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  • Alex Coutinho


Asoka is one of the best-known kings not only in India but also in the west. Our main sources of information on him comprise his edicts, the Pali chronicles, and the Divyavadana. He succeeded his father Bindusara in 272 BC. We are told, by Asoka himself, that he turned towards Buddhism zealously after the Kalinga war and this caused a massive change in the apparatus of administration and kingship. The influence of Buddhism on Asoka is difficult to ascertain, but it is clear the edicts he issued do have a Buddhist undertone. What Asoka wanted to convey to his people through his edicts were not the matters of the state, but the state of his mind.

The Rupnath edict says,

‘Devanampiya speaks thus. Two and a half years and somewhat more (have passed) since I am openly a Shakya…. But a year and somewhat more (has passed) since I have visited the Sangha and have been very zealous. Those gods who during that time had been unmingled (with men) in Jambudvipa, have now been made (by me) mingled (with them). For this is the fruit of zeal. And this cannot be reached by (persons) of high rank (alone), (but) even a lowly (person) is able to attain even the great heaven if he is zealous.’

Kanaganahali Stone Portrait of Asoka with his Queen. The Inscription reads ' Ranyo Asoka '
Kanaganahali Stone Portrait of Asoka with his Queen. The Inscription reads ' Ranyo Asoka '

John Strong, an important scholar of Buddhism, maintains that implicit in this first edict was the idea of a ‘double utopia’ in which gods and humans mingled either on earth or later in heaven, and that this commingling carried the resonance of what the Buddha himself is said to have created—as recounted in certain texts. Whether this idea of commingling with the gods was adopted by Asoka from the Brahmanical tradition is not certain. However, it is clear, that Asoka would not have adopted an idea that was alien to his people.

Asoka also maintained that anyone who follows Dhamma can expect good results in this life as well as the next. This contrasted with what the Dharmashastras said about the duties of people of each varna. The varna system was accorded divine sanction by the priestly class. Asoka understood this, just like Buddha, and hence, he used the same motif of gods commingling with the people in order to convey his own dissenting views. It was a new wine being made headier by being poured out of an old and recognizable bottle.

The edicts of Asoka were, possibly, read out to the people because we assume that most of the population was illiterate. This assumption is rendered more weightage when we discern that the inscriptions begin with ‘Devanampiya speaks thus’. Some of his edicts are clearly orders rather than suggestions, like the one in which he warns the wild forest tribes. Asoka’s life had many aspects that were similar to the life of the Buddha. Both were transformed due to personal trauma. Asoka toured his empire just like the Buddha wandered after his enlightenment; Buddha used personal experience to convey his message to his disciples, Asoka did the same in his edicts. Was Asoka deliberately trying to portray himself like the Buddha? Possibly, but we cannot be certain.

Asoka was a transformed leader after the Kalinga war. This transformation caused a considerable change in the apparatus of the state. The advocation of ahimsa by Asoka was in sharp contrast to what the Dharma Shastras expected of a Kshatriya king. The theory of kingship which Asoka perceived as one based on nonviolence was breaching the Dharma & Artha- Shastric theories of kingship as one based on violence and welfare of the king. This is evident in the Mahabharat, where the ideals of Yudhishthira are very similar to that of Asoka. This is evident in the Shanti Parva, where the Raja Dharma as advocated by Bhisma is rejected by Yudhishthira as immoral. Moreover, the remorse which he feels is similar to that felt by Asoka. Moreover, both Asoka and Yudhishthira completed extensive pilgrimages in North India.

Bhisma advising the Pandavas regarding the Dharma Shastric duties of a Kshatriya King; folio from Razmanama

The consistency of perspectives between Asoka and Yudhishthira is striking. Yudhishthira's belief in forgiveness is revealed when Jayadratha is released without punishment after he had tried to abduct Draupadi. In the Udyog Parva, Yudhishthira is the only Pandava arguing for peace. Just like Asoka, who wanted people to abandon the unnecessary rituals and follow the Dhamma ceremony instead, Yudhishthira is made to realize the futility of rituals by a mongoose in the Ashvamedha Parva. It is significant that the Dharma raja is denounced as a ‘nastika’ by Draupadi and Nakula because he rejects a mode of life that the scriptures ordain for a Kshatriya. The Gita tries to bridge the gap between accruing merit through nonviolence and by fulfilling your Dharma Shastric duties.

Moving ahead, Buddhist sources tell us that Asoka held the third Buddhist council at Patliputra in his 17th regnal year to purify the sangha of its dissenting elements. This is also based on the schism edict of Asoka at Sanchi. In this respect, Asoka seems to be interfering with the affairs of the Sangha and this was similar to the interference the Buddhist sangha faced in China. During the reign of Emperor Wu of Liang ‘Asoka of China’, the concept of a universal monarch was revisited, and the sangha became enmeshed in the politics of the day. In fact, there are striking similarities between Asoka and Wu. Both Asoka and Wu Liang patronized the Buddhist Sangha which contributed to the institutionalization of Buddhism. Patronizing the various sanghas served as means of not only accruing merit but also to extend imperial control over far away provinces. Emperor Wu held many Great Assemblies called Wuze Dahui and during these assemblies, he himself presided over the sangha, gave instructions to the monk in a way that was similar to Asoka where he advises the sangha members to read certain Buddhist texts. Emperor Wu also zealously enforced a vegetarian diet, just like Asoka who prohibited the killing of certain animals. Wu of Liang went to the extent of declaring himself as the ‘Emperor-Bodhisattva’.

Asoka was indeed quite an unusual monarch. His idea of a state was based not on his own welfare, but the welfare of his people. This paternalistic attitude is reflected in his edits when he called his subjects as his own children. Asoka's concept of Raj Dharma was one of the building hospitals for men and animals, caravan sarais for travellers, planting trees on both sides of the roads. However, Ashokan principles were forgotten; principles, like humans, are subject to old age and decay. They too die.

References Singh, Upinder. A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India. Pearson

Thapar, Romila. The Early History of India. Penguin.

Lahiri, Nayanjot. Asoka in Ancient India. Harvard University Press (2015)

Sutton, Nicholas. Asoka and Yudhishthira: A Historical Setting for the Ideological Tensions of the Mahabharata ?. Janoush, Andreas. The Aśoka of China Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty ( r. 502–549 ) and the Buddhist Monastic Community ( saṅgha ). York University. Early, Abraham. Gem in The Lotus: The Seeding of Indian Civilization. Penguin.

Patton, Cheryl. Asoka and Paul- ransformations That Led to Effective Transformational Leadership.

Basham, A. L. Asoka And Buddhism — A Reexamination: Presidential Address Given on the Occasion of the Fourth Conference of the IABS Madison, Wisconsin, August, 1980.

Bhandarkar, D. R. Asoka. Edmunds, Albert. Buddhist Influence on Christianity.

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