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What are Asokan Edicts?

Updated on November 16, 2013
A portrait of Ashoka the great.
A portrait of Ashoka the great.

The sources of Mauryan history can be classified under the following categories[1]:

  • Epigraphical Evidence
  • Literary Sources
  • Foreign Sources
  • Archaeological Excavations
  • Art Evidence, and
  • Numismatic Evidence.

What exactly are the Edicts of Asoka?

The best epigraphical evidences of the Mauryan history are the popularly known Edicts of Ashoka which are known to be the oldest, the best preserved and the most accurately dated sources.

These inscriptions, are two of the thirty-three inscriptions from the Edicts of Ashoka, which are present on the Pillars of Ashoka, cave walls and boulders. These inscriptions have been found to be spread out throughout the areas of present day Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan. They show us the first substantially real evidences of Buddhism. The edicts tell us about the lifestyles of people during that era and offer us insights into a powerful and able king’s attempt to establish a society which he believed to be just, righteous and full of virtues and his attempts to solve some of the problems that the society during that time had to face. These inscriptions also tell us about the strict adherence of Emperor Ashoka to the Buddhist principles and philosophies, most importantly the philosophy of ‘Dhamma’, also known as ‘Dharma’ in Hinduism.[2]

The fourteen Major Rock Edicts and the seven Pillar Edicts dating to the middle and later years of his reign present to us in greater detail, Emperor Ashoka’s unfolding of his thoughts on ‘dhamma’ and his understanding of the word.[3]

However, even though there have been hints of Buddhism and the mentioning of Buddha in several inscriptions, the edicts focus more on the ‘social and moral precepts’, rather than religious or the philosophical aspects of Buddhism. Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism, the efforts he placed in trying to spread the religion throughout Asia and the world, his moral and religious laws and principles, and his social and animal welface program form the central themes that the inscriptions revolve around.

We understand the moral precepts that were preached by Ashoka through these inscriptions; he believed in the doing of good deeds, respecting other people and being generous and pure (As it has been interpreted from the Pillar Edict Nb2 – S. Dharmika). Benevolence, kindness to prisoners, justice, respect for animal and plant life were some other areas that were broached upon. The important object of both the pillar and rock edicts was not to propagate Buddhism or any particular religion but to govern the people righteously in a manner that is in accordance to the previous kings.[4]

On many edicts, we find the words ‘Devanampriya piyadassi raja evam aha’ - Emperor Ashoka refers to himself in the inscriptions as ‘King Priyadarshi’ or what can be translated into English as 'The Beloved of Gods’. We understand from this that the edicts were inscribed to address the general public at large and in a very conversational style. The language used to write the inscriptions was the ‘Brahmi Script’ which belongs to the Dravidian language.

The great Mauryan Emperor – Ashoka, who was the first king to unify the Indian subcontinent, made a major place for himself in the history of India and the world by having his edicts inscribed which he might not have, had there been no evidences of his inscriptions.

Both the Rummendei and Nigali-Sagar inscriptions are the two commemorative pillar inscriptions which have been found at the birth place of Buddha – Lumbini and at Nigliva, where Ashoka had enlarged a stupa of Buddha Konakamana. They give us evidences of Ashoka’s personal faith in Buddhism.

B-PILLAR Inscriptions No 1:

Location: Lumbini – Nepal

Date: 3 Century BC

Type: Minor Pillar Edict

Author: Asoka the Great

This inscription was found on the Rummindei pillar, in the modern day Lumbini, situated between Kapilavastu and Devadaha, both now ruled by Nepal. This inscription talks about how after twenty years of his coronation, King Priyadarsi (Emperor Ashoka), Beloved of the Gods, visited this place in person and worshipped at this spot, because the Sage of the Sakyans – Lord Buddha was born here. Being one of the most interesting edics of Asoka, the inscription has been very well preserved, not one of its letters illegible and although the inscription has been known and studied for more than sixty years by several distinguished epigraphists and philologists, it’s said that the interpretation has not been settled absolutely or entirely. [5]

Gautama Buddha, also known as Siddhartha Gautama, Shakyamuni (Sage of the Sakyas) or simply Buddha was a sage on whose teachings the religion of Buddhism was founded. Buddha in Sanskrit means the ‘enlightened one’ or the ‘awakened one’.

To mark the birth-place of Buddha, the pillar at Rummindei was erected along with some sort of a sacred stone structure and shows obvious connexion between the pillar and the structure.[6]

When Emperor Ashoka was making a Dhammayata[7], or a tour in connection with carrying out his duties as a king, in adherence to the rules he had laid down for himself, as he mentions in his eighth rock-edict, he had encamped somewhere near Lumbini, the place of Buddha’s birth. And due to the significant event that had taken place, he conferred favours upon this village as any liberal-minded monarch would have done.

