The Mauryas

Buddhist Sources

3. Indian Legends

Ashoavadana – Asokavadana in its present form is a part of a larger work, Divyavadana. However, two Chinese works, A-yu wang chuan & A-yu wang chin, suggests that Asokavadana had its own existence also. There is no author assigned against this work. Jean Przyluski writes, “Asokavadana could only have been compiled by a writer from the land of Mathura.”

As the original text will take too much space and time, therefore I have jotted down important points and events of this work below (taken from the translation by Strong)

  • Once Buddha entered into the city of Rajagriha. On the main road, two kids named Jaya and Vijaya were playing. Jaya, thinking to himself, “I will give him some ground meal”, threw a handful dirt into the Buddha’s begging bowl. After presenting this offering to the Blessed One, Jaya then proceeded to make the following resolute wish: “By this root of good mertit, I would become a king and, after placing the earth under one umbrella of sovereignty, I would pay homage eto the Blessed Buddha.” Buddha smiled.
  • Ananda saw and said to Buddha, “Blessed One, it is not without a cause nor without a reason (that Tathagathas display the smile; why therefore has the Blessed One done so)?”. The Blessed one said: “You are right Ananda, completely enlightened Tathagata Arhats do not display their smile gratuitously; rather they do so for both a cause and reason. Ananda, do you see that boy who threw a handful of dirt into the Tathagata’s bowl?” “Yes, Bhadanta”, Ananda replied. “Because of that meritorious deed, Ananda, one hundred years after Tathagatha has attained parinirvana, that boy will become a king  named Ashoka in the city of Pataliputra. He will be a righteous dharmaraja, a cakravartin who rules over one of the four continents, and he will distribute my bodily relics far and wide and build eighty-four thousand dharmarajikas. This he will undertake for the wellbeing of the many people”, the Blessed One prophesied.
  • Bimbisara was ruling at Rajagriha. His son was Ajatshatru. Ajatshatru’s Udayin, latter’s was Munda, Munda’s Kakavarnin, Kakavarnin’s Sahalin, Sahalin’s Tulakuci, Tulakuci’s Mahamandala, Mahamandala’s Prasenjit, Prasenjit’s Nanda, Nanda’s Bindusara. Bindusara ruled over Pataliputra. Bindusara’s son was Susima.
  • In the city of Champa, a certain Brahman will get a daughter who will marry a king and bear two sons. One will become a cakravartin ruling over one of the four continents, and other would wander forth and fulfill his religious vows. The brahman took his daughter (named Subhadrangi in some mss) to Pataliputra and introduced her into Bindusara’s harem. The other queen’s became jealous of her and introduced her to barber’s art, and soon she became an expert. Bindusara was very pleased with her art and granted her a wish. She asked the king to sleep with her. Bindusara replied that how was that possible as she was a barber’s girl. She then revealed her Brahmin origin and therefore the king slept with her. Bindusara installed her as his chief queen. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son, who was named Ashoka as the after his birth the queen became “without sorrow (a-shoka)”. Subsequently, the queen gave birth to another son who was named Vitasoka.
  • Bindusara consulted, Pingalavatsajiva, the wandering ascetic, about the future of his two sons and who would be appropriate as his successor. Asoka was ugly in appearance, bad and rough skin unpleasant to touch, and was hated by his father. Pingalavatsajiva examined all the princes and recognized that Asoka would become a king. However he was aware of Bindusara’s hatred towards Asoka, therefore to avoid the king killing Asoka on hearing this, Pingalavatsajiva told, “Your majesty, I will make my prediction without disclosing any names.” King agreed, then the ascetic mentioned that the one who has the best mount, seat, vessel, food and drink will be the king.
  • Pingalavatsajiva revealed his prophecy to the mother of Asoka. On her advice, he fled the country as at some point of time Binduaara might force him to reveal the name of the future king.
  • Once Taksasila rose in rebellion and Asoka was sent by his father to quell it. But Bindusara did not provide any arms for the army. Asoka said that if he is destined to be a king then the gods will provide weapons for him. The ground opened up and weapons emerged from it. When Asoka approached Taksasila, the residents on hearing this news, bedecked the road and came with offerings for Asoka. The residents told Asoka that there is no problem with him or the king, but the issue was with the evil ministers.
