Asoka's mission to Ceylon and some connected problems


The Indian Historical Quarterly,

Vol. 4:4 , 1928

p. 667 There is yet considerable difference of opinion regarding the date and the process of the conversion of Ceylon to Buddhism, and scholars are not wanting who hold that although Ceylonese Buddhism is an undeniable fact it is difficult to believe that it was the work of Asoka, and that Mahendra and Sanghamitra were ever historical persons entrusted with the mission. V. A. Smith(1) cites the authority of Oldenberg(2) to show that the entire account as given in the Ceylon chronicles is a myth and that the inscriptions of Asoka are silent about Ceylon. Buddhism certainly was introduced into Ceylon at an early date, but the process was much slower than it is generally represented to have been. Subsequently this opinion seems to have been modi- fied when, in the Early History of India (4th Ed., 1924, pp. 193, 195), it is admitted that Asoka is responsible for the conversion of Ceylon, but it took place late in his reign. This conclusion is apparently based on the following assumptions:- (1) Asoka's inscriptions, particularly R.E., II and XIII, while mentioning the foreign missions of the great Buddhist Emperor of India, are absolutely silent about Ceylon and Mahendra and Sanghamitra. (2) Asoka mentions Tamraparni in the above two Rock Edicts, but it is to be taken as meaning the river of that name which flows through the Tinnevelli district in the extreme south of the peninsula.(3) (3) It is difficult to believe that Mahendra came flying through the air, "as flies the king of swans," and that his first discourse converted the king and forty thousand of his subjects.(4) It is rather more natural to suppose that as Asoka's mission to the Tamil countries --------------------- 1 Ind. Ant. 1918, pp. 48-9 ; Asoka (R. I. Series, 1919) pp. 47-8. 2 Intro. to the Vinayapitakam, by Oldenberg, vol. I, pp. lii-lv. 3 Imp. Gaz. of India (1908), sub. voc. Tambraparni, pp. 215-16 ; Hultzsch, JRAS.(1910), p. 1310, n.4. Hultzsch, Corpus Ins. Ind. (vol. I), p. xxxix ; p.3, n. 10. Although he revises his opinion and takes Tamraparni to mean Ceylon, he still maintains that it was the name of a river in S. India. Apparently he keeps the problem open. 4 V. Smith, Asoka, p. 50. p. 668 was quite successful, as testified by the Chinese travellers of the 5th and 7th centuries, Mahendra took ship at some port in southern India and adopted steps for the conversion of Ceylon.(1) The fact that we do not find in the inscriptions of Asoka any mention of Mahendra and Sanghamitra is in no way surprising. Asoka's inscriptions are very terse; they do not give us any names, either of the prince governors or officers or the Buddhist sages who found favour with him, and even the Emperor's name occurs in only one inscription (Maski). In R.E., XIII where the foreign missions are mentioned, they are not associated with any names save that of Piyadasi, and therefore it is but natural that even if they include the Ceylonese mission it would not give us the names of persons who conducted the movement. An argumentum silentio is no argument, and we cannot infer from it the non-existence of Mahendra and the impossibility of the Ceylonese mission. Moreover, the names of Mahendra and Sanghamitra were certainly more important and venerable to the monks of Ceylon than to Asoka himself, and while R.E., XIII speaks only of the foreign missions and not of the missioners, the monkish chronicles give a detailed account of these missions and of the missioners associated with them.(2) Regarding the contention whether the inscriptions of Asoka refer to Ceylon, it is easier to be precise. The pivot of controversy is the word 'Tambapanni' occurring in R. E., XIII in connection with the foreign missions, 'Tambapanni,' no doubt, may mean the Tinnevelli district in the extreme south. But it is a modern identification,(3) and we are not sure if that was the name of the river in the Asokan age. If we are to arrive at a proper identification, we must know what country in the days of Asoka was called by that name. Here both indigenous and foreign sources come to our aid. ---------------------- 1 V. Smith, Asoka, pp, 48-50. 2 Geiger, Mahavamsa, p.82. 3 Imp, Gaz. of Ind. (1908), pp, 215-16. 