Continued from Previous Page
Ashoka was desperate to be known as the greatest of all donors to the Faith of the Buddha. He enquired of the monks who had been, so far, the greatest donor. They informed him that it was the householder Anaathapindada who had gifted the Sangha one hundred crore gold pieces. Ashoka wished to do likewise. He had, until then, gifted ninety-six crore by building the stupas and chaityas, holding the quinquennial festival, etc. It so happened that Ashoka's health began to fail, and he grew despondent, fearing he would be unable to fulfill his resolve. He therefore began sending gold coins regularly to the monastery at Kukkutaraama.
By that time, Kunaala's son Sampadin had become the crown prince. His advisors told him that the king was exhausting the state treasury and ought to be restrained. Sampadin, thereupon, ordered the treasurer not to disburse state funds. Ashoka, then, began to send the golden plates on which his food was brought to the monastery as offerings. Sampadin extended the ban to this too. Ashoka began to be served on silver dishes. He sent these as well to the Sangha. When silver was replaced by copper and then by clay plates, the king persisted in despatching those to Kukkutaraama.
A day came when all that Ashoka had left was half of a myrobalan (amlaka) fruit. Taking it in his hand he summoned all his ministers and, very upset, asked them, “Who is now Lord of the earth?” All of them bowed to him and declared it was he. But Ashoka, his eyes clouded with tears, said:
“You lie to humor me. The only thing remaining under my rule is this half of an amlaka. Woe! O woe to sovereignty that is like the flood waters at the river-mouth! My commands are flouted like a river turned back by a cliff. Like an ashoka tree with its flowers plucked, its leaves shriveled and fallen, this king is drying up.”
Ashoka than called a passer-bye and said, “My friend, though I have fallen from power, do this last task for me, out of regard for my past virtues. Take this my half-amlaka, and offer it to the monastery on my behalf, saying, ‘I offer you the present greatness of the king who ruled all of Jambudveepa’ and request to have it so distributed that it is enjoyed by the whole community of monks.”
The citizen faithfully performed his duty and offered the half of the fruit to the monastery saying, “He who previously ruled the earth, warming it like the sun at noon, today he is deceived by his karmic acts and finds his glory gone like the setting sun at dusk.”
The head of the monastery then addressed the monks:
“The lord of men has gone from being lord of Jambudveepa to being lord of half an amlaka, which he presents as a reproof to those who wish to enjoy regal splendor. Today one may show emotion, for the misfortune of others is an occasion to be upset.”
He had the half-amlaka mashed, put in a soup and distributed to the entire Sangha of monks.
Then Ashoka asked his prime minister, “Tell me, Radhagupta, who is now lord of the earth?” Falling at his feet, Radhagupta replied, “Your majesty is lord of the earth.” Then Emperor Ashoka struggled to his feet, gazed in the four directions and announced:
“Except for the state treasury I give to the Sangha this earth with its Mandara mountain and its dark blue garment, the ocean, and its face adorned with many jewels. With this gift, I do not seek any rebirth in heaven or even less on earth as a king. Because I give it with faith, I would obtain as its fruit something that cannot be stolen, that which is honored by the Aryas and safe from all flux: sovereignty over the mind.”
Having inscribed this and sealed it with his teeth, Ashoka passed away. When the ministers prepared to install Sampadin as king, Radhagupta reminded them that Ashoka had gifted the whole kingdom away. When the ministers were at a loss, Radhagupta told them that it had been Ashoka's desire to donate one hundred crore gold coins to the Sangha and that when he died ninety-six crore had been gifted. It was to complete his intention that he had gifted the kingdom. Thereupon the ministers gave four crore gold coins to the Sangha and redeemed the kingdom to consecrate Sampadin.
