“In the eighth year after his consecration the beloved of the gods, Piyadasi, the king, conquered Kalinga. A hundred and fifty thousand people were deported from there, hundreds of thousands were killed on the spot and almost as many died. After that, now that Kalinga has been completely taken, Piyadasi devotes himself to an intense study of the dhamma…. But Piyadasi is still haunted by the thought of having conquered Kalinga. For the killing, slaying or deportation that takes place when one conquers unconquered land is something highly painful and unbearable... for this purpose this letter on the dhamma was written, namely that my sons and grandsons will not consider any other new conquests (of the type undertaken by me in Kalinga), that they prefer a conquest as a result of which the people surrender of their own accord, consisting of forgiveness and mildness in punishment, and that they hold this dhamma conquest as the only true conquest.” (Rock Edict XIII, pp. 446-48)
The Asoka Inscriptions: Analysing a Corpus
These evocative lines draw attention to the extraordinary ruler who was wracked with guilt on witnessing the depredations of war after his conquest of a region to the southeast of his dominions, and to his embracing the spiritual path in his personal and political life. Rulers before and after Asoka in the pre-modern world have celebrated their achievements in the form of conquests, and inscribed their munificence for posterity. What is striking about Asoka is the remorse that he openly demonstrates, and the keenness with which he advocates a moral life through numerous records strewn across his vast kingdom. Herman Tieken, a well-known Indologist with expertise in Sanskrit, Tamil, Prakrit, and Apabhramsa draws our attention to their diverse provenance to contextualize the content of the Asokan edicts, with a detailed discussion of linguistic peculiarities and technical innovations that had a bearing upon what Tieken calls “the inscription project” of the emperor.
Divided into two parts, the first seven articles are a close reading of texts of the pillar, rock, and minor rock edicts, among others. The five articles in the second part draw attention to the geographical spread of the inscriptions, and the implication of the variation in specific media of communication—pillar/ rock— for understanding this great ruler’s political control over a vast dominion in the Indian subcontinent.
Almost all the inscriptions name the king as Devanampiya Piyadasi (“beloved of the gods” (named) Piyadasi), and it is only in the minor rock edicts that he is called Asoka (at Maski: devanampiyasa asokasa; Nittur and Udegolam: raja asoka) [pp. 413-21]. This leads us to the question of how historians have identified this ruler. The vast Buddhist canonical tradition memorialised this ruler as dedicated to spreading the three sanctuaries (sarana) of Buddhism, namely, the Buddha, samgha, and dhamma, and as convening the Third Buddhist Council at his capital in Pataliputra. In the Puranas, Asoka is the grandson of Chandragupta, the founder of the Maurya dynasty, and his father was Bindusara.
Focus on texts of inscriptions
Why did the king not see fit to name his ancestors in his inscriptions? Was this because he was the first to innovate with recording his orders, and that genealogy was not yet understood as revealing the public image of the ruler? The issue of the date of Asoka and the Buddha is also of importance here: traditionally, a date 218 years prior to Asoka’s consecration for the Buddha’s parinibbana (final release) had been accepted; more recently, scholars have argued that the latter occurred 100 years before Asoka came to the throne. This has led to the following dates being suggested for Asoka: 285-84 BCE and 268-67 BCE [pp. 421-24].
The bulk of Tieken’s work focusses on the texts of the inscriptions, analysing their content and intent. The pillar edicts comprise six separate imperial declarations that were meant to make one set, and were found in six versions in the Gangetic heartland of the empire: Araraj, Nandangarh, Rampurva, Allahabad, Mirath, and Topra. The rock edicts comprise a set of 14 royal proclamations found in the borderlands of the empire, namely, in the northwest—Kandahar (in present-day Afghanistan), Shahbazgarhi and Mansehra (in present-day Pakistan); the north—Kalsi (Uttarakhand); the east—Dhauli and Jaugada (Odisha); the south—Erragudi (Andhra) and Sannati (Karnataka); and the west—Sopara (Maharashtra) and Girnar (Gujarat).
The stylised public use of the Brahmi script may be attributed to Asoka, even if, as has been argued on the basis of Brahmi letters and words found on pottery sherds from Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka and the Tamil region, the script was known prior to Asoka’s time (I am not convinced by the arguments of those who date the existence of the script to the 6th century BCE in the south, as the evidence cited is flimsy, to say the least). The use of the Kharoshti script in the northwestern rock edicts is interesting; this script emerged in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent possibly because of the influence of the Aramaic script used by the Achaemenids (First Persian Empire) in the 4th century BCE. Tieken avoids the controversial position of Harry Falk—whose source book on Asokan inscriptions has been invaluable to researchers—that Brahmi is derived from Greek (2006, p. 139). The language of the inscriptions was mostly Prakrit, with the “local” elements visible (Gandhari dialect in Girnar); in the northwest, Greek and Aramaic languages were used.