'The Tamils 1800 years ago' by V, Kanaka Sabhai, p. 23, The river Tamraparni became important in later times. Its old name, in Tamil, was 'Sembil.' In the Beginnings of S. Ind. Hist. by S. K. Aiyangar, pp. 62-3 a passage is quoted from the Ramayana to prove the existence of the river in S. India; but as the author admits, the passage in question may be comparatively modern. p. 669 In the chronicles of Ceylon we get a full account of the names which the island was known. In the days of the three former Buddhas the island had the names of Ojadipa, Varadipa and Mandadipa.(1) At the time of Buddha, and consequently of Vijaya, the port of landing and the city founded near it, was called Tambapanni.(2) At the time of Vijaya's successor Panduvasadeva the port was called 'Tammena'.(3) It was also called Tammapanni in the days of Mahendra and consequently of Asoka, and the island was so called because the dust of the place which stuck to the hands and knees of Mahendra and his followers was copper-coloured.(4) The name, therefore, was that of the port and the city originally, but afterwards it covered the whole island. Foreign writers also speak of Ceylon under the name of 'Taprobane'. In the 1st century A.C. Ptolemy wrote: "Opposite Cape Kory, which is in India, is the projecting point of the island of Taprobane, which was called formerly Simoundou, and now Salike."(5) We may remark here that Simoundou probably stands for Mandadipa mentioned in the Ceylon chronicles. The author of the Periplus,(6) belonging to the same country as Ptolemy, says that the old name of the island was 'Taprobane'. These foreign accounts of the post-Asokan period are also confirmed by an almost contemporary account, that of Megasthenes. Megasthenes says that "Taprobane is separated from the mainland by a river; that the inhabitants are called Palaiogonoi, and that their country is more productive of gold and large pearls than India."(7) It is therefore reasonable to hold that Tambapanni referred to in Asoka's R.E. II and XIII stands for Ceylon and not for the Tamra- parni river in Southern India (which is a comparatively modern name) or the adjoining country. ---------------------- 1 Dip., I, 73; IX, 20 ; Maha., XV, 59, 93, 127. 2 Dip., IX, 31; Rajavali, p. 16 (Gunasekara) where it is called Tammanna-Tota. 3 Rajavali, p. 20. 4 Dip., IX, 30, 31. 5 M'Crindle's Ancient India as described by Ptolemy, p. 247. 6 Schoff, p. 47. 7 M'Crindle's Ancient India as described by Megasthenes and Arrian, p. 62. The reference to Tamraparnika as a kind of gem in Kautilya's Arthasastra (Book II, ch. XI) is not relevant to our enquiry, as the problem of the age of the treatise is still an open question. I.H.Q., DECEMBER, 1928 p. 670 The Ceylonese story of Mahendra's aerial flight to the island may be a little over-done, but it is quite of a piece with other stories connected with the foreign missions. Almost all the missioners are said to have possessed "great magical powers," and many of them, besides Mahendra, pass through the air and perform other miracles,(1) The point, therefore, is taken out of the argument of V.A. Smith that it was from a southern port, and not directly, that Mahendra went over to the island, On the other hand, there are undeniable facts to show that Mahendra went straight to Ceylon and that the Tamil country had very little to impose, in matters of religion at least, upon the neighbouring island. The arrival of Mahendra was not, as Smith holds, synchronous with the first intrusion of Buddhistic ideas, nor is it tenable as Cunninghiam(2) supposes, that there was no intercourse between India and Ceylon before Mahendra In spite of their legendary character, the Ceylon chronicles enable us to arrive regarding the matter under enquiry at some general truths, which only stiff scepticism can deny. In the Dipavamsa, mention is made of the visits of the previous Buddhas, Kakusandha, Konagamana and Kassapa. This may be a pure fiction. But the account that Vijaya landed in Ceylon and established the historical dynasty of the island, that Panduvasadeva came from India to succeed Vijaya, that he married a Sakya princess brought over from India, that; Pandukabhaya built religious edifices for Nirgranthas, Brahmanas, Parivrajakas and Ajivikas, and that Devanampiya Tissa sent a mission to Asoka who was Tissa's "dear ally" has a value of its own when taken together, and it points unmistakably to the conclusion that from the time of Vijaya onwards there was a constant intercourse between India and Ceylon, which might have influenced the socioreligious ideas of the islanders so as to make them afterwards amenable to the teachings of Asoka.