2. Ashoka and
One of the diversionary
tactics employed by the “eminent historians” in order to shield Islamic
iconoclasm from the public eye is to allege that Hinduism itself is the
guilty religion, viz. of persecuting minority religions such as Buddhism.
So much is this accusation now taken for granted, that any attempt to stick
to the historical record fills the secularists with exasperation at such
Hindu fanatical blindness. Thus, Tavleen Singh
challenges us: “Try, for instance, to get a BJP leader to admit that Hindus
did to Buddhist shrines pretty much what Muslims were later to do with
Hindu temples and you will find that it is nearly impossible.”1
Sadly, some Buddhists
have taken the bait and interiorized this line of anti-Hindu polemic, which
also ties in neatly with the pro-Buddhist bias in Nehruvian and Western
Indology. How painfully ungrateful. While Hinduism has received
from Islam nothing but murder and destruction, Buddhism owes a lot to Hinduism.
Apart from its very existence, it has received from Hinduism toleration,
alms by Hindu laymen, sons and daughters of Hindus to fill its monasteries
and nunneries, land grants and funding by Hindu rulers, protection by Hindu
rulers against lawlessness and against the Islamic invaders between the
mid-7th and the late 12th century. In many
cases, Buddhist temples formed part of large pluralist temple-complexes,
and Hindu codes of art and architecture dealt with Buddha on a par with
Shiva and other objects of depiction and worship.2
Whatever the facts,
we are now faced with a massive propaganda alleging Hindu persecution of
Buddhism. Let us study one example: the story of alleged Hindu persecution
of Buddhism by Pushyamitra, a general in the service of the declining Maurya
dynasty, who founded the Sunga dynasty after a coup d’état.
This story provides the standard secularist “refutation” of the “myth”
that Hinduism has always been tolerant.
Thus, the Marxist
historian Gargi Chakravartty writes: “Another myth has been meticulously
promoted with regard to the tolerance of the Hindu rulers. Let us
go back to the end of second century B.C. Divyavadana, in a text of about
the second-third century A.D., depicts Pushyamitra Shunga as a great persecutor
of Buddhists. In a crusading march with a huge army he destroyed
stupas, burnt monasteries and killed monks. This
stretched up to Shakala, i.e. modern Sialkot, where he announced a reward
of 100 gold coins to the person who would bring the head of a Buddhist
monk. Even if this is an exaggeration, the acute hostility and tensions
between Pushyamitra and the monks cannot be denied.”3
We need not comment
on Chakravartty’s misreading of Divyâvadâna as a person’s
name rather than a book title. Remark the bias in the assumption
that the supposedly “undeniable” conflict between the king and the monks
proves the king’s intolerance; for what had been their own contribution
to the conflict? When Shivaji had a conflict
with the Brahmins (a well-known episode)4,
all secularists and most Hindus blame the “wily, greedy” Brahmins; there
is no good reason why the Buddhist monks should, by contrast, be assumed
to be blameless when they came in conflict with a king.
story is in fact given in two near contemporaneous (2nd century A.D.) Buddhist
histories, the Asokâvadâna and the Divyâvadâna;
the two narratives are almost verbatim the same and very obviously have
a common origin.5 This non-contemporary story
(which surfaces more than three centuries after the alleged facts) about
Pushyamitra’s offering money for the heads of Buddhist monks is rendered
improbable by external evidence: the well-attested
historical fact that he allowed and patronized the construction of monasteries
and Buddhist universities in his domains, as well as the still-extant stupa
of Sanchi.6 After Ashoka’s lavish sponsorship
of Buddhism, it is perfectly possible that Buddhist institutions fell on
slightly harder times under the Sungas, but persecution is quite another
matter. The famous historian of Buddhism Etienne
Lamotte has observed: “To judge from the documents, Pushyamitra must be
acquitted through lack of proof.”7
the source texts I noticed a significant literary fact which I have not
seen mentioned in the scholarly literature (e.g. Lamotte, just quoted),
and which I want to put on record. First of all, a look at the critical
edition of the Asokâvadâna (“Illustrious Acts of Ashoka”)
tells a story of its own concerning the idealization of Buddhism in modern
India. This is how Sujitkumar Mukhopadhyaya, the editor of the Asokâvadâna,
relates this work’s testimony about Ashoka doing to a rival sect that very
thing of which Pushyamitra is accused later on:
“At that time,
an incident occurred which greatly enraged the king. A follower of
the Nirgrantha (Mahâvîra) painted a picture, showing Buddha
prostrating himself at the feet of the Nirgrantha. Ashoka ordered
all the Ajivikas of Pundravardhana (North Bengal) to be killed. In
one day, eighteen thousand Ajivikas lost their lives. A similar kind
of incident took place in the town of Pataliputra. A
man who painted such a picture was burnt alive with his family. It
was announced that whoever would bring to the king the head of a Nirgrantha
would be rewarded with a dînâra (a gold coin). As
a result of this, thousands of Nirgranthas lost their lives.”8
Only when Vitashoka, Ashoka’s favourite Arhat (an enlightened monk, a Theravada-Buddhist
saint), was mistaken for a Nirgrantha and killed by a man desirous of the
reward, did Ashoka revoke the order.
