The Asokan Missions from the Extended Mahavamsa

I have just finished a translation of the Extended Mahāvaṁsa chapters XII-XIV, which describe the missions sent out during King Asoka’s time to bring the Dhamma to the outlying districts and countries. I had previously translated a short summary of these missions from the Mahāvaṁsa itself to accompany the map which is at the end of this post.

Extract from The Introduction

Asokan-Missions

This is, as far as I know, the first translation into English of any section from the Extended version of the Mahāvaṁsa. The text concerned is mainly of importance for the information it gives on the spread of Buddhism in the early period of the Dispensation. It provides that information not only as to where the religion spread, but also, and perhaps equally important, as to how it spread.

As for where, the Missions seem to have gone out in all directions: taking Asoka’s capital Pātaḷiputta as the centre of the radius, we can see that the Missions went to the North, to Kasmīra-Gandhāra and to the Himālayan regions; in the West to the Ionian districts, Aparantikā and Mahāraṭṭha; further South to Vanavāsī and Mahisamaṇḍala, and on to Sri Laṅkā. And in the East, if indeed that is where it is, to Suvaṇṇabhūmi.

As to how the Missions went about their work, that also is very interesting. Gathering the evidence here we can see that it was not simply a didactic exercise, it many places the monks had first to prove that their powers were superior to the local dieties – Nāgas, Yakkhas and the like – which they encountered in the border countries.

Not that the teaching was unimportant, indeed in some cases it appears to have been all that was needed and in all cases eventually it was the teaching that brought about the conversions, and with them numbers of ordinations, and thereby the final establishment of the Dispensation in the country. And here there is another important thing to note: although in some cases it is only stated that ordinations took place, in others it specifies how many were male and how many female, and the latter were occasionally in the majority, as in Aparantikā.

In Suvaṇṇabhūmi also one and a half thousand women are said to have gone forth; and famously in Sri Laṅkā Mahinda had to send back to the home country and get his sister Saṅghamittā to come to give Bhikkhuni ordination to Queen Anulā and one thousand of the palace women.

What we have here then is perhaps not so much an accurate, newpaper-like report of the Missions, which is something we have no right to expect anyway. But certainly we can understand that, for the compilers, these reports of overcoming local dieties, the displays of magical powers and attainments were at least as an important part of the Missions’ successes, as the teaching of the Dhamma, the large-scale conversions and ordinations were, and were probably regarded as no more exceptional than them either.

I have made two versions. The first gives the text in G. P. Malalasekera’s edition [1] and my translation line by line. Here additions to the original text are marked as such, and replacements are distinguished in colour and are followed by the original text for comparative purposes. The English only version, however, dispenses with these comparisons and simply presents a rewritten and more fluent translation of the Extended Text.

 

The Asokan Missions

 

 




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Notes:

  1. I am able to reproduce the text through the kind permission of the Pali Text Society in England

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