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What Is The Story Behind Emperor Ashoka’s Conversion To Buddhism?

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Emperor Ashoka was the scion of the Mauryan dynasty who reigned from 268 to 232 BCE. The Edicts of Ashoka are the primary sources describing the life and times of Emperor Ashoka [1, 2]. Besides these Edicts, biographical information about him relies on works that were written centuries later — Ashokavadana (in 2nd century CE) and Mahavamsa [3]. His legacy is built on his achievement in architecture [4], administration and military conquest [5, 6], economical attainments [7], and symbols from his times given preeminent positions in modern India, be it the Lion Capital at Sarnath or the motto ‘Satyameva Jayate‘ — Truth alone Triumphs. So wide sweeping was his legacy and name that H.G. Wells wrote, in The Outline of History [8]:

“Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousnesses and serenities and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Ashoka shines, and shines, almost alone, a star.”

His stature and legacy is such that recently a twitter battle erupted on whether he was a violent Buddhist king or became Buddhist after the Kalinga War. In short, when did Emperor Ashoka embrace Buddhism? The twitter account ‘True Indology‘, whose tweets do raise pertinent points around Indology, albeit with a chronic lack of evidences and nuance, took the grandiose stand that history, as we are taught in school, is wrong and Ashoka was Buddhist even before the Kalkinga conflict. I begged to differ and wrote as much in a retweet, and lo and behold: the floodgates of the RW trolls were opened. They did everything from criticizing my understanding of the subject to abusing me personally to even name-calling my parents. The usual. It was despicable and abhorrent. For what? For a ‘factual’ tweet by True Indology, where all he mentioned where literally three sources (guess which three, haha! Of course, the Edicts, Mahavamsa and Ashokavadana, without a single trace of a proper reference to what and where and why these were being cite — no page, no section, no paragraph). Just plain old buffoonery. It was like saying the encyclopedia has sections on rivers, planets and cultures. As obvious and yet as meaningless. But then, one cannot expect anything better from a troll account posing as a ‘twitter intellectual’.

Anyway, without further discussion of this highly shameful and unnecessary virtual battle, I would now like to present the proper sources on this matter and let my research and discussion speak for me.

The primary source of information on Emperor Ashoka from his times comes from the Edicts of Ashoka. The first Edicts to be issued were the Minor Rock Edicts, which were written quite early in the reign of Ashoka.

The Edicts Of Ashoka

The primary source of information on Emperor Ashoka from his times comes from the Edicts of Ashoka [1, 2]. The first Edicts to be issued were the Minor Rock Edicts, which were written quite early in the reign of Ashoka [9]. The first known inscription of Emperor Ashoka was the Kandahar Bilingual Rock Inscription, which was written in Aramaic and Greek, and was written in around the 10th reignal year of Emperor Ashoka [10-12]. The Minor Rock Edicts are said to have been made thereafter, around the 11th reignal year of the Mauryan scion. The Minor Rock Edicts are important because these are one of the first places where Ashoka’s Buddhist links are established, as highlighted by E. Hultzsch in Minor Rock Edict 1 [11]:

I have been a Buddhist layman (Upāsaka) for more than two and a half years, but for a year I did not make much progress. Now for more than a year I have drawn closer to the Samgha (order) and have become more ardent. The gods, who in India up to this time did not associate with men, now mingle with them, and this is the result of my efforts.

The important point is note that this edict speaks of Ashoka’s Buddhist practice being not more than three years older than the issuance of this edict in the 11th reignal year of Ashoka. This does roughly coincide with the Kalinga conflict, which took place in his 8th reignal year. The Rummindei Edict — one of the Minor Pillar Edicts (which came after the Minor Rock Edicts) of Emperor Ashoka, also speak of his Buddhist affiliations [11],

When King Devanampriya Priyadarsin had been anointed twenty years, he came himself and worshipped (this spot) because the Buddha Shakyamuni was born here. 

The Nigali Sagar Pillar Inscription, another Minor Pillar Edict, spoke of his activities in the interests of Buddhists [13]

His Majesty King Priyadarsin in the 14th year of his reign enlarged for the second time the stupa of the Buddha Kanakamuni and in the 20th year of his reign, having come in person, paid reverence and set up a stone pillar

Then came the Major Rock Edicts, which were concerned with practical details about governance, irrigation and peaceful moral behavior, but little on his Ashoka’s personal life, and finally the Major Pillar Edicts, which were said to have been made between 236-237 BCE [12]. Therefore, even if the very first Edicts — the Minor Rock Edicts, are taken as reference point, we can only say that Emperor Ashoka was or had converted by the 11th reignal year of his rule.

