Category Archives: b. The Heterodox Philosophies

Faxien (FA-Hsien): Chinese traveller

Shi Faxian wrote a detailed record of his travels from the years 399-418 C.E. after noticing that the Vinaya-Pitaka, a collection of Buddhist scripture, was unfinished, particularly, the Vinaya concerning monastic rules and precepts (Li, 157). Without this knowledge, those who wished to renounce and live religious life according to the Buddha’s teaching did not have the resources to do so. A completed Vinaya would provide monks or bhiksus with rules, daily activities and bhiksus ordination ceremonies. Faxian’s travels documented these rituals at the historical time that they happened. Through the culture and customs of the people he met. His major work is the translation of the Maha-samghika-Vinaya with the help of Buddhabhadra along with the recovery of the Sanskrit text Mahisasaka-Vinaya. Several pieces of his work appear in the collections of the Tripitaka (Li, 159).

Faxian was originally named Kung but was sent to the Buddhist order at the age of three. There, he was given the religious name of Fa-hsien meaning, “Law Manifest” (Fa-hsien, 7). Fa-hsien departed from Chang-an in the year 399 C.E. at the age of sixty-five. The list of places he visited is numerous, starting from dangerous deserts to powerful kingdoms to a three-year long return voyage. He crossed deserts, the Pamir Plateau, travelled through North, Central and East India, then sailed across the Indian Ocean and the China sea, landed at Laoshan and reached Chienkang in 413 C.E. (Fa-hsien, 7). By the time he returned to China he was seventy-four years old. Before his travels, Chinese monks had yet to travel further than North India. When Fa-hsien arrived in North India, sutras were passed down orally which convinced Fa-hsien to press further into India in pursuit of monastic rules that Chinese monks deeply needed. These monastic rules are one of three main parts of the Tripitaka. The Sutra-Pitaka, contains the sayings of Buddha and his main disciples, the Vinaya-Pitaka contains Monastic rules and the Abhidharma-pikaka is known as the Basket of Commentaries (Fa-hsien, 15).

Fa-hsien’s first stop travelling west was the country of King Ju Tan where he would stay for his first summer retreat. It was a Buddhist custom for monks to take the summer or rainy days off. From there Fa-hsien would travel to Tunhaung after his summer retreat through a desert that was known to have evil spirits and hot winds that killed every man who encountered them. It was described to have skeletons of those who perished there to mark the way (Fa-hsien, 16). He visited the Country of Shenshen and Agni. Both Kings in these countries embraced Buddhism and had four thousand monks from the Hinayana School. Agni held monks who held traditions far more strictly than Shenshen and who prohibited Chinese Monks (Fa-hsien, 17). The Country of Khotan was largely prosperous and hospitable. Here they witnessed the image procession. Travelling to Khalacha, Fa-hsien witnessed the five-year assembly, a time in which the king presents offerings to monks. From Khalacha, the group journeyed west to North India where they crossed the Pamirs. (Fa-hsien, 18-22).

They arrived in Udyana, the northernmost part of India and found all the inhabitants to speak the language of Central India. Here it was rumoured that Buddha came to this country when he visited North India. After a summer retreat they travelled south to Suvastu, it is said that the king tested Buddha by transforming into a hawk and a dove. To ransom for the dove the Buddha cut off a piece of his flesh for the hawk (Fa-hsien, 26). Travelling East, the places they visited had many claims to former actions of the Buddha. He gave up his body for alms, his eyes in Gandhara and head in Takshasila. Travelling south the group eventually reached the city of Hilo where there was built a temple for Buddha’s skull. Here, the king worried about security assigned eight men of noble families each with a seal to seal up the relic. Every morning they would check to see if the seals were broken or tampered with. Fa-hsien would go on to lose a companion to the cold of the Lesser Snow Mountains (Fa-hsien, 28-34). Eventually, they reached Central India, also known as the Middle Kingdom. It is here that Fa-hsien would acquire the Maha-samghika-Vinaya. He also obtained the Sarvastivada-Vinaya (Li, 202).

Having arrived in Central India, they arrived at a country called Samkasya where Buddha descended from the Trayastrimsas Heaven after preaching the Law to his mother for three months. To the southeast, Kanyakubja was a city in which the Buddha taught the law to his disciples. Further on, the Country of Vaisakha where the Buddha planted a willow twig that he used to clean his teeth with. Heretical Brahmans would cut it down, but it would spring up in the same place as before. Northward to the City of Sravasti was a city that was scarcely populated. Southeast from here laid the city of Kapilavastu and the garden of Lumbini. Here, the Krakuchchanda Buddha was born while in the garden of Lumbini, the queen bathed in a pool. When she emerged she gave birth to a son who would be bathed by two dragon-kings. A well was made there where the monks would usually drink from. (Fa-hsien, 49). East of this is the country of Ramagrama, known for its relics. Further east they reached the city of Kushinagara, where the Buddha was said to have entered Nirvana. East, they reached the country of Vaisali, north of which is the storeyed Monastery where the Buddha lived. Eventually, they reached the country of Magadha and the city of Pataliputra which was King Asoka’s capital (Fa-hsien, 50-58). King Asoka (272-232 B.C.E.) was king during Buddhism’s spread to Asia. Heading west they arrived at the new city of Rajagriha which was mentioned to only have two monasteries (Fa-hsien, 62). Passing through the Gridhrakuta Mountain, where the Buddha used to sit in meditation at the summit, they reached the city of Gaya. This city, unfortunately, was deserted. Fa-hsien returned to Pataliputra and travelled west to reach the city of Varanasi, a short distance away to the deer park where Pratyka Buddha entered Nirvana. Fa-hsien ended his journey in central India in the country of Tamralipti where he spent three years on a voyage to Chang-an (Fa-hsien, 63-72).

