The Constantine and Ashoka of Legend: A Study. III: The Conversion of Ashoka

The Constantine and Ashoka of Legend: A Study. III: The Conversion of Ashoka May 29, 2008

Part I
Part II

Just like with Constantine, a legend developed about the conversion of Ashoka which was quite different from reality. Even though he had produced a great number of monuments which were placed throughout India with texts that provided a great amount of insight to his life, including his conversion, no one could read them.[1]Yet, the people remembered Ashoka had created them, and their presence encouraged scholars to tell andretell what they had heard about him, making his legend one of the most important ones to come out of Buddhist India. He was known to the Indians, and to the rest of the Buddhist world, as Ashoka the Great; after his conversion, he was to be seen as a devout follower of the Buddha, who, among other things, helped establish stupa to house the relics of the Buddha as pilgrimage sites throughout the region.[2]

The story of Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism within the Asokavadanahas several layers to it. Some elements of his conversion are based upon factors from a previous life. In that life, he had met the Buddha when he (Ashoka) was a young child. Although he did not have much to give, he gave what he could: the boy placed a handful of dirt in the Buddha’s begging bowl, thinking he was giving a wonderful gift to the Enlightened One. The intention was pure, and so it was welcomed by the Buddha who smiled upon him. Because of this deed, the Buddha said that in another life Ashoka would become a great king, and as a king, he would establish the Buddhist faith within his kingdom. Despite the intention of the young child, dirt was not a fit gift for the Buddha. Thus, when he was born as Ashoka, he was born with a horrible skin condition making him hideous to look at.

Ashoka’s father disliked him. One of his brothers, Susima, was his father’s favorite and the heir apparent. Yet, as a prince, Ashoka certainly held a great amount of authority within the kingdom. Thus, when one part of the kingdom or another would revolt against the authority of the king, Ashoka would be sent to help take care of the situation. Accordingly, he was able to squash the rebellion peacefully, without having to resort to violence. His brother fared much worse. It was during such a time, when Ashoka’s brother was away trying to squash a rebellion, that his father lay dying. The king’s ministers, seeing the situation, and believing that Ashoka would be a more favorable successor than his brother, tried to have Ashoka declared king in his brother’s absence. Ashoka’s father would not have it. The gods, however, confirmed that Ashoka was to rule, and when they came down to announce it, Ashoka’s father coughed up blood and died.

As soon as Ashoka had taken the throne, his personality changed. The first thing he had to do was make sure his brother would not return and demand the kingdom from him. With the aid of his ministers, he prepared a trap for Susima at the entryway to the city: they place a pit full of fiery charcoal there, expecting Susima to rush in to the city without caution. The trap was a success. After Susiuma heard of his father’s death, he quickly returned home, and fell into the pit as expected.[3]Ashoka’s newfoundpower got the best of him. He ordered his ministers around, and when they would not obey to the letter, he had them killed. And, in one terrible incident, his rage led him to have five hundred of his concubines burned alive. From such actions, he was to become known throughout the land as “Ashoka the Fierce.”[4]

His prime minister noticed that he was out of control. He was not governing the land well. His primary focus was one which should have been secondary: judging people and acting as their executioner when needed. There was much more he should be doing, but he wasn’t. The prime minister suggested a solution: Ashoka should create the position of royal executioner, and let the judgment and punishment be put into that man’s hand. Agreeing to this, Ashoka found the most wretched of young men, a young boy named Girika (also known as Canagirika), and gave him the position of executioner. Under Girika’s guidance, Ashoka built a prison which was beautiful on the outside, but horrible within, a prison that became known as Ashoka’s hell.[5]Because Girika pleased Ashoka, he was able to make a rather unusual request and be granted it: anyone who came upon the prison grounds would not be allowed out alive.

