Ashoka the Great (अशोक महान)
Sources – We are fortunate enough that many lithic records of Ashoka have survived and it he is able to speak to us from those. However, these inscriptions do not provide much details on the private and personal life of the king. For his personal life we look into various legends which are full with such information. However historicity of these works is questionable.
Mahavamsa – Mahavamsa narrated the history of Sri Lanka from the arrival of Vijaya in 543 BCE to the reign of King Mahasena in the fourth century CE. It was supposed that the monks of Mahavihara maintained the chronicles of Sri Lankan history. A Buddhist monk named Mahathera Mahanama composed Mahavamsa from the traditions of Atthakatha and past records in the fifth century CE.
Bindusara reigned for twenty eight years and has one hundred and one sons. Sumana was the eldest and the youngest was Tissya. Ashoka, however, stood high in valor, splendor, might among all the sons of Bindusara. Bindusara appointed Ashoka as the governor of Ujjaini (present Ujjain).
When Bindusara fell ill, Ashoka left for Pupphapura (Pushppura = Pataliputra = Patna). He caused his eldest brother, Sumana, to be slain along with other ninety-eight brothers born of different mothers, leaving only his co-uterine brother alive. Thus Ashoka ascended the throne and won sovereignty over all Jambudvipa. Four years after, Ashoka consecrated himself as the sovereign of Jambudvipa in the city of Pataliputra. Ashoka continued the practice of honoring sixty-thousand Brahmans everyday as was done by his father.
Sumana, the eldest son of Bindusara, had a wife of the same name. She was pregnant when Ashoka was on his killing spree. She fled to a chandala village by the east gate of the city. A guardian god of a nigrodha tree called her name and built a hut for her. She gave birth to a child on the same day and named him Nigrodha. The chief of that Chandala village took pity on Sumana and looked her as her wife and kept them for seven years with honor.
Ashoka continued the practice of feeding sixty-thousand Brahmans as done by his father. Nigrodha, when seven years old, was ordained by Mahavaruna and thus Nigrodha attained the state of an arhat. Once Nigrodha, seven years old, was passing by Ashoka’s palace. Ashoka at once fell attracted to the small boy sramana and asked him to enter his palace. Ashoka showed his respect to Nigrodha. Nigrodha, in a group of thirty-two saints, preached Ashoka the doctrines of Saipbuddha. After this Ashoka replaced the sixty-thousand Brahmans with sixty-thousand Buddhist monks for daily feeding.
Thus Ashoka was known as Dhammaashoka after his conversion and he was known as Chandashoka before. Once Ashoka asked the monks, how great is the dhamma taught by the Master. Mogaliputta-Tissa answered that there are eighty-four (thousand) sections of dhamma. Then Ashoka said, “Each one of them will I honor with a vihara”. He bestowed money in eight-four thousand towns and bade the kings all over the earth begin to build viharas, and he himself build the Ashokarama.
One day Ashoka heard of a naga king, Mahakala, who was of wondrous might and had beheld four Buddhas who had lived through one age of the world. Ashoka got the naga-king in his city and asked to make an image of Buddha. The naga-king made an image endowed with thirty-two greater signs. Ashoka was so uplifted in joy after seeing that image that he celebrated the ‘Festival of the Eyes’ for seven continuous days.
Mahavamsa also tells the story of ordination of prince Tissa in the fourth regnal year of Ashoka. Tissa was converted by Mahadhammarakshita whom he met in a forest. Ashoka’s daughter, Sanghamitra, was married to Agnibrahma. Sumana was the son the Agnibrahma and Sanghamitra. All these were also ordained by Mahadhammarakshita. Mahinda, the son of Ashoka, was later ordained by Mogaliputta-Tissa. All these were ordained in the sixth year of Ashoka’s reign.
Ashoka held the third Buddhist council under the superintendence of Mogaliputta-Tissa in his seventeenth regnal year. Mogaliputta-Tissa selected one thousand learned monks and set at Ashokarama to make a compilation of true doctrine. Thus Mogaliputta-Tissa set forth the Kathavatthuppakarna refuting the other doctrines. The council lasted for nine months. Mogaliputta-Tissa was seventy-two years old at that time.
Dipavamsa – Dipavamsa is the oldest historical chronicle of Sri Lanka. It was supposedly composed in 3rd-4th century CE by the monks of the Mahavihara tradition of Anuradhapura. The main source of Dipavamsa is probably Atthakatha.