Fa-hsien’s main purpose in travelling west was to obtain monastic rules in India. He travelled to India during the reign of King Chandragupta II. His account of his travels, the Record of Buddhist Countries is the earliest account of information that we have of this era besides a few coins and sculptures (Fa-hsien, 9). The places that he names are of great interest to those studying the trade routes between China and the west. One of the earliest cultural interactions noted during his time in Shenshen, was that the monks residing there all practised the religion of India, but some observed it more strictly than others. This was how it was visiting countries to the west. It was only the language that differed from country to country. One of the earliest recordings of a cultural event was the record of the image procession in the country of Khotan. The image procession has a resemblance to that of a parade. It begins on the first day of the fourth month with the cleaning of the streets. The monks that the king has favour (during this time it was the monks of Gomati Monastery) would prepare a four-wheel image car three li from the city. This image was adorned with precious substances such as gold, silver, lapis-lazuli etc. Buddha’s image would stand at the centre of the car attended by two Bodhisattvas while divas of gold, silver or carved jade are suspended in the air. When the car approached the city, the king would take off his crown and change into clean clothes. Then, carrying flowers would burn incense before them. There is a different car for each ceremonial and each monastery had one day to parade its images (Fa-hsien, 19).

During Fa-hsien’s time in Central India, he was able to acquire a copy of the Maha-samghika-Vinaya. The translation of this text would be his major contribution to Chinese Buddhism and the understanding of monastic rules. It was the most extensive and complete text of the Vinaya (Li, 202). First arriving in Central India he took the time to describe the environment. The customs of the region were that people were rich and contented and unaffected by any poll-tax or official restrictions. Only those who farmed on the land owned by the king would pay a land tax and they were completely free to go and come as they pleased. The king governed without resorting to capital punishment, but criminals were punished via fines according to their crimes. Those who committed high treason (a crime of the highest degree) would have their right hand cut off. The residents of this country did not kill living creatures, drink wine or eat onion or garlic. Although those with the title of, “chandalas” or “evil men” did. Chandalas would enter the town by announcing their presence by hitting a piece of wood. These people held the occupation of fishermen or hunters. The monks were lavishly treated by the king and devoted themselves to reciting scriptures or sitting in meditation. When a travelling monk arrived, they carried their robe and alms-bowl (Fa-hsien, 36).

Faxian’s records of his travels have undoubtedly played a key part in introducing a further understanding of Buddhism and Hinduism to the Chinese culture. From a country rich in Buddhists and poor in monastic understanding, it would be Faxian who would venture out further than North India into Central India where he would obtain and translate the Maha-samghika-Vinaya and bring back the Sanskirt text of Mahisasaka-Vinaya as well as numerous other Vinaya texts unknown to China. His journey was, therefore, a huge success. The list of counties that he travelled to were extensive and each country had its own story to tell. In the Northern parts of India, the countries all practiced religion but in different languages. Central India came with stories and claims of the Buddha’s travels through Central India. All of these can be considered to get a glimpse of what life was like in the fifth century.


Waugh, Daniel (1999) “The Journey of Faxian to India.” The University of Washington. Accessed January 29, 2020.

Li, J., and Dalia A. A. (2002) Lives of great monks and nuns. Berkeley: Calif. Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.

Fa-hsien., and Li Yung-hsi (1957) A Record of the Buddhist Countries. Peking: Chinese Buddhist Association.

Related Topics for Further Investigation.


Monastic rule







Central India

Middle Kingdom

Buddhism in China



Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic.

Article written by: Bennett Kubitz (February 2020), who is solely responsible for its content.


In the year 599 BCE, a son was born to the ruler of a territory in India known as Kundalpura. The ruler’s name was Siddhartha, and his wife, Trisala, was sister to the king of a large collection of clans, the Vajjis. They belonged to a religion called Parsvanatha, whose contributing founders were known as Tirthankaras, little did they know that their child would eventually become the twenty-fourth and final. He was named Vardhamana, the name itself meaning “increasing prosperity,” or “Prosperous One,” (Law 19-20) and many Jainists will argue that he was aptly titled indeed, as he would go on to lay the framework for their modern-day religious practices. There were even more sudden implications however, as the fortunes of his father’s kingdom reportedly increased from the moment he was conceived.

Many stories exist detailing childhood events of the boy Vardhamana. Most serve to extol to us the promise evident in him, even as a boy. One such story tells of a group of youngsters, Vardhamana among them, playing in a mango grove. Allegedly a huge snake appeared, and as the other boys ran in fear, he calmly took it in his hands and carried it away. (Shah 29) Another describes a game in which the loser of a race was to carry the winner on his back. However, the story states that a heavenly being joined in, taking the form of a boy, and purposely losing the race. When Vardhamana sat on the back of this “boy,” he “started running and grew in size until he had taken the form of a giant” (Shah 29). Unfazed by this, Vardhamana, as the story goes, punched the giant so hard it was shocked at his incredible strength. It is believed that from this particular story, Vardhamana acquired his more widely used alias, Mahavira, or the Great Hero. Yet another, and perhaps the most important of the childhood stories, details an instance in which his parents where asked where in the house Mahavira was located. His mother replied upstairs, while his father, downstairs. Seemingly conflicting and mutually exclusive viewpoints, we are alerted to the fact that he was in fact on the middle floor, while his mother and father respectively on the first and third floors. (Shah 29) This story demonstrates a fundamental concept in Jainist philosophy of relative pluralism, the notion that contradictory statements can possibly both hold validity, when seen from the proper light. Many other stories exist that illustrate his physical and mental prowess; it was even claimed that he was born with three types of knowledge, mind-based, reasoning, and more incredibly, clairvoyance, the latter being a common theme among Tirthankaras. (Shah 31)

Two schools of thought exist on his interactions with the opposite sex. The Svetambara sect claims he married a woman named Yasoda and had by her a daughter Priyadarsana, while Digambara sects maintain he took his ascetic vows while still single. Regardless of the truth, taking into account the wishes of his parents to be a great warrior and ruler, Vardhamana waited until their deaths, and two years later, with the permission of his brother, Nandivardhana entered into the ascetic life. (Law 21) This is common in the Jainist school of thought, one cannot renounce with permission of one’s family.

