The Buddha’s most important lay disciple was a rich banker and merchant of Savatthi named Sudatta. Although this was his real name he was usually called Anathapindika, a nick-name meaning ‘feeder of the poor.’ He was called this because of the generous material help he gave to the destitute and homeless in Savatthi and presumably he had done much for them, more than was usual, otherwise he would have never earned the appellation. Of course Anathapindika was also very generous to the Sangha. The Theravada commentaries frequently mention and praise his gifts to the monks, supposedly a 180 million in gold, but nowhere do they record any stories about the help he gave to the poor. The ancient Theravadins apparently pruned Anathapindika’s biography thereby turning him from a Buddhist with a social conscious into a good Theravadin whose main concern was to lavish wealth on the Sangha.
If Anathapindika is the archetypal Theravadin lay man then Asoka is the archetypal Theravadin monarch. But this statement needs to be qualified because there are in fact two King Asokas; the Asoka of history and the Asoka of the Theravada tradition. The Asoka of history is now well- known to anyone acquainted with Buddhist or Indian history. Shocked at the suffering caused by his expansionist policies he renounced war and tried to govern his empire using Buddhist principles. He built hospitals, sponsored the cultivation of medical plants, established nature reserves, promoted religious tolerance and humanized the administrative and judicial systems. But the Asoka of history, the real Asoka, was unknown until his numerous edicts were deciphered and translated in the 19th century. Prior to this the only Asoka known to Theravadins was the Asoka of the tradition whose life and deeds are told in the Mahavamsa, the Dipavamsa, the Samantapasadika and several other works. And what a different Asoka this one is! Astonishingly, Theravadin literature makes no mention at all of Asoka’s welfare work, his paternal concern for his subjects, his vision for a spiritual society or even of his dramatic conversion. The traditional Asoka is portrayed as a good Theravadin lay man, that is, one who spends his time waiting on the monks and who lavishes all his wealth on them. The Mahavamsa says: ‘He fed 60,000 monks regularly in his palace. He had very costly hard and soft food prepared, decorated the city, brought the monks to his palace, fed them, and presented them with the requisites.’ Then we are told that he gave over 9000,000,000 in cash to build monasteries, stupas and to feed yet more monks. But there is no mention whatsoever of him doing any good to anyone other than to monks. Once again, in the hands of Theravadin editors, a remarkable man who genuinely cared about the spiritual, moral and material welfare of humankind was revised and edited into one who did nothing for anybody except monks. This has been the norm throughout Theravadin history; all the best social virtues are high-jacked by and diverted towards the Sangha.