(3) That the way was gradually prepared for the introduction of Buddhism is also borne out by the inscriptions of Asoka. In R.E. II, Asoka says that everywhere in his dominions and in the frontier kingdoms of the Colas, Pandyas Keralaputras, Satiyaputras, and of Tamraparni, as well as in those of king Antiochus and his neighbours he had established medical treatment of two kinds, that for men and that for animals, We are fully aware of the ---------------------- 1 Dip., VIII, 5-12; Maha., XII, II, 31. 2 Anc. Geo. of India, p. 561. 3 Eliot, Hinduism and Buddhism, vol. III, pp. 13, 14. p. 671 existence of diplomatic relations between the Maurya sovereigns and the kings of Syria which might have facilitated Asoka's philanthropic measures. Is it too much to hold, in a similar strain, that in the case of Ceylon also there had been, from an earlier time, relations of some sort with the Magadha house? Asoka's R.E. II does not mean the introduction of Buddhism, but of the Buddhistic idea of kindness and non-killing, which paved the way for the introduction, later on, of Buddhism proper, as recorded in a subsequent edict, R.E. XIII. Nor, in the absence of any positive proof, can it be maintained that it was from the Tamil country that Mahendra went over to the island. In fact, there are traditions which cannot be altogether neglected, pointing to the conclusion that Asoka's missions were not as successful in the Tamil country as in Ceylon, that Ceylon maintained a cultural integrity of its own and to some extent influenced, rather than being itself influenced by, the religion of the mainland. The story of the famine of 12 years in the time of Candragupta Maurya, during which a section of the Jaina community under Bhadrabahu migrated to Southern India, is associated with the abdication of Candragupta Maurya and his death at Sravana-Belgola in Belola in Mysore.(1) It shows that Jainism in Southern India was older than the Buddhism of Asoka by at least half a century. In the days of Asoka, the older religion might have been pushed back by Buddhism, but that the latter was not a popular cult and did not have a permanent hold on the country is evident from the subsequent history of the South. In Hemacandra's Parisistaparvan (XI, 89-102) it is related that Samprati, the successor of Asoka and a zealous convert to the Jaina faith, sent missionaries to the Andhras and the Dramilas, brought the uncivilised nations under the influence of Jainism and made the southern country fit for the settlement of Jaina monks. That this story is not a pure fiction but has a substratum of truth is amply borne out by the fact that notwithstanding Asoka's Buddhistic propaganda the southern nations ultimately gave up Buddhism and came to cherish the Digambara Jainas and the Saiva religion.(2) At ---------------------- 1 Lewis Rice, Mysore and Coorg from the Inscrip- tions, pp. 4 ff. V. Smith, Early History of India, 4th Edition, pp. 154, 458. 2 S.K. Aiyanger, Beginnings of South Indian History, pp. 99, 100. The Mauryas were in hostile occupation of forts on the p. 672 the time of Hiuen Tsang, in the Cola country and the country round about Madura the few Buddhist monasteries were in a ruinous condition;(1) in the Pandya and Pallava countries there were numerous Hindu gods and Jaina temples and ascetics. Not only this, the Buddhism of Southern India owed a great deal to Ceylon, and Conjeeveram was long a Buddhist centre which kept up intercourse with both Ceylon and Burma.(2) Having established the hypothesis(3) that 'Tambapanni' of the Asokan edicts is no other than Ceylon, and that Ceylonese Buddhism was not a graft from the Southern Indian stock but a direct import from the north, it would be well for us now to attempt to find out the date of the conversion of Ceylon. References to Tambapanni are found only in R.E.s II and XIII. Of these, as we have seen, R.E. II concerns itself with the provision of medical treatment in the foreign countries, and not with the introduction of Buddhism. The conversion of these countries was a later achievement for which the way was prepared by Asoka's philanthropic activities in these regions. Hence it follows that R.E. XIII was later in date than R.E. II, and in fact, it is more reasonable to hold that the edicts of Asoka are not complete sets, as Senart indicates,(4) but rescripts incised at different times, either singly or in groups as occasions arose.