Tuesday, November 3, 2009

If it had not been for King Ashoka

The visit of cvltvre's colleagues to India prompted me to reread the few books I had about that great country, especially one written by John Keay, "India Discovered: The Recovery of a Lost Civilation".
My favorite chapters were "Thus Spake Ashoka" and "Black and Time-Stained Rocks", about how James Prinsep, a British official sent to work at the mint in Bengal in 1819, who was key to the deciphering of then unknown scripts found on impressive polished sandstone pillars and boundary stones scattered over an area so wide it was challenging to imagine who had done such a remarkable feat.

from flickr, photographer: Sunaina Suneja.

Nowadays, we know that these remarkable pillars and edicts were left by King Ashoka two thousand years ago, forgotten until it caught the intrigue of British enthusiasts in the early nineteenth century.

King Ashoka (304 BC-232BC), who had signed these edicts as "Devam Piya Priyadasi Raja", was grandson of Chandragupta (also known in ancient Greece as Sandracottus), founder of the Mauryan Empire.

Ashoka was a terrible warrior, and in his rage for the murder of his mother, he not only murdered his half-brothers who had schemed against him, but also killed some 100,000 people of Kalinga. However, once the war was over, the sight of such destruction sickened him to the heart and turned him to pursue ahimsa (non-violence) and thus became the greatest patron of then relatively new religion of Buddhism, building temples, hospitals, universities, irrigation systems, sending monks to many parts of the world to spread its teaching.

King Ashoka convened the Third Buddhist Council, led by his brother, an ordained monk, in 250-253 BC. He also sent his own son and daughter to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to spread the teachings of Buddha where it has never faded out as it had in India soon after his death. Historically significant for Thailand (where I am from) was sending of Sohn Uttar Sthavira, a royal monk and many other with sacred texts to Suvannabhumi (Burma and Thailand) around 228 BC.

The following entry in wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashoka_the_Great) explains how important King Asokha was for Thai culture:

"One of the more enduring legacies of Ashoka Maurya was the model that he provided for the relationship between Buddhism and the state. Throughout Theravada Southeastern Asia, the model of ruler ship embodied by Ashoka replaced the notion of divine kingship that had previously dominated (in the Angkhor kingdom, for instance). Under this model of 'Buddhist kingship', the king sought to legitimize his rule not through descent from a divine source, but by supporting and earning the approval of the Buddhist sangha. Following Ashoka's example, kings established monasteries, funded the construction of stupas, and supported the ordination of monks in their kingdom. Many rulers also took an active role in resolving disputes over the status and regulation of the sangha, as Ashoka had in calling a conclave to settle a number of contentious issues during his reign. This development ultimately lead to a close association in many Southeast Asian countries between the monarchy and the religious hierarchy, an association that can still be seen today in the state-supported Buddhism of Thailand and the traditional role of the Thai king as both a religious and secular leader."

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