One of the first stories of his ascetic life tells of the exodus from his city and of an old man, Harikesi. Upon hearing of the incredible occurrence of a prince relinquishing his wealth and status he “ran towards (Mahavira) to touch his feet and pay his respects.” (Shah 30) The masses expressed their distaste for the man, an outcaste, but were halted by Vardhamana. He indicated that he wished for the old man to proceed, and embraced him, to bid him farewell. Harikesi was overwhelmed with gratitude and wept as he paid his respects. This incident foreshadowed the dynamic social change that Jainist philosophy was to eventually advocate, that of universal equality.

At the moment of his renunciation, it is written that Mahavira acquired a fourth knowledge to accompany the three he was born with. Many believe that he came to possess the ability to “know the thoughts of all creatures in the world.” (Shah 31) From this moment on he “knew and saw all conditions of the world of the gods, men and demons: whence they came, whither they went, when they were born as men or animals, gods or infernal beings, according to their deeds.” (Law 31) This seems a little far-fetched and extraordinary, but regardless of what new powers were imbued to him on renunciation, if any at all, for the first twelve years of his ascetic life, Vardhamana endured great hardship. To a greater extent one can study the details of these twelve years in the Kalpa Sutra. The dawn of ascetic life came with a two-and-a-half day fast, whereupon it is said he “pluck(ed) out his hair (and) left his home forever.” (Shah 30) Soon after he gave half his robe to a poor Brahmin and when the other half became caught in a thorn bush, gave clothing up entirely, remaining from then on without possession. He took food only from the hollow of his hand, and erased from his mind all thought of pleasure, pain, pride, deceit, greed, lustful thoughts and severed his ties to the earth he knew. It is written that he did not ever spend more than one night in a single village, and no more than five in any town. He slept only occasionally, perhaps an hour at a time, and not ever for the sake of pleasure. (Shah 30-31) In short, he “abandoned the care of his body, he bore pain free from desire.” (Law 23) From the recounts of the Kalpa Sutra it is believe the area he covered corresponds to the current day state of Bihar, with forays into Bengal and Uttar Pradesh.

Finally, after twelve long years, in what is described as the most important moment in his life, Mahavira “attained the supreme knowledge and final deliverance from the bonds of pleasure and pain.” (Shah 31) He had fasted without food and drink for more than two days, and was near the town of Jrimhikagrama. He sat in a squatting position in the field of a landowner, Samaga, on the bank of the Rujupalika river. Exposed to the sun and heat, with his head bowed, he obtained the supreme and infinite form of knowledge and intuition known as Kevala Jnaana. From then on we can describe Vardhamana as a Kevali or Arhat, one who has attained enlightenment. (Law 31) Another term frequently used to describe him from this point on is Jina, or one who has conquered himself. (Shah 31)

Now, at forty-two years of age, having achieved his liberation, Mahavira began the next stage of his life, and perhaps the most influential in contemporary life, the stage of religious teacher. His followers were to be referred to as Nirgranthas, and himself Nirgrantha, or he who is freed from all bonds. (Law 20) He travelled from place to place, spreading enlightenment. In particular, his first declaration was so moving it inspired many to join him, it went as follows:

“I am all knowing and all seeing and possessed of infinite knowledge. Whether I am walking or standing still, whether I sleep or remain awake, supreme knowledge and intuition are with me, constantly and continuously. There are, O Nirgranthas, sinful acts that you have done in the past which you must now undo by this acute form of austerity. Now that you will be living a restrained life as regards your acts, speech and thought, this will negate the effects of Karma for the future. Thus, by the exhaustion of the foroe of past deeds through penance, and the non-accumulation of the effects of new acts, [you are assured] of the end of the future course [of the effects of karma] and the resultant rebirths, of the destruction of the effects of karma, and from that the destruction of pain, and from that of the destruction of mental feelings, and from that the complete absence of all kinds of pain.” (Shah 32)

It is claimed that the main characteristics of Tirthankaras’ utterances was that “once it was heard by audience, it turned into their respective dialect and was easily understood by them,” (Nagraj 16) and Mahavira was no different. Though this claim is a little fantastic, it still expresses once again the desire to erase the bonds of classes and sexes in an attempt to communicate to all the people of the nation. In fact it is likely this just embellishes the novel practice he had of speaking to the lesser people in their indigenous languages instead of the Sanskrit they held little knowledge of.

