Asoka, the son of King Bindusara and grandson of King Chandragupta Maurya ascended the throne at Pataliputta in 269 BC. Prior to ascending the throne Asoka had functioned for ten years as the viceroy or the sub-king of Avanthiratta with Ujjain as the capital. On his way to Ujjain to take charge of the sub-rulership [...]

Sunday Times 2

From Chandasoka to Dharmasoka


Asoka, the son of King Bindusara and grandson of King Chandragupta Maurya ascended the throne at Pataliputta in 269 BC. Prior to ascending the throne Asoka had functioned for ten years as the viceroy or the sub-king of Avanthiratta with Ujjain as the capital.
On his way to Ujjain to take charge of the sub-rulership he stopped over temporarily in the house of guild chief Sethi at Vedisa-Nagara. There he met Vedisa Devi, the daughter of the Guild Chief and, as was customary at the time, with the consent of the bride’s parents married her. Two children Mahinda and Sangamitta were born of this marriage.

About 22 years later in 247 BC, Emperor Asoka was instrumental in dispatching the noble teachings of the Buddha to Sri Lanka an epoch making event; through none other than his son Arhant Mahinda and followed by his daughter Theri Sangamitta, bearing the southern branch of the Sacred Bodhi Tree under which Prince Siddartha Gautama had attained enlightenment or Buddhahood. Thereafter, Asoka continued to support the establishment of Buddhism in Sri Lanka by sending a share of the bodily relics and the begging bowl of the Buddha. Moreover, the craftsmen, entrepreneurs, administrators and intellectuals who accompanied the mission of Theri Sangamitta enabled Sri Lanka to benefit immensely from the glorious Maurya civilisation.

According to Sri Lanka Pali sources, Asoka continued to live with Vedisa-Devi and the two children at Ujjain for ten years up to the time of the death of King Bindusara. When Asoka was consecrated the two children had joined the father at Pataliputta the capital but Vedisa-Devi continued to live in Vedisa-Nagara. Even though Sri Lanka Pali sources have stated so, the Northern Buddhist literary sources do not corroborate this story with clarity and conviction.

Accession to the throne

There is a great deal of controversy surrounding Prince Asoka’s mode, manner and legitimacy of accession to the throne. According to the Mahawamsa while King Bindusara was on his death bed, Prince Asoka was summoned to the royal palace by the minister responsible for the King’s welfare. It is said that Asoka returned to Pataliputta swiftly and when the father died he attended to the obsequies, consulted the ministers who were fully supportive of him, brought the city under his control and assumed kingship.
However, according to other Pali sources, the legitimacy of Asoka’s automatic accession to the throne is questionable as he had an elder brother by the name of Sumana; hence it contradicts the then accepted practice of primogeniture. Some other Pali sources have claimed that he killed Sumana captured the capital and thereafter proceeded to dispose of as many as 99 half-brothers. The only brother who survived this onslaught is said to be his own uterine brother named Tissa who was eventually made sub-king.

“Chandasoka” or Asoka the Wicked

Being enthroned as the king at Patailiputa was evidently not good enough to become the Emperor of the vast Maurya Empire. He fought a series of battles to annex all neighbouring principalities and kingdoms; most of the adversaries happened to be his own half-brothers. In these cruel wars of succession he had to destroy a host of armies and adversaries before he finally gained control of the empire from sea to sea. In the process Asoka had acquired widespread notoriety as a cruel person.

The Sri Lankan Buddhist tradition being somewhat generous suggests that he was called “Chandasoka” or Asoka the Wicked because of fratricide. But the Northern Buddhist tradition attributes to him a totally incredible series of heinous, merciless and ruthless crimes. Further it states that he was a wicked man in two stages; firstly, before he embraced Buddhism because he had not come under its benign influence and secondly, after becoming a Buddhist because of his senseless fanaticism. However, Sri Lanka Pali sources are unanimous in their verdict that “Chandasoka” or Asoka the Wicked was transformed into “Dharmasoka” or Asoka the Righteous after the Kalinga war in the tenth regnal year.

Gradual transformation

Asoka’s father King Bindusara belonged to the Brahmanical faith. He had provided alms daily to about 60,000 Brahmins. King Asoka continued this practice for about four years until he embraced Buddhism. It is quite likely that after his wars of succession and the consecration that followed, Asoka became interested in a spiritual quest of holy men with “an inner essence”. Initially, the serene and tranquil external behaviour of Samanera Nigrodha had impressed him.

