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Ashoka (Aśoka) and Buddhism

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ashoka
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#1

Hello, I’m interested in knowing if anyone knows of any good resources about studying how king Ashoka is relevant for early Buddhism. So far I have found the following two resources:

  1. https://web.archive.org/web/20120923053250/http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/king_asoka.pdf
    (Which is a study)
  2. The Edicts of King Asoka
    (Which is a translation of all the found edicts of Ashoka into English).

I personally find it very inspiring that the edicts are still left and what they say. It supports the claim that the suttapitaka was fixed early and actually contains what really happened historically. For instance in minor rock edict 3, it reads:

“These Dhamma texts — Extracts from the Discipline, the Noble Way of Life, the Fears to Come, the Poem on the Silent Sage, the Discourse on the Pure Life, Upatisa’s Questions, and the Advice to Rahula which was spoken by the Buddha concerning false speech — these Dhamma texts, reverend sirs, I desire that all the monks and nuns may constantly listen to and remember.”

This is very powerful since it shows that Ashoka actually can quote and name certain buddhist texts, meaning that they are most likely fixed and somewhat standardized by his time. It would be interesting if others have studied / given courses on how this impacts the validity of the EBT. Also, one interesting question would be if things like this could identify even parts of the EBT that are earlier than other parts of the EBT, or at least parts of the EBT in which we can have very strong confidence.

If you have any sources / courses I would be happy to hear about them. I have already listened to all the courses from the dhammaloka suttas youtube page given by Sujato and Brahmali. Such as these videos: YouTube.

Have a good day :slight_smile:


#2

I assume it is relevant to note that Bhante @sujato’s book on Sects and Sectarianism does talk about Aśoka and the Aśokan inscriptions:

The early period (Before the Common Era)

Here our main sources are the archaeological evidence of the Aśokan inscriptions and the Vedisa stupas and inscriptions, the doxographical literature (Kathāvatthu and Vijñānakāya), and the Sinhalese Vinaya Commentary (which by its definite links with the archaeological evidence is proved to have roots in this period).

We might also include the Aśoka legends which, while lacking such distinct archaeological confirmation as the Vinaya Commentary, nevertheless may have at least some origins in this period.

The Aśokan inscriptions do not mention any schools or any explicit occurrence of schism. When the edicts say the Sangha has been ‘made unified’, this suggests that there has been some conflict, but it falls short of establishing that a schism had occurred. In any case, even if there had been a schism, the edicts assert that it had been resolved. Nor do the Aśokan edicts mention any doctrines, texts, or anything else that might even hint at the existence of schools. The main sect-formative factor at work here would appear to be the geographical spread of the Sangha, which was to become a powerful force in the evolution of distinct sectarian identities.
(…)
To read more check the book: Sects and Sectarianism_The Origins of Buddhist Schools_Sujato.pdf (891.9 KB)


#3

Thanks for that reply.


#4

It’s a fascinating topic, and one that has been much studied in the scholarly literature.

A few general findings may be of interest.

