The Ashoka

Buddha was born at the foot of one.  Māhavīra renounced the world under one.  Aśoka the Great planted along them arterial roads of his empire to provide welcome shade for weary travellers. 

In the Purāṇas it is said to have got its name from a certain evil and cruel Saśoka (‘with-grief’ or ‘he who brings grief’) who came across a meditating sage and, amazed to see the sage did not flee him, felt a sudden repulsion for his behaviour which made him fall at the sage’s feet.  The sage advised practice of dharma and Saśoka was eventually reborn as a sorrow-removing tree, the aśoka (‘free of grief’).

The aśoka trees that surround the imprisoned Sītā in Laṅkā are said to destroy grief (‘śoka-nāśana’) in the Rāmāyaṇa, but they are also seen – in the Haṃsasandeśa – as appropriate co-mourners for Sītā in her burning grief.

The aśoka tree cuts across Indian traditions and legends appearing almost always as a sacred and largely benevolent tree.  For the girl whose lover is away from home, though, the aśoka serves only as a further torment for her lovesick heart.  Flowering at the beginning of vasanta with a large fire-red bloom, it is say the poets a-śoka only in name for it brings grief (śoka) to each pair of separated lovers. 

 The aśoka puts forth its blossom when struck by the foot of a woman – preferably the lotus-like foot jingling with anklets of a beautiful woman. In this it is one of the most important trees in the dohada tradition.  Dohada literally refers to the cravings of a pregnant woman and in this context the desire of trees, just before they bloom, for some kind of contact with a woman.  Women can thus trigger their flowering by a sort of ritual that varies for each tree.  For instance, a woman need only glance at the tilaka to make it bud, the campaka succumbs to her laugh, the nameru to her voice and the kurabaka to her embrace.  The dohada tradition was associated with the festival of spring, vasantotsava.  It may also have some connection with the traditional representation of a yakṣī (a type of semi-divine being) holding an aśoka branch which is often found at temple entrances.  So strong is this tradition that poets count it a wonder when the aśoka and other dohada trees bloom without the instigation of a woman:

नालिङ्गितः कुरबकस्तिलको न दृष्टो

नो ताडितश्च चरणैः सुदृशामशोकः।

सिक्तो न वक्त्रमधुना बकुलश्च चैत्रे

चित्रं तथापि भवति प्रसवावकीर्णः॥

N’ āliṅgitaḥ kurabakas tilako na dṛṣṭo

No tāḍitaś ca caraṇaiḥ sudṛśām aśokaḥ |

Sikto na vaktram adhunā bakulaś ca caitre

 citraṃ tathāpi bhavati prasava-avakīrṇaḥ ||

In Caitra at this time, no pretty girl has embraced the kurabaka, none has let shoot a glance at the tilaka, none has kicked the aśoka with her feet and none has sprinkled the bakula with wine from her mouth – how strange then that even so each tree is bestrewn with blossoms.

8th verse in the vasanta section of the 18th chapter of the Kavirahasya in the Kavyamimamsa – Rājaśekhara

 Names

The aśoka has just one synonym, van͂jula, according to the Amarakosa, which is often used for many other trees as well.  Monier Williams gives rakta-pallava (‘of red flowers’), piṇḍīpushpa, vicitra (‘multicoloured’), aṅganā-priya (‘beloved of women’) and kankeli as names that refer exclusively to the aśoka.  Viśoka, a variation on aśoka with the same meaning (‘griefless’), is also cited.  Several other names can be used for the aśoka but are equally used for other trees: hema-puṣpa (‘of golden flowers’), madhu-pushpa (‘of sweet flowers’), piṇḍapusya, kiṅkīrāta, madhuka (‘the sweet one’), śiṃśapā and kankeli. 

The name aśoka is still used almost universally across India with only very slight regional variations.  In Hindi, Marathi and Bengali, it is the aśok, asok-gāch or āsāphalī; in Gujarati it is the āśupālo or deśi pīla pulano.  Tamil knows it as the acōkam and Malayalam as the aśōkam.  It also seems to be well known in other South-Asian languages, such as Burmese, Thai, Sinhala and Malay which suggests that its popularity extends far beyond India most probably because of its mythological and religious significance.

In English, it is again simply the aśoka and it is identified as either Saraca Asoca (or Saraca Indica) or Jonesia Asoca. 

Botanical description

Rājaśekhara talks of three different types of aśoka: the red (rakta), the blue (nīla) and the golden (suvarṇa).  The red variety is evidently the standard aśoka.  The golden one – which the name hema-puṣpa seems to refer to and which is also found in the Mālavikāgnimitra – could conceivably be a slightly different shade or possibly an idealised version along the lines of the golden lotuses that grow in the Ganga.  But the nīlāśoka, which also appears in the Rāmāyaṇa, Monier Williams in the Vṛkṣāyurveda of Śāraṅgadhara, is more challenging.  If anyone can shed more light on this please do.

The botanical description in the Pandanus Indian database of plants is:

An evergreen tree growing throughout India in evergreen forests up to 750 m, leaves pinnate, 30 – 60 cm long, flowers orange-yellow in dense corymbs, very fragrant, fruits flat black pods, leathery, compressed, seeds 4 – 8 per pod, ellipsoid, cut surface of the bark turns reddish on exposure to air.

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3 Responses to “The Ashoka”


  1. 1 Sadashiv Dumbre December 3, 2013 at 5:40 pm

    The botanical name of Ashoka is saraca asoca(Roxb.) and the synonym is saraca Indica (Linnaeus). I am particularly fond of this tree because of its magnificient flowers , its foliage and the architecture of the tree. In my city Pune , there are some beautiful Ashoka trees in public gardens and enclosed private premises.However I am intrigued by the word saraca in its Binomial name.The literature which is available does not offer any satisfactory explanation of this particular word. It is very ambiguous and not self explanatory. The origin of this tree is India and there are multiple references in various literary works in many Indian languages as have been pointed out in the article on your site.Hence my suggestion is that it should be renamed as Ashoka Indica. Ashok is right way to spell it in English if one sees how it is written in Sanskrit. The appropriate body like the Botanical Survey of India should take this matter to the International platform for the final approval and the campaign should be supported by the tree lovers and organisations like yours. The renaming of the trees is a continuous process and several trees have been properly renamed in the past. The botanists can argue this case more academically. Let us take it ahead and give justice to this truly magnificient Indian tree.
    Thanks
    Sada Dumbre
    Pune


  1. 1 Bakula « Sanskrit Literature Trackback on April 26, 2010 at 9:33 pm
  2. 2 Seasonal Poetry « Sanskrit Literature Trackback on October 23, 2010 at 1:53 pm

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