Excerpt from the Asokavadana
The Asokavadana is a text written in Sanskrit that brings together oral traditions about Ashoka’s reign that did not die out when the Mauryan Empire collapsed, but spread throughout India
and beyond its borders. This section relates an incident from Ashoka’s life after he converted to Buddhism. Oral traditions about Ashoka grew up without reference to his actual edicts; people
claimed the inscriptions referred to events in the legends, but they had no way of actually reading them until the nineteenth century.
When I teach this text, I remind my students that in using legends and oral traditions in historical investigations, the most important question to ask ourselves is not whether the events really happened, but why followers of an individual tell and retell them—in other words, how these oral traditions worked to support the followers’ ideas. So I ask them: Why would the Buddhist admirers of Ashoka tell this story? What does it communicate about how one is to treat individuals of modest social status but high religious or moral status? How does it portray Ashoka’s relationship with the sangha? Even though those who repeated this story later were not able to read Ashoka’s rock and pillar edicts, how does it fit with his statements about his own ideas and reign as inscribed on them?
This source is a part of the Emperor Ashoka and Buddhism teaching module.
Not long after King Asoka had come to have faith in the Teaching of the Buddha, he started honoring Buddhist monks, throwing himself at their feet wherever he saw them, in a crowd, or in a deserted place.
Now Asoka had a minister named Yasas, and although he had the utmost faith in the Blessed One [i.e., the Buddha] he said, one day, to the king: “Your majesty, you ought not to prostrate yourself before wandering mendicants of every caste, and the Buddhist monks do come from all four castes.”
To this Asoka did not immediately respond. Sometime later, however, he told all his ministers that he needed to have the heads of various sorts of creatures, and he asked one of them to bring him the head of such and such an animal, and another to bring him the head of another animal, and so on. Finally, he ordered Yasas to bring him the head of a human being.
Now when the ministers had gathered all these heads, A´soka ordered them to go to the market place and sell them. Soon, all of the heads had been sold, except Yasas’s human head that no one would buy. Asoka then told Yasas to give his head away, but, even though it was gratis, still no one would take it.
Ashamed at his lack of success, Yasas came back to Asoka and said: O king, the heads of cows, asses, sheep, deer, and birds—all were sold to people for a price; but no one would take this worthless human head, even free of charge.
“Why is that?” Asoka asked his minister, “why wouldn’t anyone accept this human head?”
“Because it disgusted them,” Yasas replied.
“Oh?” said the king, “is it just this head that is disgusting or the heads of all human beings?”
“The heads of all humans,” answered Yasas.
“What?” said Asoka, “is my head disgusting as well?”
Out of fear, Yasas did not want to tell him the real fact of the matter, but the king ordered him to speak the truth, and finally he answered: “Yes.”
After forcing this admission out of his minister, Asoka then revealed to him his purpose in doing so: “You, sir, are obsessed with matters of form and superiority, and because of this attachment you seek to dissuade me from bowing down at the feet of the monks.” But if I acquire some merit by bowing down a head so disgusting
that no one on earth would take it, even free of charge, what harm is there in that?
You, sir, look at the caste (jati)
and not at the inherent qualities of the monks.
Haughty, deluded, and obsessed with caste,
you harm yourself and others.
When you invite someone,
or when it is time for a wedding,
then you should investigate the matter of caste,
but not at the time of Dharma.
For Dharma is a question of qualities,
and qualities do not reflect caste.
If a man of prominent family
happens to resort to vice,
the world censures him.
How then should one not honor virtue
when displayed by a man of low birth?
It is on account of men’s minds
that their bodies are reviled or honored;
the minds of the Buddhist monks are pure,
therefore I honor them.
John S. Strong, The Legend of King Ásoka: A Study and Translation of the
Ásokavadana (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), pp. 234–236.