The 13th Major Rock Edict is interesting in this regard, as well, due to the description of the aftermath of the Kalinga conflict, wherein Ashoka is seen to be pensive and reflective. This is not an indication of an immediate transformation — religious or otherwise, as described in various stories, and must be taken as it reads,

When king Devanampriya Priyadarsin had been anointed eight years, (the country of) the Kalingas was conquered by (him). One hundred and fifty thousand in number were the men who were deported thence, one hundred thousand in number were those who were slain there, and many times as many those who died.

Buddha

After that, now that (the country of) the Kalingyas has been taken, Devanampriya (is devoted) to a zealous study of morality, to the love of morality, and to the instruction (of people) in morality. This is the repentance of Devanampriya on account of his conquest of (the country of) the Kalingyas. For, this is considered very painful and deplorable by Devanampriya, that, while one is conquering an unconquered (country), slaughter, death, and deportation of people (are taking place) there,

But the following is considered even more deplorable than this by Devanampriya. (To) the Brahmanas or Sramanas, or other sects or householders/ who are living there, (and) among whom the following are practised: obedience to those who receive high pay, obedience to mother and father, obedience to elders, proper courtesy to friends, acquaintances, companions, and relatives, to slaves and servants, (and) firm devotion, to these then happen injury or slaughter or deportation of (their) beloved ones. Or if there are then incurring misfortune the friends, acquaintances, companions, and relatives of those whose affection (for the latter) is undiminished, although they are (themselves) well provided for, this (misfortune) as well becomes an injury to those (persons) themselves.

The reflection and introspection of Ashoka is in no way a marker of conversion here. Minor Rock Edict I is a much more reliable source for such a statement. The historicity of 13th Rock Edict has also been questioned previously. There are two copies in Afghanistan, two in Pakistan and one each in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. The glaring absence of Odisha (erstwhile Kalinga) in this raises pertinent questions. However, Ashoka himself resolves this issue in the 14th Edict, saying: “all the items of the series (of edicts) have not been put together in all places” and “there may be some topics, which have been written incompletely either as the particular place of the record was considered unsuitable for them or as a special reason for abridgment was believed to exist.” This claim is bolstered when one sees the replacement edicts for 11th-13th Edicts in the form of 15th and 16th Edicts, which are clearly attempts at pacification of the people of Kalinga [46].

Buddhist Legends

Most of the information about Emperor Ashoka comes from Buddhist legends. These present him as an ideal king [14]. The key point about these legends and texts is that these are not contemporaneous to Emperor Ashoka, and were composed several centuries later, by Buddhist authors to highlight the impact of Buddhism on Ashoka. Therefore, one must exercise caution while referring to them, for historical sources [15]. Some modern scholars dismiss these legends outright as mythological creations, while others negotiate with the plausibility of various legends to accept parts of them. There are primarily two traditions of these Buddhist legends [16]: the Sri Lankan tradition, which is preserved in Pali and includes texts such as MahavamsaDipavamsa, Vamsatthapakasini and Samantapasadika [15-17], and the North Indian tradition, which is preserved in Sanskrit and includes texts such as Divyavadana and Chinese sources such as A-yü wang ching and A-yü wang chuan [18, 19]. In sections XVIII and XIX, the moving of the great Mahabodhi tree to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) is described, with the following lines in section XX [20]:

In the eighteenth year (of the reign) of king Dhammasoka, the great Bodhi-tree was planted in the Mahameghavanarama.

The Mahavamsa has inconsistencies with other primary artifacts, some from the age of Ashoka himself. For instance, there is an inconsistency with the year on which Ashoka sent Buddhist missionaries to Sri Lanka: While Edict 13 says that the missionaries arrived in 260 BCE, the Mahavamsa put the year as 255 BCE [20]. The Mahavamsa is said to be based on the older text Dipavamsa. As per the works of the Sri Lankan tradition, there is a wide range of situations and periods in which Emperor Ashoka was converted. The Dipavamsa (VI.18) speaks of Ashoka’s conversion as such:

Asoko rajjaṁ kāresi Pāṭaliputte puruttame,
abhisitto tīṇi vassāni pasanno buddhasāsane.

