Five tales about Ashoka-Asandhimitra

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Posted: 5 years ago
I thought I'd share these five tales which are basically about Asandhimitra's life, her relationship with Ashoka, her ascension to the position of Agramahisi (Chief Queen) etc.. Now there are different variations available of these five legends in different sources i.e. the Mahavamsa, Dasavatthuppakarana, Trai Phum etc... but I'm just posting the basic gist of them..

1. Asandhimitra's past life - her past karmic connection with Ashoka

A long time ago, a certain pratyekabuddha was out questing for honey for a sick fellow practitioner. He soon came to a town and stopped at a house where a young woman, upon learning what he wanted, kindly pointed out to him the nearby shop of a honey merchant. The merchant then generously filled the pratyekabuddha's bowl up to the rim with honey, and, inspired by the sight of this, he made a vow to one day become the lord of Jambudvipa.

The young maiden, observing the merchant's gift and hearing his vow, made a wish of her own - that she might become the merchant's queen in the birth that he became the king, and that she might be a beautiful woman whose joints (eg. elbows, knees, etc.) were so smooth and well rounded as to be invisible. She accompanied this formal wish of becoming his queen with a gift of a piece of cloth - her cloak or shawl (sa taka) which she rolled up and presented to the pratyekabuddha for use as a "tumba taka."  This detail is not without significance. A cumbataka  is a rolled up circle of cloth whose purpose is to serve a stand for a round vessel. Without it, a bowel of honey or anything else, is likely to spill. Thus, we can see that, though made second, after the future king's offering, Asandhimitra's gift here nonetheless has primary supportive intent. Her gift is complementary to his, but, without it, he is likely to come to nought. 

Needless to say, as a result of these various deeds and vows, the honey merchant eventually became the emperor Ashoka and the young maiden became Asandhimitra, whose name, we are told, means "with invisible joints."

2. The merit of making a queen - her ascension to the position of Agramahisi

In due time, the honey merchant and the young maiden are reborn as Ashoka and Asandhimitra, and as he becomes king, she becomes his agramahisi (chief queen). Here we are told how she achieved this position: 

One day, after assisting in the feeding of 60,000 monks, the queen [Asandhimitra] entered the palace and sat down on a couch. There she noticed a great pile of sugarcane, as big as areca nut trees, which the gods had brought from the Himalayas. Wishing to eat a piece of sugarcane, she had one broken off, about a span in length, and sat there sucking the juice from it. Just then King Ashoka entered the room. Seeing her eating, he teasingly said to her: "O wide-eyed beauty, what is this juice that you are drinking that is smooth and honey-like?" 

These words [of feigned ignorance] upset Asandhimitra and she said in irritation to the King: "There is a forest of sugarcane in the Himalayas and the deities have brought this here on account of my merit."  The King replied: "You speak exaggeratingly of your merit, my dear, as though it mounted up to the highest heaven, while you degrade the merit of others as though it were as low as the Avici Hell. My dear, tomorrow, I need 60,000 robes in order to give alms to the monks. Please procure them for me. In that way, your merit will be known to all. But if you are unable to get me the robes by tomorrow, you will meet with royal punishment ." Thus speaking, he departed. 

At this, Asandhimitra thought "the king is angry with me," and, in great distress, she lamented: "Oh, how am I to obtain so much cloth?" Tossing and turning on her bed, she did not sleep the whole night through. Now the four world guardian gods - Kuvera, Dhatarattha, Virupakkha, and Viruhaka - protect the world according to dharma. And that day, Kuvera saw the queen was distressed, and approaching her, he said: "Your majesty, do not worry, do not grieve. Long ago, in a past life, you gave a beautiful piece of cloth to a pratyekabuddha; today, you will the fruit of that deed. " And he showed her then a polished ball made of lacquer which dispensed cloth from within itself by means of it's own power. And giving it to her, Kuvera said: "Take this ball and you will be able to endlessly draw precious cloth from it." He then departed. 

The next day, the King paid puja to the assembly of monks with flowers and excellent food. He then addressed Asandhimitra: "My dear, give me now the 60,000 sets of cloth which you were to procure by means of your merit so that I could provide robes for the samgha." "As you wish, Lord..." she declared, and taking the divine ball given to her by Kuvera, she drew out a pair of robes, priceless like the cloth from the Wish Granting Tree, and she placed them in the hands of the king, and there was enough cloth to provide three robes for each of the monks there.  The king gave the first set to the senior-most monk, and the next to the second one in rank, and so until he had given enough cloth for all 60,000 monks.

Then, taking leave of the monks, he entered his harem. Wishing to show his delight personally to the queen, he sent for her, and, standing there like Indra in the midst of all his queens and concubines, he said to her: "My dear, I  am pleased at your merit... Please forgive my anger. I now give to you my sovereignty, all of it. You will have authority over these 16000 women."   