- Herman Tieken, a well-known Indologist with expertise in Sanskrit, Tamil, Prakrit, and Apabhramsa draws our attention to their diverse provenance to contextualize the content of the Asokan edicts.
- What is striking about Asoka is the remorse that he openly demonstrates, and the keenness with which he advocates a moral life through numerous records strewn across his vast kingdom.
- Those who advocate the “not-so-greatness” of Asoka cannot take away the import of his rule, exemplified in his words immortalised in stone, advocating peaceful coexistence, respect for all religions and communities.
The pillar edicts appear to be the reflections of a king, who, in his 26th regnal year, was looking back at his long career, and recounting the various measures he had taken for the welfare of the people. The rock edicts, similarly, according to Tieken, presented a consolidated view of Asoka’s reign, although mentioning specific years of his reign when momentous events occurred—viz. the Kalinga war in the eighth year, his spiritual awakening in the tenth year, and so on. Empathy for animals and ordinary folk, including slaves; the creation and maintenance of public works such as hospitals, rest houses, trees, and wells; the opportunity for criminals and convicts to atone for their deeds; concerns over the Buddhist samgha; moral precepts relating to respect and support for the elderly, teachers, and religious persons; and directions to the rajukas, mahamattas, and other officials—Asoka’s humane administrative acumen is revealed in each and every edict.
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Compilation of separate epistles
Tieken suggests that the inscriptions were essentially the compilation of separate epistles sent by the king to his officials in different parts of his empire; they are a product of subsequent generations who sought legitimacy for themselves by harking to the glorious rule of their ancestor, as seen from the frequent references to sons and grandsons in the edicts (p. 412). Whether we agree with Tieken that there was a royal chancery that directed an epistolary system across the empire (the argumentation to support this is not wholly convincing), and that the edicts may have been issued by Asoka’s immediate successors (according to Tieken, they preferred to be anonymous to seek legitimacy through Asoka; again, not very convincing), the rigorous cross-examination of content and linguistic analysis he subjects these sources to, including the grammatical intricacies, renders this book valuable for the historian. I do feel that the graphic description of the orthography of the edicts would have been better served with visual reinforcement. Appendix-I with the flowing translations of all the inscriptions adds great value to Tieken’s book.
James Prinsep’s identification of Brahmi and analysis of the Asokan edicts in the 1830s, and Alexander Cunningham’s publication of the edict corpus (1877), paved the way for subsequent research on this important yet enigmatic figure in Indian history. Generations of scholars like Vincent Smith, B.M. Barua, Radhakrishna Choudhary, Romila Thapar, B.G. Gokhale, K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, D.C. Sircar, Harry Falk, Upinder Singh, Patrick Olivelle, Nayanjot Lahiri, and H.P. Ray made important contributions, drawing attention to the historical context of the development of empire during the 3rd century BCE, marked by the huge administrative apparatus described by Asoka in his edicts.
Upinder Singh (2016) declares, “The ultimate declared aim of Asoka’s political theory and practice was neither the expansion of territorial power nor the maintenance of social order. Instead, it was an extremely radical and intrusive aim: the moulding and transformation of the mental and emotional dispositions, attitudes and behavior of all humankind.” In this sense, Asoka seems relevant beyond his time, and it is not surprising that scholars and non-academics have been drawn to this figure. Political scientist Rajeev Bhargava (2023) uses the Gramscian concept of expansive hegemony to describe Asoka’s “political ethic” that allowed for the development of a common ground across regions and communities within his vast realm, and suggests its secular resonance in modern India.
On the other hand, Sanjeev Sanyal (2016) pronounces “Asoka, the not so great” as being a cruel and cunning ruler who promoted Buddhism at the expense of the brahmanical tradition. While the first interpretation seems anachronistic, the other reveals a lack of contextual understanding, a fundamental objective of the historian’s craft, and the imperative for demolishing the idea of Asoka as great seems to be coming from outside the domain of historical scholarship. More covert, and more intensely political, beneath the recent “discovery” of the Sengol (sceptre) as an “Indian” symbol of power in modern democratic India, the undercutting of the Asoka chakra emblem adopted after Independence is conspicuous.
For the historian of early India, characterisation of a period or figure as “great” or “glorious” are neither essential nor do they add anything substantial to the understanding of history. By the same logic, those who advocate the “not-so-greatness” of Asoka cannot take away the import of his rule, exemplified in his words immortalised in stone, advocating peaceful coexistence, respect for all religions and communities, and the duty of the administrators to protect the people and their culture. Herman Tieken’s scholarly effort brings out this aspect effectively.
Dr R. Mahalakshmi is Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.