Asoka and the Missions Home Page[Asoka’s Birth]
Extended Mahāvaṁsa, Chapters XII-XIV, edited by G. P. Malalasekera, Colombo 1937. Reprinted by the Pali Text Society, Oxford, 1988. The text is reprinted here through the kind permission of PTS.
for the variants: Mahāvaṁsa, Chapters XII-XIV, edited by W. Geiger 1908. Reprinted by the Pali Text Society, Oxford, 1958.
The manuscripts that the text is based on are all written in, or copied from, texts written in Cambodian script, and for that reason it is sometimes known as the Cambodian Mahāvaṁsa. However just because the manuscripts are in that script cannot be taken as evidence of its provenance without further indication, which appears to be lacking. Indeed all the evidence seems to point to the text being written in Śrī Laṅkā, as was the original text.
The text has extended the first section That is, the first thirty-seven chapters, which is the original rescension of the text, written by Mahānāma in the 5th century of the Christian era.01 of the more usual Mahāvaṁsa in two ways: through addition and through rewriting, adding in further information, some of which is, at least prima facie, of importance, though we have no way of ascertaining its authenticity, as we cannot even determine the date of the text, beyond it being after Mahānāma’s text. Malalasekera dates it to the 9th-10th centuries: after Mahāvaṁsa and its Ṭīkā, and before the continuation to the text was made in the 12th century by Dhammakitti.02
In the selections I have translated here the additions vary from one or two line insertions that clarify, or give additional information, needed for understanding the text; to whole blocks of information lacking in the original. Malalasekera has made a very good comparison of the text with Mhv and its Ṭīkā (which he also edited) in the informative Introduction to his edition.03 The rewrites are generally also expansions, although occasionally they just rewrite one line or one verse with another, which the author thought clarified some point or other. 14.26b is an instance of this.04 In other cases, where a summary of spoken exchanges is given in Mhv. they are reproduced in direct speech in the Extended version of the text.
In my impression this is, for the most part, done in a quite seamless way, and I think if we only had the Extended version, it would probably pass as the work of one author, except in a small number of places where there are grammatical or organisational problems of one sort or another, See 13.26b-28a, where an absolutive sub-clause is left hanging without a finite verb to complete it; and the note to 13.9a where a section appears to be out of place, but it is so in both versions.05 though it is clear that the author of the Extended section hasn't the same level of writing skill as Mahānāma.
According to the editor of the text Edition, p. xl.06 the work has drawn upon the Mahāvaṁsa Ṭīkā (Mahāvaṁsa-Līnattha), the Buddhavaṁsa and possibly its Commentary, Thūpavaṁsa, Mahābodhivaṁsa, Vinaya Mahāvagga, Jātakaṭṭhakathā and the Samantapāsādika for the extra material. As far as I can see it does not, however, make any direct quotes from these works, and it is still unclear whether the author had other sources available, including, all importantly, the Sinhala Commentaries.
As far as I know the translation presented here is the first translation into English of any section from the Extended version of the Mahāvaṁsa. In preparing the text and translation I have made two versions.
The first gives the text and the translation line by line. In this edition colour-coding has been adopted so that where the text agrees (largely) with Mhv. it is printed in blue and red: Generally, when the text agrees in wording for more than half a pādayuga (pair of lines) I mark it as in agreement; less than that I mark it as belonging to the Extended version. 07
Jinanibbānato pacchā pure tassābhisekato
After the Emancipation of the Victor and before the consecration
and where it is additional it is printed in purple and green:
aṭṭhārasasādhikaṁ vassasatadvayaṁ atikkamā.
in excess of two-hundred and eighteen years had passed by.
The English only version, which is a rewritten and a more fluent translation of the Extended Text, marks the common text in blue and the additional material in purple.
From the Emancipation of the Victor to the consecration in excess of two hundred and eighteen years had passed by. Here the first half of the sentence is common to both texts, the second half is only found in this form only in the Extended version.08
It has sometimes been necessary to take two lines together for the purposes of translation, and occasionally three. These are then printed together, and the translation is printed afterwards.
Places and People
The text concerned is mainly of importance for the information it gives on the early years of Asoka, his conversion to Buddhism, holding the Third Council, and then the spread of Buddhism in the Missionary period of the Dispensation.
In the first selections, which are made from Chapter V of the text, we are informed about Asoka’s career when he was vice-sovereign, the birth of his children Mahinda and Saṅghamittā and his ascension to the throne after murdering his brotherly rivals.
This is followed by his meeting with the novice Nigrodha, who so greatly impressed him, his disillusionment with the other ascetic groups and his growing faith in Buddhism.
Once converted Asoka proved to be a great support to the Dispensation and besides building 84,000 monasteries in honour of the 84,000 teachings that the Lord Buddha had given he also gave his children for ordination, purified the Saṅgha and organised the Third Council which ratified the Teaching.
Incidently as these stories are being told there are also many interesting accounts included in the text, like a previous life-story of Asoka and his relatives; his seeing of an image of the Buddha thanks to the Nāga-King Mahākāla; and a retelling of the Partridge Birth-Story (Tittirajātaka, Jā 319) in verse.
