Religious tolerance. Non-violence. Compassion for, and dedication to the well-being of, all living beings. Vegetarianism. An extensive program of public works, including the building of hospitals and roads. This may sound like a description of some idealized modern liberal state, or of a place like Bhutan with its “Gross National Happiness.” In fact, these were the explicitly-stated ideals and goals of the Indian Buddhist Emperor Ashoka, who reigned some 2,300 years ago over an empire that stretched from the Himalayas to Kandahar, across the entirety of the Indian subcontinent.
Ashoka was a largely forgotten figure, even within India, until the nineteenth century. His life and re-discovery are the subjects of Charles Allen’s Ashoka. Calling him “India’s founding father,” Allen, the author of over twenty books, says “In the course of some forty years Ashoka unified the subcontinent under one government, transformed a minor religious sect into a world religion and introduced moral concepts whose impact on Asia can be felt to this day”
One of the reasons that Ashoka was lost to history for so long was the destruction of the famous Buddhist university-monastery of Nalanda (about which I recently wrote) in 1193 by the army of the Muslim commander Bakhtiyar Khilji. With the burning of its library, much of Buddhist history on the subcontinent, spanning well over a thousand years, basically vanished. On top of this, Allen argues, centuries of hostility to India’s Buddhist history on the part of Hindu and Muslim rulers and historians cast figures like Ashoka into obscurity.
While Ashoka is clearly its focus, Allen’s book is as much about the British Indologists, many of them soldiers or stationed in India for reasons other than archaeology, who re-discovered the story of Ashoka and the long history of Indian Buddhism that had for so long been forgotten and suppressed. Some of those scholarly efforts were admittedly fumbling, or just plain inaccurate. But that is easy to say now. Back in the nineteenth century, these Indologists were breaking new ground. Allen is clearly not a fan of Edward Said and his criticism of those early Orientalists, whom Said dubbed “dead white men in periwigs” and whom he felt were agents of imperialism rather than proper scholars. Allen makes the point that many of these British Orientalists were appalled by the ongoing Anglicization, and Christianizing, of India, and had genuine interest in the country’s history, archaeology, and culture.
Allen brings together all these discoveries about Ashoka into a continuous narrative of his life, beginning with his powerful grandfather Chandragupta Maurya. Chandragupta’s accomplishments, like unifying northern and central India under one government, improved trade and communications, and the creation and growth of urban areas, remained intact when Chandragupta’s son Bindusara, and then Ashoka, one of Bindusara’s 101 sons, came to power.
Initially a supporter of the Brahmans, Ashoka fully embraced Buddhism after a battle at Kalinga (modern Orissa) in 263 BCE, in which 100,000 had been killed. That violence appalled him, and from that point on, Ashoka would win new territory not through violence, but through the Dharma (Buddhist teachings). His earliest public pronouncements of this, what are now known as the Minor Rock Edicts, emerge around 260 BCE. Among the earliest surviving records of Indian history, these Edicts, generally engraved on large rocks, were followed by Schism Edicts directed at certain populations of the Sangha (Buddhist community). Then came the Separate or Kalinga Rock Edicts, and the remaining Rock Edicts, all in the period 269-258 BCE. Last to come were the Pillar Edicts in 243-242 BCE, set up as attention-getting statements on tall columns – the largest stands 46 feet high and weighs over 50 tons, a major feat of carving and transportation. These Ashokan Edicts announced a rule, and code of conduct, based on non-violence, freedom of religion, mutual respect, kindness, and forgiveness – not specifically Buddhist, perhaps, but certainly derived from Buddhist principles. Once numbering in the hundreds, only three or four dozen of the Edicts still survive.
Ashoka became a “lay Buddhist,” toured important Buddhist sites, and had 84,000 stupas (commemorative monument or reliquary) and monasteries built. He convoked what has come to be known as the Third Buddhist Council, at which monks of various traditions assembled to discuss their doctrines and decide which views were proper and which heretical. Ashoka also sent missionaries across the Indian subcontinent, including his son Mahinda, a Buddhist monk. Ashoka’s last years, however, seemed to have been marked by religious mania, as well as a conspiracy headed up by his wife Tishyarakshita, who was anti-Buddhist. On Ashoka’s death, a power struggle along with religious factionalism led, within a decade, to the breaking up of his kingdom into four or five regional kingdoms led by various of his sons and grandsons.