refuses to believe his eyes at this demythologization of the “secular”
emperor Ashoka: “This is one of the best chapters of the text. The
subject, the style, the composition, everything here is remarkable.
In every shloka there is a poetic touch.( ... ) But the great defect
is also to be noticed. Here too Ashoka is described as dreadfully
cruel. If the central figure of this story were not a historic personage
as great and well-known as Ashoka, we would have nothing to say. To
say that Ashoka, whose devotion to all religious sects is unique
in the history of humanity (as is well-known through his edicts) persecuted
the Jains or the Ajivikas is simply absurd. And why speak of Ashoka
alone? There was no Buddhist king anywhere in India who persecuted
the Jains or the Ajivikas or any other sect.”9
Contrary to Mukhopadhyaya’s
confident assertion, there are a few attested cases of Buddhist-Jain conflict.
The Mahâvamsa says that the Buddhist king Vattagamini (2917
B. C.) in Sri Lanka destroyed a Jain vihara. In
the Shravana-Belgola epitaph of Mallishena, the Jain teacher Akalanka says
that after a successful debate with Buddhists, he broke a Buddha statue
with his own foot.10 The
same (rare, but not non-existent) phenomenon of Buddhist fanaticism can
be found outside India: the introduction of Buddhism in Tibet and Mongolia
is associated with a “forceful suppression” of the native Shamanism.11
In recent decades in Sri Lanka, Buddhist monks have been instrumental in
desecrating and demolishing Hindu temples. None of this proves that
Buddhist doctrine incites its followers to persecution of non-Buddhists,
but neither should anything human be considered alien to Buddhist human
refusal to face facts about Ashoka’s misconduct just goes to show how far
the idealization of Buddhism and Ashoka has gotten out of hand in Nehruvian
India. When the modern myth of Ashoka as the great secular Buddhist
ruler is contradicted by an ancient source, even one outspokenly favourable
to Buddhism and Ashoka, which shows him persecuting rival schools of thought,
the modem scholar (a Hindu Brahmin by birth) still insists on upholding
the myth, and dismisses the actual information in the ancient source as
a “great defect”.
is at the end of the Asokâvadâna that we find the oft-quoted
story that Pushyamitra offered one dînâra for every
sramanasirah, “head of a Buddhist monk”.12
Not that he got many monks killed, for, according to the account given,
one powerful Arhat created monks’ heads by magic and gave these to the
people to bring to Pushyamitra’s court, so that they could collect the
award without cutting off any real monk’s head. So, even according
to the only story cited as source for Pushyamitra’s persecution, the Hindu
villain is a ridiculous failure at killing Buddhists.
At any rate, the
striking fact, so far not mentioned in the Pushyamitra controversy, is
that the main line of the narrative making the allegation against Pushyamitra
is a carbon copy of the just-quoted account of Ashoka’s own offer
to pay for every head of a monk from a rivalling sect. Hagiographies
are notorious for competitive copying (e.g. appropriating the miracle of
another saint, multiplied by two or more, for one’s own hero); in this
case, it may have taken the form of attributing a negative feat of the
hero onto his enemy.
But there are
two differences. Firstly, in the account concerning Pushyamitra,
a miracle episode forms a crucial element, and this does not add to the
credibility of the whole. And secondly, Ashoka belongs to the writer’s
own Buddhist camp, whereas Pushyamitra is described as an enemy of Buddhism.
