It happened in 1616 that an Englishman discovered a
13 meters tall pillar with unknown writing among the ruins of ancient . The pillar itself was quite unusual since it glowed like brass but turned out to be made of highly polished sandstone instead. The inscription seemed related to Greek and he assumed that the pillar had been erected by Alexander the Great after his victory over Porus – why not? Delhi
More such pillars were eventually sighted in northern
India but we had to wait till 1830 when the British, much interested in the economic exploitation of , were able to translate their strange inscriptions for the first time. The texts revealed to be written in Prakrit and/or in combination with Aramaic and Greek, all referring to King Piyadasi, who turned out to be another name for King Asoka who emerged as the first figure in Indian history to inform us about the country’s forgotten history. India
King Asoka was the grandson of Chandragupta and the third king of the Mauryan Empire (see: Was Chandragupta inspired by Alexander?), and ruled from 269 until 232 BC. He made headlines when it was discovered that his life and deeds ran parallel with the historical Buddha about whom till now close to nothing had been documented. British orientalists uncovered the true identities of both Asoka and Buddha thanks to these inscriptions – some 150 of them - etched by Asoka onto stone pillars and rock faces across
. The pillars had been placed in strategic locations on trade routes as well as at the edge of cities. India
The appearance of the Asokan pillars is still subject to discussions. These pillars often were crowned with one or more lions, an unknown element in
art. Some scholars like to claim that the lions were a Macedonian heritage left by Alexander the Great inspired by the lion of India Chaironeia while others found many similarities with the Achaemenid columns like those used at . Persepolis
Asoka ruled over the entire Indian subcontinent, except for a small kingdom on the east coast, Kalinga, which he captured in 260 BC. This was an extremely bloody war that ended with the death of at least 200,000 men. From then onward (about 250 BC), he decided to embrace Buddhism and govern his kingdom peacefully. At this time he started erecting pillars to incite people to live in harmony and give up violence. His name and deeds would have entirely disappeared from history had it not been for the records he left on pillars and rocks across the Mauryan Empire and beyond. This situation is not unlike that of the Egyptians who lost their history till the hieroglyphs were deciphered by Champollion in the early 1800s.
The intriguing part is, however, that pillars similar to those bearing Asoka’s edicts existed in
before the king’s time and were often moved and/or reused in spite of weighing as much as fifty tons. One known and documented such example dates from the 14th century when two pillars were moved to India from about Delhi 90 miles away. It is thought that one of these pillars was retrieved from Topra (an important stop on the road from Pataliputra to the northwest) could have belonged to the Twelve Altars built by Alexander on the banks of the Hyphasis River after the mutiny of this troops. This means that this pillar was erected before Asoka’s time although it carries his Seventh Edict.
The pillars have become famous because of their inscriptions stringed throughout the reign of Asoka. Other edicts have been found on major rocks and in several caves. Asoka etched his insights and principles of the Buddhist religion together with their application by the people, the religious communities and the state in general. The various rock and pillar edicts are geographically widespread and have been found in
India and Pakistan, but also in neighboring Afghanistan, Nepal in the north and in the east. Bangladesh
It is certain that diplomatic, commercial and cultural exchanges were maintained through Seleucid Bactria and Mauryan Arachosia. Arachosia, for instance, (southern
Afghanistan and Pakistan) and its capital (previously Alexandria Arachosia), came under the rule of the Mauryans after the Seleucids. Here the bilingual inscriptions left by Asoka (including combinations of Greek, Aramaic and Prakrit) confirm that educated Greeks had been willing to cooperate with him and that he promoted Buddhism. This is a very important result of Alexander’s policy to settle his veterans and garrisons south of the Gandhara Hindu Kush. It did not take those settlers too long to realize that if they resented ruling the natives they would be displaced by those willing to do so. Alexander certainly had not subdued the entire area but he had left the natives under local control, a policy that was extended by Seleucos and that paid off when the Mauryan kings came to power.
Asoka’s missionaries, apparently fluent in Greek, were dispatched throughout the Hellenistic world left by Alexander and we find the names of many rulers of those foreign countries etched in stone, like for example
- Amtiyoko who is nobody else than Antiochus II Theos of Syria, king of Greater Syria and as such also ruled over Bactria.
- Turamaye which is the name used for Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt, the son of Ptolemy I who after the death of Alexander the Great became king of
- Amtikini who refers to Antigonus II Gonatas, intermittently king of
- Alikasudaro, meaning Alexander II, king of
- Maka who is identified as Magas from far away
The widely distributed edicts certainly were key in the exchanges between East and West and they provide a window into history that is otherwise unknown.
The main purpose of the edicts, however, was to establish justice or dhamma, which includes much good and little evil, kindness, generosity, fruitfulness, purity, and maybe most importantly that “a dialog between different religions is good”. A typical example is probably the rock inscription found at Shahbazgarhi (northwest Pakistan) listing a number of do's and don’ts: prohibition of needless killing and sacrificing of animals; provision of health facilities for humans and animals; digging of wells; prohibition of anti-social religious festivals; other aspects of good behaviour including an exhortation to the various religions to engage in a dialog; and obedience to parents. For all intents and purposes, it would have been impossible in the long run to implement all this goodwill and these peace-intentions without some kind of policing, meaning violence. Then as now, our freedom and peace do not come without a fight.
A comprehensive list of Asoka’s inscriptions with their full translation can be found in “The Edicts of King Ashoka, an English rendering by Ven. S. Dhammika”. This page reproduces all known edicts: 14 Rock Edicts, the Kalinga Rocks Edicts and Minor Rock Edicts, and finally the Seven Pillar Edicts and Minor Pillar Edicts.
[Top Image: Ashokan Pillar at the ruined palace in Feroz Shah Kotla, shifted from Topra village in Yamunanagar district Haryana to Delhi, called the Delhi-Topra pillar.]
[Picture of Lion capital from History Discussion Net ]
[Picture of the Kandahar Edict of Ashoka, a bilingual inscription (and Aramaic) by king Ashoka, from Kandahar. Kabul Museum.]