Among those who Allen tells us contributed to the historical inquiry in India that led to the emergence of Ashoka as a major figure was Sir William Jones, the famous judge, scholar, philologist, and overall polymath who has been dubbed the “father of Indian studies.” Jones started the Asiatick Society, later the Asiatic Society of Bengal, as a clearinghouse and publisher for the work he and others were commencing. A judge for eight months of the year, Jones could spend the other four studying and learning Sanskrit, which was only then emerging as an area of study (and which he quickly noted had some similarity to Latin and Greek).
Using the religious, mythological, and to some extent historical texts known as the Puranas, and synchronizing them with what ancient Greek sources said about Alexander the Great’s invasion of India, Jones was able to reconstruct something of a timeline of Indian history. Ashoka was then but a minor part of that reconstruction. In fact, at that point there seemed to be little or no evidence that Buddhism had had any history at all in India. That was soon, however, to change. Initial evidence of Buddha’s and Buddhism’s role – in fact, origin – in India came from outside the country, from ancient texts in Sri Lanka, China, and Burma.
One important document that emerged in Sri Lanka that filled out Ashoka’s history was the Mahavamsa, or Great Dynastic Chronicle, a chronicle of the reigns of fifty-four Lankan kings – and a history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka – that was translated into English for the first time and published in 1833. The Great Dynastic Chronicle proved to be both older than the Puranas and a more accurate representation of early Buddhist history. While it focused on the history of Sri Lanka, there was also plenty of information on the Indian mainland, including considerable information on the life of Ashoka. The Great Dynastic Chronicle proved beyond a reasonable doubt that not only was Ashoka a significant figure in India history, he was personally responsible for the spread of Buddhism throughout the subcontinent and beyond.
Faxian, the Chinese monk who traveled to India in the early fifth century CE, provides invaluable documentation about Ashoka and his works, as well as the state of Buddhism in India during his time, in his A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms. Thanks in part to Faxian’s writings, India became well-known in China as a center of Buddhist knowledge. That reputation brought another famous Chinese monk, Xuanzang, to India a little over two centuries later. Unlike, however, the thriving Buddhist monasteries and community that Faxian had seen, Xuanzang found many ruins, and Brahmanism having regained the advantage over Buddhism. Xuanzang did find signs of Ashoka’s continuing influence, though, in the form of stupas and monasteries. Like Faxian, Xuanzang visited the city from which Ashoka ruled, Pataliputra, remarking, “Of the monasteries, deva-temples and stupas, there are several hundred remnant sites lying in ruins; only two or three remain intact.” The accounts of Faxian and Xuanzang were so accurate that they were used many centuries after they were written to re-discover several important Buddhist sites.
Another scholar of nearly William Jones-like importance to this story was James Prinsep. His thorough study of ancient coins and inscriptions found throughout India led Prinsep to the conclusion that many employed the same language. Initially simply designated “No. 1” by Prinsep, it proved to be what is today called Brahmi, a predecessor of Sanskrit, Pali, and Tibetan. Ashoka’s Minor Rock Edicts remain the oldest examples of the use of the Brahmi alphabet. Along with Jones and Prinsep, Allen discusses other major figures in the rediscovery of Ashoka and Buddhist India, like Horace Hayman Wilson, Markham Kittoe, Ramakrishna Bhandarkar, and Alexander Cunningham (the first Director General of the Archaeological Service of India).
Jawaharlal Nehru was a great admirer of Ashoka, comparing him to Jesus Christ as a source of inspiration for his stance of non-violence. India’s national emblem of four seated lions originated with Ashoka, as did the spoked wheel of the Dharma that appears on India’s flag to this day. There are other recent books about Ashoka out there – one prominent one, Nayanjot Lahiri’s Ashoka in Ancient India, recently won the 2016 John F. Richards Prize, awarded annually by the American Historical Association. Allen’s book, though, remains an entertaining, well-researched, and fascinating account of one of the great rulers of world history.