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Asoka and His Missions
Narada Mahathera

There reigned in the newly founded city of Patnaa (Paataliputra), a Mauryan king named Candragupta. King Bindusara was his son, and he had sixteen wives who bore him One hundred and One sons. Of them Asooka was the most distinguished. His mother was Subhadraangi, also known as "Dharma," Sumana or Susima was his eldest stepbrother, Tissa, also called Vitasooka or Vigatasdka, was his younger uterine brother.

Asooka's Family

Asooka had five wives. Whilst he was acting as viceregent in Avanti, he married a Saakyan princess named Devi. Kaaruvaki, Asandhimitraa (Chief Queen), Padmavati and Tisyarashitaa were his other wives. He had four sons and two daughters, Mahinda and Sanghamittaa were the children of Devi. Tivasa was the son of Karuvaaki, and KunaaIa was the son of Padmivati. 'He had another son named jalauka and a daughter named Caarumati.

Aggimukha, the husband of Sanghamittaa and Devapaala Kshatriya of Lalitapura in Nepal, the husband of Caarumati, were his sons-in-law. Prince Dasaratha, who succeeded him, Sampati, son of Kunaala, and Sumana, son of Sanghamitta, were his grandsons.

Asooka becomes King

In the opinion of-some scholars Asooka was born in 304 B.C. According to Pali Chronicles he was anointed King Two hundred and Eighteen years after Parinibbaana of the Buddha, but his accession took place four years later. He reigned Thirty Seven years after his coronation. He probably ascended the throne in his 30th year, and died in his Seventy One year.

The Pali Chronicles state that Asooka, in his ambition for supreme sovereignty, killed all his brothers except his uterine brother Tissa, who later entered the order and attained Arahantship. Some scholars do not accept this tradition as some Edicts prove that some of his brothers were still alive after his coronation.

Owing to his murderous attacks on his brothers and the indescribable suffering caused to many a family by his unjust wars, he was stigmatized Candasooka, Asooka the Wicked. But after his conversion to Buddhism he became such an exemplary monarch that his name was changed into Dharmasooka, Asooka the Righteous. Devanampiya - Dear to the Gods, Piyadasi -Pleasant to Behold, were some of his well-merited epithets.

His Conversion to Buddhism

In accordance with the custom of the royal household, King Asooka regularly bestowed aims on the Brahmin priests. But he was not pleased with their demeanour. One day, whilst he was quite casually looking through the window, he saw a dignified-looking young novice, about twelve years of age, quietly walking along the street with restrained senses. He was invited to the palace and was requested to occupy a suitable seat. Seeing no spiritual superior to him, he ascended the throne. The King thought "Assuredly he will be the head of this place." He then entertained him with due honour, and taking a low seat listened to his exposition of the Dhamma. The young novice Nigroodha delivered an instructive discourse on the following stanza of the Dhammapada:

Heedfulness is the path to Deathlessness.

Heedfulness is the path to death.

The Heedful do not die,

The Heedful are like unto the dead.

The word of the Buddha appealed to him, and he became a Buddhist. His conversion was the turning-point of his career. Gradually he reformed himself. His outlook on life was completely changed. He modified his way and means. He preferred the Dharma Vijaya - righteous domination - to Dig Vijaya - word domination. Later in life he became such a devout and righteous monarch that H.G. Wells says: "Amidst the tens of thousand names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousnesses and serenities and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Asooka shines, and shines almost alone a star. From the Volga to Japan his name is still honoured. China, Tibet, and even India, though it has left his doctrine, preserve the tradition of his greatness. More living men cherish his memory today than has ever heard the names of Constantine or Charlemagne."

Although he embraced Buddhism after meeting the novice Nigroodha, he did not give up his ambition of expanding his empire. It was after the Kaalinga war that he became a genuine Buddhist by abandoning all warfare. Wells says he is the only monarch on record who abandoned warfare after victory.

He thereafter became an ideal Buddhist monarch. With ceaseless energy he worked for the dissemination of the Dhamma, not only in India and other parts of Asia but also in Europe and Africa. He transformed Buddhism into a world religion. He made the important teachings of the Buddha popular by his numerous interesting rock edicts. He erected so many Vihaaras (monasteries) round about Patna (Pataliputra) that the whole province came to be known as Vihaara, now Bihaar. He made pilgrimages to almost all the sacred places connected with the life of the Buddha, and lasting monuments were erected to mark those historic spots. Even the slaughtering of animals in the palace for household consumption was gradually lessened and stopped, and he forbade animal sacrifice. As Pandit Nehru says: "Asooka's example and the spread of Buddhism resulted in vegetarianism becoming popular." With his royal patronage Buddhism flourished in his time, but as a real Buddhist monarch he was tolerant towards all faiths. One edict says:

All sects deserve reverence for some reason or other. By thus acting a man exalts his own sect and at the same time does service to the sects of other people.

Asooka was interested not only in the spiritual development of the people but also in their material development. All his subjects he treated as sons. He was so willing and ready to promote the public good that he says: "At all times and at all places, whether I am dining or in the ladies' apartments, in my bedroom or in my closet, in my carriage or in my palace garden, the official reporters should keep me constantly informed of the people's business. Work I must for the common weal."

