Skip to comments.The Edicts of King Ashoka
Posted on 07/18/2004 7:46:23 AM PDT by SunkenCiv
Asoka's edicts are to be found scattered in more than thirty places throughout India, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Most of them are written in Brahmi script from which all Indian scripts and many of those used in Southeast Asia later developed. The language used in the edicts found in the eastern part of the sub-continent is a type of Magadhi, probably the official language of Asoka's court. The language used in the edicts found in the western part of India is closer to Sanskrit although one bilingual edict in Afghanistan is written in Aramaic and Greek. Asoka's edicts, which comprise the earliest decipherable corpus of written documents from India, have survived throughout the centuries because they are written on rocks and stone pillars. These pillars in particular are testimony to the technological and artistic genius of ancient Indian civilization. Originally, there must have been many of them, although only ten with inscriptions still survive. Averaging between forty and fifty feet in height, and weighing up to fifty tons each, all the pillars were quarried at Chunar, just south of Varanasi and dragged, sometimes hundreds of miles, to where they were erected.
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The Edicts of King Ashoka
An English Rendering
by Ven. S. Dhammika
Historical facts provide the basis for myth.
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THE locations of the edicts are of geographical importance, as the selection of their sites was not arbitrary. They were deliberately placed either near habitations, or on important travel routes, or at places of religious interest, thereby ensuring that they would be available to as many people as possible. The reasons for the choice of a particular site will be given in this appendix. Such an analysis demands considerable archaeological evidence to substantiate literary and epigraphical indications. Unfortunately not all the sites have as yet been excavated. Therefore, in some cases the reasons can only be regarded as suggestions. Concerning the importance of the sites in south India we must keep in mind that the area within which most of the edicts have been found tallies closely with the gold-mining area of the south. The Arthasastra mentions this activity in the south, and speaks of gold as a special commodity of trade with the south. Thus this region was of tremendous economic importance and this may have been the prime reason for the selection of some of the southern sites. The inscriptions were probably situated in the well-inhabited mining areas or along the main routes to this area. The list of sites is given in alphabetical order.
AHRAURA. The site lies 23 miles south of present day Banaras. It was probably on the route from Magadba to the west coast, as were SabasrAm and Rupanath.
ALLAHABAD-KOSAM (Pillar Edicts I-VI, the Queen's Edict, and the Kausambi Edict or Schism Edict). The importance of Allahabad, the old Prayaga was largely due to its being a pilgrim centre. It lay on what was then a great sandy plain between the two rivers, the (Ganges and the Yamuna Hsuan Tsang describes it as a place sacred to Hindus and relates many legends regarding its temples. Since the Kausambi Edict is directed to the mahamattas of Kausambi, this pillar was originally situated at the latter site. The site is the same as modern Kosam on the left bank of the Yamuna, twenty-eight miles south-west of Allahabad. Kausambi having been a place of religious importance in Buddhist times may well have attracted pilgrims from various parts of the country and would therefore have been an excellent site for the edicts. The Asokan pillar was inscribed on, at later period by various rulers including Samudragupta and Jahangir. It would appear from Samudragupta's inscription that the pillar was still at Kausambi during the Gupta period. Probably Jahangir was responsible for its removal to the fort at Allahabad, which he did in imitation of Firoz Shah, who had brought similar pillars from Topra and Meerut to Delhi. Both Allahabad and Kausambi being on the river Yamuna, the transportation of the pillar would not have been too difficult.
BAIRAT (Minor Rock Edict and the Bbabra Edict). Bairat is located in Rajasthan, forty-two miles north-east of Jaipur. It has been identified with Virata the capital of the Matsya state. The presence of the Bhabra Edict addressed specifically to the Sangha is explained by the fact that the remains of two monasteries have been discovered on a hill about a male south-west of Bairat. More recently, excavations in the region revealed a brick chamber resembling a stupa. It may have been an early Buddhist shrine of a period prior to the emergence of the stupa as a regular Buddhist feature. This points to Bairat being an old and established centre of Buddhism. It was thus both a centre of religious activity and an important city of the region, with a large population.