There is general agreement between Asoka’s Minor Rock Edit 1 and Sri Lanka Pali sources that his devotion to Buddhism grew gradually through his association with the Sangha. In all likelihood he embraced Buddhism in the fourth regnal year. His final acceptance of Buddhism as his personal faith was the result of a discerning search and critical evaluation of all available options ranging from Jainism to Brahmanism. His initial involvement as a Buddhist monarch had been more as a donor of material requisites and builder of monuments rather than as a seeker of spiritual development. From about the fourth to the seventh regnal year he had embarked on an extensive programme of construction of monasteries throughout his dominions. The crowning moment in the great transformation from Chandasoka to Dharmasoka would have been the Ordination of Mahinda and Sangamitta in the seventh regnal year.

The Kalinga War; the conclusive turning point

It is said that the Kalinga War in the ninth regnal year had a formidable impact on Asoka’s conscience which would have by then been sharpened and sensitised by the Buddhist principles of non-violence and compassion.

Rock-Edit XIII records that during the Kalinga War some 150,000 were deported; about 100,000 were slain and many times that number had perished. Asoka was overcome by remorse after the conquest of Kalinga. Upon reflection Asoka had concluded that; firstly, violence, death or deportation of people is painful; secondly, there will be harmless and pious adherents of other faiths who are aggrieved and affected, thirdly, there will be grief among friends, companions, supporters and relatives of those affected; and fourthly, today even one hundredth or one thousandth of those slain, perished and deported is considered grave. Asoka has emphatically stated that the horrors of war spell the futility of conquest by arms and that armed conflict and violence only debases humanity. Thus the Kalinga war marked a veritable watershed in Asoka’s imperial policy.

The misery and havoc which this war brought forth made him disconsolate and repentant. In the tenth regnal year he eschewed war altogether. Instead, he decided on a form of conquest in which the winner and the loser would both find reason to be delightful and that was Dharmavijaya or Conquest by Righteousness.

Conquest by Righteousness

Minor Rock Edict XIII has defined the conquest by righteousness as the foremost of all conquests. It emphasises that conquest by righteousness is both for this world and the next and that the highest of joys is the joy of the Dharma. The message underlying Dharmavijaya is that by eschewing military action Asoka has become a greater, nobler and more renowned conqueror; a feat he could not have achieved by war.

According to Asoka by employing this strategy he has become the conqueror of all lands all around his dominions as far as six “yojanas” away. He rejoiced that his example has been emulated even where messengers of the Dharma had not gone to perform the conquest by the Dharma. In fact Asoka’s greatest achievement in life as well as his fabulous and everlasting legacy to the world was the dissemination of the Buddha’s ethical message not only to frontier and neighbouring territories but also as far beyond as Greece, Egypt, Libya and Syria; up to a distance of six hundred “yojanas”.

Asoka had evinced interest in Buddhism from about the fourth year after his consecration. In Minor Rock Edict 1 Asoka claims that his devotion to Buddhism increased progressively over a short period of time because of his close association with the Sangha; especially after his encounter with the serene, calm and contented Samanera Nigrodha. As reflected in Rock Edict VIII, he undertook an extended pilgrimage of the holy sites connected with the life of the Buddha in the tenth year after consecration covering Sambodhi or the Bodhi tree, Lumbini, Isipathana and Kusinagar. It also marked the commencement of his Dharma tours or pilgrimages for the promotion of the Dharma. He constructed memorials at each place he visited besides making lavish donations. Also, nine Buddhist missions were undertaken to neighbouring regions and countries including Sri Lanka for the introduction of Buddhism. All these meritorious deeds are amply corroborated by Sri Lanka Pali sources especially the Dipawansa.

Dharmavijaya commenced ten years after Asoka’s consecration and continued unabated until his demise 27 years later. One of his first acts was the collection of the relics of the Buddha from the original relic mounds in which they were enshrined. He opened up the Drona Stupa constructed by King Ajathasatru and collected seven measures of bodily relics of the Buddha. Thereafter, he is said to have placed the relics in 84,000 caskets and dispatched them through officials to different cities and towns with orders to construct Stupas enshrining them. This number of course could be pious hyperbole to symbolise the magnitude of his programme; hence may not be taken literally. It should be noted that through this act Asoka made two invaluable contributions to the evolution and continuity of Buddhism; namely, the popularising of relic and stupa worship and the adoption of durable stone and brick work in place of timber in Buddhist architecture.

