The Mauryas – Chinese Legends


Buddhist Sources

2. Chinese Legends

Faxian (also known as Fa-hien) – Faxian was a Chinese pilgrim who traveled across India during early fifth century CE. His work was translated into English by Samuel Beal in 1869. It was translated from a Chinese copy into English by H A Giles in 1877. Later, in 1886, James Legge translated a Korean recension of the Chinese text into English.

Excerpts from “A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms” by James Legge

Chapter XVII

(Sankasya)… An innumerable multitude of the devas  followed Buddha in his descent. When he was come down, the three flights all disappeared in the ground, excepting seven steps, which continued to be visible. Afterwards king Asoka, wishing to know where their ends rested, sent men to dig and see.

They went down to the yellow springs without reaching the bottom of the steps, and from this the king received an increase to his reverence and faith, and built a vihara over the steps, with a standing image, sixteen cubits in height, right over the middle flight.

Behind the vihara he erected a stone pillar, about fifty cubits high, with a lion on the top of it. Let into the pillar, on each of its four sides, there is an image of Buddha, inside and out shining and transparent, and pure as it were of lapis lazuli.

Chapter XXIII

East from Buddha’s birthplace, and at a distance of five yojanas, there is a kingdom called Rama. The king of this country, having obtained one portion of the relics of Buddha’s body, returned with it and built over it a tope, named the Rama tope. By the side of it there was a pool, and in the pool a dragon, which constantly kept watch over (the tope), and presented offerings at it day and night.

When king Asoka came forth into the world, he wished to destroy the eight topes (over the relics), and to build (instead of them) 84,000 topes. After he had thrown down the seven (others), he wished next to destroy this tope. But then the dragon showed itself, took the king into its palace; and when he had seen all the things provided for offerings, it said to him:

‘ If you are able with your offerings to exceed these, you can destroy the tope, and take it all away. I will not contend with you.’ The king, however, knew that such appliances for offerings were not to be had anywhere in the world, and thereupon returned (without carrying out his purpose).

Chapter XXVII

Having crossed the river, and descended south for a yojana (the travelers) came to a town of Pataliputtra, in the kingdom of Magadha, the city where king Asoka ruled. The royal palace and halls in the midst of the city, which exist now as of old, were all made by spirits which he employed, and which piled up the stones, reared the walls and gates, and executed the elegant carving and inlaid sculpture work,— in a way which no human hands of this world could accomplish.

King Asoka had a younger brother who had attained to be an Arhat, and resided on Gridhra-kuta hill, finding his delight in solitude and quiet. The king, who sincerely reverenced him, wished and begged him (to come and live) in his family, where he could supply all his wants. The other, however, through his delight in the stillness of the mountain, was unwilling to accept the invitation, on which the king said to him, ‘ Only accept my invitation, and I will make a hill for you inside the city.’

Accordingly, he provided the materials of a feast, called to him the spirits, and announced to them, ‘To-morrow you will all receive my invitation ; but as there are no mats for you to sit on, let each one bring (his own seat).’ Next day the spirits came, each one bringing with him a great rock, (like) a wall, four or five paces square, (for a seat). When their sitting was over, the king made them form a hill with the large stones piled on one another, and also at the foot of the hill, with five large square stones, to make an apartment, which might be more than thirty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, and more than ten cubits high.

When king Asoka destroyed the seven topes, (intending) to make eighty-four thousand, the first which he made was the great tope, more than three li to the south of this city. In front of this there is a footprint of Buddha, where a vihara has been built. The door of it faces the north, and on the south of it there is a stone pillar, fourteen or fifteen cubits in circumference, and more than thirty cubits high, on which there is an inscription, saying, ‘Asoka gave the Jambudvipa to the general body of all the monks, and then redeemed it from them with money. This he did three times’.

North from the tope 300 or 400 paces, king Asoka built the city of Ne-le In it there is a stone pillar, which also is more than thirty feet high, with a lion on the top of it. On the pillar there is an inscription recording the things which led to the building of Ne-le, with the number of the year, the day, and the month.

Chapter XXXII

When king Asoka, in a former birth was a little boy and playing on the road, he met Kasyapa Buddha walking. (The stranger) begged food, and the boy pleasantly took a handful of earth and gave it to him. The Buddha took the earth, and returned it to the ground on which he was walking; but because of this (the boy) received the recompense of becoming a king of the iron wheel to rule over Jambudvipa. (Once) when he was making a judicial tour of inspection through Jambudvipa, he saw, between the iron circuit of the two hills, a naraka for the punishment of wicked men.

Having thereupon asked his ministers what sort of a thing it was, they replied, it belongs to Yama, king of demons, for punishing wicked people. The king thought within himself: ‘ (Even) the king of demons is able to make a naraka in which to deal with wicked men ; why should not I, who am the lord of men, make a naraka in which to deal with wicked men?’