(5) This conclusion is strengthened by the following facts among others: (1) Referring to the Kalsi rock, Hultzsch (Corpus, XI) admits that as the last portion of the ins- cription is written in a bolder type and ---------------------- northern border of the Tamil land, and hostility between Southern Hinduism and Northern Buddhism led to the expulsion of the northerners when the paramount power weakened. 1 Watters, Yuan Chwang, vol. II, pp. 224, 228. 2 Eliot, Hinduism and Buddhism, vol. I, p. xxv. 3 My conclusions have been confirmed, although in an indirect way, by Soma Sundara Desikar's article, the Mauryan Invasion of Tamilakam (IHQ. , vol. IV, no. I, pp. 135 ff.). 4 Ind. Ant., 1891, pp. 236ff. 5 H.K. Dev quoted in D. R. Bhandarkar's Asoka, pp.47, 47 n.1 266ff. Prof. Rhandarkar began with a correct assumption but ended with the conclusion that the dates in the different Rock Edicts refer to the events narrated and not to the actual engraving, and that the whole set was engraved as one document late in his reign. p. 673 a separate face of the rock is utilised, this last portion probably was of a later date. (2) Portions of the 13th Edict of the Shah- bazgarhi group were traced out on the back of the main rock (Corpus, XII). (3) Tile Dhauli rock does not contain Edicts ,XI to XIII of the Girnar version, but compensates for them by two separate edicts (Corpus, XIII). (4) The Mansera group is engraved on three boulders; the 13th and the 14th are incised on the third boulder (Corpus, XII, XIII). (5) At Jaugada the main set is inscribed in two tablets, and a third tablet contains the two additional edicts and are enclosed in a separate frame (Corpus, XIV). (6) The Delhi-Topra pillar is unique of its kind, because it alone gives the seventh and the most important edict. But the concluding portion of this last edict runs all round the pillar (Corpus, XVI). This shows that probably it was incised last, at a later date, and therefore, for want of space, which was originally calculated to contain six and not seven edicts, the last one was made to run round the whole shaft. (7) The three Minor Rock Inscriptions of the Mysore State (Siddhapura, Brahmagiri and Jatinga- Ramesvara) contain an extra edict which is not found in the northern versions. (8) The Girnar R.E.s are all separately engraved and separated by horizontal lines, The reason probably is that as each edict was written, it was thought fit by the engraver to mark off the preceding one by a line. (9) Each edict begins with the word 'Devanampiya' and gives a separate sentiment. It is a self-contained whole, and the connection between the edicts in one inscription is more accidental than real. It is quite possible that there should not be any incongruity in the edicts being placed together, as the ideas of Asoka are everywhere almost the same, all pertaining to the Dhamma he inculcated. (10) The edicts of Asoka give different dates in one and the same inscription. Nowhere is a data given which may be regarded as the date of the entire inscription. Either a single edict or a group of edicts is dated out of the whole set, and therefore there were different engravings at different times with dates. If we assume, therefore, that the edicts in each inscription were not inscribed as a complete set, but at different dates on different occasions, we shall not be wrong if we assign the R. E.s specially to p. 674 different dates, Some of them were engraved in the 13th, and some in the 14th year after Asoka's coronation. But the real difficulty lies with the dating of the 13th R.E. which gives an account of the foreign missions. Senart and others who have taken the series as one document have unhesitatingly assigned the edict in question to the 14th year--the latest date in the inscription. Others,(1) while regarding the entire series as one single document, are of opinion that the actual engraving could not have been done before the 28th regnal year, the year in which Pillar Edict VII was issued. This sort of argument raises three difficulties. (1) It is difficult to understand why Asoka, contrary to his usual practice, should postpone the actual engraving of this set of edicts till at least 14 years had elapsed after the occurrence of events described by a majority of them. (2) Granting that the date of the engraving was not earlier than