The Legend of Veetashoka
The subjects of Ashoka became, by and large, inclined towards Buddhism. However, his brother, Veetashoka, was prejudiced against them. Once, when the brothers were hunting in the forest, they came across an ascetic who was performing the penance of the five fires (meditating surrounded by five fires). Veetashoka asked him various questions and got to know that he had been performing this for twelve years, living on fruits and roots, sleeping on the hard ground, wearing grass or bark. “Blessed one,” asked Veetashoka, “are you disturbed in any manner?” “Yes,” replied the seeker, “passions still consume me.” Veetashoka now turned to his brother and told him that when the world-renouncing ascetic had failed to conquer his passions despite the long-drawn penance there was little doubt that the Buddhist monks, sleeping on comfortable couches and eating well, were slaves of passion. Veetashoka pointed out that Ashoka had been deceived in paying them homage, for Mount Vindhya would sooner float in the ocean than they be masters of their senses.
Ashoka later called his ministers and told them to arrange matters so that when he was taking his bath, Veetashoka should wear the crown and sit on the throne. Accordingly the ministers approached Veetashoka and told him that as he was the king’s successor, they were keen to see how he looked wearing the royal diadem and seated on the lion’s seat. When Veetashoka had agreed and was thus dressed and seated, Ashoka suddenly appeared and pretended to be furious that in his lifetime another should dare to assume the throne. The executioners were summoned, but on cue the ministers pleaded with the king to forgive him. Ashoka then said, “I will pardon him for seven days. And since he is my brother, I grant him the kingship for a week, out of brotherly love.”
Immediately music was played, thousands of people rejoiced, and saluted Veetashoka as king and many women came to serve him. But the long-haired executioners dressed in blue stood at the door and at the end of day they would come to Veetashoka and tell him, “Gone, Veetashoka is another day; only so many more are remaining.” Finally, on the last day, he was brought before Ashoka who asked him how he had enjoyed the week. Veetashoka replied, “I could neither see nor hear the pleasures. You should get someone who heard the songs, saw the dances, tasted the flavors, to answer you.” “But,” asked Ashoka, “ I gave you the kingship. I saw you saluted by hundreds, surrounded by lovely women. How can you say you did not see or hear anything?” Veetashoka replied plangently:
Women, dance, song, palace, beds, seats,
youth, beauty, fortune and the gem-encrusted earth
all were joyless and empty for me.
For I could see the executioners at the door,
hear the ghastly sound of their bells,
and I was dreadfully afraid of death.
I could not sleep and spent all night thinking
“ I am going to die,”
Ashoka smiled and said, “Tormented everyday by the fear of death in but a single lifetime, sensual pleasures failed to delight your mind. How then can there be any delight in sensual pleasures in the minds of monks who muse constantly on the fear of death in hundreds of future lives? Viewing the body as a deadly enemy and their lives as impermanent as a burning house, how can they not be liberated when they turn away from rebirth, their minds parting from pleasure as water slips off a lotus leaf?”
Thus, Veetashoka came to accept the teachings of the Buddha and ultimately decided to become a monk. Here, too, Ashoka carefully prepared the way.
Initially, Ashoka sought to dissuade Veetashoka by pointing out, “The ascetic life results in deterioration of appearance; your garments will be rags from the dust-heap and your cloak something that was thrown out by a servant; your food will consist of alms collected from strangers; your bed and your seat a layer of grass at the foot of a tree. When you are sick food will be difficult to get and urine will be your medicine. You are so delicate and unable to bear heat and cold, hunger and thirst: I beg you to reconsider.” When he found that Veetashoka was persistent in his resolve, Ashoka shed tears at the thought of losing his only brother. Veetashoka now comforted him:
“I have seen this world afflicted by suffering desired by Death and encompassed by evil; afraid of rebirth, I must follow the auspicious path. Your majesty, samsara is like a swinging palanquin; those who get into it must surely fall off. Why are you so disturbed when surely we must part someday?”
Ashoka then begged him to carry out his begging nearby and had a bed of leaves made within the palace in a grove. Veetashoka used to take alms from the royal women, who ensured that he received a sumptuous meal. Seeing this, Ashoka ordered that they should give him only mashed rotten beans as food fit for the ascetic. Veetashoka ate these calmly. Realizing that his brother’s resolve was unshaken, Ashoka permitted him to wander forth and to return when he had achieved enlightenment.