Vardhamana was also a great leader and organizer, he divided his followers initially into two categories, those who could follow his teachings fully, ascetics, and those that were to be held to less strict standards, lay followers. The ascetics as they were to be known took the five great vows:

1. Ahimsa – non-violence and reverence for all life

2. Satya – truthfulness

3. Asteya – not taking anything without the owner’s permission

4. Brahmacarya – control over the senses, chastity

5. Aparigraha – non-attachment to worldly things (Shah 32-33)

From this classification and that of gender we arrive at the current-day four-fold structure that exists today. It is to be noted, however, that despite these divisions, they were nothing more than classifications, for Mahavira “made no distinction between people of one caste or class and another, nor between men and women; and he did not lay down one set of rules for monks and another for nuns, nor one for male lay followers and another for females.” (Shah 34)

In the year 527 BCE, on the banks of a lake outside the town now known as Pavapuri, Vardhamana attained Moksa and his physical form passed from this world. Records indicate that the eighteen kings of the surrounding kingdoms illuminated their respective lands “since the light of intelligence (was) gone.” (Shah 35) This day is even now marked by the illumination of the dark, and is known as Dipavali or Divali, the Festival of Lamps, “symbolizing the light of knowledge revealing the truth and illuminating the soul when the master was no longer physically present.” (Shah 36) Though contention remains as to whether the primary root of this festival is the great Jina; however, many claim the origins should be attributed to other influences.

Mahavira is widely regarded as the greatest sage to have ever lived. His legacy is a lasting one in the form of the religion he helped crystallize into what is known as modern day Jainism. It has experienced many downturns and revivals in the years since his passing, and is most known for its committed non-violence and respect for all living beings, which is paralleled in the vows its early followers took. Perhaps just as importantly, and as with Buddhist thought which followed, Vardhamana’s teachings brought about a push for greater equality in what is now known as India, among men, women, and divergent class/caste members.

Related Terms/Further Readings






Bhagavati Sutra



Dipavali, Divali





Kalpa Sutra














Uttar Pradesh




Law, Bimala Churn (2002) Mahavira: His Life and Teachings Kolkata: Maha Bodhi Book Agency

Shah, Natubhai (2004) Jainism: The World of Conquerors Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers

Nagraj, Muni (2003) Agama and Tripitaka: A Comparative Study of Lord Mahavira and Lord Buddha New Delhi: Today and Tomorrow’s Printers and Publishers

Related Websites

Written by Jesse VanAlstine (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

Emperor Asoka

Emperor Asoka is regarded as one of the greatest rulers in India’s history. His grandfather, Chandragupta Maurya, ruled India for twenty-four years. It is reported that Chandragupta ascended the throne in 322 B.C. at the capital of Pataliputra by murdering the Nanda king and proclaiming the beginning of the Maurya dynasty (Smith 13). The entirety of his reign was defined by opulence and totalitarianism. Bindusara Amitraghata, Chandragupta’s son, took over the empire after Chandragupta died or abdicated and presumably began his reign in either 301 or 298 B.C, and ruled for twenty-five or twenty-eight years according to different authorities (Smith 18). He conquered much of southern India during his reign and then passed on the empire to his son Asoka-vardhana, also called Asoka, who became the third ruler of the Maurya dynasty.

Legends claim that Bindusara initially disliked Asoka as a young man due to his unattractive physical appearance. Soon after though, Asoka’s other qualities impressed Bindusara, who then appointed Asoka as a prince (Thapar 21). Asoka ascended the throne at Pataliputra in 273 B.C. It is acknowledged that his coronation was delayed for four years until 269 B.C.; the cause of the delay is still debated between scholars as some believe it to be due to an unclear succession that involved much violence, while others believe that such a struggle was not likely required to solidify the succession to such a well established throne in such a resolutely united empire (Smith 20). The events surrounding Asoka’s death are still unknown as there are no monuments to mark the location of his remains. Both the Hindu Puranas and the chronicles of Ceylon assign Asoka’s reign to be forty to forty-one years long beginning with his accession in 273 B.C. to his death at around 232 B.C (Smith 68).

Tradition states that in Asoka’s early years he followed the Brahman religion, with special adherence to Siva, and it is assumed that he led the life of a Hindu raja (king) (Smith 23). The Buddhist monks who attempted to chronicle Asoka’s reign tried to assert the emperor as a cruel monster before he converted to Buddhism. These claims, however, have no historical value and are treated as stories designed to lead the reader to think Asoka’s transformation was much greater than it actually was (Smith 23). There are no records of Asoka waging war on anyone during his early years as ruler. The first major documented event in Asoka’s reign was his bloody victory over the Kingdom of the Three Kalingas in 261 B.C. (Smith 24). Due to the horrific nature of the battle with the Kalingas, Asoka was given the name Asoka the Wicked or Asoka the Fierce. Later on he is called Asoka the Pious or Asoka the Righteous after he renounces his violent war-like conduct for a more dharmic approach to kingship. Despite his victory in the war with the Kalingas, Asoka felt great remorse for the death and suffering his actions had caused (Smith 24). As a result, there has been no reason to believe that Asoka instigated an aggressive war ever again. Asoka began to devote his life to dharma and never permitted himself to be tempted to wage unprovoked war again (Smith 26). To live a life devoted to dharma is to live righteously and moral­ly, with particular regard to religious teachings and law.