BARABAR HILL CAVES (Donatory inscriptions to the Ajivika sect). The inscriptions in these caveS are donatory, and therefore their significance does not rest in the particular importance of their site. The caves were in a group of hills girdling the city of Rajagrha.
BROACH is not mentioned in the edicts nor is it the site of any Asokan inscription, but from other evidence it was clearly the most important commercial centre for trade with the West and as such must have held a prominent position during the Mauryan period. It is mentioned with great frequency in the Periplus. Since the ports of Saurastra had communication with the cities in the Ganges basin they became important in the course of this trade. Furthermore the Aparanta area to the west of the Mauryan empire, had considerable Greek and Persian contacts, which no doubt the people of this area wished to maintain.
BRAHMAGIRI (Minor Rock Inscription). Excavations at the site have revealed considerable archaeological evidence pointing to Brahmagiri having been an important centre in south India even well before the Mauryan period. Continual habitation for many hundreds of years resulted in its emerging as an influential town, particularly after it had become one of the southern outposts of the Mauryan empire. It may also have been the starting point of pilgrimages to the sources of the two rivers, Godavari and Kaveri.
DELHI-MEERUT and DELHI-TOPRA (Pillar Edict, I-VI and I-VII respectively). The Delhi-Meerut and the Delhi-Topra pillars are so called because they were transported to Delhi by Firoz Shah from their original sites at Meerut and Topra. Both these places lie to the north-west of Delhi. Neither of these two sites has been excavated as yet so that the reason for their being selected as the location for the Pillar Edicts remains uncertain. It would appear that both sites were important stopping places on the road from Pataliputra to the north-west. If there were caravanserals at these two points no doubt a fairly large habitation must have grown up around them.
DHAULI (Major Rock Edicts). The Dhauli inscription has been cut high on a rock in a group of hills which rise abruptly from the surrounding plain. The site has been identified with Tosali which is mentioned by Ptolemy as a metropolis. It was situated near the sacred pool of Kosala-Ganga and thus developed into a religious centre as well. The identification of Dhauli with Tosali is most convincing and is borne out by the text of the 1st Separate Edict which is addressed to the mahamattas of Tosali. It seems reasonable that the edicts would be as near the city as possible if not actually within it.
(GAVIMATH (Minor Rock Edict). Gavimath is situated in modem Mysore and is one among the group of places in the neighbourhood of Siddapur where this edict is found with great frequency. Its importance may have been largely due to its being a mining area or on an important route.
GIRNAR (Major Rock Edicts). The importance of Girnar is not difficult to account for. It is situated one mile to the east of Junagarh in Kathiawar. That it was a site of immense importance is amply proved by the number of major inscriptions to be found there, including apart from those of Asoka, those of Rudradaman and Skandagupta. It is mentioned as Girinagar in the Brhat Samhita. By tradition the mountain is regarded as sacred both to brahmans and Jainas. Its importance was increased by the fact that during the reign of Candragupta a dam was constructed on the Sudarsana lake in the neighbourhood of Girnar. The Rudradaman inscription informs us that the lake was originally built by Pusyagupta the provincial governor of Candragupta. Subsequently conduits were worked from it by Tusaspa in the reign of Asoka. It refers to the town of Girinagar in the vicinity. It appears from the inscription of Skandagupta that the lake continued to supply water to the surrounding area until well into the Gupta period, eight hundred years later. Since it was the source of water for irrigation it must have been the focal point in the area. It is possible that in the Asokan period the city of Girnar was closer to the lake than is the present site of Junagadh, since it would have been more practical to build the city as near the water supply as possible. Thus the hill on which the inscription was engraved was the centre of considerable activity.
GUJARRA (Minor Rock Edict). Gujarra is located near Jhansi in the Datia district. It appears to have been on one of the more important routes from the Ganges valley to the west coast, possibly via Ujjain to Broach.