Translation: Asoka ruled in Pāṭaliputta, best of towns; three years after his coronation he was converted to Buddha’s faith.

Therefore, the conversion of Ashoka is said to be three years after his coronation. In the Mahavamsa, Devanampiyatissa is a king who is Dhammasoka’s friend, and it is in a communication between the two that we learn about Ashoka’s conversion, in Chapter XI (The Consecrating of Devenampiyatissa):

I have taken refuge in the Buddha, his Doctrine and his Order, I have declared myself a lay-disciple in the religion of the Sakya son; seek then even thou, O best of men converting thy mind with believing heart refuge in these best of gems!

The importance and historical relevance of the Mahavamsa must be taken with a pinch of salt, because of the clear religious overtones in the creation of the work. The famous Sri Lankan historian K. M. de Silva notes that being the work of Buddhist monks, the Mahavamsa is “permeated by a strong religious bias and encrusted with miracle and invention [21]. The Mahavamsa also has serious problems of discrepancies with other sources, such as in the year on which Ashoka sent Buddhist missionaries to Sri Lanka: according to Edict 13, it was in 260 BCE, while Mahavamsa pegs it at 255 BCE [20].

The North Indian tradition has as its most important work the Ashokavadana, part of the 2nd century CE Divyavadana, with the story of how Ashoka unleashes a reign of terror, with the construction of the ‘Ashoka Hell’ — a torture chamber, and the advent of a monk Samudra, who is able to bear the pain of being burnt miraculously and goes on to perform other miraculous feats to make Ashoka convert to Buddhism. Some of the lines that describe the familiarization with the Buddhist faith are:

ते अनाचार्यका अनुपदेशकाः सप्तत्रिंशद्-
बोधिपक्षान् धर्मान् आमुखीकृत्य प्रत्येकां
बोधिं साक्षात् कृतवन्तः |

This immediate transformation and conversion is most definitely a religious interpolation, being part of a Buddhist chronicle and retelling of a historical kernel around the life of Emperor Ashoka.

As per Geiger, the discrepancies between the Sri Lankan Pali sources and the more authentic and contemporaneous edicts is all-too-glaring. The Pali sources mention about conversion by Nyagrodha in Ashoka’s 4th reignal year, construction of 84,000 Viharas in the 5th-7th, Mahinda becoming a monk under Moggaliputta Tissa and Sanghamitta becoming a nun in the 6th and Ashoka intervening in the suspension of ecclesiastic actions of the Sangha in the 6th as well, while the Ashokan inscriptions inform us that the Kalinga war and subsequent remorse took place in the 8th reignal year, Ashoka becomes a lay follower of Buddha in the 9th, pilgrimage to sacred Bodhi tree and Ashoka beginning to teach Dharma to people took place in the 10th, close association of Ashoka with Sangha in the 10th or 11th, beginning of the practice of inscribing edicts for propagation of Dharma in the 12th, creation of post of Dharmamahamatra in the 13th and enlargement of the Stupa of Buddha Kankamuni in the 14th [20]. The prime problem arises due to the complete lack of any mention to the Kalinga war in the Pali sources and the silence of the edicts on Nyagrodha and Moggaliputta Tissa. Does this mutual exclusion minimize the reliability of either or both sources? One may have to invariably opt for the contemporaneous source — the Edicts, for checking consistency, due to historical immediacy and lack of religious interpolations or biases.

gautam buddha
The truth of Emperor Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism lies on a limited number of sources, with some of the few relevant contemporaneous sources being Minor Rock Edict 1, Rummindei Edict and the 13th Major Rock Edict.

What Modern Historians Say

Modern historians are split between whether Ashoka converted before or after the war. Historian like J. M. Machphail [22], B. N. Mukherjee [23, 24] and E. Hultzsch believe that he converted after the Kalinga war while historians such as D. R. Bhandarkar [25, 26], J. F. Fleet [27, 28] and D. N. Jha [29] believe that he did not. Not only are historians split on the point of when Ashoka converted but also about whether the Dharma he preached related to Buddhism in principle. Some consider the Dharma of Ashoka to be Buddhism while others take it as simple moral duty prescribed in most faiths, simply a social and moral code of conduct which a person should follow in his/her day-to-day life. M. Senart believes that Ashoka’s Dharma did not stand for Buddhism but simply for  piety that Ashoka wished all his subjects (of whichever religion) to possess.

