Reflections on Ashoka

Last week I made my Radio 4 debut on an episode of In Our Time that explored the emperor Ashoka, who unified much of the Indian subcontinent in the 3rd century BCE and left behind inscriptions detailing, amongst other things, his commitment to Buddhism. These inscriptions, fascinating in their own right, are supplemented by Buddhist hagiographies of Ashoka (which show little awareness of the Ashoka of the edicts but give us an interesting insight into later generations’ understanding of his character), and are made more intriguing still by what we might call the reception history of Ashoka: remembered as a great Buddhist king in Buddhist countries, but largely forgotten in India itself until the 19th century, when his inscriptions were finally deciphered by James Prinsep, a British employee of the Calcutta Mint and Secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society.

A couple of questions remain over our understanding of Ashoka, including the extent to which his use of the term ‘dhamma’ is meant to be understood as specifically Buddhist. His personal commitment to Buddhism is clear from a number of inscriptions, yet it is not necessarily the case that every time he mentions dhamma he means it in a Buddhist sense (as referring to Buddhist Truth, the teachings of the Buddha). Another question that one often encounters (and we did so during In Our Time) is whether or not Ashoka was really sincere in his commitment to Buddhist ethics, and this is a question we will never really be able to answer, since the inscriptions are self-presentations, an early form of PR.

But what really interests me about Ashoka is that he makes a perfect example of the joy of scholarship, for uncovering his story involves real detective work. First of all we have two distinct sets of data – inscriptional evidence and textual sources – and the latter set can be further divided into North Indian texts and Sri Lankan ones. While the inscriptions lay unrecognised and unread for centuries after Ashoka’s demise, the Buddhist biographies kept his memory alive in Buddhist lands, the North Indian texts entering Tibet, China, Korea and Japan, while the Sri Lankan accounts influenced Southeast Asia. Both sets of texts paint Ashoka as a Buddhist king, yet there are different emphases: The North Indian texts (of which the earliest version is probably the Aśokāvadāna of the Divyāvadāna, which John Strong translated and studied in his 1983 book) tend to be more ambivalent about kingship, presenting Ashoka as violent, even – though to a lesser extent – after his conversion. The Sri Lankan texts tend to be more positive in their portrayal, and associate Asoka with the arrival of Buddhism on the Island through his son Mahinda (with neither that character nor Ashoka’s missionary activities mentioned in the North Indian accounts). The two sets of texts show little awareness of the edicts, and are dated to several centuries later than the time of Ashoka. Yet they provide an important window into the way Ashoka lived on in Buddhist memory.

While the biographies remained popular, and Ashoka became a model for later Buddhist kingship, the Indian response appears to have been to produce a Brahmanical Hindu model of kingship that could defeat that of Ashoka. Ashoka was written out of Indian history so successfully that when Prinsep finally translated the edicts in 1837, nobody could work out who this great emperor could be. It took the input of George Turnour, Ceylon Civil Servant and translator of the Sri Lankan chronicles, to identify Ashoka as the monarch of the inscriptions. Thus the two pieces of evidence – inscriptional and textual – came together once again.

Perhaps there has been too much of a tendency in intervening years to read the edicts in the light of the texts, rather than as an independent source. Yet I would hate to see the texts dismissed as irrelevant to the story of Ashoka.

It was a great pleasure to be invited to participate in this programme, and it gave me an excellent excuse to revisit some treasured works on Ashoka and puzzle once more over the character and legacy of this great king.

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About naomiappleton

I work in the Divinity School at the University of Edinburgh, where I research and teach subjects related to South and Southeast Asian religions.
This entry was posted in Buddhism, Buddhist texts and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Reflections on Ashoka

  1. Maria Pakpahan says:

    Great article Naomi. I always intrigued by the deeds and more done by Ashoka. I even gave my son name Ashoka although I am not Indian or Buddhist .

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