute among the Theravādins.

We have already demonstrated some problems with this reasoning. The Dīpavaṁsa should be entirely disregarded in this matter. Bhavya III is late, unsupported, and polemical. Unfortunately, we know little of the Puggalavāda mythos, and so cannot interpret the meaning this story had for the school. But like the other versions, it would have been constructed to legitimize the communal identity of the school.

Vasumitra is speaking in the same tradition as the Mahāvibhāṣā, and although the Mahāvibhāṣā does not mention the King’s name, we should see these sources as representing the same mythos. The events happened under a pious Buddhist king of Pāṭaliputta who sponsored the Kaśmīr mission. The purpose of the myth is to associate the Sarvāstivādins of Kaśmīr with the root-Sthaviras in the time of Aśoka. The calendar date is irrelevant to this mythos, and has merely been inserted to fix in history an event which, from Vasumitra’s point of view, must have happened around that time.

For similar reasons we cannot discount the ‘Unity Edicts’ as showing merely Aśoka’s unawareness of what was happening in the Sangha. This argument creates an insoluble dilemma. The same texts that tell us that the schism was Aśokan or pre-Aśokan also assert Aśoka’s close involvement in the schisms. It is Aśoka’s involvement, not the date, that is the key issue. The date merely fixes the events in line with the chronology of the schools. We should not discard the critical element of Aśokan involvement while accepting the incidental detail of the date. Of course it is quite possible that Aśoka was not fully aware of what was happening, but if he was unaware, the sources are unreliable.

And regarding the supposed ‘confusion’ of the Śāriputraparipṛcchā, we can only say that, aside from its obvious mythical nature and several textual problems, it is not confused about its own chronology. Fixing the schism to a date after Aśoka is no accident, but is inherent in the logic of the text. First it acknowledges the usual five ‘Masters of the Law’, culminating with Upagupta, who is contemporary with Aśoka. Clearly there is no schism so far, as the list of patriarchs is identical with the mainstream (Mūla)Sarvāstivāda tradition. After Aśoka we are told of the persecutions under Puṣyamitra; again, this is entirely in accord with the (Mūla)Sarvāstivāda tradition.6 The events of the root schism itself are very different from the other accounts, and so while the account of the ‘18 schools’ shares a common basis with Vasumitra, we cannot infer that the account of the root-schism is merely a confusion of Vasumitra.

Lamotte says that this text is: ‘so obscure that it allows for the most diverse interpretations. After having narrated at length the persecution by the Śuṅga Puṣyamitra, the text, going back to the past, speaks of events which took place under a king whom it does not name, but who, from the evidence of other parallel texts which we shall quote, can be none other than Aśoka the Maurya.’7 But the text, in this respect at least, is not all all obscure, nor does it hint at a flashback in time, but simply relates a series of consecutive events. I agree with Lamotte that Fa-xiang’s version of events in his postface to the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya is related to the Śāriputraparipṛcchā, but it is Fa-xiang who, writing at a much later date, has got the chronology confused. He too starts with an evil king who persecutes the bhikkhus; but this must be Puṣyamitra, as there are no known pre-Aśokan persecutions. Then he goes on to relate the story of the king presiding over the vote with tally-sticks; but to the Śāriputraparipṛcchā’s account he adds the anachronistic detail that the king was Aśoka.8

The first calendar date the text gives us is 300 AN for the division of the root-Sthaviras into Sarvāstivāda and Puggalavāda. In the text’s short chronology, this would be roughly 170 years after Aśoka’s death, which again makes perfect sense of the internal chronology. The Mahāsaṅghika schisms, as is generally the case, are said to be earlier than the Sthavira schisms, so they are dated 200 AN. This brings them, say, 70 years after Aśoka, around 170 BCE. Puṣyamitra died around 151 BCE, so our dates are about 20 years out. But given that the Śāriputraparipṛcchā speaks in units no smaller than centuries, who’s to worry about a few decades here and there? In any case, this relates to a later portion of the text. Thus we can definitely conclude that the internal chronology of the relevant portions of the Śāriputraparipṛcchā is not confused. It merely disagrees with the chronology of other texts.

Can we say anything else about the chronology of the Śāriputraparipṛcchā? One relevant detail is the interference of the King. This agrees with the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya. But the Mahāvihāravāsin Vinaya says nothing about royal interference, despite the school’s approval, even celebration, of Aśoka’s interference as establishing the essential model for Sangha-State relations, thus ensuring the very survival of the Dhamma. Of course the later Mahāvihāravāsin texts assert that Kāḷasoka sponsored the Second Council and Ajātasattu sponsored the first, but these are just back-readings to authorize Aśoka’s role. Such justifications for Royal involvement, while not against the general spirit of Indian legal procedures, must be post-Aśokan.9 Similarly, the use of tally-sticks to vote in an important procedure is not supported by the Pali Vinaya, although we should not be surprised if the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya took a different perspective on this. Finally, we note the mention of written texts, which likewise place the text no earlier than the post-Aśokan period.