He forthwith asked his ministers who could make for him a naraka and preside over the punishment of wicked people in it. They replied that it was only a man of extreme wickedness who could make it ; and the king thereupon sent officers to seek everywhere for (such) a bad man; and they saw by the side of a pond a man tall and strong, with a black countenance, yellow hair, and green eyes, hooking up the fish with his feet, while he called to him birds and beasts, and, when they came, then shot and killed them, so that not one escaped.

Having got this man, they took him to the king, who secretly charged him, ‘You must make a square enclosure with high walls. Plant in it all kinds of flowers and fruits; make good ponds in it for bathing ; make it grand and imposing in every way, so that men shall look to it with thirsting desire ; make its gates strong and sure ; and when any one enters, instantly seize him and punish him as a sinner, not allowing him to get out. Even if I should enter, punish me as a sinner in the same way, and do not let me go. I now appoint you master of that naraka.

Soon after this a bhikshu, pursuing his regular course of begging his food, entered the gate (of the place). When the lictors of the naraka saw him, they were about to subject him to their tortures ; but he, frightened, begged them to allow him a moment in which to eat his midday meal. Immediately after, there came in another man, whom they thrust into a mortar and pounded till a red froth overflowed. As the bhikshu looked on, there came to him the thought of the impermanence, the painful suffering and inanity of this body, and how it is but as a bubble and as foam ; and instantly he attained to Arhatship.

Immediately after, the lictors seized him, and threw him into a caldron of boiling water. There was a look of joyful satisfaction, however, in the bhikshu’s countenance. The fire was extinguished, and the water became cold. In the middle (of the caldron) there rose up a lotus flower, with the bhikshu seated on it. The lictors at once went and reported to the king that there was a marvelous occurrence in the naraka, and wished him to go and see it; but the king said, ‘ I formerly made such an agreement that now I dare not go (to the place).

The lictors said, ‘ This is not a small matter. Your majesty ought to go quickly. Let your former agreement be altered.’ The king thereupon followed them, and entered (the naraka), when the bhikshu preached the Law to him, and he believed, and was made free.  Forthwith he demolished the naraka, and repented of all the evil which he had formerly done.

From this time he believed in and honoured the Three Precious Ones, and constantly went to a patra tree, repenting under it, with self-reproach, of his errors, and accepting the eight rules of abstinence. The queen asked where the king was constantly going to, and the ministers replied that he was constantly to be seen under (such and such) a patra tree. She watched for a time when the king was not there, and then sent men to cut the tree down.

When the king came, and saw what had been done, he swooned away with sorrow, and fell to the ground. His ministers sprinkled water on his face, and after a considerable time he revived. He then built all round (the stump) with bricks, and poured a hundred pitchers of cow’s milk on the roots; and as he lay with his four limbs spread out on the ground, he took this oath, ‘If the tree do not live, I will never rise from this.’ When he had uttered this oath, the tree immediately began to grow from the roots, and it has continued to grow till now, when it is nearly 10 cubits in height.

Xuanzang (also known as Yuan Chwang/Hsuan-tsang) – Xuanzang was the Chinese pilgrim who travelled to India in the seventh century CE and took back various Buddhist scriptures with him to China. In his travels, he mostly talked about various stupas found across his travel and he referred these as Ashokan stupas. Not much historical information is found in his narratives.

His work was first translated into French by Stanislas Julien in 1857. Samuel Beal was the first one to translate this French version into English by 1884. Another English translation with copious notes from Thomas Watters was published by T W Rhys Davids and S W Bushell posthumously in 1905.

Excerpts from “On Yuan Chwang’s Travels in India” by Thomas Watters

Chapter III

Watters mentions that in a translation of a Buddhist book (A-yu-wang-his-huai-mu-yin-yuan-ching) he found mention of Ku-Chih as one of the parts of Ashoka’s empire which he proposed to give over to his son Kunala.

Chapter IV

To the south-west of the capital was the Pi-lo-sho-lo Mountain. This name was given to the mountain from its presiding genius who had the form of an elephant and was therefore called Pi-losho-lo. While the Julai was on earth this god once invited him and the 1200 great arhats to his mountain, and here on a large flat rock he gave the Julai worship and entertainment.

On this rock king Asoka afterwards built a tope above 100 feet high. This tope, which was supposed to contain about a pint of the Buddha’s relics, was known to the people at the time of Yuan-chuang’s visit as the Pi-lo-sho-lo tope. To the north of this tope and at the base of a cliff was a Dragon Spring.

In it the Buddha and the 1200 arhats cleansed their mouths, and chewed their tooth-sticks, after eating the food supplied to them by the god; their tooth-sticks being planted took root, and became the dense wood existing at the time of the pilgrim’s visit. People who lived after the Buddha’s time erected at the place a monastery to which they gave the name Ping.