It has been determined that Asoka’s conversion to Buddhism occurred around 261-260 B.C., and that he did not always rule exactly the way a theoretical Buddhist king should. According to the Sanskrit text Asokavadana, Asoka was still very interested in maintaining his rule in the empire and had no scruples about punishing or disposing of those who opposed him in any way (Strong 43). Consequently, he is rarely referred to as a cakravartin, an ideal Buddhist king, but rather is called a balacakravartin, an armed Buddhist king who must “use or threaten physical force to become ruler of his cosmos” (Strong 50). It is widely accepted that Asoka protected, propagated and loved the teaching of dharma, which he often called the Law of Piety. The Hindu interpretation of dharma differs from Asoka’s Buddhist interpretation in the way that Hindus upheld the caste system and believed that each caste had its own dharma, whereas Asoka dropped the caste system and also placed respect for the sanctity of animal life and reverence towards elders in much higher regard than Hindu tradition (Smith 29-30). About four years after Asoka became an upasaka (a lay Buddhist), he progressed so much in his spiritual journey that he became a bhiksu (a Buddhist monk). Scholars believe “that Asoka was both monk and monarch at the same time” based on the clear testimony of the rock edicts he issued in 257 B.C. (Smith 35). It is possible, according to scripture on Buddhist ordination (upasampada), that he lived as a monk temporarily because ordination does not require lifelong vows, and therefore Asoka could have resumed a civil life after any period of time (Smith 38). Asoka’s devotion to the teachings of dharma prompted him to use his enormous imperial power to organize “the most comprehensive scheme of religious missionary enterprise recorded in the history of the world” (Smith 46). Asoka’s efforts resulted in spreading Buddhism as a dominant religion throughout India and other countries in Asia. It is important to realize that when one applies Asoka’s policy of religious tolerance and acceptance to the modern connotation of the word tolerance that in his time there were no truly diverse religions in India. In other words, the only organized religions were Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism while Jesus and Zarathustra were figures still unknown to the emperor (Smith 61).

Asoka Pillar
Asoka Pillar (Lumbini, Buddha’s Birthplace)

Asoka is most well-known for is the creation of his vast number of stupas, monuments, pillars and rock edicts. The numerous inscriptions found on these various objects were mostly recorded by Asoka and provide the leading authentic history of events during his reign (Smith 20). There exists an exaggerated legend that Asoka erected eighty-four thousand stupas, a memorial mound containing relics of important persons, within the span of three years (Smith 107). The actual number of stupas is much smaller. The most important inscriptions made during Asoka’s reign were those found on the Major and Minor Rock Edicts and the Pillar Edicts; these inscriptions defined Asoka’s policy of Dharma (Thapar 2). The dharma ethics in these edicts are Buddhist rather than Brahmanical (Smith 30). There are fourteen major rock edicts located at Kalsi, Mansehra, Shahbazgarhi, Girnar, Sopara, Yerragudi, Dhauli and Jaugada; and various other minor rock edicts located throughout the country (Thapar 5). Asoka particularly enjoyed erecting large numbers of monolithic pillars, both inscribed and uninscribed, throughout his empire (Smith 116-117). Seven major pillars exist at Allahabad, Delhi-Topra, Delhi-Meerut, Lauriya-Araraja, Lauriya-Nandangarh and Rampurva (Thapar 5). It is because of the tales inscribed on the rock edicts that scholars have been able to authentically document the earliest events in Asoka’s reign, the conquest of the Kalingas, for example, and many more of the major events that occurred during his rule (Smith 24). The third and fourth major rock edicts describe the years 257 and 256 B.C.E. as the period of Asoka’s great advance in his spiritual development and religious policy (Smith 52). The final depictions that scholars have of the historical Asoka are found on the Minor Pillar Edicts, which describe “him as the watchful guardian of the unity and discipline of the Church which he loved” (Smith 67).

There is a great deal of evidence of various types available on the history of the Mauryan dynasty, particularly on Asoka’s life and reign during that period (Thapar 11). To consider all of the legends of Asoka would be an overwhelming task for this article, as there are stories about him in many different languages from many different sources (Strong 16). Some of these sources include texts such as the Asokavadana, the Divyavadana, the Mahavamsa and the Dipavamsa, the Asokasutra, the Kunalasutra, and the Puranas. The Asokavadana is a Sanskrit text which starts with details of the life of the elder Upagupta, a Buddhist monk who later plays a major role in Asoka’s career as ruler (Strong 16). The text then goes on to tell the entire Buddhist legend of Asoka’s life and his path to becoming a dharmic king. The legend includes several variations of how Asoka was introduced to Buddhism and how he spent his last years (Thapar 35 & 192). The efforts of many scholars to establish an accurate chronology of Asoka’s reign has resulted in the conclusion that the Asokavadana itself does not explicitly date events during Asoka’s life (Strong 12). The Asokavadana is said to be part of the Divyavadana, a voluminous Sanskrit anthology of Buddhist legends: some Chinese translations of the Asokavadana claim it is a separate, independent work of the Divyavadana (Strong 16). The Kunalasutra is another text that contains the same legends found in the Asokavadana but sheds a different light on these legends (Thapar 192). Kunalasutra’s authors did not compose the text to shape Asoka’s character in a particular way, but to document the legends as they were in local tradition (Thapar 193). The Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa are Ceylon chronicles that describe in great detail the part Asoka played in expanding Buddhism in India, particularly to Ceylon (Thapar 8). It is important to note that many of the legends of Asoka written in Buddhist texts were written by Buddhist monks and therefore depict Asoka from an orthodox Buddhist standpoint.


Barua, B.M. (1968) Asoka and His Inscriptions. 2 vols. Calcutta: New Age Publishers.

Dasgupta, Surendranath (1975) A History of Indian Philosophy. 5 vols. Delhi: The University Press.

Davids, T.W. Rhys (1907) “Asoka and the Buddha Relics.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society,pp. 397-410.

Drekmeier, Charles (1962) Kingship and Community in Early India. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Eggermont, P.H.L. (1956) The Chronology of the Reign of Asoka Moriya. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Gokhale, B. G. (1966) Asoka Maurya. New York: Twayne Publishers.

­________ (1949) Buddhism and Asoka. Baroda: Padmaja Publications.

MacPhail, James M. (n.d.) Asoka. London: Oxford University Press.