  • Sometime later, Asoka was welcome in a similar fashion in the kingdom of Khasas. Two great warriors entered into his service; he provided for their livelihood, and they in return, marched ahead of him, cutting a path through the mountains. Everywhere they went the gods proclaimed: “Asoka is to become a chakravartin ruler over one of the four continents, no one is to oppose him!”
  • Prince Susima, the claimant for the royal throne, once insulted a bald minister. The minister vowed to take revenge on him by not allowing him to get the throne. He made all other five hundred ministers turned against the prince.
  • Once Taksasila again rose in rebellion and this time Bindusara sent Susima to quell it however the latter was unsuccessful. Meanwhile the king fell ill and he asked the ministers to call back Susima and send Asoka. But the ministers thwarted his plans by making Asoka appeared to be sick. Bindusara was on his deathbed and ministers asked him to consecrate Asoka at the moment as Susima was away. But Bindusara did not like the idea. When Asoka was brought in front of him, he did not agree to consecrate him by his own hands. Asoka, therefore, declared: “If the throne is rightfully mine, let the gods crown me with the royal diadem.” And instantly the gods did so. When Bindusara saw this, he vomited blood and passed away.
  • Asoka appointed Radhagupta as his chief minister. Radhagupta was the same person who presented his elephant while Asoka was going to his father when the latter was consulting the ascetic Pingalavatsajiva.
  • The news of Asoka’s consecration infuriated Susima. He started to Pataliputra to take revenge. Ashoka put the two Khasha warriors on two gates, Radhagupta on one gate and Asoka himself on one gate. Radhagupta installed a fake elephant with an image of Asoka on top of it. Around the elephant was dig a moat filled with fire-coal. Later the ground was covered with grass. Susima saw Asoka seated over that elephant and marched towards him only to be fell in the moat to be burnt alive.
  • Sooner Asoka started to be known as Candasoka (Asoka the Fierce) due to his wicked deeds. Once to test loyalty of his ministers, Asoka gave them an absurd order to execute. When they did not get ready to do so even after the third time, then Asoka executed his five hundred ministers. In similar fashion, once women of his harem, out of their spite against Asoka, cut the branches of Asoka tree which was very much loved by the king. The king burned all the five hundred women of his harem the very next day.
  • Radhagupta, taking note of these, suggested the king to install a royal executioner to do all these tortures instead of he himself. Asoka asked to search for a suitable person for the job. The ministers found a certain Girika in a village where he was known as Candagirika because of his wicked deeds and nature. He was installed as the royal executioner and the king made for him a prison which was very beautiful from outside but full of torture chambers inside. The king also granted him a wish that whosoever should enter this place should not come out alive.
  • Once Samudra, a wondering monk, entered into that prison. He was full of compassion seeing human beings subjected to various kinds of tortures by Girika. When he witness the execution of a royal concubine with her lover, he was liberated and attained arahatship. When it was the turn of Samdura, he did not suffer any pain. Girika was surprised and ran to Asoka to tell about this miracle. Asoka came running to witness it.
  • Samudra realized that the time of Asoka’s conversion was at hand. The monk told: “Moreover great king, with reference to you, the Blessed One predicted that the one hundred years after his parinirbana there would be in the city of Pataliputra a king named Asoka, a chakravartin ruling over one of the four continents, a righteous dharmaraja who would distribute his bodily relics far and wide, and build eighty-four thousand dharmarajikas.” Samudra converted Asoka to the Buddhist faith. Asoka later executed Girika as the latter wanted to execute the former.
  • Asoka took out Buddha’s bodily relics from seven out of eight stupas, including the stupa built by Ajatshatru but except the stupa at Ramagrama as the residents there were paying their tributes regularly to that stupa. Asoka made eighty-four thousand boxes of gold, silver, cat’s eye and crystal and in them were placed the relics. Also eighty-four thousand urns and same number of inscription plates were prepared. Asoka went to Kukkutarama monastery and told the Elder Yasa his desire to build eighty-four stupas in a single day. Yasa told him to do so when he would hide the orb of the Sun. Yasa hid the orb and at that moment eighty-four thousand stupas were ready.
