Emperor Ashoka - Jain or Buddhist ?


The British put forward dubious research to twist half truths to suite their own political agenda. 
The Aryan invasion myth was one theory. 
Emperor Ashok being a Buddhist was another theory they put forward to deny India a Hindu or a Jain Emperor.

Emperor Ashok was most probably a Jain king.
The most obvious reason is, his father and grandfather were well known Jains.  Chandragupta, his grandfather even gave up his kingdom to become a wondering naked Jain sadu (monk).  There is every reason to assume that Ashoka was raised in the Jain faith and followed it to the end.

Vegetarian Emperor
His famous edits exhorting his subjects to vegetarianism and banning hunting etc shows clear Jain leanings.  There is nothing Buddhist about vegetarian aspects of his edits.  His non-violence and desire to see all animals safe was / is a uniquely Jain phenomena.  Even now, Jains donate vigorously to animal hospitals and often pay large sums of money to rescue animals from abattoirs.

At that time, Hindus and Buddhists both ate meat !  There is nothing in literature of either religion that speaks of vegetarianism at that stage in it development.  Indeed, the last meal of the Buddha was pork !  The only religion to be totally against meat eating or killing of animals at that time was Jainisum.


Welfare Programes
There was nothing uniquely “Ashokan” about his social welfare activities - such as digging wells, planting trees etc.  Such activities were the norm for all kings, aristocrats and wealthy people in the past.  Indeed, such actions were done than and now to earn merit in this life and the next.  Ashoka’s own edicts clearly state that these acts were a continuation of what others have done in the past. 


Royal monks spread Buddhism
His son and daughter who became Buddhists – Mahindra and Sanghamitra - were children of his Buddhist queen - one of many.  Hence it is perfectly understandable that they would have greater affinity for the religion of their mother.  However, there is no reason to assume that just because they were Buddhist, that their father was one too ! 

These two royal monks could have gone to Shri Lanka for several reasons.  Apart from the desire to spread the religion, they could have gone to escape the court rivalry at the imperial capital.  Though the son of his favoured wife, Mahindra had other brothers who were equally qualified to take the title of “heir-apparent”.  Ashoka himself was the youngest son who killed all his older step-brothers to become the emperor.  Fearing for his own life, Mahindra could have taken holy orders and emigrated to escape court jealousies and the fate that often befell royal siblings who did not succeed to the throne.

As Buddhism and Jainism were rival religions at the time, it is more than probably that a prince / princess from a Jain family may be considered a “rebel” by becoming a Buddhist.  In the tight knit world of court protocol, this was probably the safest form of rebellion possible, followed by a quick permanent trip abroad.

The Emperor may have given his tacit approval for such an emigration to keep peace in his household.  Emperor was well aware of the blood bath that ensued when he took the throne by force and would have approved any method possible to avoid the same fate for his children.

Princely monks and nuns would have been welcome in the satellite / neighbouring kingdoms for two reasons.  One, because it gave them a piece of Imperial celebrity of their own !  The heady prestige of such personages living in your care would have been an honour they would have treasured for sure.  Two, you never know when you can use such priceless guests as bargaining chips in international politics.


Foreign Missions
Ashoka, like all great kings, than and now, sent political and religious missions to extend his sphere of influence.  There were many religious orders included in these foreign missions.  For example, the religion of Mitra that spread from India, was very popular in the Roman empire and at one time eclipsed the rise of Christianity.  There was no similar popular support for Buddhism in the Western kingdoms.  However, Eastern kingdoms welcomed Buddhist and Hindu teachers and wove their own native legends in to the rich tapestry of religious lore imported from India.

Royal embassies were probably accompanied by a retinue of different people, priests & monks of various denominations, politicians, merchants, scholars and adventurers.  They all went with the Imperial envoys as a way of getting free protection on route to foreign countries.  At a time when prestige was of paramount importance, travelling with the official embassy also gave people the chance to shine in the reflected glory of the Imperial entourage.  British businessmen and missionaries did it very effectively when visiting far flung corners of the empire and when visiting the native rulers ! 

Than, as now, studying and collecting plants from around the world for health and commercial benefits was a state policy.  The British botanists were only following in the footsteps of earlier ancient collectors such as Ashoka. 

