Edicts of Ashoka
The edicts of Ashoka are the first tangible evidence to prove Ashoka’s existence. In 1837 British archaeologist and historian James Prinsep succeeded in deciphering an ancient inscription on a large stone pillar in Delhi. After deciphering many other pillar and rocks with the same inscriptions, it was proved that they were issued by a king calling himself “Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi”. In 1915, the another edict actually mentioning name Ashoka was discovered that the identification was confirmed.
What are the Edicts of Ashoka?
The Edicts are a collection of inscriptions written on Pillars, boulders and cave walls. These inscriptions written by the Emperor Ashoka during his region from 269 BCE to 232 BCE. The inscriptions are about Ashoka’s view on Dharma, his conversion to Buddhism, social laws of his time, Tolerance and respect towards all religions.
Ashoka’s inscriptions classified into Major Rock Edicts, Minor Rock Edicts, Separate Rock Edicts, Major Pillar Edicts and Minor Pillar Edicts.
Most of the Ashokan inscriptions does not carry his name Ashoka, they mention only name devanampiya piyadasi.
The title devanampiya or ‘dear to the gods’ adopted by Ashoka was not unique but also adopted by his ancestors. However ‘piyadasi’ or ‘good looking’ seems to have been unique title. The name Ashoka occurs in copies of Minor Rock Edicts I found at three places in Karnataka and at one in MP. Thus, altogether the name Ashoka occurs four times. It is significant that Ashoka’s name does not occur in any of his inscriptions from north to north-west India.
Ashoka’s edicts carried his messages about the idea and practice of Dhamma, the Prakrit form of a Sanskrit word Dharma. The term Dhamma carries a variety of meaning depending on context, such as universal law, social order, piety, or righteousness; Buddhists frequently used it with reference to the teachings of the Buddha.
Where did they found?
- They were found throughout the areas of modern-day Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
- It is significant that Ashokan inscriptions which were generally located on ancient highways. In Afghanistan they were found from six places.
Material used to build Edicts
- Two types of stone were used to carve the Pillar. Some were of the spotted red and white sandstone from the region of Mathura. The others of buff-colored fine grained hard sandstone usually with small black spots quarried in the Chunar near Varanasi.
- Many pillars are as high as 50 feet high and weigh as much as 50 tons.
- The pillars depict animals like lions, elephants, and lotuses and wheels which are all important symbols in Buddhism
Why did Ashoka wrote edicts?
Like all good monarchs, Ashoka made himself available to his subjects, but his spoken words can only have been heard by privileged few. Ashoka wanted them to be heard by all – and for those words to endure. Hence his need for a written language and a medium that would survive.
The first of Emperor Ashoka’s public pronouncement went up three years after Kalinga, about 260 BCE, in form of his Minor Rock Edicts. In them the emperor declared that he was now a committed lay Buddhist. He visited the Sangha and that the gods and men had drawn closer. He desired all his subjects to do the same, and to this end he was making this announcement wherever he went on tour, these words to inscribed on rocks and pillars wherever available.
There are a few hypotheses about why Ashoka used the pillar as a means for communicating his Buddhist message. It is quite possible that he got inspiration from Persian art. But is also likely that Ashoka chose the pillar because it was already an established Indian art form. In both Buddhism and Hinduism, the pillar symbolized the axis mundi (the axis on which the world spins).
The pillars and edicts represent the first physical evidence of the Buddhist faith. The inscriptions assert Ashoka’s Buddhism and his desire to spread the true meaning of Buddhist Dhamma. Historians suggests that this demonstrates that Ashoka had a very simple and native understanding of Dharma, he didn’t particularly spreading Buddhism but to let the people know about the true understanding of Dharma and use it in their regular life. He repeatedly asked tribal people to follow the policy of dharma, he threatened adverse consequences if they violated the established rules of social order and righteousness. Within the empire in this way bore fruit. The Kandahar inscription speaks of the success of his policy with the hunters and fishermen, who gave up killing animals and possibly took a settled agriculture life.
Ashoka converted to Buddhism, as a outcome of the Kalinga war and learned the true essence of life. He wanted to teach this understandings to all his subjects, so he carved lessons into stone in the hope that he could provide inspiration and guidance to the people of his extensive kingdom. The rock edicts are important sources for modern understanding of ancient Indian political and religious history, particularly with regard to the influence of the Buddha’s teachings on the king and, through him, on the people at large.
Language Used on Edicts
At the time of Ashoka, Sanskrit was the Brahmin language, Only Brahmins were allowed to learn Sanskrit. Ashoka wants to reach to the common people and want to spread his teaching to his every subjects so, he choose local language for inscriptions. They were kept in public places and along trade routes so that maximum number of people would read them. More than religious discourses, they talk about moral duties of the people, how to conduct life, Ashoka’s desire to be a good and benevolent ruler.
- Ashokan Inscriptions composed in three languages – Prakrit, Greek and Aramaic.
- Prakrit Inscriptions were written in Brahmi and Kharoshthi and Rest written in Greek or Aramaic.
- In the north-western part of the subcontinent they appeared in Aramaic language and Kharosthi script.
- In Afghanistan they were written in both Aramaic and Greek scripts and languages.
- He was the first Indian king to speak directly to the people through his inscriptions which carry royal orders.