JATINGA-RAMESHWAR (Minor Rock Edict). This site lies about three miles from Brahmagiri and the inscription belongs to the Mysore group. It might originally have been a place of religious interest since the inscription is within the precincts of the present Jatinga-Rameshwar temple.
JAUGADA (Major Rock Edicts, similar to the Dhauli version). The inclusion of the two Separate Edicts among the Jaugada series would point to its being within Kalinga. It is now a ruined fort in the Behrampur taluka of the Ganjam district. It is situated on the northern bank of the Rishikulya river. The two Separate Edicts are addressed to the mahamattas of Samapa, which was probably the name of the town in the Mauryan period. The area covered by the ruins would suggest that the town must have been a fairly large one, and the presence of the fort might point to its having been a military centre. Its proximity to the sea may have given it the added advantage of trade and maritime activities.
KALSI (Major Rock Edicts). The town of Kalsi lies at the junction of the Tons and Yamuna rivers, which in itself would give it religious significance. Recent excavations at the site have revealed a brick altar inscribed with Sanskrit verses placed almost opposite the rock inscription. The altar marked the site of the fourth aivamedha of King Ailayarman during the third century A.D., indicating thereby that the site was of some significance during that period. The section of the Ganges plain lying between the foot-bilb of the Himalayas and DelL has always been a strategic area. It controls the entrance to the plain extending farther east. The main artery from north-west India to the east also runs through this region, a road system which was constantly maintained by Indian rulers and which until recent years was called the Grand Trunk Road. KiWi being in the lower hills of the Himalayas was possibly the controlling centre of this area. It may also have bordered on the region inhabited by the Nibhaka tribes.
KANDANAR (Bilingual Greek-Aramaic Inscription). The site of the inscription is Shar-i-Quna, the old city of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. It grew to importance with the establishment of trade between the Hellenic world and north-west India after the campaigns of Alexander had catablishcd contact. Kandahar dominated the southern route from India to area farther west. The presence of a sizeable Greek-speaking population is attested to by the fact that the edict is in Greek as well as Aramaic.
LAMPAYA (Aramaic Inscription attributed to Asoka). The Lampaka Aramaic Inscription now in the Kabul museum was found at the site of Lampaka or Lambaka generally identified with the modern Lamghan on the northern bank of the Kabul river near Jalalabad. The inscription has been connected with the Asokan period on the basis of the text referring to the setting up of a pillar inscription by Devanampiya.
LAURIYA-ARARAJ (Pillar Edicts I-VI). The pillar is situated at this site in northern Bibar. Its importance was probably due to the fact that the area was associated with Buddhism and consequently had a religious significance. It has also been suggested that the pillars in this region marked the course of the royal road from Pataliputra to Nepal.
LAURIYA-NANDANGARH (Pillar Edicts I-VI). This site is also in northern Bihar close to the village of Nandangarh and to the above site. Some funerary mounds have been discovered near the pillar which are believed to be of a pre-Buddhist period, and it has been suggested that these may have been the ancient caityas of the Vrjjis referred to by the Buddha. Recent excavations at one of these mounds produced a mixture of contents, including punch-marked coins, cast copper coins and terracotta figurines and clay sealings of the first century B.C.
MAHASTHAN (Pre-Asokan Mauryan Inscription). The inscription was found at Mahasthangarh in the Bogra district of Bengal. The site was probably the headquarters of the local administrator (of the eastern section of the empire), its name during that period having been Pundranagara, as is mentioned in the inscription. The mahamatta of Pundranagara is described as being in charge of measures for famine relief. So far, excavations at the site have revealed terracottas of the Sunga period.
MANSEHRA (Major Rock Edicts inscribed in Kharosthi). The site is that of a village in the Hazara district of the north-west province of Pakistan. The site lay on an important pilgrim route and was on the main road running from the north-west frontier to Pataliputra and beyond. It was probably also chosen because of its proximity to the northern border.