Medical centres were opened by Ashoka in foreign countries to spread the herbal lore of India.  Even now, one of the first things a missionary organisation does is to open a hospital.  This is the most non-controversial method of extending your sphere of influence in a foreign territory.  Than, as now, medical assistance is given free, or at nominal cost, to attract the host population to come to your medical facility.  It is a classic political stratagem and would have been part of his foreign policy.


Kaling Conversion
Emperor Ashok’s conversion after the terrible Kaling war is a popular Buddhist tale - one that has lost nothing of its magic by being retold by Bollywood aswell.

However, how much of this is real ?
If indeed the conversion of the Emperor was genuine, he would have returned the kingdom to its ruling council (it was a democratic state) straight away ! 
But even Buddhist records do not mention that – hence the depth of the remorse is doubtful indeed !

Ashokan conquest of Kaling completed the last piece in the Imperial puzzle, bringing in a last chunk of independent India into his kingdom.  There was little for him to conquer now apart from the southern most tip of India.  Not being densely populated, it may not have been worth the trouble of conquest !

Indeed, the Kaling conversion is recorded only in Shri Lankan scriptures and especially Mahavamsha.  As this particular scripture is highly pro-Kaling, it is understandable if Kaling’s loss of sovereignty is mourned loudly in the book.  All wars are brutal.  Lives lost, people killed, property damaged and splitting up of families are common results of war – any war.  If indeed the Emperor was truly appalled at the site of massacre after the great war, he would have turned to his non-violent Jain faith for answer rather than go to Buddhism. 

Close association with the religious orders
All rulers like to be associated with popular religious orders.  Religion and religious leaders can be powerful mediators between kings and people.  Religious institutions control a vast amount of money, land, support of the masses and are very adept at spreading ideas and thoughts.  As a result, kings naturally like to have some say in how these popular institutions are run.

Emperor Ashoka, seeing how Buddhism was gaining ground took great interest in its running and made sure he was at the helm of change that was taking place in that religion. 

Than, as now, rulers and politicians are often invited to attend large conferences, religious conferences in particular.  It is more than probable that the Buddhist council of abbots decided to invite the Emperor to attend their seminars to increase their prestige and garner state support.  Religious leaders often petition the state for financial support, tax benefits and land grants.  Inviting kings, aristocrats, landed gentry, wealthy businessmen and local leaders is often in the interest of the religious institutions.  It is the done thing even now and I am sure inviting the Emperor was a strategic move to gain his support.  If abbots and monks could prove that the Buddha himself had predicted the coming of the Emperor, all the better !  They even quoted Buddha saying that the Emperor would build 84,000 stupas in his memory !  This from a man who did not believe in being worshiped in any way what-so-ever !!  Yet, often, people put words in the mouth of dead prophets and religious leaders to further their own goals.

The abbots obviously succeeded in getting royal support for some of their plans and Ashoka must have given some donation towards their aims.  Emperor was even invited to lay the foundation stone for a major new stupa at Sanchi.  As always, the good and the great are often invited to lay the foundation stone, inaugurate functions and officially open new building.  The plaque may say so-and-so graced that occasion, but it does not mean that so-and-so paid for the building !  Similarly, it is more than possible that the Emperor laid the foundation or approved the plans of the stupa, he may have even given a large donation, but there is no need to assume he paid for the whole project !!  However, historians seem to constantly think history and modern life exists in two different dimensions and often ignore the obvious by sticking to “absolute” interpretations of things they read. 

Eg - 1000 years from now, if someone was to finds a plaque showing Prince Charles, heir to the British throne opened the SwamiNarayan temple in London, capital of UK - does it follow that he converted to Hinduism ? or that he exhorted his subjects to become Hindus ?  Prince Charles has opened many places of religious worship - Hindu, Jewish, Christian and even Muslim.  It does not mean he follows each one ! 


People across the world honour their parents or ancestors by joining their names with those of their forbearers.  Even in modern USA, there are plenty of people with “Jnr” in their name – basically designating their name to be the same as their father’s.  Often in Europe the name of the parent (male/ female) or grandparent is used as the middle name of the child.