Ashoka was the son of Bindusara and the grandson of Chandagutta. During the rule of Bindusara, Ashoka was appointed as a governor of Ujjaini region. During his service, he came to town Vedisa where he married Devi, the daughter of a Setthi. From her were born, Mahinda and Samghamitta. Mahinda was born 204 years after the parinirvana of Buddha and Samghamitta was born 206 years.
Ashoka ruled at Pataliputra and was converted to Buddhism in the third year of his coronation. Mahinda was sent to Sri Lanka to ordain the king Devanampiya-Tissa there. Mahinda flied with four fellow monks including Sumana, the son of Samghamitta. Mahinda was received by Devanampiya-Tissa at Mount Missaka. Mahinda preached the doctrines to the king, queen and their retinue. Devanampiya-Tissa was ordained by Mahinda. However he did not ordain queen Anula as he could not ordain females.
For this purpose, Samghamitta was requested by king Devanampiya-Tissa. Devanam-Tissa sent his son and prince, Arittha, to the court of Ashoka. Arittha told Samghamitta the message from her brother. Samghamitta approached Ashoka and requested him to allow her to go to Sri Lanka. Ashoka accepted her request and sent with her a branch of the Bodhi tree under the protection of a large army to Sri Lanka.
Divyavadana – Divyavadana is a collection of various stories composed in the second century CE. Ashokavadana is a chapter in this work which narrates the story of King Ashoka.
Buddha once prophesied that one hundred years after his death, there will be an emperor named Ashoka in Pataliputra. He will rule one of the four continents and adorn Jambudvipa with my relics building eighty-four thousand stupas for the welfare of people. He will have them honored by gods and men and his fame will be widespread thereafter.
Bindusara was ruling at Pataliputra as the successor of the Nandas. Bindusara came nine kings after Bimbisara who was ruling at Rajagriha. Suseema was the son of Bindusara.
There was a Brahman in Champa who had a very beautiful daughter. Astrologers told that Brahman that his daughter would marry a king and have two famous sons, one would become a sovereign and other a monk. The Brahman succeeded in getting his daughter into the palace of Bindusara. The other queens were jealous of her and hence taught her the art of a barber. She started grooming the hair and beard of Bindusara.
Bindusara was very much pleased with her and asked what she wants. She said that she wants a son. Bindusara said, I am a kshatriya, how can I have a son with a barber. But then she revealed her true identity and Bindusara installed her to his chief queen. Later that queen bore two sons, Ashoka and Veetashoka.
Bindusara once asked a saint named Pingalavatsajiva to judge, among all his sons, who would be best suited for his successor. Pingalavatsajiva asked Bindusara to assemble all his princes in a garden. Ashoka was not good looking in countenance and Bindusara detested him. Pingalavatsajiva was aware of this and hence he said that he would not disclose the name of the prince who would be his successor. So he told the king that the prince who has come on the best mount would be his successor.
Sometime later Taxila rose in rebellion and Bindusara sent Ashoka to tackle it. Bindusara provided him an army however he did not provide any arms. The soldiers came to Ashoka and asked him how to fight as they did not have any arms. Ashoka said if I had to become a king and the arms will also come. The earth was opened and divine beings rose from there with arms. When the people of Taxila came to know about approaching Ashoka, they came to him and paid respect. The people told Ashoka that they did not have any intention to revolt against him or the king but to the king’s evil representatives.
The prime minister of Bindusara got upset with Prince Suseema over an incident. He assembled five hundred ministers and they all decided that they will install Ashoka on throne but not Suseema. Sometime later Taxila again rose in rebellion and this time Binduara sent Suseema to quell it however the latter failed. Meanwhile Bindusara fell sick, and in order to install Suseema on throne, he recalled Suseema from Taxila and decided to send Ashoka instead.
The ministers foiled the plan of Bindusara and showed that Ashoka was so ill that he cannot be moved. They asked Bindusara to install Ashoka on the throne for the time being however Bindusara refused. Ashoka said that if he had to be the king then let the gods place the crown on his head. Suddenly a heavenly crown got placed over his head. Bindusara seeing this vomited blood and died. Ashoka, after becoming the king, installed Radhagupta as his prime minister.
Suseema, after getting news of usurpation, started for Pataliputra. Radhagupta installed two great warriors at the two of the city gates. He also installed an artificial elephant at the eastern gate. He placed an effigy of Ashoka on top of that elephant and also dug a ditch around filled with live coals. Suseema mistook that effigy with Ashoka and charged towards the elephant to fall into the ditch. He was burnt at once.
