Ashokavadana is an Indian Sanskrit-language text. It describes the birth and reign of the Maurya Emperor Ashoka. It honors Ashoka as a Buddhist emperor whose ambition was to spread Buddhism far and wide.
It is also known as Ashokarajavadana. It is one of the Avadana texts contained in the Divyavadana. It is an anthology of several Buddhist legends and narratives.
According to Jean Przyluski, the Buddhist monks of the Mathura region composed the text, because it highly praises the city of Mathura, its monasteries, and its monk.
When was Ashokavadana composed?
There are different versions of Ashokavadana dated from 5th-century CE to 16th-century CE. Its oral origin goes back to the 2nd-century BCE.
The existing version of Ashokavadana is a part of Divyavadana, a Sanskrit-language anthology of Buddhist legends.
But, it’s old Chinese translation A-yu Wang Chuan (300 CE), and A-yu Wang Ching (512 CE) suggest that it once existed as an independent text.
Translations of Ashokavadana
Ashokavadana was translated into Chinese by An Faqin (安法欽) in 300 CE as A-yu Wang Chuan (阿育王传, the narrative of King Ashoka), and later as Ayu Wang Ching (zh:阿育王经) by Sanghapala in 512 CE.
In 1923, Jean Przyluski translated A-yu Wang Chuan into French. Annotated sections of the Ashokavadana are part of Rajendralala Mitra’s (1822–91) “The Sanskrit Buddhist Literature of Nepal”. Mitra widely uses the translation made by M. E. Burnouf.
An English translation of Ashokavadana by John S. Strong was published in 1983 by Princeton University (Princeton University Press).
Narratives of Ashokavadana
Life of Upagupta
Ashokavadana begins with the stories of Upagupta, the Buddhist monk who eventually becomes Ashoka’s spiritual teacher. It gives glimpses of Upagupta’s past lives(previous birth) and his present life before becoming a monk as a son of a perfume merchant in Mathura.
Then it describes his youth, including his encounters with a courtesan named Vasavadatta. Lastly, it talks about his ordination as a monk and his conversion of the demon Mara.
Early Life of Ashoka
Next, the text tells us about one of Ashoka’s previous births, when he was named Jaya. It states that Jaya met Gautama Buddha as a young boy, and gave him a bowl of filth, dreaming that filth is food.
The Buddha then predicted that several years after his Parinirvana, the boy would be born as Chakravarti King, the ruler of Pataliputra. The text then moves on to Ashoka’s present life as the son of King Bindusara.
In the text, Ashoka’s father hates him as he was ugly, although an astrologer predicts that Ashoka will become the next king. In fact, Ashoka killed his half-brother – the legitimate heir – to enter a pit with the coals of living embers, and became king.
Ashoka becomes a harsh ruler, who becomes famous as “Ashok the Fear”. 500 of his ministers were killed because they believe they are not loyal enough, and 500 women were burned in his harem because some of them insulted him.
He creates Ashoka’s Hell, where people are randomly tortured and killed. One day, he is faced by a Buddhist monk, who is not bothered by any suffering and is able to perform magical tricks.
Influenced by the monk, Ashoka turned to Buddhism, became a religious man, and built 84,000 stupas, which became famous as “Ashoka the righteous” (Dharma-Ashoka).
Ashoka’s Buddhist Kingship
The text depicts in detail Ashoka’s attempts to expand Buddhism: Ashoka first converts his brother Vitashoka to Buddhism and teaches his monks to respect Buddhist monks.
Thereafter, he meets Upagupta and accompanies Upagupta to visit the holy places connected with the life of Gautama Buddha. He then went to see the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya, 16 km (9.9 mi) from the modern city of Gaya, where Buddha had enlightened.
Every five years, he holds a great festival to invite Buddhist monks. During the festival, he meets Pindola Bharadwaja, an Aratha (enlightened saint) who knew Buddha personally and extended his lifetime by using supernatural powers to deliver the Buddha’s teachings.
Story of Kunala
The text then tells the story of Kunal, the son of Ashoka: the prince is a beautiful and honest man who loved his father. As a result of a plot hatched by his stepmother Tishirakshita, Kunal was isolated from the royal capital.
He achieves enlightenment, and wanders off as a beggar, earning by singing and playing the harp. He eventually returns to the capital and meets his father.
Ashoka’s Last Days
The text depicts Ashoka’s last days as follows: Ashoka actually gets ill, and using money starts making generous donations to Buddhist monks. To prevent the royal treasury from being emptied, his ministers denied him access to the state fund.
Ashok then starts donating his personal property but is prevented from doing so. On his deathbed, his sole possession is half of a Marobalan fruit, which he gives to the Buddhist Sang (monastic community) as his final donation. After that, no property was left in his name.
Lastly, the text tells the story of King Pushyamitra, whom he represents as a descendant of Ashoka. Pushyamitra kills Buddhist monks, thus attempting to undo Ashoka’s legacy.
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