V. A. Smith mentions that the Dharma that Ashoka preached are the essential, common practices observed in all the Indic faiths of that time [30]. What is an intriguing possibility here is that Ashoka’s personal religion may have been Buddhism which differed from the Dharma he preached, as highlighted by R. K. Mookerji [31]. The scholars who believe that the Dharma that Ashoka preached was not Buddhism include J. F. Fleet, J. M. Macphail, R. K. Mookerji, H. H. Wilson, R. Thapar [32-34], H. C. Raychaudhuri, F. W. Thomas [35, 36], E. Thomas [37] and K. A. N. Sastri [38-40], while the scholars who believe that the Dharma that Ashoka preached was Buddhism include D. R. Bhandarkar, B. M. Barua [41, 42], E. Hultzsch, R. G. Basak [43] and T. W. R. Davids [44, 45].

In Conclusion

The truth of Emperor Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism lies on a limited number of sources, with some of the few relevant contemporaneous sources being Minor Rock Edict 1, Rummindei Edict and the 13th Major Rock Edict. Bringing these together, it seems that Emperor Ashoka may have had a gradual movement towards the active pursuit and practice of Buddhism [47], after being influenced by myriad religions in his early days: Brahmanism (practiced by his father Bindusara), Jainism (practiced by his grandfather Chandragupta Maurya) and Ajivika (practiced by his mother Subhadrangi). Either court dynamics and intra-court politics [48] or a natural inclination towards the Sramanic traditions may have led Ashoka to move towards Buddhist teachings early in his reign, which came to a decisive shift into being an active pursuit and practice around the time of the Kalinga war [49, 50]. The secondary sources — the Buddhist legends, be it Mahavamsa, Dipavamsa or Ashokavadana, which were published quite a few centuries after Ashoka, must be taken as semi-historical at best, due to the evident religion interpolations and biases. The claim that Ashoka converted in the third or fourth year of his reign is not supported by any other tradition or independent source of evidence besides from within the Buddhist legends.

References

[1] Dhammika, Ven. “S., 1993. The Edicts of King Ashoka.” The Wheel Publication, 386 387.

[2] Vicent, A. S. “The Edicts of Ashoka.” (1992).

[3] Lahiri, Nayanjot. Ashoka in ancient India. Harvard University Press, 2015.

[4] Thapar, Bindia. Introduction to Indian architecture. Tuttle Publishing, 2012.

[5] Bhatta, C. Panduranga. “Leadership values: insights from Ashoka’s inscriptions.” Journal of Human Values 6.2 (2000): 103-113.

[6] Khanna, Ashok. Ashoka, the Visionary: Life, Legend and Legacy. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020.

[7] Dehejia, Rajeev H., and Vivek H. Dehejia. “Religion and economic activity in India: an historical perspective.” American Journal of Economics and Sociology 52.2 (1993): 145-153.

[8] Wells, Herbert George. Outline of history. Vol. 1. Jazzybee Verlag, 1925.

[9] Le Huu Phuoc, Buddhist Architecture, Grafikol 2009. ISBN 978-0-9844043-0-8. P. 30.

[10] Chakrabarty, Dilip K. India: An Archaeological History: Palaeolithic Beginnings to Early Historic Foundations. P. 395.

[11] Hultzsch, E. Inscriptions of Asoka. 1925.

[12] Valeri P. Yailenko. Les maximes delphiques d’Aï Khanoum et la formation de la doctrine du dharma d’Asoka Dialogues d’histoire ancienne. Vol.16, No. 1. 1990. P. 243.

[13] Basanta Bidari. Kapilavastu: the World of Siddhartha. 2004. P. 87

[14] Singh, Upinder. A history of ancient and early medieval India : from the Stone Age to the 12th century. New Delhi: Pearson Education. ISBN 978-81-317-1120-0. 2008. P. 331-332.

[15] Thapar, Romila. Aśoka and the Decline of the Mauryas. Oxford University Press. 1961. OCLC 736554.

[16] Strong, John S. “Images of Aśoka: Some Indian and Sri Lankan Legends and their Development”. In Anuradha Seneviratna (ed.). King Aśoka and Buddhism: Historical and Literary Studies. Buddhist Publication Society. 1995. ISBN 978-955-24-0065-0.

[17] Geiger, Wilhelm, ed. Mahavamsa: Great Chronicle of Ceylon. Vol. 63. Pali text society, 1908.

[18] Rotman, Andy. Divine Stories: Divyavadana, Part 2. Vol. 2. Simon and Schuster, 2017.