Ashoka had a very displeasing countenance and this had made him very cruel. Once he asked his ministers to uproot all flower plants leaving all thorny plants. The ministers asked him thrice if he wants to execute this order. When the ministers asked him the fourth time, Ashoka got furious and beheaded his five hundred ministers. At another instance, Ashoka showed a blooming Ashoka tree to his concubines and asked them how beautiful it is. Those females hated Ashoka because of his dirty appearance and to take revenge they plucked all flowers and leaves of that Ashoka tree in the night. When Ashoka saw that tree without any leaves and flowers, so dirty in its appearance, he burnt five hundred women alive.
Radhagupta was worried about the cruelty of Ashoka as the latter was known among his mass as Chandashoka due to this. He suggested Ashoka why he does all this by his own hands, instead he should get some executioner to do this. Ashoka liked this suggestion and asked to find someone. The ministers found someone called Girika or Chandagirika who was very evil. When asked to take up the post of an executioner, Girika’s parents opposed. However Girika killed his parents and accepted the post.
Girika asked Ashoka to built a chamber or jail equipped with all types of torture equipments. Ashoka built this for him. Girika also asked for a grant that if someone enters into that chamber should not be allowed to leave alive, which Ashoka accepted also. Girika started enjoying torturing people as people got attracted towards this chamber as it was very pleasing looking from outside. Once a Buddhist monk names Samudra entered that chamber and burst into tears seeing what all was happening there.
Girika wanted to torture Samudra and Samudra asked for seven days respite which Girika agreed. On the seventh day, Girika started his torture but Samudra was not at all affected. Samudra was seen seated on a lotus amidst fire. Girika rushed to Ashoka to tell this miracle. Ashoka came inside the chamber to witness that. Samudra told Ashoka that his time for conversion has come. Ashoka asked for his deliverance. Samudra taught him the doctrines of Buddha and Ashoka proclaimed his faith into that. Girika was put to death as he wanted to execute Ashoka as the latter had entered into his torture chamber and no one is allowed to leave alive from that.
Ashoka started collecting Buddha’s relics from the seven stupas built by Ajatshatru. Ashoka distributed those relics into the eight-four thousand stupas built by him. He also built chaityas to mark the holy spots of the Buddha’s birth, the Bodhi tree, the place of first sermon, the place of nirvana etc. On the day when Ashoka consecrated the eighty-thousand stupas, his queen Padmavati gave birth to a boy named Kunala because he had lovely eyes.
His chief queen Tishyarakshita approached her step-son with amorous intent however Kunala begged her to leave that evil path. Tishyaraskhita was angry and decided to destroy Kunala. She was able to make Ashoka send Kunala to Taxila when it rose in rebellion. She wrote a letter to gouge out the eyes of Kunala and sealed it with teeth impression of Ashoka when the latter was in sleep. The people of Taxila, though unwilling, executed the order.
Tishyarakshita was jealous as Ashoka loved someone else more than her. She was not aware that it was Bodhi tree whom Ashoka loved more than her. In her jealousy, she asked a witch to kill whoever Ashoka loved more than her. The tree started withering and Ashoka was very sad. Tishyarakshita came to know that it was tree not some other woman whom Ashoka loved, so she asked the witch to recall her magic.
Kunala got enlightenment after his eyes were gouged out. His wife wept but he calmed her and both set out for Pataliputra. Kunala started earning his living by playing music and singing. Ashoka recognized his voice and asked his soldiers to fetch him. Kunala told him the story and asked to forgive Tishyarakshita. However Ashoka threw her in a lacquer house and burned the house with her. He also executed the people of Taxila.
Ashoka wanted to become the largest donor to the samgha so he kept donating money to Kukkutarama monastery. When his grandson, the son of Kunala, Sampadin, was the heir-apparent, then the ministers told him about the extravagance of Ashoka. Sampadin ordered the treasurer not to disturb the state funds for these donations. Ashoka started donating his food plates, first the golden ones, then silver, copper and at last the clay plates.
At the last, Ashoka was left with a half-amalaka fruit which he also donated to the monastery. He wrote a letter donating the whole earth to the sangha and passed away. When the ministers started installing Sampadin on the throne, Radhagupta showed this letter and told that the whole earth was given to sangha by Ashoka. To come out of this peculiar situation, the state donated four crore gold coins to sangha thus fulfilling Ashoka’s wish and then installed Sampadin on the throne.
Vayu Purana – Not much is mentioned about Ashoka except that he succeeded Bindusara and ruled for about thirty-seven years.