  • Our sources for Ashoka are twofold: the inscriptions and other archeological evidence, and the Buddhist legends.
  • While Ashoka was clearly Buddhist, there is a distinct difference between the two sources: the legends paint him as being extraordinarly devoted and partisan, while the edicts paint him as a universalist, preferring to speak of “dharma” as a generally-acceptable set of principles rather than the Buddha’s teaching.
  • Despite what many modern sources claim, it is virtually certain that the different schools had not yet appeared in the time of Ashoka. However, the forces leading to separation were starting to manifest, and the schools appeared not long afterwards.
  • The language in Ashoka’s edicts is rather unpolished and colloquial, and probably represents the King’s own speech.
  • The edicts mostly use a dialect known as “Magadhi”, which was the language of the empire, based on the local dialect of Magadha, where the Buddha stayed often.
  • Certain features in Pali are shared with this magadhan dialect, notable the -e ending instead of -o for vocative plural (bhikkhave) and nominative singular (bāle ca paṇḍite ca), as well as the locative plural in -ehi (virupakkhehi me mettaṁ).
  • This is often regarded as indicating an older linguistic strata in the canon, one that possibly retains features of the Buddha’s personal speech.
  • The Pali is, according to one influential theory, translated from Magadhan.
  • Magadhan is also used for the Jain texts.
  • Back to Ashoka: he named a number of foreign kings in his edicts, allowing us to pinpoint his reign with some precision, making it one of the first clearly dateable reigns in Indian history. (Earlier, the Indian encounters with Alexander the Great are also dateable.)
  • Fun fact: Ashoka’s grandfather Chandragupta took a Greek wife, so Ashoka may have been part Greek.
  • The writing on the edicts is the first clearly legible and uncontroversial writing in India. The writing system is Brahmi, which is the basis for all writing in south and south-east Asia to this day.
  • The craftsmanship on the Ashokan pillars is second-to-none. Their astonishing perfection, with a shine that lasts till today, is even more astonishing when it is remembered that there is no prior art. This is the first art that appears in India following a long gap after the fall of the Harappan empire a millenium earlier. It is speculated that Persian sculptors were imported.
  • Among other progressive measures, Ashoka banned capital punishment, planted medicinal herbs, and restricted meat eating.
  • He introduced a system of messengers so that his people could contact him even faster so he could help their problems.
  • There is no evidence that Ashoka’s pacifism weakened his empire.
  • During his reign, Dhamma missionaries were sent to the far corners of the known world. The most successful was that of his son Mahinda and daughter Sanghamitta to Sri Lanka. But others went to many other lands, from Afghanistan in the north-west to Myanmar in the east, and Nepal in the north.
  • A “third council” was said to have been held in Ashoka’s time, purifying the Sangha from fake monks attracted by the King’s largesse. However this is recorded in Pali sources only and it is not clear how accurate the accounts are.
  • The Pali sources say the King’s primary teacher and mentor was Moggaliputtatissa, the author of the Kathavatthu. However in northern sources this role was played by the monk Upagupta, who is almost completely unknown in Pali.
  • The Pali sources of which I speak are mainly twofold: the chronicles (Dipawamsa and Mahawamsa, the latter being based on the former is probably not an independent witness); and the Vinaya commentary, known as Samantapasadika in Pali. A Chinese translation of the same text is known as the Sudassanavinayavibhasa. The Pali and Chinese accounts are very close, but where they differ, the Chinese is more realistic and appears earlier.
  • Certain facts in the Vinaya commentaries, specifically the sending out of named monks to certain places as missionaries, have been independently verified by the archeological record at Vedisa. This is one reason why their account is generally more trustworthy than that of the chronicles.
  • Various Sanskritic accounts in Chinese and Tibetan translation also tell of Ashoka, though they have less historical grounding than the Pali sources.
  • I should probably stop there!

#5

After reading The Edicts of King Asoka, particulary these two:

  1. These Dhamma texts — Extracts from the Discipline, the Noble Way of Life, the Fears to Come, the Poem on the Silent Sage, the Discourse on the Pure Life, Upatisa’s Questions, and the Advice to Rahula which was spoken by the Buddha concerning false speech —
  2. Twenty-six years after my coronation various animals were declared to be protected — parrots, mainas, aruna, ruddy geese, wild ducks, nandimukhas, gelatas, bats, queen ants, terrapins, boneless fish, vedareyaka, gangapuputaka, sankiya fish, tortoises, porcupines, squirrels, deer, bulls, okapinda, wild asses, wild pigeons, domestic pigeons and all four-footed creatures that are neither useful nor edible.

i wonder what strain of Buddhism that Asoka practice, 1 hint at EBT, while 2 favor strict vegetarianism is charateristic of Chinese Buddhism.

Also, in the article, these two are regarded similar, but to me the meaning seems quite different

  1. Whatever, reverend sirs, has been spoken by Lord Buddha, all that is well-spoken
  2. …that which is well-spoken is the words of the Lord (Anguttara Nikaya, IV:164.)

#6

He lived, of course, long before Buddhism went to China, and indeed long before the emergence of any form of Mahayana.

A quick search reveals that the EBTs in Pali lay down the precept against killing animals about 500 times. The permission for monks to eat meat is recorded in a few passages, and is not a blanket justification for Buddhists to simply not care about animal rights. The overwhelming ethical value of the EBTs is to not kill. The curious thing, it seems to me, is not that a Buddhist ruler should try to legislate against animal slaughter, but that so few have done so.

Indeed! This too has been subject to considerable scholarly research.

If you look at the second statement in context at AN 8.8, the point is not, “Everything that anyone has ever spoken that is good was spoken by the Buddha”. It means, rather, “If I have spoken anything well, it may be assumed that I have taken it from the Buddha’s teaching”.


#7

Thank you so much for the answer Ajahn Sujato, it was very interesting :slight_smile:.


#8

Hi Fan,

For a great overview on Ashoka’s missions and where they went around the time of the third council, there is Bhante Anandajoti’s talk “Asoka and The Missions” https://youtu.be/vst9knZdL7E . He talks about the leaders of the various missions and lots of historical context, with lovely maps and sutta references too.

His other talks also explore the founding of the sangha in Sri Lanka at the time of Ashoka and the way Buddhism spread north through present day Afghanistan, starting with Ashoka’s missions.

I hope you might find out some things you haven’t heard of in the talk, I know I did. Like, Venerable Dhammarakita was a Greek monk sent by Ashoka to present day Gujarat to spread the dhamma, the first senior “Western” teacher in 240BC haha!


#9

What about Aśoka before his conversion?