Monier-Williams, Monier (1964) Buddhism in its Connexion with Brahmanism and Hinduism. Delhi: The Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office.

Mookerji, Radhakumud (1972) Asoka. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Nikam, N. A., McKeon, Richard, ed and tr (1959) The Edicts of Asoka. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Smith, Vincent A. (1997) Asoka: the Buddhist Emperor of India. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services.

Strong, John S. (1983) The Legend of King Asoka. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Thapar, Romila (1997) Asoka and the decline of the Mauryas. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation



Chandragupta Maurya

Bindusara Amitraghata

Maurya Dynasty

The Buddha

Guatama (Historical) Buddha

The Rock Edicts

The Puranas






Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Megan Hilton (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Carvaka (Materialist) Philosophy

The Carvaka (sweet-talkers), also known as Lokayata philosophy, is a heterodox Hindu philosophy named after its founder and often classified with its fellow dissenter philosophies of Buddhism and Jainism. However, unlike Jainism and Buddhism, Carvaka has not turned into its own religious sect and remains a philosophical ideal. Being a heterodox school of thought means that Carvaka rejects the idea that the Vedas are revealed texts (sruti) and also rejects the power of the Brahmin priestly class (see King 19). It is a materialistic philosophy that places most of its emphasis on the here and now and life as we perceive it as we live through it. The Carvaka system only accepts perceived knowledge to be true and therefore dismisses the concept of an afterlife. Although the philosophy is believed to be quite old, there are very few texts that deal directly with the system itself.

There is no single piece of extant literature that is solely based on the materialistic philosophy of the Carvaka. The few writings that clearly relate to the system are not very old in Hindu terms (a few centuries) but many scholars believe that there is evidence of criticisms of the Carvaka principles in earlier writings by adversary philosophers such as Sankara (Hiriyanna 187). The Carvakas played a significant role in the history of Indian philosophy (King 21). It was very unnerving to the leaders and priests of the orthodox tradition because of the rejection of their sacred texts and the rejection of immaterial forms of existence. The importance of the materialist philosophy is most likely underplayed because of the lack of extant texts of Carvaka or Lokayata itself. The Brhaspati Sutra apparently set out the principles of the system but the text has been lost. The orthodox opposition wrote the only known writings pertaining to the philosophy. The only possible extant writing on the Caravaka philosophy is Destruction of Philosophical Theories (Tattvopaplavasimha) by Jayarasi Bhatta (King 19). Even this is not directly Carvaka; it is explained more as radical skepticism than materialism. Still the fact that Jayarasi was from a school of skeptical Lokayatikas gives writings that are closely related to and are not completely critical of the Carvaka philosophy.

The lack of texts to support it made the tradition unlikely to survive, unlike its fellow heterodox traditions of Buddhism and Jainism adhering to their own sacred texts. The only possible extant writing on the Carvaka philosophy is Destruction of Philosophical Theories (Tattvopaplavasimha) by Jayarasi Bhatta (King 19). Even this is not directly Carvaka; it is explained more as radical skepticism than materialism. Still the fact that Jayarasi was from a school of skeptical Lokayatikas gives writings that are closely related to and are not completely critical of the Carvaka philosophy. There is also evidence of the Carvaka system in the Rgveda. The poets of the Rgveda never show a desire to reach another world but instead put emphasis on the here and now facts of life, just as the Carvaka system does (Raja 24). The philosophy receives much ridicule in ancient literature. This is presumed to be because of the gaps and deficiencies in the system of thought itself because fellow heterodox systems that reject the Vedas and authority of the priestly class do not receive such negative commentary. Since most of the writings on the Carvaka are by followers of opposing schools of thought, it may be misinterpreted and its weaknesses overly emphasized.

One of the reasons that many philosophers reject Carvaka is because of the dogma of perception. The doctrine states that the only valid knowledge (pranama) is that which is directly perceived– sense knowledge. Reasoning is completely rejected as a valid way of acquiring knowledge (King 132). The explanation for this is that there is not sufficient cause for believing in the truth of the inductive relation that forms the basis for the idea. The inductive relation can be different to each individual and is not physically apparent. It takes on the approach of modern science (Raja 30). Universal relationships can be accepted only if they can be warranted by direct observation (anubhava), much like a science experiment. Inference requires perceptual knowledge to establish its validity. Giving probabilities rather than definitive answers was the main reason for resistance to inferential reasoning (King 133). The limitations on thought and reasoning provide a rigid barrier to giving deeper meaning to life and thereby contribute any new ideas or perspectives to Indian philosophy (darshanas).

In ancient Hindu society the upper three varnas were allowed to participate in Vedic ritual practices and receive an education. The lack of inclusiveness of commoners may have provided a base for their support of Carvaka. Not being allowed to participate in Vedic rituals and having the powerful priestly class causing dissent made the philosophy’s position of rejection of the Vedas and Brahmins very appealing (King 17). It is easy to reject the power of the Vedic text when one is not allowed to participate in rituals or is unable to read them.

The specific purposes of human existence are undecided from the Carvaka philosophical viewpoint. In traditional Hindu society righteousness (dharma), pleasure (kama), worldly success (artha), and liberation (moksa) were the basic principles of human existence. The materialists believed that the main goal of life was kama or the pursuit of pleasure (King 18). A follower of the doctrine would try to maximize the pleasures in his or her life. The Carvaka promotes a lifestyle based on the avoidance of sorrow or suffering. Some scholars also believe that success or wealth (artha) was another main goal of the Carvaka life. The philosophy is often criticized because of these materialistic purposes for life. In later writings distinctions seem to have been made between refined materialism, which had a hierarchical scheme of pleasures, and approving of intellecual over sensual pleasure, and a more crude materialism (King 18). The hierarchal system is probably a more valid description of how the original philosophy was practiced, with intellect being important and adherents not having blatant disregard for the moral issues that go along with the attempt to have artha and kama.