True to his words he acted like a father to all. In his time public gardens, medicinal herbs, hospitals for both men and animals, wells, roads, and educational institutions grew up all over the country. To his eternal credit it should be said that it was Asooka who, for the first time in the history of the world, established hospitals for both men and animals, not only in Asia but also in Europe and Africa. To those hasty critics who decry Buddhism as the cause of the decline and downfall of India, Asooka's prosperous Buddhist reign is a cogent reply.

Asooka's Missioners

According to the Pali Chronicles, at the end of the Third Council which was held in the seventeenth year of Asooka's coronation, under the presidency of Arahant Moggahputta Tissa, it was decided to send competent Arahants to nine different places to propagate the Teachings of the Buddha. The names of the missioners and the places are as follows:

Missioners Place

Majjhantika Thera .. Kashmir & Gandhaar

Mahaadeeva Thera Mahimsaka Mandala

Rakkhita Thera Vanavaasi

Yoonaka Dhammarakkhita Thera ... Aparantaka

Mahaadhammarakkhita Thera Mahirattha

Mahaarakkhita Thera Yonakaloka

Majjhima Thera Himavantapadesa

Soonaka and Uttara Theras Suvannabhumi

Mahinda, Itthiya, Uttiya, Sambala, and Bhaddasaala

Theras Tambapannidipa

It is stated that each mission consisted of five Theras so that it would be possible to perform the Upasampadaa ceremony in remote districts.

1. Kashmir is situated in the north-west of India. Peshavaar and Raavalpindi in north Punjab embrace Gandhaara. Majjhantika Thera arrived here and subjugated the Niga king Aravala by his psychic powers and preached the Aasivisopama Sutta.

2. Mahimsaka Mandala is identified with modern Mysore in South India. According to some it is a country south of the Vindhya Mountains. The Devaduuta Sutta was preached here.

3. Vanavaasi is North Kanaara situated in South India. Even today there is a city called Vanavaasi in this country. The Anamatagga Sutta was the subject of the sermon.

4. Aparanta (Western End) is supposed to be Western India. According to the Puraanas one of the five countries that existed in ancient India was Aparanta. Its capital was port Supparaka, modern Sopaara. North Gujerat, Katiyavar, Kach, Sindh are included in Aparanta. The discourse that was delivered here was the Aggikkandhbpama Sutta.

5. Mahaarattha is modern Mahaaraashtra, which embraces mid-West India. The Mahaa NaaradaKassapa Jaataka was delivered here.

6. Yoonakarattha is the kingdom of the Greeks. It must be the Greek kingdom that existed in West India. According to some it comprises Egypt, Syria and Greece. The Kalakarama Sutta was delivered here.

7. It is stated that the Arahants Kassapagotta, Aalakadeva, Mahaadeva and Dundubhissara accompanied the Arahant Majjhima to the Himaalaya region and preached the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta.

8. Some identify Suvannabhumi with Burma. Some say it is Karna Suvarna situated in Bengal, and some say it is Hiranyavaha district along the banks of the Sona river. The Brahmajaala Sutta was the subject of the discourse.

9. Tambapannidipa is Sri Lanka (Ceylon).

The Mission to Ceylon

King Asooka's son himself accompanied by four Bhikkhus, one Samanera, and a lay Upaasaka arrived in Lanka to convert the Sinhalas. it was on a festival day that they reached Ceylon. They met the reigning king Devaanampiyatissa, who had gone with a party to hunt deer on a hill called Missaka (modern Mihintale). The Arahant Mahinda arrested the attention of the king by addressing him simply as "Tissa." An interesting conversation then followed. After this the Arahant Mahinda preached the Cullahatthi-padoopama Sutta to the king and his followers, hearing which they all sought refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, and embraced this new teaching.

The Venerable Mahinda's Ceylon mission was a great success. He found in Lanka a fertile soil to disseminate the sublime Teachings of the Buddha. With royal patronage Buddhism was firmly established in Ceylon.

As Princess Anulaa, who attained the first stage of sainthood on hearing the first discourse delivered in the capital of Anuridhapura, expressed her desire to join the Order, the Venerable Mahinda despatched a messenger to India inviting his sister Sanghamittaa Theri to visit Lanka in order to establish the Bhikkhuni Saasana. As invited, she arrived in, Ceylon with a branch of the MahaBodhi Tree at Buddha Gayaa, and accompanied by a large retinue of distinguished men, who contributed largely to the material, intellectual, and spiritual development of Sri Lanka.

To the eternal credit of Sinhala Buddhists it should be said that it is they who protected the sublime Teachings of the Dhamma in their pristine purity by committing them to writing on Ola leaves for the first time in the history of the Buddhist world.



[Originally published in Narada's A Manual of Buddhism (Malaysia: Buddhist Missionary Society, 1992), pp. 151-59]


Sincere thanks to Phramaha Somnuek Saksree for retyping this article.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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