One of the most pervasive motivations in forming mythic texts is to seek archaic authorization for contemporary events, hence the very common mythic tendency to date formative events earlier rather than later. Therefore, the version placing the schism later is likely to be more reasonable. In addition, the Śāriputraparipṛcchā is less polemical than the other versions, indicating a healthier and more realistic attitude towards such things, and consequently fewer motives to twist events to its own perspective. We have also seen that this version is in perfect accord with the epigraphic evidence and with the Mahāvihāra Vinaya commentaries.


1 Bechert, ‘Theravāda Buddhist Sangha’, 3.

2 Bechert, ‘The Date of the Buddha Reconsidered’, 66.

3 Prebish, ‘Review of Scholarship on Buddhist Councils’, 237.

4 Cousins, ‘Pali Oral Literature’, 104.

5 E.g. the Kandahar Edicts say that the fishers and hunters had stopped fishing and hunting, which according to Basham is sheer complacency (Basham, 59).

6 For various versions of this legend, see Lamotte, History of Indian Buddhism, 386-392.

7 Lamotte, History of Indian Buddhism, 172.

8 Lamotte, History of Indian Buddhism, 173.

9 The lack of mention of Aśoka and royal interference in Sangha affairs is, incidentally, one of the reasons for thinking the Pali Vinaya was fixed relatively early.

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When Ven. Moggaliputtatissa wrote the kathavatthu of the Abhidhamma he was addressing the divergent viewpoints of various sects, wasn’t he? Since he lived around king Asoka’s time could it be assumed the doctrinal splits were underway, if not at a very serious juncture?

with metta

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We have to carefully distinguish between what the Kathavatthu says, and what the tradition says about it.

The Kathavatthu is entirely a discussion among Buddhists about interpretation of Buddhist doctrines. There is nothing of brahminism or any of the other sects there. In addition, there is no mention of the existence of “schools” of Buddhism. The fact that people disagree doesn’t mean they belong to formally defined schools: it just means they disagree.

In fact, it is almost certain that the various disagreements in doctrine would have arisen slowly, been articulated in more and more definite forms, and gradually gained currency. This process can go on for a long time before any new school is formed. Just look at plenty of contemporary cases for examples.

Eventually a school comes to be recognized as a distinct entity, proposing certain positions among various controverted points. Again, this may happen suddenly, or it might be a gradual process, and only in retrospect can you see that a new school has emerged. A good example of this in modern times is the emergence of the Dhammayuttika Nikaya in Thaliand.

The fact that a later school espouses certain positions found in earlier discussions doesn’t, therefore, warrant the conclusion that the school must have existed at that time. On the contrary, the normal situation would be to first see discussions of the different points, and later to see schools forming around these positions. And that, I submit, is exactly what the Kathavatthu shows us.

Of course, this doesn’t prove that the schools did not exist at that time. But we need other evidence to establish this, and such evidence is lacking. Indeed, in many cases, it seems certain that the doctrinal points under discussion must have arisen later, so it’s impossible that the entire text stems from the time of Ashoka, although the core of it may well have done. Realistically, it’s likely that the period of composition of the Kathavatthu overlapped the period of the emergence of the schools.

So much for the text itself.

The commentaries then go on to use this text in two rather different ways. In the commentary to the Kathavatthu, each doctrinal point is assigned to a school, or set of schools, of early Buddhism. So far as we know, this attribution is fairly reliable, and the schools did in fact have those views. This is fine, so long as we take it as a record of what the doctrines of the schools were at the time of the commentaries, not as proof that the schools pre-existed the discussions.

In the commentary to the Vinaya, the background story is of non-Buddhists who enter the Sangha fraudulently and teach non-Buddhist ideologies. If I recall correctly, the Samantapasadika says they espoused the 62 views of the Brahmajala, in other words, the diverse range of non-Buddhist views at the time. The Council is convened and the heretics expelled. Then Moggallana composed the Kathavatthu to refute the heretics.

The problem with this narrative is obvious: the Kathavatthu doesn’t discuss the 62 views, or any non-Buddhist views, at all. Of course it’s quite possible, even likely, that the Sangha at the time suffered from both non-Buddhist intrusions and from disputes among Buddhists. And again, there is no reason why a senior leader such as Moggaliputta should not have been involved in both issues. But the point is, nothing in this story mentions the existence of other Buddhist sects. The entire narrative speaks only of non-Buddhists who are expelled.

Thus neither the Kathavatthu, nor the narrative of the Kathavatthu’s composition, mention the existence of Buddhist schools. The commentary assigns the discussions to various schools, but there is no need to think this represents the situation at the time of Ashoka.

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I remember reading that early manuscript finds had Mahayana and some sort of Theravada suttas at the same location, without signs of a sectarian divide. In my vague memory these would be Gandhari findings from around 1st century CE. Is that somehow connected with the sect and schism discussion?

That sounds like a reasonable explanation of what happened. I recall reading there were 3 places in meetirigala nissaranawana a meditation centre in Sri Lanka where three slightly different versions of same meditation was taught, if memory serves. Divergent opinions are part and parcel of the dhamma and that dynamism will serve as a wellspring of the new and the old. To break off is to isolate and become ‘cultish’- not the format that most will benefit from.

with metta

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