Lokayata often has a negative reputation because of the lack of dharma as an absolute goal of life. The philosophy cannot just be projected as an unreflective hedonistic perspective. Dealing with moral issues and rejecting the actions that may cause harm to others has evidentiary support (King 19). Since there was a lack of the goal of righteousness derived from dharma, the idea of kama controlled actions of the followers. Kama was not believed to be for just oneself, but a universal goal to avoid suffering for oneself and others. Carvaka also condemned war and the Vedic animal sacrifices much like the Jainas and Buddhists (Chattopadhyaya 31). Both of these practices add to the suffering of other individuals, making them unacceptable to the Lokayata.

The doctrine dismisses all gods, devas and supernatural beings (Hiriyanna 193). It is also recognized that there is no god who governs the universe, no life after death, or conscience (dharma). The material world is all that exists and there are no other worlds in which to be reborn. This fixates a follower totally on the world of sense around them and does not inspire elevated thoughts of a deeper reality. There is no god who created the world, but a conglomeration of matter that is able to produce things out of itself (Dasgupta 175). Carvaka rejects the idea of Brahman because nobody has come back to relate to us what happens after death. Brahman is inferred, and cannot be perceived by the senses. Therefore the Carvaka rejects Brahman. Only the four elements of earth, fire, water and air are recognized and these together produce intelligence that is destroyed when the body perishes. Just like intelligence, atman or the soul is not believed to be a separate entity from the body as it is unable to be demonstrated that it does exists.

Although there are no remaining practitioners of the Carvaka philosophy it still remains an integral part of Indian philosophical history. There may be resurgence in the interest and study of such materialistic philosophies such as this with the changing views of western culture today.

References and Further Recommended Readings

Chattopadhyaya, D. (1968) Lokayata: A Study in Ancient Indian Materialism. New Delhi: People’s Publishing House.

Dasgupta, Surendranath (1962) A History of Indian Philosophy: vol. V. New York, N.Y.: The Cambridge University Press.

Hiriyanna, M. (1968) Outlines of Indian Philosophy. London: George Allen & Unwin LTD.

King, Richard (2000) Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought. New Delhi: Maya Publishers PVT. LTD.

Raja, Kunhan C. (1974) Some Fundamental Problems in Indian Philosophy. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

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Article written by Megan Gajdostik (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.


Jainism is the heterodox branch of Hinduism, with roots tracing all the way back to 500 B.C.E. Some say the existence of Jainism is much older, but it has not yet been proven. The Jains trace their origins back to India, where their existence represents a little less than a million and a half of the world’s population. European scholars, who familiarized themselves with Jainism through samples of Jaina literature, hastily came to the conclusion that Jainism was just a subsidiary of Buddhism. It has now been proven beyond reasonable doubt that Jainism is not an offshoot of Buddhism, and is at least as old as Buddhism (see Dasgupta 169-170). The leader of Jainism is attributed to Vardhamana Mahavira, the last prophet, also known as Tirthankara of the Jains. Jainism has twenty-four Tirthankaras: Risabha (being the first), Ajita, Sambhava, Abhinandana, Sumati, Padmaprabha, Suparshva, Candraprabha, Puspadanta, Sitalnatha, Sreyamsa, Vasupujya, Vimala, Ananta, Dharma, Santi, Kuntha, Aara, Mallinatha, Munisuvrata, Nami, Nemi, Parsvanath, and last but not least, Mahavira.

Jain Tirthankara, 12th century AD (Gwalior Archaeological Museum 2017)

According to belief of orthodox Jains, the Jaina religion is eternal, and it has been revealed again and again in every one of the endless succeeding periods of the world by innumerable Tirthankaras” (Dasgupta 169). All the Tirthankaras have attained moksa at their death, and are regarded as “Gods” by the Jain worshippers. There are two main sects of Jain worshippers: The Svetambaras and the Digambaras.

The Svetambaras are known as “the wearers of white clothes,” whereas the Digambaras are known as “the cloth less.” Digambaras are found mainly in Southern India but also in the Northwestern provinces such as: Eastern Rajputana and the Punjab. The Svetambaras on the other hand, are mainly found in Gujarat, and Western Rajputana, but they can also be found all over Northern and Central India. Although both sects generally agree on all the fundamental principles of Jainism, the Digambaras keenly believe that perfect saints such as the Tirthankaras live without food, and that a monk who owns any property and wears clothes cannot obtain moksa. They also contend that no woman can obtain moksa. The Digambaras deny all canonical works of the Svetambaras and state that the values the Svetambaras have were lost immediately after Mahavira. The Digambaras, who separated from the Svetambaras, developed eccentric religious rituals. Sanskrit works of the Digambaras go way back before the works of the Svetambaras if we do not include the canonical works of the Svetambaras. The views of these two sects differ when it comes to the true meaning of existence (samsara) but both believe that Mahavira was the true leader of this complex religion.

