Ask any student of history about who the greatest king of India was and the chances are that it will come down to Asoka and Akbar. While much is known about Akbar—we have had three books on the 16th century Mughal emperor over the past year or so alone—very little was known about Asoka for long. In the annals, he was just another Mauryan ruler, much like Chandragupta or Bindusara. It all changed a little under 200 years ago with the chance discovery of the Asokan edicts.
In 1837, James Princep deciphered an inscription written in Brahmi, the earliest known Indian script. The inscription talked of a king called Piyadassi. Piyadassi was said to be a benevolent Mauryan monarch. Yet, the world had not heard of Piyadassi. It was only in 1915 that another inscription was studied in which the author called himself Asoka, Piyadassi. The inscriptions opened a whole new world about Asoka. He was not just another monarch of ancient India. He was the monarch who converted to Buddhism, overcome by grief over the manslaughter witnessed in the Battle of Kalinga. In his own words, “A hundred and fifty thousand were deported, a hundred thousand were killed, and many times that number perished.”
Shortly after the Battle of Kalinga, he vowed to live his life according to the teachings of Buddhism, which came to flourish under his rule. Today, the world remembers Asoka for his Dhamma, for abjuring violence and preaching peace and love. Much of the knowledge has been possible because of his edicts. It is some of these edicts that T.M. Krishna has brough to YouTube viewers through the programme titled “The Edicts of Asoka”, premiered on October 14.
“The Asokan edicts are simple, brief, personal yet profound, abiding and universal,” says Krishna. In the project, they have been sung in the original Magadhi Prakrit and in the Carnatic tradition with their meaning given in English. According to Krishna, “They carry the emperor’s vision of a humane society into the realm of the arts.” The inscriptions were always in the local script. For instance, inscriptions found near Peshawar are in Kharoshthi, which is derived from the Aramaic script then prevalent in neighbouring Iran. In most parts of what is contemporary India, it was the Magadhi Prakrit language which was used.
Incidentally, October 14 also happens to be the day Dr B.R. Ambedkar embraced Buddhism alongwith 3,56,000 of is followers.
A better tribute to Asoka and non-violence could scarcely have been paid.