Indians who influenced Myanmar culture: King Asoka / ArThawKa အေသာက မင္းၾကီး

There has been Indian influence on our Myanmar culture since the dawn of civilization, including indigenous medicine, astrology, establishment of cities states and our main religion, Buddhism.

Apart from Buddha, the Indian who most influenced Myanmars is Asoka, and others include Ziwaka, who is the forefather of Myanmar indigenous medicine; AbiYarzar who settled and established a dynasty in Tagaung; Shin TharRiPottayar and Shin MaugGaLan, disciples of Buddha; Theras Sona and Uttara who brought Buddhism to Thuwunnabhumi /  Suvannabhumi; ByatWi and Byatta who ate the Zawgyi PhoWinTharr and fought on either side of the Bamar-Mon war between King Anawratha and King Manuha.

Most of us has been brought up with Buddhism and the Jataka stories and we are familiar with these Indian episodes / history as if they are our own and there is even a school of thought that Buddha and the Sakya family were Tibeto-Burmans from the BuddhaGhayar / Mizzimadesa of the Zambudipa.

However, it is an indisputable fact that all in Buddhawin and the Jataka stories are Indians of current day northern India and southern Nepalese origin although we have the names of Yarma / Ramayana, ThetKaTho / Taxila, Kawliya, Yarzagyo, DayWaDaHa countries, YaMonNar, Thida rivers, AnarTaPein, WiTharKhar, Zattawun monastery, Waytharli / Vesali, Bassein, imbedded in our lives.

Whenever we go on pilgrimage, most pagoda histories state that they were built during the time of and by King Asoka, which is not compatible with historical facts, yet, propagated and repeated by all, like the myths concerning Buddha’s arrival in many parts of Myanmar and the existence of Buddha’s previous lives in the surrounding areas.

It was while I was listening to a sermon by ThidaGu Sayardaw Shin NyarNeikThara the other day that I got the idea to write about Ashoka. Previously, I had seen a film about Ashoka featuring the famous Shahrukh Khan as Ashoka but the film did not do justice about the great king and the wars he fought to build the empire. In the film, Ashoka is pronounced Ashoke.

Ashoka (Devanāgarī: अशोक, IAST: Aśoka, IPA: [aˈɕoːkə], 304 BC232 BC), popularly known as Ashoka the Great, was an Indian emperor of the Maurya Dynasty who ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent from 269 BC to 232 BC. One of India’s greatest emperors, Ashoka reigned over most of present-day India after a number of military conquests. His empire stretched from present-day Pakistan, Afghanistan in the west, to the present-day Bangladesh and the Indian state of Assam in the east, and as far south as northern Kerala and Andhra. He conquered the kingdom named Kalinga, which no one in his dynasty had conquered starting from Chandragupta Maurya. His reign was headquartered in Magadha (present-day Bihar, India).[1] He embraced Buddhism from the prevalent Vedic tradition after witnessing the mass deaths of the war of Kalinga, which he himself had waged out of a desire for conquest. He was later dedicated to the propagation of Buddhism across Asia and established monuments marking several significant sites in the life of Gautama Buddha. Ashoka was a devotee of ahimsa (nonviolence), love, truth, tolerance and vegetarianism. Ashoka is remembered in history as a philanthropic administrator. In the history of India Ashoka is referred to as Samraat Chakravartin Ashoka– the Emperor of Emperors Ashoka.

His name “aśoka” means “without sorrow” in Sanskrit (a= no/without, soka= sorrow or worry). In his edicts, he is referred to as Devānāmpriya (Devanāgarī: देवानांप्रिय)/Devānaṃpiya or “The Beloved Of The Gods”, and Priyadarśin (Devanāgarī: प्रियदर्शी)/Piyadassī or “He who regards everyone with affection”. Another title of his is Dhamma (prakrit: धम्मः), “Lawful, Religious, Righteous”.

Renowned British author and social critic H. G. Wells in his bestselling two-volume work, The Outline of History (1920), wrote of emperor Ashoka:

In the history of the world there have been thousands of kings and emperors who called themselves ‘their highnesses,’ ‘their majesties,’ and ‘their exalted majesties’ and so on. They shone for a brief moment, and as quickly disappeared. But Ashoka shines and shines brightly like a bright star, even unto this day.

Along with the Edicts of Ashoka, his legend is related in the later 2nd century Aśokāvadāna (“Narrative of Asoka“) and Divyāvadāna (“Divine narrative“), and in the Sinhalese text Mahavamsa (“Great Chronicle“).

After two thousand years, the influence of Ashoka is seen in Asia and especially the Indian subcontinent. An emblem excavated from his empire is today the national Emblem of India. In the History of Buddhism Ashoka is considered just after Gautama Buddha.

As the legend goes, one day after the Kalinga War was over, Ashoka ventured out to roam the city and all he could see were burnt houses and scattered corpses. This sight made him sick and he cried the famous monologue:

What have I done? If this is a victory, what’s a defeat then? Is this a victory or a defeat? Is this justice or injustice? Is it gallantry or a rout? Is it valor to kill innocent children and women? Do I do it to widen the empire and for prosperity or to destroy the other’s kingdom and splendor? One has lost her husband, someone else a father, someone a child, someone an unborn infant…. What’s this debris of the corpses? Are these marks of victory or defeat? Are these vultures, crows, eagles the messengers of death or evil?

The brutality of the conquest led him to adopt Buddhism and he used his position to propagate the relatively new religion to new heights, as far as ancient Rome and Egypt. He made Buddhism his state religion around 260 BC, and propogated it and preached it within his domain and worldwide from about 250 BC. Emperor Ashoka undoubtedly has to be credited with the first serious attempt to develop a Buddhistic policy.

Ashoka, now a Buddhist emperor, believed that Buddhism is beneficial for all human beings as well as animals and plants, so he built 84,000 stupas, Sangharama, viharas, Chaitya, and residences for Buddhist monks all over South Asia and Central Asia. He gave donations to viharas and mathas. He sent his only daughter Sanghamitta and son Mahindra to spread Buddhism in Sri Lanka (ancient name Tamraparni). Ashoka also sent many prominent Buddhist monks (bhikshus) Sthaviras like Madhyamik Sthavira to modern Kashmir and Afganistan; Maharaskshit sthavira to Syria, Persia / Iran, Egypt, Greece, Italy and Turkey; Massim Sthavira to Nepal, Bhutan, China and Mongolia; Sohn Uttar Sthavira to modern Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (old name Suvarnabhumi for Burma and Thailand), Thailand and Vietnam; Mahadhhamarakhhita stahvira to Maharashtra (old name Maharatthha); Maharakhhit Sthavira and Yavandhammarakhhita Sthavira to South India. Ashoka also invited Buddhists and non-Buddhists for religious conferences. Ashoka inspired the Buddhist monks to compose the sacred religious texts, and also gave all types of help to that end. Ashoka also helped to develop viharas (intellectual hubs) such as Nalanda and Taxila. Ashoka helped to construct Sanchi and Mahabodhi Temple. Ashoka never tried to harm or to destroy non-Buddhist religions, and indeed gave donations to non-Buddhists. As his reign continued his even-handedness was replaced with special inclination towards Buddhism.[3] Ashoka helped and respected both Sramans (Buddhists monks) and Brahmins (Vedic monks). Ashoka also helped to organize the Third Buddhist council (c. 250 BC) at Pataliputra (today’s Patna). It was conducted by the monk Moggaliputta-Tissa who was the spiritual teacher of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka.


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One Response to “Indians who influenced Myanmar culture: King Asoka / ArThawKa အေသာက မင္းၾကီး”

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