There is the nickname caṇḍāśoka. And legends of “Aśoka’s hell”, a palace he had built with deadly trap doors and maiming booby traps. He instructed the guards to let anyone in but not let anyone out until they had discovered it’s fatal purpose…

aside: when I was reading this legend (probably not historical, right?) I was also reflecting on sense restraint and thought that this hellish palace was a good metaphor for the domain of the senses.

If I remember what I had read (in a perhaps legendary) text it was at the end of one of his most brutal conquests of a (relative?'s) clan/tribe/kingdom that he overlooked the carnage of bodies laid astrewn the land, hearing the cries and crackle of pillaging fires that he was overcome with a sense of compassion and wept. He converted to Buddhism going from Aśoka the Cruel (a causer of sorrow, pityless) to Aśoka (the Sorrowless, free from sorrow).

Sorry I forgot where I read this, probably not very historical. I wonder if there’s any historical accounts of the king before his conversion?


#10

Thank you for putting the numbers up here. The impression I’ve gotten over the years is not born out by them, and I’m happy to know that my personal feelings are not at odds with the EBTs.
:cow: :two_hearts: :chicken: :two_hearts: :pig:


#11

AFAIK, there no much information about Asoka before his convertion into Buddhism, aside from semi-historical information from Buddhist text (Asokavadana, Dipavamsa/Mahavamsa, etc). According to Asokavadana, Asoka was a cruel king who build a hellish prison to execute those who disagree with him (hence named Candasoka) before meeting a Buddhist monk named Samudra and converted to Buddhist then mentored by Upagupta, the celebrated Arahant monk of Mathura who is regarded as a “patriarch” in northern Buddhist tradition.

However, according to Dipavamsa/Mahavamasa, Asoka didn’t do the cruel things, but he executed all his half-brothers (the number is 99) to became a king and subsequently he is called Candasoka. His conversion to Buddhism was because of the meeting with a samanera who actually his nephew, named Nigrodha, son of Prince Sumana (Asoka’s eldest brother who supposed to be the next king after Bindusara). He was then guided by Moggaliputta-Tissa, an Arahant monk who held the third Buddhist council according to Theravada tradition.

From historical sources, i.e the edict inscriptions of Asoka, it said that on the eighth year of his coronation, he conquered Kalinga and because of many victims of the war, he felt remorse and felt “a strong inclination towards the Dhamma, a love for the Dhamma and for instruction in Dhamma.” According to Buddhist texts (Dipavamsa/Mahavamsa), his conversion to Buddhism happened in the fourth year of his reign and there is no mention of Kalinga war at all. An Asoka edict said he has been not very zealous after two and a half years becoming a lay-disciple. Presumably, after his conversion to Buddhism he is still a lax Buddhist follower and it is Kalinga war which made personal impact to his change of policy to become a Dhammic king.


#12

Mapping recommended text in the edicts to suttacentral with help of article footnote

There is disagreement amongst scholars concerning which Pali suttas correspond to some of the text. Vinaya samukose: probably the Atthavasa Vagga, Anguttara Nikaya, 1:98-100. Aliya vasani: either the Ariyavasa Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya, V:29, or the Ariyavamsa Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya, II: 27-28. Anagata bhayani: probably the Anagata Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya, III:100. Muni gatha: Muni Sutta, Sutta Nipata 207-221. Upatisa pasine: Sariputta Sutta, Sutta Nipata 955-975. Laghulavade: Rahulavada Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya, I:421.

Extracts from the Discipline : AN 2.280
the Noble Way of Life : AN 10.20
the Fears to Come : AN 5.77
the Poem on the Silent Sage : Snp 1.12
Upatisa’s Questions : Snp 4.16
the Advice to Rahula : MN 61

I don’t know correspondence on the Discourse on the Pure Life, i am guessing it is Snp 2.6


#13

In That the True Dhamma Might Last a Long Time: Readings Selected by King Asoka, Ven Thanissaro has identified the following texts:

  • Aliya-vasani : Discourse on the Traditions of the Noble Ones (ariya-vamsa) (AN 4.28);
  • Anagata-bhayani : four discourses on Future Dangers (AN 5.77, 78, 79, and 80);
  • Muni-gatha : Discourse on the Sage (Muni Sutta) in the Sutta Nipata (Snp 1.12);
  • Instructions to Rahula : Amballathika-Rahulovada Sutta (MN 61).
  • Question of Upatissa/Sariputta : Going Forth of Sāriputta and Moggallāna (Mahavagga Kd 1.23)
  • Vinaya-samukase : Four Great References of Mahavagga Kd 6.40

But for Vinaya-samukase, Bhante @Sujato identified it as the first discourse (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta SN 56.11) in his blog article The exalted extract of the Vinaya | Sujato’s Blog


#14

In the article by Ven Thanissaro, Discourse on the Pure Life (Mauneya-sute) is associated with Snp 3.11 and AN 3.122


#15

Wow! Thank you, @calvin_sad and @seniya!

Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu!