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Asoka

1. Asoka.– King of Magadha. He was the son of Bindusāra. Bindusāra had sixteen wives who bore him 101 sons. The Pāḷi Chronicles ¹ (Dīpavaṃsa and Mahāvaṃsa) mention only three of the sons, viz. Sumana (Susīma according to the northern legends) the eldest, Asoka, and Tissa (uterine brother of Asoka) the youngest. The Mahāvaṃsa Ṭīka ² gives the name of his mother as Dhammā and calls her Aggamahesī (Bindusāra’s chief queen); she belonged to the Moriyavaṃsa. The preceptor of Dhammā’s family was an Ājīvaka called Janasāna

In his youth Asoka was appointed Governor of Avanti with his capital at Ujjeni.⁴ When Bindusāra lay on his death-bed, Asoka left Ujjeni and came to Pāṭalīputta where he made himself master of the city and possessor of the throne. He is stated in the Mahāvaṃsa ⁵ to have killed all his brothers except Tissa that he might accomplish his purpose, and to have been called Caṇḍāsoka on account of this outrage.⁶ It is impossible to say how much truth there is in this account of the accession. Asoka’s Rock Edicts seem to indicate that he had numerous brothers, sisters and relations alive at the time they were written in Pāṭaliputta and other towns.⁷ His brother Tissa he appointed as his uparāja,⁸ but Tissa (q.v.) became a religious devotee attaining Arahantship. The Theragāthā Commentary ⁹ refers to another younger brother of Asoka, Vitasoka, who also became an Arahant.

Asoka had several wives. His first wife was the daughter of a merchant of Vedisagiri, whom he met when stopping at the merchant’s house on his way to Ujjeni.¹⁰ Her name was Devī, also called Vedisa-Mahādevī, and she was a Sakyan, descended from a Sakyan family who migrated to Vedisa to escape from Viḍūḍabha.¹¹ Of Devī were born a son Mahinda, and a daughter Saṅghamittā, who became the wife of Aggibrahmā and mother of Sumana. Devī evidently did not follow Asoka to Pāṭaliputta, for his chief queen (aggamahesī) there was Asandhamittā.¹² Asandhamittā died in the thirtieth year of Asoka’s reign, and four years later he raised Tissarakkhā to the rank of queen.¹³

According to the Mahāvaṃsa,¹⁴ Asoka’s accession was 218 years after the Buddha’s death and his coronation was four years later. The chronicles ¹⁵ contain various stories of his miraculous powers. His command spread a league into the air and a league under the earth. The devas supplied him daily with water from the Anotatta Lake and with other luxuries from elsewhere. Yakkhas, Nāgā, and even mice and karavīka birds ministered to his comfort, and thoughtful animals came and died outside his kitchen in order to provide him with food.

At first Asoka maintained the alms instituted by his father, but soon, being disappointed in the recipients, he began looking out for holy men. It was then that he saw from his window, his nephew, the young novice Nigrodha. Owing to their friendship in a past birth,¹⁶ Asoka was at once drawn to him and invited him into the palace. Nigrodha taught him the Appamādavagga and the king was greatly pleased. He ceased his benefactions to other religious orders and transferred his patronage to Nigrodha and members of the Buddhist Order. His wealth, which, according to the Samantapāsādikā (i.52), amounted to 500,000 pieces daily, he now spent in doing acts of piety — giving 100,000 to Nigrodha to be used in any manner he wished, a like sum for the offering of perfumes and flowers at the Buddha’s shrines, 100,000 for the teaching of the Dhamma, 100,000 for the provision of comforts for members of the Order, and the remainder for medicines for the sick. To Nigrodha, in addition to other gifts, he sent sets of robes three times each day, placing them on the back of an elephant, adorned by festoons of flowers. Nigrodha gave these robes to other monks.¹⁷

Having learnt from Moggaliputta-Tissa that there were 84,000 sections of the Dhamma, he built in various towns an equal number of vihāras, and in Pāṭaliputta he erected the Asokārāma. With the aid of the Nāga king Mahākāla, he created a life-size figure of the Buddha, to which he made great offerings.

His two children, Mahinda and Saṅghamittā, aged respectively twenty and eighteen, he ordained under Moggaliputta-Tissa and Dhammapālā, in the sixth year of his reign.¹⁸ This raised him from a supporter of material things (paccadāyaka) to an heir of the religion (sāsanadāyādin).

In order to purge the Order of undesirable monks and heretical doctrines, Moggaliputta-Tissa held the Third Council under the king’s patronage. It is said that the pious monks refused to hold the uposatha with those they considered unworthy. The king, desirous of bringing about unity in the Saṅgha, sent a minister to restore amity, but the minister, misunderstanding his orders, beheaded many holy monks, being at last stopped by the king’s brother Tissa, who was then a monk.¹⁹

At the conclusion of the Council, held in the seventeenth year of his reign,²⁰ Asoka sent forth theras.²¹ to propagate the Buddha’s religion: Majjhantika to Kasmīra and Gandhāra, Mahādeva to Mahisamaṇḍala, Rakkhita to Vanavāsa, Yona Dhammarakkhita to Aparantaka, Mahārakkhita to Yona, Majjhima to Himavā and Soṇa and Uttara to Suvaṇṇabhūmi; Mahinda with Iṭṭhiya, Uttiya, Sambala, and Bhaddasāla he sent to Laṅkā. In the eighteenth year of his reign he sent to Lankā, at Devanampiyatissa’s request, Sanghamittā, with a branch of the great Bodhi Tree at Buddhagayā.²² A little earlier he had sent by his grandson Sumana, some relics of the Buddha and the Buddha’s alms-bowl to be deposited in the thūpas of Lankā.²³

Asoka reigned for thirty-seven years.²⁴ In his later life he came to be called Dhammāsoka on account of his pious deeds.²⁵ The Dīpavaṃsa gives his name in several places as Piyadassī.²⁶

The Chronicles state that Asoka and Devanampiyatissa of Sri Lanka had been friends — though they had never seen each other — even before Mahinda’s mission to Sri Lanka. Tissa had sent him, as a friendly gesture, various gifts, and Asoka had returned the courtesy. He sent an embassy of his chosen ministers, bearing gifts marvellous in splendour, that Tissa might go through a second coronation ceremony, and the messengers were directed to give this special message to the king: “I have taken refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha and declared myself a follower of the religion of the Sakyaputta. Seek then, even thou, oh best of men, converting thy mind with believing heart, refuge in these best of gems.”²⁷

The Milindapañha ²⁸ mentions an encounter of Asoka with a courtesan of Pāṭaliputta, Bindumatī, who, in order to show the king the power of an Act of Truth, made the waters of the Gaṅgā to flow back. According to the Petavatthu Aṭṭhakathā ²⁹ there was a king of Suraṭṭha, called Piṅgala, who used to visit Asoka in order to give him counsel. Perhaps he was an old friend or tutor of the king.

Asoka is called an “Emperor” (dīpacakkavatti) as opposed to other “regional kings” (padesarājā) like Bimbisāra and Pasenadi.³⁰

¹ The chief Pāḷi sources of information regarding Asoka are Dīpavaṃsa, Chapters i., v., vi., vii., xi., etc., Mahāvaṃsa, Chapters v., xi., xx., etc., and the Samantapāsādikā (pp.35 ff). Other sources are the Divyāvadāna passim, and the Avadānaśataka ii.200 ff. For an exhaustive discussion of the sources and their contents see Prszlyski, La Légende de l’Empereur Asoka.

² p.125; Mbv.98. In the northern tradition, e.g., Aśokāvadānamālā, she is called Subhadrāngī, daughter of a brahmin of Campā.

³ Which probably explains Asoka’s earlier patronage of the Ājīvakas.

The Divy. says he was in Takkasilā with headquarters in Uttarāpatha, where he superseded Susīma and quelled a rebellion.

Mhv.v.20; Mbv.98. Mhv.v.189. See Mookherji, Asoka, pp.3‑6.

Mhv.v.33. ThagA.i.295 f. The northern works give quite a different account of his brothers. See Mookherji, p.6.

¹⁰ Mhv.xiii.8 ff. ¹¹ Mbv., pp.98, 116. ¹² Mhv.v.85.

¹³ Mhv.xx.1‑3. The Allahabad Pillar Inscription mentions another queen, Kāruvākī, mother of Tivara. The Divy. (chap. xxvii.) gives another, Padmāvatī, Kunāla’s mother. Besides the children mentioned above, names of others are given: Jalauka, Cārumatī (Mookherji. p.9).

¹⁴ Mhv.v.21, 22. ¹⁵ v.22 ff. ¹⁶ Asoka, Devanampiyatissa, and Nigrodha had been brothers, traders in honey, and they gave honey to a Pacceka Buddha. Asandhamittā had been the maiden who showed the honey-shop to the Pacceka Buddha. The story is given in Mhv.v.49 ff.

¹⁷ MA.ii.931. ¹⁸ MA.v.197, 209. ¹⁹ MA.vs.240 ff.

²⁰ MA. 280; in the northern texts Moggaliputta-Tissa’s name is given as Upagupta. It was for this Council that the Kathāvatthu (q.v.) was written.

²¹ Ibid., xii.1‑8. For particulars of these missions and identification of the places mentioned, see under the different names; this list appears also in the Samantapāsādikā, where further interesting details are given. For a discussion on them see Mookherji, pp.33 ff.

²² Mhv.xx.1. ²³ Mhv.xvii.10 ff. ²⁴ Mhv.xx.6. ²⁵ Mhv.v.189.

²⁶ E.g., vi.1, 2, 25. The title Devānampiya used by Asoka in his inscriptions was also used by Tissa, Asoka’s contemporary in Sri Lanka, and by Asoka’s grandson Dasaratha (Nāgarjunī Hill Cave Inscription). It was used also by other kings in Sri Lanka: Vaṅkanāsika Tissa, Gajabāhukagāminī, and Mahallaka-Nāga (Ep. Zeyl. i.60 f).

²⁷ Mhv.xi.18‑36. ²⁸ Miln.p.121. ²⁹ PvA.244 ff. ³⁰ Sp.ii.309.

Finding Footnote References

References in the notes are to the Pāḷi texts of the PTS. In the translations, these are usually printed in the headers near the spine, or in square brackets in the body of the text.

2. Asoka.– See Kālāsoka.

3. Asoka.– See Vītāsoka.

4. Asoka.– A brahmin in the time of Kassapa Buddha. He provided eight meals daily for the monks and entrusted the distribution of them to his serving-woman Bīranī. Mhv.xxvii.11.

5. Asoka.– Attendant to Vipassī Buddha (J.i.41; Bu.xx.28). He was once ill and was cured by a doctor who, in this age, was Tikicchaka (Tekicchakānī) Thera. Ap.i.190; ThagA.i.442.

6. Asoka.– The chief disciple of the future Metteyya Buddha (Anāgatavaṃsa. v.97). According to the Mahāvaṃsa (xxxii.81) he should be identified with Duṭṭhagāmaṇī.

7. Asoka.– A monk of Ñātikā. Once when the Buddha was staying at Ñātikā in the Giñjakāvasatha, Ānanda mentions to the Buddha that Asoka Thera had died, and asks where he had gone. The Buddha tells him that Asoka was an Arahant and had realised nibbāna. S.i.358.

8. Asoka.– See Anoma (7).

9. Asoka.– A mountain near Himavā. There, in the time of Sumedha Buddha, Vissakamma built a hermitage. Ap.ii.342.

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