Mahavira was a ksatriya (warrior) of the Jnata clan. He was the second son of Siddhartha and Trisala. The Svetambaras believe that the embryo of Mahavira was transferred from a Brahmin (priestly class) lady named, Devananda to the womb of Trisala. This story however, is frowned upon by the Digambaras. Siddhartha and Trisala gave him the name Vardhamana (Vira or Mahavira). Mahavira later went on to marry Yasoda, who later gave birth to their only daughter. At the age of thirty, Mahavira’s life had changed drastically. With the death of his parents and the permission of his brother, Mahavira became a monk, and after twelve years of self-humiliation and meditation “he attained omniscience” (see Dasgupta 173). He eventually attained moksa in 480 B.C.E. after preaching for approximately forty years making him the very last Tirthankara known to Jains. Mahavira was also an avid follower of the five great vows (panca-mahavrata), which consist of: Ahimsa, Satyam, Asteyam, Brahmacaryam, and Aparigraha.

Ahimsa is defined as “abstinence from all injury to life” (Chatterjee & Datta 107). Life is seen as existence that goes beyond the “moving beings.” Plants and beings inhabiting bodies of the earth are also seen as being part of ‘life’. Thus, the ideal of the Jains is, therefore, “to avoid abusing life not only through the moving beings, but also of the non-moving ones” (Dasgupta 169). Often seen throughout India, are Jain saints who try to follow this ideal. They are seen wearing a piece of cloth that is tied over their noses so they do not inhale and destroy the life of any organism floating in the air. “The Jaina attitude of ahimsa is the logical outcome of their metaphysical theory of the potential equality of all souls and recognition of the principle of reciprocity” (Chatterjee & Datta 107). This basically means do to others, what you would want done to you. The typical Jain tries to perform this duty in everything he or she does, because he or she wants to be consistent with the principle he or she has adopted. Not only is ahimsa practiced through action, but it also must be practiced through thought, speech and action. The next vow is to abstain from falsehood.

Satyam does exactly this through the vow of truthfulness, which consists of speaking of things that are not only true, but also moral and pleasant. Without the moral and pleasant qualifications, speaking the truth can lead to “vulgarity, frivolity, vilification, etc” (see Chatterjee & Datta 108). In order to carry out the perfect maintenance of satyam, Jains must surmount greed, fear, anger and even stealing.

Asteyam is the vow to abstain from stealing. It emphasizes the point to never take what is not given to you. A Jain writer once said, “wealth is but the outer life of man and to rob wealth is to rob life.” This alludes back to the vow of ahimsa with the “sanctity of property” being a direct comparison of the “sanctity of life” (See Dasgupta 180-211).

Another vow that has extreme importance in the conducting of Jain principles is that of brahmacaryam. This is the abstinence from self-indulgence. Brahmacaryam is seen in the context of abstaining from celibacy, however it goes deeper than that. It is interpreted as the vow to give up kama (self-indulgence) of every form. Jains believe that although physical indulgence may stop, the continuation of self-indulgence may still occur through subtle forms such as: speech, thoughts, and in the hopes of enjoyment hereafter in heaven. In order to abide by this vow, a Jain must, therefore, resist all forms of self-indulgence whether it is external or internal, subtle or obvious, and even direct or indirect.

Last but not least comes aparigraha, the abstinence from all attachment. “This is explained as the vow to give up all attachment dealing with the five senses: pleasant sound, touch, color, taste and smell” (Chatterjee & Datta 108). Attachment to any of the world’s objects means the soul is placed under bondage to the world, and according to sources, it causes rebirth, and liberation is unattainable without the withdrawal of attachment. The only way to overcome this attachment is through “right knowledge, faith and proper conduct.” When a person successfully overcomes the forces of all passions and karmas, the soul becomes free from its bondage and in turn attains liberation (moksa). When liberation is attained, Jains believe the fourfold perfection is achieved. It consists of: infinite knowledge, infinite faith, infinite power, and infinite bliss (see Chatterjee and Datta 109-111). Mahavira as well as the other twenty-three Tirthankaras achieved these five great vows and to assume the role of the prophets in Jainism.

Although these prophets are sacred and revered, they are not considered Gods. In fact, Jainism does not believe in God. The skepticism of the Jains is based on the following grounds: “Like the existence of God, the qualities of omnipotence, unity, eternity and perfection, are generally attributed to Him” (Chatterjee & Datta 110). If God is the “all mighty” (omnipotent), then God is supposed to be the cause of all things. The Jains however, argue that through the omnipotence of His character. They feel that He did not create everything and through that the Jains come to reject the belief in God. The Jains do, however, feel it necessary to meditate on and worship the liberated souls. The tirthankaras already possess the perfections, as mentioned earlier, and so they easily take the place of God in the eyes of the Jains. “The liberated souls serve only as beacon lights” (Chatterjee & Datta 111). This guides the Jainas to ultimate liberation.

The Jain religion is undoubtedly one of the oldest religions out there that are still being practiced to this day. Despite Jains being dispersed all throughout the world presently, the total Jain population hasn’t changed much. Its strict rules thus make it a “religion of the strong and the brave” (Chatterjee & Datta 111). It has recently become a scholar’s fervor to explore this antediluvian religion, due to its teachings, and its ability to function without a God. The complexity of this religion will most definitely have scholars enticed to find out more about this religion and perhaps dig its roots back to before 500 B.C.E. when it was first noted as being found.


Bhargava, Dayanand (1968) Jaina Ethics. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Chapple, Christopher (1993) Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Serf in Asian Traditions. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Chatterjee, S., and Datta, D.M. (1984) An Introduction to Indian Philosophy. Calcutta: Calcutta University Press.

Dasgupta, Surendranath (1975) A History of Indian Philosophy: Volume I. Delhi: Motilal


Tahtinen, Unto (1976) Ahimsa: Nonviolence in Indian Tradition. Ahmedabad: Navajivan

Publishing House.

Thapar, Romila (1992) Interpreting Early India. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

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Written by Raj Shah (Spring 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.