MASKI (Minor Rock Edict). Maski is located in the Raichur district of Hyderabad. An identification of Maski with Suvarinagiri has been suggested but it is unacceptable as will be clear in the consideration of the location of Suvarnagiri.
NIGALI-SAGAR (Pillar Inscription). The purpose of erecting a pillar at Nigali-Sagar is clear from the inscription. It was originally situated near the stupa of Buddha Konakarnana to record first the enlargement of the stupa and later Asoka's visit to the site. Hsuan Tsang writes that he saw the pillar at the site of the Konakamana stupa, six miles from Kapilavastu, and that the pillar was surmounted by a carved lion. Neither the stupa nor the lion have so far been found, since the pillar has been removed from its original site. It is now near Rummindei, within Nepalese territory.
PALKIGUNDU (Minor Rock Edict). Palkigundu lies at a distance of four miles from Gavimath. This site again belongs to the group around Brahmagiri.
PATALIPUTRA (it is mentioned in one of the edicts, but surprisingly no version of any of the edicts has been found in the neighbourhood). The identification of Pataliputra is certain and its geographical importance is well known. It was the capital of the Mauryan empire and at the time of Asoka had a long history going back three centuries to the rise of Magadha. It is referred to in literary sources both European and Indian and in the edicts of Asoka. Extensive excavations have shown that the city existed in certain sites in and around modern Patna, probably by the river, the course of which has changed somewhat through the centuries. These excavations have unearthed the wooden palisade which surrounded the city of Pataliputra and which was mentioned by Megasthenes. The pillared hall of the palace, similar in many ways to that of Persepolis and the arogya vihara (sanatorium) have also been found, including various smaller objects such as beads, terracottas, coins, and pottery of a type usually associated with the Mauryan period.
RAJULA-MANDAGIRI (Minor Rock Edict). This site is included in the southern group of inscriptions not far from Yerragudi.
RAMPURYA (Pillar Edicts I-VI). Rampurva is located thirty-two miles north of Bettiah in northern Bihar. This area between the Ganges and the Himalayas, being extremely fertile, was no doubt heavily populated and would thus be a good region for edicts. In addition many of the places sacred to Buddhism were in this area, and probably attracted pilgrims from all over the country.
RUMMINDEI (Pillar Inscription). The Rummindei Pillar stands near the shrine of Rurnmindei just within the border of Nepal. The pillar was erected by Asoka to commemorate the birth-place of the Buddha, the Lumbini grove. It is thought that the pillar locates the actual place, Rummindei being the modern name for Lumbini. According to Hsuan Tsang the pillar had a horse capital which had been struck by lightning, and the pillar itself had broken in the middle. Today the lower shaft of the pillar still stands, the upper part having been split into two. There is no trace of the capital.
RUPANATH (Minor Rock Edict). The location of Rupanath is on the Kaimur hills near Saleemabad in Madhya Pradesh. The existence of a linga now makes it a sacred place to Saivites. It may have been of religious importance even in the Asokan period visited by Hindu pilgrims. It was probably also along an important route. The route from Allahabad (Prayaga) to Broach must certainly have passed via Rupanath. From Allahabad there is a rise over the Kaimur hills. Thence to Jabulpur would be a fairly easy stretch along the top of the plateau. Jabulpur lies close to the Narmada and from here the route has merely to follow the valley of the Narmada, arriving directly at Broach. An alternative route to Jabulpur may have been from Pataliputra following the hills. This would explain in part the importance of Sahasram.
SAHASRAM (Minor Rock Edict). It is located in the Shahabad district of Bihar not far from the river Son, and ninety miles south-west of Patna. The site of the inscription is not far from the modern town of Sahasram. The edge of the Kaimur hills extends as far as this point. The existence of a town here would confirm our view that there was a route from Patna, up the Son valley, across the plateau to Jubbalpur and then down the Narmada valley to Broach. Sahasram would then be an important town on the northern edge of the plateau, the outpost of Magadha before the rather uncertain journey across the plateau.