Asoka’s Dharma

Right from the commencement of his efforts for the promotion of the Dharma; Asoka had identified a set of simple, straight forward and nonsectarian principles as his ethical message. They highlighted the goals of moral life acceptable to all prevailing religious persuasions of that era such as heavenly bliss and longevity as rewards for virtuous life. The hallmark of Asoka’s greatness lay in his total immersion in his vision and mission of promoting righteousness. He had distilled from the spiritual heritage of his time a simple set of ethical principles in which interpersonal relations and interaction with the biosphere in all its diversity formed the centerpiece.
Like the swan slowly but surely separating milk from water Asoka was able to compile Asoka’s Dharma by distilling the essence of the Buddha Dharma to suit the hearts and minds of a multitude of non-Buddhist adherents of a dozen other faiths that were in vogue at the time in India and other neighboring lands. Asoka also played a major role in the reforming and purging of the Sangha. It preceded the convening of a Dharma Recital or “Dharma Sangayana” presided over by Moggaliputtatissa Maha Thera. He played a leading role through the exercise of his imperial powers to prevent schisms in the Buddhist Sangha. He had identified his own favourite Buddhist texts which he recommended to the clergy and the laity. This bears testimony to the belief that Asoka had a thorough understanding of Buddhist Scriptures.

Coining the term Dharmavijaya was indeed an apt appellation for the increased effort Asoka had put in after the Kalinga war to promote the Dharma. A recapitulation and appraisal of the first ten years of Dharmavijaya on the basis of epigraphical evidence alone pinpoint how Asoka’s mission of promoting the Dharma became simplistic, nonsectarian and universally acceptable. In this regard some of Asoka’s Dharmalipi are unique. The very first Dharmalipi contained in Rock Edict 1-1V was a declaration of sanctuary to animals. In that Asoka banned all animal sacrifices. This was indeed a bold step at that time considering the scale and magnitude of its prevalence. Pillar Edict V-V1 contains most probably the oldest proclamation of sanctuary to animals in the world. It also contains a list of endangered species which are protected by proclamation issued on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Asoka’s consecration which coincided with the 15th anniversary of Dharmavijaya.

In minor Rock Edict III Asoka had declared that whatever is preached by the Buddha is well spoken. In Pillar Edict II Asoka had stated that Dharma is good. He proceeds to define the Dharma as “minimum evil, much good, compassion, liberality, truthfulness and purity”. In Rock Edict XI he has declared that there is no such gift as the gift of the Dharma and sharing of the Dharma. In Pillar Edict I he has proclaimed that this world and the next are difficult to be accomplished other than with the utmost self-examination, the utmost obedience, the utmost dread and the utmost endeavour.

Ashokan pillar at Vaishali, 3rd century BCE. Pic courtesy Wikipedia

The hallmark of Asoka’s Dharma is that it happens to be more mundane, easily understood and universally penetrable. Among others it recognises that; (a) all life is sacred and its preservation is indispensable; (b) the practice of peace and nonviolence, compassion and understanding within the family and the community would create the necessary climate for morality to flourish; (c) restraint, truthfulness, generosity and frugality are conducive to reducing evil and promoting righteousness; (d) righteous conduct has its rewards not only in this life but in the next as well; (e) religions must co-exist and be equally studied and respected; (f) everyone in authority is under debt to serve his or her fellow beings.

Asoka’s contribution to humanity

Emperor Dharmasoka or Asoka the righteous has left an indelible impression in world history as the foremost patron of Buddhism. Extensive lithic records and copious archaeological evidence justifiably corroborated by the Northern Buddhist tradition and the Sri Lanka Pali sources bear ample testimony to the unique contribution made by Asoka to the fostering and propagation of Buddhism both in India as well as in most parts of then known civilised world.

If not for the emergence of Asoka the Righteous, Buddhism would have died a natural death in India 2000 years ago and for that matter may not have reached the neighbouring countries especially Sri Lanka where the original doctrine came to be preserved in its pristine purity for well over 2000 years. Coincidentally, it is owing to Asoka’s generosity that the southern branch of the Sacred Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi arrived in Sri Lanka before the mother tree at Buddhagaya was destroyed by Queen Tissarakka in Asoka’s 34th regnal year thus making it an invaluable and immortal gift of gifts.

The lasting contribution of Asoka to humanity is the transference to posterity of the Buddha’s message of peace and nonviolence, tolerance and forbearance and undivided dedication to the welfare and wellbeing of all beings. He has enunciated a set of moral standards and principles which is both perennial and universal. The example he set through the abhorrence of war and devotion to righteousness and the non-abrasive methods he adopted to implement his programmes of Dharmavijaya and his modus operandi of appealing to reason and individual responsibility as against punitive legislation remains valid for all times and climes.
(The writer was Secretary to President Ranasinghe Premadasa from 1989 to 1993)

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