Chapter VI

About two li to the east (in the Life, south-east) of the capital stood a great stone tope above 300 feet high which had marvelous sculptures. Close to this tope on the west side was a vihara and adjoining the vihara on the south was a small tope. The former of these two topes was said to have been built by king Asoka at the place where Sakya P’usa, having spread in the mud his deer-skin mantle and his hair for Dipankara Buddha, received from the latter the prediction of Buddhahood.

At the periodic annihilations and restorations of the world the traces of this incident are not effaced, and on fast days showers of flowers descend on the spot, which is regarded with great reverence. The small tope was at the spot where the mantle and hair were spread on the mud, [the other tope] having been erected by king Asoka in a retired place off the highway…….

……Continuing in a south-western direction from “the city”, and at a distance of above twenty li from it, the pilgrim takes us to a small range of rocky hills containing a stone monastery with lofty halls and tiers of chambers lal silent and unoccupied. Within the grounds of this establishment was a tope 200 feet high built by king Asoka.

From the Kanishka Monastery Yuan-chuang went north-east above 50 li, crossing a large river, to the city which he calls Fu-se-ka-lo-fa-ti (Pushkaravati). This was about fourteen or fifteen li in circuit, was well peopled, and the wards were connected by passages. Outside the west gate of the city was a Deva-Temple with a marvel-working image of the Deva. To the east of the city was an Asoka tope on the spot where the Four Past Buddhas had preached.

The Buddhist sages who in old times came from “Mid India” to this district and taught mortals were very numerous. It was here that Vasumitra composed his “Chung-shih-fen-Abhidharma-lun”. Four or five li north of the city was an old monastery in ruins and with only a few Brethren who were all Hinayanists. In it Dharmatrata composed the “Tsa-abhidharma-lun”.

Beside the monastery was an Asoka tope some hundreds of feet high, the carved wood and engraved stone of which seemed to be the work of strangers. Here Sakya Buddha in his P’usa stage was born 1000 times as a king, and in each birth gave his eyes in charity. A little to the east of this were two stone topes, one erected by Brahma and one by Indra, which still stood out high although the foundations had sunk.

At the distance of 50 li to the north-west of these was a tope at the place where the Buddha converted the Kuei-tzu-mu or “Mother of Demons”, and forbade her to kill human beings. The people of the country worshiped this Demon-mother and prayed to her for offspring.

Outside the east gate of the Palusha city was a monastery with above 50 Brethren all Mahayanists. At it was an Asoka tope on the spot at which the brahmin, who had begged the son and daughter of the Prince Sudana from him on the Tanto-lo-ka (Dantaloka) mountain, sold the children.

Above twenty li north-east from Palusha was the Dantaloka mountain on which was an Asoka tope at the place where Prince Sudana lodged. Near it was the tope where the Prince having given his son and daughter to the Brahmin the latter beat the children until their blood ran to the ground; this blood dyed the spot and the vegetation still retained a reddish hue.

In the cliff was the cave in which the Prince and his wife practised samadhi. Near this was the hut in which the old rishi lived; above 100 li north from it beyond a small hill was a mountain; on the south of this was a monastery with a few Brethren who were Mahayanists; beside this was an Asoka tope where the rishi Tu-chio (Ekasringa) once lived; this rishi was led astray by a lustful woman and lost his superhuman faculties, whereupon the lustful woman rode on his shoulders into the city.

Chapter VII

Sixty or seventy li to the west of the Mo-yil Monastery was an Asoka tope to mark the spot at which the P’usa in his birth as Shih-p’i-ka (Sivika) king sliced his body to ransom a pigeon from a hawk. On the north side of the south hill to the south-east of the capital was a tope above 100 feet high erected by king Asoka on the spot where his son Prince Ku-lang-na (for Ku-na-lang), or Kunala, had his eyes torn out by the guile of his step-mother; the blind came here to pray, and many had their prayers answered by restoration of sight.

Our pilgrim then proceeds to tell his version of the story of Kunala’s career; of Asoka on the advice of his wicked second queen sending his son to govern Takshasila, of the blinding of this prince there by the cruel deceitful action of this queen, of the return of the prince and his princess to the king’s palace, and of the restoration of the prince’s eyesight effected by the Buddhist arhat Ghosha.

Chapter VIII

Our pilgrim next gives a brief account of the settlement of 500 arhats from India in Kashmir, an event which he assigns to the hundredth year after Buddha’s decease in the reign of Asoka king of Magadha. This great and powerful sovereign was a firm believer in Buddhism, we are told, and charitable to all creatures.

There were [at his capital] 500 arhats and 500 ordinary Buddhist monks, all of whom were treated by the king with equal reverence and attention. Among the ordinary Brethren was one Mahsdeva, a man of great learning and wisdom, a subtle investigator of name and reality who put his extraordinary thoughts into a treatise which taught heresy. All this man’s acquaintances followed his heretical reasoning.