SANCHI (Schism Edict). The modern name of Sanchi was given to the site at a comparatively late period, since it was known as Kakanadabota, from the Buddhist period until that of the Guptas. The fragmentary surviving inscription addressed to the dhamma-mahamattas and undoubtedly the Sangha, would point to Sanchi being an important Buddhist centre even in the Asokan period. It is apparent from archaeological evidence that the stupa was enlarged and encased in its present covering during the Sunga period. No doubt the nearness of Sanchi to Ujjain gave it added importance. It is located near Bhopal, a few miles from Bhilsa, believed to be the ancient Vidisa.
SARNATH (Pillar Inscription, Schism Edict addressed to the mahamattas). The location of Sarnath is three and a half miles from Banares. This pillar is situated in a place of immense importance to the Buddhists, since it was at Sarnath that Buddha preached his first sermon. There appears to have been an important monastery at Sarnath to the monks of which this edict was also directed. Hsuan Tsang writes that he saw the pillar carrying the inscription in front of a stupa said to have been built by Asoka. Apart from its religious importance, Sarnath was an important centre of trade. Being on the banks of the Ganges it had a fair control over river traffic, which in those days of small boats, and not many roads must have been of a considerable magnitude, despite the fact that the town lay so far up the river. Its position midway between Prayaga (Allahabad) and Pataliputra (Patna), meant that it must have acted as a point of exchange for goods coming from either place. It appears to have been included among the towns reached by the main road running from the north-west to Pataliputra.
SHAHBAZGARHI (Major Rock Edicts, inscribed in Kharosthi). The position of this site is near Mardan in the Yusufzai area of Peshawar. An attempt has been made to identify it with Arrian's description of Bazaria or Bazira. According to Hsuan Tsang who calls it Po-lu-sha, the town was constructed on the ruins of an ancient stone-built city, which would confirm Arrian's description. The area around Shahbazgarhi has not yet been excavated, therefore there is no confirmation from archaeological sources. If there was a town at this site during the Asokan period, as seems very probable, it was regarded as a frontier town, although not actually on the frontier, with an importance similar to modern frontier towns such as Peshawar. It would also have been linked to the main highway.
SIDDAPUR (Minor Rock Edict). Siddapur lies one mile to the west of Brahmagiri, and three miles south of the location of the Jatinga-Rameshwar inscription. This group of inscriptions may have marked the southern boundary of the empire, in addition to their importance from other points of view which we have already considered.
SOHGAURA (Copper-plate Inscription of the Mauryan period). Sohgaura is located in the Gorakhpur district of Uttar Pradesh.
SOPARA (Major Rock Edict. Fragment of the 8th Edict). Sopara situated in the Thana district of Bombay is the site of air ancient sea-port and town, which no doubt was of importance during the reign of Asoka. It has been identified with the Soupara of Ptolemy, described as a commercial centre. Its ancient name was Supparaka. Sopara was an advantageous position for an inscription since being a sea-port, the edicts would be read by a constant stream of people coming and going. Furthermore, foreigners visiting the port would thus be made acquainted with the Dhamma of Asoka.
SUVARNAGIRI (Minor Rock Edict). Suvarnagiri is the modern town of Kanakagiri south of Maski in Hyderabad. The word means 'golden mountain' and this has been connected with the ancient gold-mining area in Raichur which to this day shows traces of ancient gold workings. Suvarnagiri was the capital of the southern province of the empire.
TAMRALIPTI. This Mauryan sea-port is generally identified with the modern Tamluk in the Midnapur district of Bengal. It was the principal port on the mouth of the Ganges. The chronicles from Ceylon refer to it as Timalitti. Fa-hsien writes that he embarked from Tamralipti for Ceylon. Hsuan Tsang records having seen some stupas built by Asoka at the same site. Apart from the sea traffic it controlled the river traffic going up the Ganges. Evidence of Mauryan occupation of Tamluk is available from archaeological remains as well.
