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2. Ashoka and Pushyamitra, iconoclasts?

2. Ashoka and Pushyamitra, iconoclasts?

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’etat. 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 Divyavadana 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.

The story is in fact given in two near contemporaneous (2nd century A.D.) Buddhist histories, the Asokavadana and the Divyavadana; 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

In consulting 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 Asokavadana (‘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 Asokavadana, 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 (Mahavira) 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 dinara (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.

Typically, Mukhopadhyaya 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 Mahavamsa 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 beings.

Mukhopadhyaya’s 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’.

It is at the end of the Asokavadana that we find the oft-quoted story that Pushyamitra offered one dinara 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 against Ashoka.

Mukhopadhyaya can only save Ashoka’s secular reputation by accusing the Asokavadana 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

However, contrary 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.

Buddhism does 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.


  1. Tavleen Singh: ‘Running out of control’, Indian Express, 25-7-1993. 

  2. E.g. Varahamihira: Brihatsamhita, ch.57, 59. 

  3. Gargi Chakravartty ‘BJP-RSS and Distortion of History’, in Pratul Lahiri, ed.: Selected Writings on Communalism, People’s Publishing House, Delhi 1994, p. 166-167. 

  4. J. Sarkar: Shivaji and his Times, Orient Longman, Delhi 1992 (1919), p.161, 165-167. 

  5. Avadana, ‘narrative’, is the Buddhist equivalent of Purana. Divyavadana = ‘divine narrative’. 

  6. The 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. 

  7. E. Lamotte: History of Indian Buddhism, Institut Orientaliste, Louvain-la-Neuve 1988 (1958), p. 109. 

  8. S. 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. 

  9. S. 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. 

  10. Both 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. 

  11. Piers Vitebsky: De sjamaan, Kosmos, Utrecht 1996 (1995), p. 135. 

  12. S. Mukhopadhyaya: The Ashokavadana, p.134. 

  13. S. Mukhopadhyaya: The Ashokavadana, p.xxxviii.