One day a Buddhist monk, Samudra, while wandering throughout India happened to enter Girika’s prison. From the outside, he saw how beautiful it was, but once he entered the grounds he saw it was as hideous as any hell he had heard about, and quickly wanted to leave. Girikastopped him. Pleased to find another victim, Girika gave the monk seven days to prepare for his death. In that time, Samudra attained the level of arhatand was prepared to meet his end. Yet, when the time came, a miracle occurred. Girika had Samudra placed in a pot of boiling water, but after he was placed within it, Samudra did not suffer at all. “Straight-away, he [Girika] sent word to King Asoka. Asoka came to witness this marvel, and thousands of people gathered, and Samudra, seated in the cauldron, realized that the time for Asoka’s conversion was at hand.”[6]

Seeing that the monk in the cauldron was unaffected by the burning water or fire underneath, Ashoka asked him who he was, so that he could become the monk’s disciple. Seeing that Ashoka would indeed convert, Samudra related to him that he was a Buddhist monk, freed from “the bonds of being[7]– and that he had been released from them by the teachings of the Buddha. Then Samudra, able to see who Ashoka had been in a previous life, told him how who he was and the Buddha’s prophecy about him. It was now time for the prophecy to be fulfilled. Ashoka, upon hearing the tale, and seeing the monk before him, believed and confessed that he had indeed done evil, and that it was his intention to follow the Buddha’s teachings thereafter.[8]Samudra then “departed from that place by means of his supernatural powers.”[9]Despite what had occurred, Girika was unmoved, and he looked to Ashoka with the plan of having him killed (for Ashoka had come upon the prison grounds, and Girika believed that Ashoka’s promise included him as well). Seeing the wretched desire of his executioner, Ashoka had his guards take Girika and have him “burned to death.”[10]For, as Ashoka pointed out, if the promise must be kept, it would not do to exclude Girika from its dictates either. After his conversion, Ashoka’a character was reformed, and instead of being known as Ashoka the Fierce, he became known thereafter as Ashoka the Righteous.[11]


[1]According to the monuments Ashokaleft behind, it was the cruelty of war which motivated his conversion to Buddhism. He had undertaken a devastating war to annex  the Kingdom of the Three Kalingas.  Although that war ended in success, the cruelty he engaged for success left an impression on his conscience. Afterwards, he came to the conclusion that he could no longer live in such a violent kind of existence, and this led him to fully embrace Buddhist dharma. “When that edict, which expressly ascribes Asoka’s conversion to his remorse for the sufferings caused by the war in the ninth ‘regnal year’, is read together with the Minor Rock Edict […] it seems to be a necessary inference that Asoka became a lay disciple under the Buddhist system in his ninth ‘regnal year,’ immediately after the conquest of Kalinga. . .” Vincent Smith, Asoka: The Buddhist Emperor of India. 2nd ed. (Delhi: S. Chand & Co., 1964), 27.
[2]Archeology has helped confirm that Ashoka had a role in establishing and enlarging several of the Buddhist stupas. “On the archeological side, Asoka may be considered responsible for the construction of the earliest stupas at Sanchi, Sarnath, Amaravati, and Taxila, and possible for the enlargement of the existing Lichchhavi midi-stupa at Vaisali.” Dilip K. Chakrabarti, “Buddhist Sites Across South Asia as Influenced by Political and Economic Forces,” in World Archeology 72, no.2 (1995): 196.

[3]Susima immediately rushed to the eastern gate, intending to do battle with his half-brother, but he fell into the ditch full of charcoal, and came to an untimely and painful end.” John S. Strong, The Legend of King Asoka, 210.
[4] Ibid., 210-11.
[5]Girika had heard Buddhist monks describe the five great kinds of suffering in hell. Devious as he was, he delighted in their descriptions and worked to recreate those sufferings within his prison.  “‘Such are the five great agonies,’ Canagirika reflected, and he began to inflict the same tortures on people in his prison.” Ibid., 213.
[6] Ibid., 216.
[7] Ibid., 217.

[8] See Ibid., 218.
[9] Ibid., 218.
[10] Ibid., 219.
[11] See Ibid., 17.

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