Aśoka’s Pilgrimage to Bodhgayā: Kingship and Dhamma in Early India
Timeslot:07/27 | 09:00-09:20 UTC+2/CEST
Shortly after the end of the Kaliṅga war and the decision to practice and spread dhamma, Aśoka set off on a dhammayātā to the site of Śākyamuni’s awakening as the “Beloved of the Gods” declared in one of his edicts. His claim seems to be supported by the recovery of the so-called vajrāsana or ‘diamond throne’—a decorated sandstone slab stylistically comparable to Aśokan capitals—at the site of the Mahābodhi temple in Bodhgayā in the 19th century. The Mauryan king might have had the stone slab installed under the Bodhi tree to commemorate the spot where Śākyamuni sat in meditation and gained liberation from suffering. Aśoka’s pilgrimage to the sites associated with the Buddha’s life is a recurring theme in early Buddhist literary and artistic productions, and his visit to Bodhgayā is the highlight of the journey. The awakening represents the major turning point in Śākyamuni’s life because it is at Bodhgayā that he becomes the Buddha. Aśoka’s pilgrimage to the site of Śākyamuni’s awakening represents the legitimisation of his role as a cakkavatti or Buddhist sovereign following the Kaliṅga resolution. This paper intends to analyse artistic and literary references to Aśoka’s pilgrimage to Bodhgayā in order to understand the implications of the depictions of this episode in post-Mauryan art and literature, particularly in relation to the representations of Buddhist kingship in early India.