[19] Yün-hua, Jan. “Some new Light on Kuśinagara from” The memoir of Hui-Ch’ao”.” Oriens Extremus 12.1 (1965): 55-63.

[20] Geiger, William. The Mahavamsa or the Great Chronicle of Ceylon* London: Pali Text Society.

[21] Frerks, G. E. “Sri Lanka Studies: a discursive approach to development and conflict.” (2013).

[22] MacPhail, James M. “Asoka (Heritage of India Series).” (1918).

[23] Mukherjee, Bratindra Nath. The character of the Maurya empire. JB Enterprises, 2000.

[24] Mukherjee, B. N. “Two Aramaic Edicts of Priyadarsi (Asoka) From Laghman.” Indian Museum Reprint Series I: Studies in the Aramaic Edicts of Asoka (1984): 9-22.

[25] Bhandarkar, Devadatta Ramkrishna, and R. G. Bhandarkar. Asoka. Asian Educational Services, 2000.

[26] Bhandarkar, D. R. “Asoka and his Successors.” A Comprehensive History of India, Vol. Two, The Mauryas and Satavahanas 325 (1957): 20-49.

[27] Fleet, John Faithful. “The Rummindei Inscription and the conversion of Asoka to Buddhism.” The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (1908): 471-498.

[28] Fleet, John Faithfull. “The last words of Asoka.” The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (1909): 981-1016.

[29] Jha, Dwijendra Narayan. Ancient India: In Historical Outline. Manohar Publishers & Distributors, 1998.

[30] Smith, Vincent A. Rulers of India: Asoka the Buddhist Emperor of India. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1901.

[31] Mookerji, Radha Kumud. “Asoka, London, 1928.” Chandragupta Maury a and His Times (1943).

[32] Thapar, Romila. “Asoka and Buddhism as reflected in the Asokan edicts.” King Asoka and Buddhism: historical and literary studies. Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka(1994): 15-36.

[33] Romila, Thapar. “Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas.” (1997).

[34] Thapar, Romila. “Aśoka and Buddhism.” Past and Present(1960): 43-51.

[35] Thomas, Frederick William. “Notes on the Edicts of Asoka.” The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (1915): 97-112.

[36] Smith, Vincent Arthur, and Frederick William Thomas. Asoka Notes. Printed at the Bombay Education Society’s Press, 1908.

[37] Thomas, Edward. Jainism, Or, The Early Faith of Asoka. Asian Educational Services, 1995.

[38] Sastri, Kallidaikurichi Aiyah Nilakanta, ed. Age of the Nandas and Mauryas. Motilal Banarsidass Publishe, 1988.

[39] Sastri, KA Nilakanta. “Asoka and His Successors.” Sastri, Age of the Nandas and Mauryas (1952): 202-48.

[40] Sastri, Kallidaikurichi Aiyah Nilakanta. A Comprehensive History of India: The Mauryas & Satavahanas. Vol. 2. Orient Longmans, 1957.

[41] Barua, Beni Madhab. Asoka and His Inscriptions: Written in Commemoration of the Fifty-fifth Birth-day of Dr. BC Law. Vol. 1. New Age Publishers, 1946.

[42] Barua, Beni Madhab. Inscriptions of Aśoka: Translation and Glossary. Vol. 1. Sanskrit College, 1990.

[43] Basak, Radhagovinda. Asokan inscriptions. Progressive Publishers (1959), 2018.

[44] Davids, TW Rhys. “Asoka and the Buddha-relics.” The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland(1901): 397-410.

[45] Davids, TW Rhys. “Asoka’s Bhabra Edict.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 30.3 (1898): 639-640.

[46] Guruge, Ananda WP. “Emperor Asoka and Buddhism: Some Unresolved Discrepancies between Buddhist Tradition and Asokan Inscriptions.” (1986).

[47] Thapar, Romila. “Ashoka—A Retrospective.” Economic and Political Weekly (2009): 31-37.

[48] Bryant, Joseph M. “11 Ashoka and Constantine: On Mega-Actors and the Politics of Empires and Religions.” States and Nations, Power and Civility: Hallsian Perspectives (2018): 262.

[49] Vernwal, Shesh Nath. “Historical Role of Asoka for Making Buddhism a world Religion.”

[50] Ramdas, G., and Imdian Antiquary. “Samapa: Or the Asokan Kalinga.” Indian Antiquary 4 (1923): 105.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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