TAXILA. Taxila is mentioned frequently in the literary sources on the Asokan period. It was the capital of the northern province and one of the main cities of the empire. Archaeological remains indicate a high degree of craft and culture. The importance of Taxila can be accounted for by various reasons. Its long history of contact with regions to the west resulted in its becoming a cosmopolitan centre. It was noted as a place of learning and was the residence of well-known teachers. It was the meeting point of three major trade routes, the royal highway from Pataliputra, the northwestern route through Bactria, Kapisa, and Puskalavati (Peshawar), and the route from Kashmir and Central Asia, via Srinagar, Mansehra, and the Haripur valley. When the sea traffic with the West increased, the land route through Bactria and Peshawar became less important and this was one of the factors which led later to the decline of Taxila.
UJJAIN. Ujjain was the capital of the western province of the empire. Apart from its political importance, it was, similar to Taxila, the meeting point of many routes. It was connected with the ports on the western coast, particularly Broach and Sopara and controlled much of the trade that passed through these ports. Some of the southern routes terminated at Ujjain, which was in turn linked with Pataliputra. Ptolemy refers to it as 0zene. It was a Buddhist centre during the Mauryan period and judging by the importance of its monasteries, had a long history as such. An excavation of a mound at Kumhar Tekri four miles north-cast of Ujjain, reveals that it was a burial-cum-cremation ground dating back to before the third century B.C. Hsuan Tsang writes that not far from Ujjain was a stupa constructed on the site where Asoka had built a 'Hell'.
YERRAGUDI (Major Rock Edicts and Minor Rock Edict). Yerragudi is situated eight miles from Gooty on the southern border of the Kurnool district, and is eighty miles north-east of Siddapur. Clearly it was a site of some significance since both the Major and the Minor Edicts are to be found here. No remains of a town have yet been discovered in the area, but it is possible that a frontier town may have existed at the site, with a route leading through it to the south Indian kingdoms.
THE titles used by Asoka are in themselves of some interest. The complete royal title read, Devanampiya Piyadassi raja Asoka. This was a far more humble title than was used by later kings in India. Sometimes the full title is not used, but just Devanampiya, or as in the Barabar Hill cave inscriptions, only Piyadassi raja. As Hultzsch explains, the etymological meaning of the term Devanampiya is 'dear to the gods'. Patanjali in the Mahabhasya states that this term was used as an honorific similar to bhavan, dirghayu, and ayusman. Kaiyata's commentary on Patanjali refers to another meaning of this term, 'fool', which was known to Patanjali. This may have been due to a hostile recollection among brahmans of.the unorthodox Mauryan dynasty. However, in Jaina literature it occurs as an honorific.
In Ceylonese literature Devanampiya is used not for Asoka but for his Ceylonese contemporary Tissa. We have no evidence of this title having been used by Asoka's predecessors or for that matter by any of the kings previous to him. But in the 8th Rock Edict he refers to previous devanampiyas, implying thereby that the term was well known to his readers and audience in the sense of a royal title. The fact that it was adopted as a title by his grandson Dasaratha, and by various Ceylonese kings after Tissa would suggest that it was a royal title.
The other name that occurs frequently with that of Asoka is Piyadassi, meaning he who regards amiably, or 'of gracious mien'. This appears to have been a personal name of Asoka, probably a throne name. He used this name alone in the Kandahar inscription. In the Dipavamsa he is referred to largely as Piyadassi. In later years it appears to have been adopted as a title of royalty. Anantadeva in the Rajadharma Kaustubha quotes from the Visnudharmotara in which Priyadarsana is mentioned as a title of royalty. Valmiki uses it in the Ramayana as a title for Rama. Smith suggests that Asokavardhana was the king's personal name and Piyadassi his title, which he used in the edicts because it meant 'the humane'. We are of the opinion that Asoka was his personal name, and Piyadassi was as it were, an official name, which he probably began to use after his coronation. Devanampiya was a generally known royal title of the time.
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