When something negative is said about an enemy (i.c. Pushyamitra), it is
wise to reserve one’s acceptance of the allegation until independent confirmation
is forthcoming; by contrast, when a writer alleges that his own hero has
committed a crime, there is much more reason to expect the allegation to
be correct. In the absence of external evidence, the best thing we
can do for now is to draw the logical conclusion from the internal evidence:
the allegation against Pushyamitra is much less credible than the allegation
can only save Ashoka’s secular reputation by accusing the Asokâvadâna
author of a lie, viz. of the false allegation that Ashoka had persecuted
Nirgranthas. Unfortunately, a lie would not enhance the author’s
credibility as a witness against Pushyamitra, nor as a witness for the
laudable acts of Ashoka which make up a large part of the text. So,
Mukhopadhyaya tries to present this lie (which only he himself alleges)
as a hagiographically acceptable type of lie: “in
order to show the greatness of Buddhism, the orthodox author degraded it
by painting the greatest Buddhist of the world as a dreadful religious
to Mukhopadhyaya’s explanation, there is no hint in the text that the author
meant to “show the greatness of Buddhism” by “painting the greatest Buddhist
as a religious fanatic”. By this explanation, Mukhopadhyaya means
that the writer first made Ashoka commit a great crime (the persecution
of the Nirgranthas) to illustrate the greatness of Buddhism by sheer contrast,
viz. as the factor which made Ashoka give up this crime. There is
an famous analogy for this: the cruelty of Ashoka’s conquest of Kalinga
was exaggerated by scribes in order to highlight the violence-renouncing
effect of Ashoka’s subsequent conversion to Buddhism. But in this
passage, Buddhism plays no role in Ashoka’s change of heart: it is only
the sight of his own friend, killed by mistake, which makes him revoke
the order. And it is his commitment to Buddhism which prompts Ashoka
to persecute the irreverent Nirgranthas in the first place.
not gain from this account, and if a Buddhist propagandist related it nonetheless,
it may well be that it was a historical fact too well-known at the time
to be omitted. By contrast, until proof of the contrary, the carbon-copy
allegation against Pushyamitra may very reasonably be dismissed as sectarian
propaganda. But a 20th-century Hindu scholar will twist and turn
the literary data in order to uphold a sectarian and miracle-based calumny
against the Hindu ruler Pushyamitra, and to explain away a sobering testimony
about the fanaticism of Ashoka, that great secularist patron of Buddhism.
Such is the quality of the “scholarship” deployed to undermine the solid
consensus that among the world religions, Hinduism has always been the
most tolerant by far.
Singh: “Running out of control”, Indian Express, 25-7-1993.
Varahamihira: Brihatsamhitâ, ch.57, 59.
Chakravartty “BJP-RSS and Distortion of History”, in Pratul Lahiri, ed.:
Selected Writings on Communalism, People’s Publishing House, Delhi
1994, p. 166-167.
Sarkar: Shivaji and his Times, Orient Longman, Delhi 1992 (1919),
“narrative”, is the Buddhist equivalent of Purâna. Divyâvâdana
= “divine narrative”.
same argument exists in the reverse direction concerning the Kushana king
Kanishka (lst-2nd century A.D.). This patron of Mahayana Buddhism is sometimes
accused of persecuting Brahmins, but the sparse physical testimony argues
against this: on his coins, he honoured Greek, Zoroastrian and Brahmanic
deities along with the Buddha.
Lamotte: History of Indian Buddhism, Institut Orientaliste, Louvain-la-Neuve
1988 (1958), p. 109.
Mukhopadhyaya: The Ashokavadana, Sahitya Akademi, Delhi 1963, p.xxxvii.
In footnote, Mukhopadhyaya correctly notes that the author “seems to have
confused the Nirgranthas (Jains) with the Ajivikas”, a similar ascetic
sect. Nirgrantha = “freed from fetters”, a Jaina.
Mukhopadhyaya: The Ashokavadana, p.xxxviii. In fact, the non-persecution
of other religions, claimed here for Ashoka against the very evidence under
discussion, was not unique at all: it was the rule among Hindu kings throughout
history, and the Buddha himself had been one of its beneficiaries.
instances cited by S.R. Goel: Hindu Temples, vol.2 (2nd ed.), p.413,
with reference to Epigraphica Indica, vol.3, p.192 and p.201.
Vitebsky: De sjamaan, Kosmos, Utrecht 1996 (1995), p. 135.
Mukhopadhyaya: The Ashokavadana, p.134.
Mukhopadhyaya: The Ashokavadana, p.xxxviii.
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