the 28th year, it does not follow that R. E. XIII particularly, records events which took place in that year or a little later. They might have occurred very much later. In short, we are again in a chronological difficulty, and it is impossible to fix a date for the events discussed within a reasonably short period. Again, the sponsors of the above argument have been forced to take up this position because they have taken R.E. II and XIII to refer to the same events, and have hence come to the conclusion that the entire series was engraved at one and the same time, and that not earlier than the 28th regnal year. They found it difficult to explain the dates as given in R.E. III, IV and V. But as I have pointed out, R. E. II is different from R.E. XIII in its content, and, therefore, even assuming that R. E. II was inscribed in the 13th year, we shall not be wrong if we assign a later date to R. E. XIII. (3) Moreover, their argument rests on the assump- tion that Pillar Edict VII is a resume of the acts of Dhamma performed by Asoka till his 28th year. This assumption, which is that of almost all scholars who have dealt authoritatively with the subject, is, I think, erroneous, and even if not wholly so, it is dangerous to build chronological conclusions on an uncertain piece of evidence. (a) Rhys David's position is untenable. Unable to account for the stupas and monasteries and the missions to the Greek countries. ---------------------- 1 Cf, Bhandarkar's Asoka, pp. 47 n. 1, 267-8. p. 675 which he regards as "mere royal rhodomontade,"(1) he says that Pillar Edict VII sums up all the other measures he had taken for the propagation of the Dhamma.(2) Grantingthe the Ceylonese version of the missions to be correct, is it reasonable to hold that Asoka himself should omit the foreign missions which he mentions twice in R. E. II and XIII? Even the Ceylonese mission is left out, which, according to Rhys Davids, is a reality. (b) V. Smith regards Pillar Edict VII as a resume of measures taken by Asoka "within his empire."(3) This interpretation is not warranted by the edict, and is presumably set up to explain the omission of foreign missions. He also contradicts himself when he says that in Section III of his analysis(4) there may be an allusion to the foreign missions. If, again, the edict in question deals with internal measures only, why does it omit altogether the erection of the innumerable stupas and monasteries which certainly formed an integral part of Asoka's work in the line? (c) Again, Pillar Edict VII need not be regarded as a summary of Asoka's achievements in the propagation of the Dhamma. If a summary was at all in his contemplation, it should have been firstly exhoustive, secondly written towards the close of his reign and not about ten years earlier, thus omitting some of the most important achievements with which he is credited. That it is not exhaustive is clear from the fact that it omits the erection of innumerable stupas and monasteries which, according to the Ceylon chronicles, were erected soon after his conversion.(5) Hiuen Tsang mentions more than eighty stupas and monasteries ascribed to Asoka, without counting the legendary five hundred convents in Kashmir and other large indefinite groups in other countries.(6) If the number of these structures is credible, we cannot by any stretch of imagination confine them to the last ten years of Asoka. We should, on the contrary, regard the erection of these stupas and monasteries as covering the ---------------------- 1 Rhys Davids, Buddhist India (1916), p. 298. 2 Ibid., p, 304 3 V. A. Smith, Asoka, p. 212. 4 Ibid., p. 209. 5 Dip., vi, 99; Maha., v, 79-80;also Divyavadana (tr. Cowell and Neill), p. 379 This was also the tradition current in Yuan Chwang's time. Watters, Yuan Chwang, vol, II, pp, 91, 158. 6 V. Smith, Asoka, p, 109. p. 676 whole reign, and even V. A. Smith believes that the Asokarama or Kukkutarama was the first fruits of the emperor's zeal as a convert.