The king following his personal inclinations and taking the part of those whom he liked, unable to distinguish the arhat from the common monk, summoned all to the Ganges with the intention of causing them all to be drowned. But the arhats, finding their lives in danger, used their supernatural powers, and flew through the air to Kashmir, where they settled on the hills and in the vales.

When the king learned this he became distressed, went to Kashmir to apologize to the arhats, and to beg them to return. They, however, steadfastly refused to go back, so the king built 500 monasteries for them, and gave up all Kashmir for the benefit of the Buddhist church.

A Life of Buddha by Asvaghosha (Fo-sha-Hing-Tsan-King) – It is professed to be a translation of Buddhacharita of Ashvaghosha into Chinese, translated from Sanskrit into Chinese by Dharmaraksha in 420 CE, and from Chinese to English by Samuel Beal in 1883 CE.

Beal mentions various problems faced during finding a good copy for translation and help from local priests during the work. Due to these issues, he, in his introduction of the English translation, states, ‘I offer the result of my work, therefore, with some mistrust, and yet with this confidence, that due allowance will be made for imperfections in the preparation of a first translation of a text comprising nearly 10,000 lines of poetry, printed in the original without stops or notes of any sort, and in a difficult style of Chinese composition’.

Excerpts from the introduction

While answering Sariputta’s questions, Buddha mentioned that ‘after my nirvana, the great Kashyapa will have authority equal to mine; after Kashyapa Ananda; after Ananda, Madhyantika; after Madhyantika, Sanakavasa; after Sanakavasa, Upagupta; after Upagupta there will be a Maurya (king) Ku-ko (Ashoka), who will rule the world and extend the Scriptures (Dharmavinaya).

His grandson will be called Pushyamitra (Fu-sha-mih-to-lo), who will succeed the empire of the righteous king (or who will succeed directly to the empire of the king, or the royal estate). This one will ask his ministers what he must do to gain an undying fame; and being told he must either patronize religion as his predecessor or persecute it, he will adopt the latter course, overthrow the pagodas (dagobas), destroy the Scriptures, murder the people. At last the king and his army being destroyed (by a mountain cast on them), this line of kings will perish’.

A curious story is told in Sang-kia-lo-cha-sho-tsih-fo-hing-king, a translation by a priest called Sangharaksha, who was born in the kingdom of Su-lai, and came to Gandhara when Kanishka flourished. Kanishka is referred in the text as Kien-to-ki-ni-wang.

The text was translated into Chinese by Sanghabhadanta. The text tells that Ashoka, who reigned after hundred years of Buddha’s nirvana, had a dream which induces him to assemble the bhikshus in a convocation. He was told by them that there was in Rajagriha a casket on which there was record enshrined, or a gold plate, which had been delivered by Buddha.

On opening the casket, a prophecy was found stating that in Magadha, in the city of Rajagriha, there were two householders whose two sons were called Vijayamitra and Vasudatta; of these the former, in consequence of his merit in giving a ball of earth to Buddha should be born 100 years after as Ashoka raja of the Maurya family.

In consequence of this prophecy, Ashoka built 84,000 shrines for the relics of Buddha, obeying in this the direction of his dream, that he should cause the shariras of the holy one to be everywhere diffused.

Chapter 28

King Asoka born in the world when strong, caused much sorrow; when feeble, then he banished sorrow; as the ashoka-flower tree, ruling over Jambudvipa, his heart for ever put an end to sorrow. When brought to entire faith in the true law; there he was called ‘the king who frees from sorrow’. A descendant of the Maurya family, receiving from heaven a righteous disposition. He ruled equally over the world; he raised everywhere towers and shrines, his private name the ‘violent Asoka’, now called the ‘righteous Asoka’.

Opening the dagobhas raised by those seven kings to the sariras thence, he spread them everywhere and raised in one day eighty-four thousand towers. Only with regard to the eighth pagoda in Ramagrama, which the Naga spirit protected, the king was unable to obtain those relics.

Back to Main Page


  1. Beal, Samuel (1883). The Fo-Sho-Hing-Tsan-King or A Life of Buddha by Asvaghosha Bodhisattva (The Sacred Books of the East vol XIX). The Clarendon Press. Oxford.
  2. Legge, James (1886). A Record of Buddhistic  Kingdoms, being an account by The Chinese Monk Fa-Hien. The Claredon Press. Oxford.
  3. Shashtri, Dwarikadas Swami (). Buddha-charitam. Chaukhambha Sanskrit Series. Varanasi. ISBN 8170801281
  4. Watters, Thomas (1904). On Yuan Chwang’s Travels in India. Royal Asiatic Society. London.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here