Similarly Emperor Ashoka used his mother’s name to designate whose son he was !  DharmaAshoka – son of Dharma.  Emperor Bindusara had many wives and hence many children.  Ashoka and VittAshoka were the sons of his minor queen Dharma.  Emperor Ashoka wanted to assert the importance of his linage, paternal and maternal and hence called himself DharmaAshoka Bidusara Maurya.

In the Indian context, Dharma means duty and hence a king / Emperor wishing to assert his credentials as the rightful, diligent, law-abiding ruler would use the title “Dharma” along with his name.


Edicts do not say Emperor was Buddhist !
None of the edits mention the Emperor as being Buddhist !  Yet, the British, and later the socialist government researcher of India, insist he is Buddhist !  The Emperor mentions Shramans, Bharhmins and Ajivikas.  He does not align himself to either of them in totality.  Being a political creature, he keeps his options open and shows himself to be even handed.  Ashokan edicts are found at places sacred to all the religious sects of the time.  Yet, current crop of history books insist he was Buddhist !! 

It is curious that without any concrete proof the Emperor is declared to be a Buddhist.  The British obviously had a political and evangelical reason for doing this, but it is amazing that the socialist government and its researchers carried on in the same vein without doing any independent research of their own.  Sadly, they are still continuing to do this !


Ashok / Devanampriya / Priyadarshi
Infact, the title and name of the king in the edicts is Devanampriya (beloved of the Gods) or Priyadarshi (he who sees everyone with affection).  As far as I know, the name “Ashoka” is not mentioned in any of them !!  It is only by looking at the Buddhist king lists and comparing names that the British scholars deduced Emperor Ashoka to be the same as the Priyadarshi of the edicts !!

The British can't pronounce the names of places or people with true accuracy.  150 years ago, it was even worse !  The British translation of the original text is sometimes ambiguous.  It is desperately in need of an over-haul.

Indeed, the Pali version of the name is often written in English writing as Piyadasi !  This is a female name !  So, was the Emperor of the edicts male or female ?  Was the king the one and the same or different ?

The king list, the edicts, the contemporary records of scriptures and references in court documents of other neighbouring kingdoms need to be re-examined to establish true facts about Emperor Ashoka / Devanampriya / Priyadarshi.


Symbols on the Ashokan capital

Animals –
Lion is a Hindu symbol of kingship.
Lion is the identifying symbol of Mahavir the 24th and final exponent of the Jain philosophy.
Deer is the animal most commonly associated with the Buddha.

So the use of Lions on his pillar’s capital can not denote Buddha in any way.  It has be a Hindu or Jain symbol.  The Lion on the capital is not a tame, demure lion but one that has barred its teeth, ready to show any aggressor how strong it can be.  This is not the symbol of a monk-monarch.  It is an obvious and open invitation to display the imperial might of a vigorous empire that is more than capable of protecting itself.

Elephant is synonymous with kingship in the South-East Asia.  Mahavir and Buddha’s mothers had dreamt of a celestial elephant entering their womb.  At that time, it was a common dream of good luck and auspicious signs, reported by men and women to say good things are going to happen soon.  Indeed, the elephant that entered her was the elephant of Indra - a Hindu God !

Bull, horse, lion and elephant are all symbols of royalty.  They denote duty / dharma, steadfastness, speed, strength, valour and vitality.  Indeed, Hinduism had been using these symbols for thousands of years before Jainism or Buddhism.  Jainism and Buddhism adopted these symbols and added their own philosohical vaneer to it.  If indeed he was Jain, there is every reason to assume that he associated these symbols with Jainism and not Buddhism.


Ashokan Chakra
The Chakra on the Ashokan capital is a classic symbol of a “Chakravarti” king – ie a king who literally commands the wheel of time ! 
Only a emperor, whose rule was obeyed far and wide, could claim to be a Chakravarti – someone who is in command of his own destiny and the destiny of the world !!

Chakra on his royal capital was probably the symbol of imperial might and him being a Chakravati. 
Dharma Chakra would be out of place in on a royal / imperial capital.

Ashokan chakra has 24 spokes - representing the 24 Tirthankars of Jainism.
Buddhist chakra has 8 spokes to represent the eight-fold path of Buddha.


I am sure much research needs to be done to confirm “facts” about the religion of the most famous emperor of ancient India.


© Bhagwat Shah   [email protected]


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