(1) The foregoing considerations tend to show that R. E. XIII need not necessarily belong to the I4th year of Asoka's reign, nor should it be referred to the last ten years on the basis of a wrong interpretation of Pillar Edict VII. The date of the foreign missions of Asoka, or properly speaking that of R. E. XIII, is, therefore, to be found out in other ways. Here we are on uncertain ground, and we are compelled to take some accounts and some arguments on trust. The foreign missions figure prominently in the Asokan edicts and the monkish chronicles of Ceylon, and however prejudiced we may be regarding the authenticity of the chronicles when they speak of events prior to Asoka's time, we are perfectly justified in regarding as facts of history the account from the time of Asoka downwards, rejecting, however,.the embellishments tending to make the whole thing unreal. From henceforward we are strengthened in our convictions by the concurrent testimony of the Asokan monuments and the relic caskets of the Sanchi Topes.(2) In the Ceylon chronicles these missions are associated with the council of Pataliputra where the resolve was made to make Buddhism, purged of its impurities and heresies, a world religion. The accounts of the Buddhist councils have been examined threadbare by orientalists, and whatever doubt there may be regarding the first two councils, there is perfect unanimity regarding the historicity of the Council of Pataliputra. The only systematic account of this Council is given in the southern Buddhist works. The Dip. (VII, 37, 44) states that the Council took place in 236 A.B.; according to the Maha. (V, 280) it was held in the I7th year of Asoka. The date of this Council has long been a subject of controversy. Rhys Davids(3) and Kern(4) take for granted the traditional date (18th year). A more sceptical but, nevertheless, logical attitude is that of V. Smith who says that it rests on tradition only, and took place "at some ---------------------- 1 Smith's Asoka; JRAS., 1901, p. 846 apparently on the authority of Hiuen Tsang (Beal, Buddhist Records of the Western World, vol. II, p. 95). 2 Copleston, Buddhism, pp. 179-180. 3 Buddhism, p. 224. 4 Manual of Indian Buddhism, p, 112. p. 677 undetermined date."(1) But in the present case, as we shall see, there is a substratum of truth underlying the Ceylonese account. Candragupta Maurya came to the throne in 325 B.C. (2) He reigned, according to the unanimous testimony of the Puranas and the Ceylonese and Burmese traditions, for 24 years. Bindusara reigned for 25 years.(3) Therefore the year of Asok's accession is 276 B.C.(4) Now the set of dates of the Hellenistic kings in R. E. XIII as given by Senart(5) places them all between B.C. 260 and 258.(6) Therefore the date of R. E. XIII, and consequently of the foreign missions of Asoka, falls between the 16th and the 18th year of his reign. And this is in perfect agreement with the Ceylonese date of the Council of Pataliputra and the conversion of Ceylon by Mahinda. My chronological argument leaves the pre- sacramental years of Asoka altogether out of account, as I believe all kinds of testimony run counter to the Ceylonese tradition. In addition to the arguments advanced by Prof. D. R. Bhandarkar,(7) it may be remarked that Asoka, although full of remorse for the Kalinga war and solicitous for the preservation of human life, never alludes in any of his edicts to the slaughter of his brothers before he came to the throne. Moreover, there are gross inaccuracies in the southern tradition tending ---------------------- 1 JRAS., 1901, p. 853. 2 I adhere to the view of Senart (Inscriptions of Piyadasi, Ind. Ant., 1891, pp. 236ff.), Jayaswal (JASB., vol. IX, 1913, PP. 317ff.) and S. Pradhan (Chronology of Ancient India, pp. 238-9), and I shall adduce other arguments in favour of this date in a subsequent paper. 3 I take the unanimous testimony of the Puranas, as there is some difference in other accounts. The Dip. ignores it; in the Maha. (V. 18) it is 28 years, whereas in the Burmese tradition it is 27 (Bigandet, The Life or Legend of Gautama, vol. II, p. 128). 4 This is also the date arrived at on other grounds by Jayaswal, JASB. (1913), PP. 317 ff. 5 Ind. Ant., 1891, pp. 236 ff. 6 Beloch's dates, as given in 'Griechische Geschi- chte' and accepted by D.R. Bhandarkar in his Asoka, p. 48, differ from Senart's mainly on account of Alexander of Corinth superseding Alexander of Epirus; and this identification has been broached apparently to suit a different chronological solution. 7 Asoka, pp. 9 ff. I.H.Q., DECEMBER, 1928 p. 678 to make the whole story unreal. In the Maha. the brothers of Asoka are numbered 90 at one time and 99 at another,(1) and in the Burmese account we find Bindusara having 101 sons.(2) ---------------------- 1 Turnour's Intro. to the Maha., pp.xlvi, xlvii. 2 Bigandet., vol.II, pp.128.