Following the Council, the Missions were sent out and the later selections provide 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 to the border districts in all directions: taking Asoka’s capital Pāṭaliputta as the centre of the radius, we can see that the Missions went, for example north, to Kasmīra-Gandhāra Seemingly treated as one country or district, see the note to v. 3 below.09 and to the Himālayan regions; in the west to the Ionian districts, Probably around modern-day Pakistan, following the Greek armies had of Alexandria, during his push to the East.10 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. The location of which is much disputed, and there is no clear answer to where it was. Some believe it was lower Burma, others Central Thailand and still others in India itself. 11
In the text below v. 12.7 includes the important information, that besides the monks who were named as the missionaries, there were also other monks accompanying them. We may infer as much, as they would be needed for the ordinations that were given, but some have argued that there were already monks present in the areas visited. See Prapod Assavariruhlakarn: The Ascendency of Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia, p. 61 (Silkworm Books, Bangkok, 2010).12 Although that is not impossible, given the addition here it would also not be necessary either, and it seems to me that the monks would not have travelled alone on such important missions, but in company of other monks, even when they are only named in the case of Mahinda’s mission, which is, in any case, dealt with in much more detail.
We can compare for this Chapter XII v. 6, which simply says: “He It refers to the Elder Moggalitissa, who directed the Missions.13 sent the Elder Majjhima to the Himālaya districts.” But later when we come to v. 45-47 the text itself states that at least four other Elders accompanied him, and that between them they converted five countries.
Methods of Conversion
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, in 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.
One of the most dramatic accounts is the first one, which is given in detail, concerning Majjhantika in Kasmīra-Gandhāra, who overcame the Nāga King Āravāla and his companions, established them in the Refuges and Precepts and gave them good advice on proper behaviour before giving any formal Dhamma teaching to the populace.
A similar story is told of the two Elders Soṇa and Uttara, who were sent to Suvaṇṇabhūmi, and defeated a demoness who was eating all the children born in the King’s palace. One of the Elders created with his psychic powers a larger army of demons and chased the original group out. Again this is before any formal teaching took place.
In other cases a display of supernatural powers certainly is said to have helped: Rakkhita stood in the sky to do his preaching in Vanavāsī. Mahinda was able, through his psychic powers, to hide – and later reveal – his companions, and also showed his powers by speaking the King’s name before it was given. This at least seems to be the purport of this obscure passage.14 Even the novice Sumana who accompanied them on the Mission made his voice heard over the whole Island, announcing the time for the teaching.
Not that the teaching was unimportant, indeed in some cases it appears to have been all that was needed: Mahādeva in Mahisamaṇḍala, Dhammarakkhita in Aparantikā, Mahādhammarakkhita in Mahāraṭṭha, Mahārakkhita amongst the Ionians and Majjhima and his companions in the Himālaya had no other recourse but the teaching, at least in the way it is recorded here. It is interesting to note that the most popular teachings were either similes or stories of Heaven and Hell. 15
In all cases, however, 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. See v. 40 below.16
In Suvaṇṇabhūmi also one and a half thousand women are said to have gone forth; and famously in Laṅkā Mahinda had to send back to the home country and get his sister Saṅghamittā to come to give Bhikkhuṇī ordination to Queen Anulā and one thousand of the palace women.
Another important thing to notice is the record of the attainments: eighty thousand in Kasmīra-Gandhāra, forty thousand in Mahisamaṇḍala, sixty thousand in Vanavāsī, thirty-seven thousand in Aparantikā, eighty-four thousand in Mahāraṭṭha, one hundred and seventy thousand amongst the Ionians, eight-hundred million in the Himālaya, sixty thousand in Suvaṇṇabhūmi and but a thousand in Laṅkā.
Evidently these figures cannot be taken literally, but they surely do reflect a rememberance about the Missions, and they are said to have occured in every district reported.
What we have here then is perhaps not so much an accurate, newspaper-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.
In the later selections I have also translated all the relevant passages dealing with the establishment of the nuns' lineage in Laṅkā, which include many details of interest about their personal progress and the strong and vigorous presence which they had in the country.
The selections presented here close with the passing away of the main actors in this part of the story as it is recorded in Chapter XX: first the two great Kings Asoka in Jambudīpa and Devānampiyatissa in Laṅkā; then the two great Missionaries Mahinda and Saṅghamittā, and the generation of monastics who had helped them establish the Dispensation in Laṅkā.
I have concentrated in these selections more on King Asoka’s work in Jambudīpa, and then the Missions themselves, with special reference to the Arahats Mahinda and Saṅghamittā; and less on King Devānampiyatissa’s good works and building projects in Śrī Laṅkā.
It is not that translations of these sections are undesirable, indeed they would be a great resource for those interested in the history of the Dispensation, but there are simply limits on what I can achieve at present, owing to many other commitments, and it may be I will return to the work on this text again at some point in the future.
In preparing this translation I was fortunate enough to be able to consult with two experts on Sri Lankan medieval texts and history: Prof. Dr. Junko Matsumura in Japan, who managed to solve some particularly difficult passages, and Ven. Dr. M. Wijithadhamma in Sri Lanka. However, if any mistakes remain it is solely my responsibility.
Asoka and the Missions Home Page[Asoka’s Birth]
last updated: August 2012