From Calliope, 2000-01-01
Issue Theme: Ashoka: India's Philosopher King
Subject: Asia, Biography/People, Government and Law, Religions, War
Time Period: 1000BC-AD300: Classical Civs / Religions and Empires
During his reign, Emperor Ashoka issued numerous edicts. These he had carved on stone pillars and on the sides of large rocks throughout India. The edicts contain mainly moral advice. Historians have used, and continue to use, these statements to piece together what happened during Ashoka's reign because no official history was written. While Ashoka explains his reasons for the edicts, it is important to remember that they represent what Ashoka hoped was true, or what he wanted people to do and believe. They do not necessarily tell exactly what happened. Even so, they are an excellent source about Ashoka.
Twelve years after my coronation, I ordered edicts on dharma to be inscribed for the welfare and happiness of the people...[Edict VI] Some of the edicts have been inscribed again and again because of the charm of the teachings [and in hopes that] men may follow their directions after hearing them repeatedly. [Rock Edict XIV]
The edicts mention little about Ashoka's personal life, but one indicates that he “became enlightened 10 years after coronation" [Rock Edict VIII). Another tells about his reaction to the Kalinga campaign, and how it caused him to renounce war as a means of extending his own territory. However, that same edict stated:
King Ashoka, remorseful as he is, reminds even the forest peoples who live in the royal dominions...that he exercises the power to punish the wrongdoers. For King Ashoka desires all beings should be safe, self-restrained, calm in thought, and gentle.
One edict explains Ashoka's idea of good government: “government by dhamma, administration according to dhamma, and protection through dhamma." He sent ministers all over his realm to spread the idea of dhamma:
Twelve years after my coronation I have ordered thus! Everywhere in my dominions, the officers will embark on tours of inspection every five years in order to instruct people in the dhamma as well as for other purposes. They will instruct my subjects that obedience to father and mother is excellent; generosity to friends, acquaintances and relatives, to Brahmans and ascetics is excellent; excellent is refraining from the slaughter of animals; and it is good not only to spend little, but to own few possessions. [Brahmagiri Rock Edict III]
This is the only edict that mentions spending little and recommends owning few things. Perhaps the merchants objected to this approach, which may explain why Ashoka abandoned it. Other edicts provide more information about his ministers:
Since I have been crowned 13 years, I have appointed officers of dhamma...They are employed among the servants and masters, among Brahmins, the destitute and the aged, for their benefit and happiness...The officers are busy promoting the welfare of prisoners, in preventing harassment and securing release for those who have children, or who have been overwhelmed with calamity or are old. [Rock Edict V]
I have given my ministers independent authority in judgment and punishment. But it is desirable that there should be uniformity in judicial procedure and punishment. [Rock Edict IV]
I have made arrangements that officials may have access to me and may report on the affairs of my people at all times and in all places – when I am eating, when I am in the harem or my inner apartments, when I am attending to the cattle, when I am walking or engaged in religious exercises. [Rock Edict VI]
Ashoka also described how he toured his empire:
He [Ashoka] visits priests and ascetics and makes gifts to them; he visits the aged and gives them money; he visits the people of rural areas, instructing them in dhamma and discussing it with them. [Ashoka] takes great pleasure in these tours, far more than could result from other tours. [Rock Edict VIII]
The rock edicts describe several of Ashoka's other policies. Forexample:
Everywhere in the empire...King Ashoka has arranged for two kinds of treatments, of men and animals. And those medical herbs that are beneficial to men and animals have been brought and planted wherever they did not exist. Roots and fruits, too, have been brought and planted wherever they did not exist. On the highway, wells have been dug, and trees planted for the use of men and animals. [From Rock Edict II]
Ashoka gave up the royal hunt, which traditionally had been held each year. He recommended that his subjects replace hunts with pilgrimages, in part because when people took long journeys to holy places in distant parts of the kingdom, they helped unify the country.
The Ashoka pillars were topped by capitals (the top part of a column) with reliefs of lions and other animals supporting a giant chakra to symbolize that Ashoka was a chakravartin.
An edict is an official public proclamation or order.
Brahmans are members of the priestly class, the highest class in Hindu society, and are considered the guardians of the Hindu traditions.
Ascetics are people who lead a life that is strict and free of usual comforts and pleasures because they believe it can help them reach a higher spiritual state.
Ashoka's edicts were written in Prakrt. This was not the official language of the administration, but the one that the common people throughout the empire could easily understand. In the centuries that followed Ashoka's rule, the language spoken by the people gradually changed. By the a.d. 1200s, when invading armies from Afghanistan and Turkey conquered areas of north India, Prakrt was largely forgotten. The new rulers set about erecting monuments that would establish their control. One leader was Firuz, a member of the Tughluq dynasty that ruled northern India from 1320 to 1415. Firuz ordered a new city built — the site is near present-day Delhi. When workers by chance discovered an ancient pillar, they sent word to Firuz, who ordered it brought to the capital. Although no one could read what was written on the pillar, Firuz thought it must be an important announcement and would add to his prestige if he had it erected in the capital.
Not until 1837 was the writing on the pillar deciphered. James Prinsep, a British scholar, first translated the ancient language into English. Since that time, 18 rock edicts and 30 pillars — all erected by Ashoka — have been found.
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