  • Asoka’s brother, Vitashoka, was a follower of Brahman heretics. Asoka setup a plan to convert him into righteous Dharma. Upon his successful plan, Vitashoka got converted into a wandering monk. He was converted by the Elder Yasa of the Kukkutarama monastery.
  • Once in the city of Pundavardhana, a lay follower of Nirgrantha Jnatiputra (might be same as Mahavira) drew a picture displaying Buddha bowing to his master. A Buddhist devotee informed this to king Asoka. Asoka became furious on seeing this and ordered all Ajivikas of the city Pundavardhana to death. In a similar incident, a Nirgrantha follower at Pataliputra drew a similar picture. Asoka burnt his house with all his family. Asoka proclaimed a reward of one dinara to anyone who will bring the head of a Nirgrantha.
  • Meanwhile, Vitashoka fell ill and Asoka sent required medical help. Vitashoka had his head tonsured but due to illness his hair had grown long. Once he was in the house of a cowherd to spend night there. The cowherd family was very poor, and in temptation of 1 dinara, they mistook Vitashoka as a Nirgrantha follower and cut his head. When they presented that head to the king in return of rewards, the king recognized his brother and started mourning. He then realized that welfare of all kinds of men is Dharma but not only of the Buddhist fraternity.
  • Once in a discussion, minister Yasa asked Asoka not to bow down in front of a Buddhist monk as they come from all starts of the society. Asoka replied, saying: “You, sir, look at caste (jati) and not the inherent qualities of the monks. Haughty, deluded, and obsessed with cast you harm yourself and others. When you invite someone, or when it’s the time for a wedding, then you should investigate the matter of caste, but not at the time of Dharma.”
  • Asoka asked the Elder Yasa at the Kukkutarama monastery if the Blessed One had predicted arrival of someone else like he did for Asoka. Asoka asked his whereabouts and got excited to meet him. Upagupta was living at Urumunda mountain at Mathura and on hearing this news, he arrived Pataliputra in a ferry sent by the king.
  • Asoka found that Upgupta had very soft, as soft as cotton of Benares silk but his body was not soft, his limbs were hard and coarse, and his skin was unpleasant to touch. Upgupta told him that it was due to an event in his past life where he gave dirt to the Blessed Once.
  • Asoka spoke to Upagupta about his desire to visit all the places related to Buddha’s life. They both started on a pilgrimage tour for the same. In the last they visited Kusinagara where Buddha attained nirvana. Asoka then told Upgupta about his desire to visit stupas of those disciples whom the Blessed One declared to be the foremost in some quality. Upagupta took Asoka to the following stupas
    • Stupa of Sariputta, son of Saradvati, foremost of the wise, the second master
    • Stupa of Mahamaudgalyayana, foremost of supernatural powers
    • Stupa of Mahakasyapa, foremost of those who had few desires and quite contended
    • Stupa of Batkula, foremost of those who seldom get sick
    • Stupa of Ananda, Blessed One’s personal attendant
  • Tishyarakshita was jealous as Asoka 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. When the tree again became full of life, Asoka also got well.
  • On the day when Asoka consecrated the eighty-thousand stupas, his queen Padmavati gave birth to a boy who was named Kunala because he had lovely eyes similar to the bird Kunala found in the Himalaya region..
  • Asoka’s 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 Asoka send Kunala to Takssila 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.
  • 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 Asoka threw her in a lacquer house and burned the house with her. He also executed the people of Takssila.
  • Asoka 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 Asoka. Sampadin ordered the treasurer not to disturb the state funds for these donations. Asoka started donating his food plates, first the golden ones, then silver, copper and at last the clay plates.
  • At the last, Asoka 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 Asoka. To come out of this peculiar situation, the state donated four crore gold coins to sangha thus fulfilling Asoka’s wish and then installed Sampadin on the throne. Sampadin was succeeded in order by Brihaspati, Vrishasena, Pushyavardhana and Pushyamitra

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  1. Strong, John S (1989). The Legend of King Asoka. Motilal Banarasidass. New Delhi. ISBN 9788120806160