The overall message of this story is that Asandhimitra cannot truly be a sovereign queen until she has demonstrated her worthiness. 

3. Queenship in a piece of cake - another demonstration of Asandhimitra's great merit as queen

In order to silence his jealous concubines, Ashoka ordered another test of Asandhimitra's merit. He had sixteen thousand (presumably 16,001) identical cakes baked, one of them containing his royal seal. He then asked all of his wives, including Asandhimitra, to choose a piece of cake and to break it into two. They all did so, one by one, Asandhimitra getting the last piece left, but such was her worthiness that it was the one that contained the royal seal. Again, however, she declined the sovereignty that this implied. In contrast to this, Ashoka's other queen Tisyaraksita, as a result of her connivance (and not of her merit), also is granted sovereignty over the realm, for a period of 7 days, and also acquires Ashoka's seal. Unlike Asandhimitra, however, she grabs her authority and misuses it for malignant purposes, ordering the blinding of Ashoka's saintly son, Kunala.

4. Asandhimitra's enlightenment - her insight into the dharma and her independence

Asandhimitra once asked the monks what the sound of the Buddha's voice was like, and they told her it was like that of a karavika bird. "And where does this bird live?" she queried. "In the Himalayas" they answered. Upon learning this, Asandhimitra then went to Ashoka and told him she would like to see a karavika bird, and he immediately ordered that one be brought. It was put in a golden cage, but, to Asandhimitra's disappointment, it never uttered a sound. 

Ashoka went back to the monks and asked them what made the bird sing? They told him it sang when it saw one of it's kind. So the king then surrounded the cage with mirrors, and the bird, seeing it's reflection, thought there were other birds there. Spreading it's wings, it began to sing with an intoxicating voice, as thought it were blowing a crystal flute. The whole town was transported with joy, and Asandhimitra herself was so delighted by the realization that this was what the Buddha's voice was like that she attained the first stage of enlightenment, the fruit of stream-winner.

Here we can see some of Asandhimitra's independence return but it is put in a context of interdependence. She attains insight into the dharma as a result of her own efforts. But her efforts are also made possible by the support she gets from her husband and the advice they both get from the monks.  

5. Dharmic lessons - the queen is telling the king how to rule and he is listening

Endowed with this wisdom, there is one more thing that Asandhimitra must do in order to make her queenship complete: she must also become a spreader of the doctrine, the dharma. The final episode of the accounts of her legend: the story of her "sermon" - not to the women of the harem - but to the king himself. "Birth as a human being," Asandhimitra reminds Ashoka, "is a rare thing, and so are faith, and exposure to the Buddha's doctrine, and meeting a preacher of the Dharma."  Furthermore, since he, Ashoka, has come by all these rare things, he should strive with diligence. And she exhorts him as follows: "Great king, give offerings repeatedly, make great merit in the support of the Religion of the Buddha. The merits of gifts given to buddhas or pratyekabuddhas or arahants cannot be measured... Guard morality, discipline your mind, associate with good friends, be diligent, walk in the ways of the Dharma, and be a dharmaraja; protect all beings without exception. Great is the fruit of the seed planted and nurtured." 

Ashoka's response to the sermon: first, he repeats his commitment to respect Asandhimitra's queenship. "Asandhimitra," he tells her, "from now on into the future I will listen to your words concerning what is wrong and what is right; when you have merit to speak to me, I will listen to everything you say." And then, we are told, he goes on to perform his own greatest royal act of merit: he builds the 84,000 stupas as well as 84,000 monastries throughout the whole of Jambudvipa. 

This denouement is striking. Here we can see that Ashoka's own confirmation in the dharma, the act that defines his own identity as a Buddhist king and which truly establishes him as Dharmasoka, comes as a result of a realization brought on by his queen. Up until now, we have seen Asandhimitra's queenship as more or less being defined by Ashoka, despite the insistence that she have her own merit and realization that she achieve this independently.

Here, we see the flipside of that relationship: Ashoka's full kingship is presented as being occasioned by Asandhimitra. The queen is telling the king how to rule and he is listening. 

Edited by mystic786 - 5 years ago
Posted: 5 years ago
Thank you for sharing. It made for a very interesting reading.
Posted: 5 years ago
Very good reading . Thumbs Up A good post finally ! Phew !
Posted: 5 years ago
Thanks for sharing. We need more posts like this one. Informative. Useful.
Posted: 5 years ago
Interesting..Thanks for sharing
Posted: 5 years ago
You're welcome, everyone Smile
I also found these episodes of Asandhi's life quite interesting... it helps us in understanding her character and personality, the qualities which made her such a great empress, as well as her role and influence in Ashoka's life... No wonder she was his chief consort for 30 years...
Posted: 5 years ago
all of your posts are so good and informative. thanks for sharingSmile
Posted: 5 years ago
Thanks for this wonderful and insightful post. Clap We need more of this in the forum. Big smile

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