Essenism and Buddhism–Pt. 2

M. André Dupont-Sommer

[In: Comptes rendus des séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles- Lettres,
124e année, N. 4, 1980. pp. 698-715.]
Abridged and translated from the French by René Salm
For footnotes, please see the original PDF.

Part 2

Emperor Ashoka Maurya

[705] Let us now consider the famous Emperor Ashoka, who lived in the third century before the common era. King over Magadha, he was in fact emperor of the entire Indian subcontinent with the exception of its southern tip. Ashoka’s grand father Sandragupta (known by the Greek as Sandracottos) founded the Maurya dynasty and was the contemporary of Alexander the Great. Ashoka was consecrated in the year 260 BCE and he soon conquered Kalinga, a vast province of the eastern subcontinent. In the campaign Ashoka proved himself cruel and unforgiving. However, he suddenly and ardently converted to Buddhism, adopted the ethics of radical goodness, and embraced charity. In short, Ashoka espoused all the virtues of the Buddhist catechism. Moreover, he not only held those views but also became a most zealous propagandist for his new religion in the tenth year after his consecration, i.e., about 250 BCE.

An Ashokan rock edict.

[706] Emperor Ashoka had a number of personal testaments graven on stone and set up in the far-flung regions of his empire along conspicuous roadways. These inscriptions powerfully witness to Ashoka’s newly won faith in Buddhism. He had some inscribed on rock, others on pillars or colossal columns of red sandstone, while a few have been found in large caves. Altogether they attest—on the most durable material available in his time—to Ashoka’s religious fervor and to the astonishing firmness of his convictions. Some of these “rock edicts,” as they are called, were inscribed in multiple languages side-by-side on the same inscription. They first came to light in the early 19th century [over 2,000 years after the emperor’s death] and were quickly translated. They constitute a revealing witness to the early history of Buddhism and to its most powerful early devotee.30

…After the initial discovery, more inscriptions were found outside the borders of Ashoka’s empire. These very interesting inscriptions are in a number of non-Indic languages. Aramaic rock edicts exist from the ancient site of Taxila (in present day Pakistan) and Pul-i-Darunteh, as well as in Kandahar (Afghanistan). The latter is a bilingual inscription in both Greek and Aramaic, published in 1958.33

[710] A passage from the 13th Edict of Ashoka is extremely important:

When I, King Ashoka, had been anointed eight years, I conquered the country of the Kalingas. A hundred and fifty thousand people were deported, a hundred thousand were killed and many times that number perished… But I now desire that all beings abstain from causing hurt. I now advocate self control and impartiality in cases of violence. And I now consider this spiritual teaching to be my greatest conquest—greater even than all my past worldly conquests. Indeed, may this conquest by the gentle Doctrine [Dharma] of the Buddha outshine all of my worldly conquests!

The Buddhist missionary activities of Emperor Ashoka, c. 250 BCE.

And, indeed, I have ensured that the Buddha Dharma has conquered within all of my borders, and also as far away as six hundred yojanas [= ca. 4,000 miles], where the Greek king named Antiochus [of Syria rules], and beyond this Antiochus where four kings are ruling: Tulamaya [= Ptolemy of Egypt], the king named Antigonos, the king named Magas, and the king named Alexander; and likewise towards the south, where the Chodas and Pandyas are ruling, as far as Tamraparni [= Ceylon]…

Likewise here in the king’s territory, among the Greeks [i.e. of Bactria] and Kambojas, among the Nabhakas and Nabhapanktis, among the Bhojas and Pitinikyas, among the Andhras and Paladas, everywhere people are conforming to Devanampriya’s [= “Beloved of the Gods,” Ashoka’s favorite epithet for himself] instruction in morality…

This [conquest by Dharma bears fruit] in this world and in the other world. And let all peoples’ pleasure be the pleasure of exertion [in the spiritual realm]. For such exertion bears fruit in this world and in the other world. [Paraphrased—RS]

[710]…Ashoka’s Buddhist emissaries to the West doubtless brought the monastic tradition to which the emperor himself was drawn. This was in the second half of the III BCE. Only a little thereafter, that is, in II BCE, we witness the surprising appearance of robust monastic institutions in the heart of Judaism, founded (as was Buddhism) upon the ideals of poverty, celibacy, obedience, kindness, and charity. I am speaking, of course, of the Essenes of Palestine—and also of the Therapeutae of Alexandria and of all Egypt.

One has long sought the origin of these mystical Jewish communities that seem without precedent in Jewish tradition—or, truth be told, even without precedent in paganism and in the Hellenistic world. Hence, some scholars have suggested that the origin of the surprising Jewish monasticism of the Essenes and Therapeutae is to be found in India, where monasticism had its birth.

Ashoka’s empire (c. 250 BCE)

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About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website

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