Years later, living in Videha, Veetashoka attained arhathood, and experienced the peace of liberation. He then returned to his brother, as he had promised. Ashoka, seeing Veetashoka in a robe of cast-off rags with a clay begging bowl full of coarse and fine food indiscriminately thrown, and the equanimity on his face despite coming face-to-face with him after so long, began weeping. Gradually, he recovered his senses and said:
“I have seen an heir to the throne forsake pride, jealousy and quarrelling, even the dynasty, the city of Magadha with its jewels. Yet I rejoice for my house has been honored, my city filled with glory. Expound, my brother, the noble Teaching of the Dashabala (the Buddha).”
Then the venerable Veetashoka preached a sermon, and left the city followed by the king. At its gates, he flew into the air to manifest his qualities of liberation and wisdom. Bidding him farewell, Ashoka cried out, “Free from family ties, you fly off like a bird leaving us behind, who are bound in shackles of worldly passions. Your power humbles our pride.”
Veetashoka passed his life somewhere in the borderlands. Here he fell ill. By the time he recovered, his hair, nails, beard had all grown. In the meantime, in Pundravardhana (Gauda in Bengal) a follower of Nirgrantha Gyatiputra (Mahavira Jina) had drawn a picture showing the Buddha bowing at the feet of his Master. Hearing of this, Ashoka ordered that all the followers of Nirgrantha Gyatiputra in Pundravardhana be executed. 1800 were thus slain. Later, however, a similar event occurred in Pataliputra itself. Ashoka first burnt the man who he thought showed disrespect to the Buddha and the man’s family too. Then he proclaimed a reward of a deenaara (gold coin) per head of a heretic.
Some enthusiastic men began beheading mendicants or ascetics who were not Buddhists.
At this time, Veetashoka came to spend a night in the house of a cowherd. Seeing his tattered clothes, long nails, hair and beard, the cowherd’s wife thought he was a Nirgrantha heretic. She advised her husband to earn a gold coin. The cowherd then unsheathed his sword and approached Veetashoka, who sat unmoved, knowing that the time had come to reap the fruit of his past misdeeds.
When Veetashoka’s head was brought to Ashoka, he collapsed in a faint. Radhagupta then pointed out to him the suffering being inflicted even on those who had attained freedom from desire. It was only then that Ashoka resolved to guarantee the security of all beings. Henceforth, none was ever condemned to death in Ashoka’s kingdom.
The gruesome end of arhat Veetashoka, however, intrigued some monks who asked the venerable Upagupta, the Buddha-without-sins, what he had done to deserve this. Upagupta answered that in days long gone by there was a hunter who used to make a living by catching animals in a snare laid beside the water hole. Once, a Pratyekabuddha (a Buddha without signs) stopped there to rest. Because of his presence, no animals came near and the hunter found his snare empty. Angry with the Pratyekabuddha, he slew him on the spot. Veetashoka was this hunter in his earlier birth. Because he killed animals, he fell very ill and, for killing the Pratyekabuddha, he was reborn innumerable times to die each time by the sword.
The monks again asked Upagupta to explain why, then, had Veetashoka been born a royal prince. Upagupta explained that in the time of Buddha Kaashyapa, one Pradanaruchi joined the monks and inspired generous people to donate freely to the community. Because of him, the stupas were richly decorated, worshipped and well looked after. This ensured Pradanaruchi’s birth as Veetashoka, in the royal family.
1. John S. Strong: The Legend of King Ashoka (Princeton University Press), 1983.
2. There is no mention of Chandragupta Maurya, or of the Mauryan dynasty in the Ashokaavadaana.
3. This reminds us of the similar contraption and the Nagas that Garuda had to overcome in the Mahabharata for wresting amrita from the gods.