Out of the several suggested interpretations of the inscription, one of them is the purpose of Ashoka’s visit to Lumbini and his devotions which guided his activities the betterment and welfare of his people, so that they could attain heaven. The four important places for the faithful where emotions can be stirred was stated by the Buddha in the Mahaparinibbana-sutta – the place where the Blessed One, Gautama Buddha was born, the place where the his Awakening took place, the place where the Wheel of the Law was set into motion and finally, the place where the great Buddha died. These places must have been looked upon with great veneration by the early Buddhists just like the Buddhists of today do and it is no surprise that Emperor Ashoka, a faithful and devoted Buddhist visited Lumbini and made the place known to many.[8]

Several interpretations of one of the words- Silavigadabhicha, on the inscriptions of this pillar suggest that Ashoka wanted a ‘huge, large, great’ (from the word Vigada/ Vikata) ‘enclosure, hedge, fence or wall’ and the word itself can be translated into ‘a stone great wall’. But the word Vikata can also be translated into ‘unusually handsome, beautiful, ornate’, so the word can also be translated into ‘a stone ornate wall’. However, no evidences of such a wall being set up have been found in the area.[9]

According to interpreters, two other important words that catch our attention are fiscal terms – Ubalika and Athabhagiya. The record says that—“the village of Lummini was made ubalika and athabhagiya.”

It has been understood that by ubelika, it translates to bali meaning ‘tax, impost, royal revenue’. And this term has been considered to mean ‘exempt from assessment’, ‘free from taxes’ or ‘revenue-free’ meaning that Lummini or Lumbini has been exempt from taxes. The word is said to have roots from the South Indian languages of Telugu (Umbala, Umbali, Umbalike) and Tamil (Umbalikkai).[10]

The second component of the word athabhagiye has been interpreted to be the Sanskrit bhagya – ‘entitled to a share’. The first component has been interpreted to represent either the Prakrit form of ashtan, the number eight or the Prakrit form of artha which translates to ‘substance, wealth, property’. [11]

Assuming that the word stands for ashtan, the term has been interpreted as ‘having eight plots (of the fiscal lands) granted to it’ and ‘(revenue-free) in its entirety’. It has been ultimately taken into consideration and assumed that in the time of the Ashoka, in the district which included the village of Lummini, the royal share in the grain was one-eighth. And the village of Lummini was made absolutely rent-free, meaning the people didn’t have to pay any land revenue. [12]

The word Priyadassi or Priyadarsin, used by Emperor Ashoka as his personal name for all practical purposes has been treated without translation. It means—‘one who sees affectionately’ and has been recognized as a formal biruda or secondary name. And the word ‘Devanampiya’ which can roughly translated to mean ‘Beloved of the Gods’ and which is mentioned in nearly all edicts, has also been used in the context of rock-edict 8, where Kalsi, Shahbazgarhi, and Mansehra texts say – “In times gone by, the Devanampiyas went forth on pleasure-tours”.[13]

Hence, the final interpretation can be made that the great king built a stone wall around the place and also had a stone pillar erected to commemorate his visit. The most significant information we derive from this inscription is that because of its significance, he made the village of Lumbini free from Land revenue and the villagers living there had to pay only one-eighth of the produce as tax instead of the usual rate.

B-PILLAR Inscription No II

Location: Lumbini - Nepal

Date: 3 Century BC

Type: Minor Pillar Edict

Author: Asoka the great.

The inscriptions at the Nigali Sagar pillar give us references to the repairs and expansions that took place regarding the size of the previous stupa of Buddha called the Konakama in 254BC, the personal visit of Emperor Ashoka and his offerings of prayer in 249BC.[14]

The pillar which records the enlargement of the Stupa by Ashoka, however, has been admittedly not in situ.[15]

The Nigali Sagar Pillar inscription states that Emperor Ashoka enlarged the stupa enshrining the relics of Buddha Konagamana to double its size 14 years after his consecration. And after 6 more years, he came to this place again, offered worship here and a got a stone pillar erected. The purpose of erecting a pillar at Nigali-Sagar is clear from the inscriptions on it.[16]

The pillar has been named after the tank on which it stood. It’s situated on the banks of the tank about 21kms to the North-West of Rummindei, near the village of Nigaliva.[17]

Hsuan Tsang, a Chinese Buddhist monk, scholar, traveller and translator who described the interaction between China and India wrote that he saw the pillar six miles from Kapilavastu, at the site of Konakamanastupa, and that the pillar was surmounted by a carved lion. However, neither the pillar nor the lion have been found so far due to its removal from its original site. It is now in current day Nepal near Rummindei.[18]

It has been asserted that Ashoka convened a great Buddhist council at Pataliputra in order to eliminate certain ‘unacceptable’ practices from the Sangha.[19] Whoever splits the Sangha, be it a monk or nun was made to wear white clothes against the yellow (orange) robes that were supposed to be worn by a monks and nuns. The lay followers also had to reside in some place which wasn’t a monastery.[20]

Hence, it can be concluded that fourteen years after his coronation, King Priyadarsi – Emperor Asoka, Beloved of the Gods, enlarged the Stupa enshrining the relics of the Buddha Kanakamuni to double its size. And twenty years after his coronation, he visited the spot in person, offered worship at the place and caused this stone pillar to be erected.


CONCLUSION

The Emperor Asoka dedicated himself to welfare and service of his people and these are clearly stated in the fourteen edicts. Ashokan edicts were posted along important roads and in important locations where a large number of people could see them - this arrangement is similar to the way billboards and advertisements are posted in the modern society. Through the edicts, we come to know about India during the Mauryan Empire and the moral ethics of those times.

We learn about Asoka’s beliefs with Buddhist teachings, several rules and laws that were laid down for the common man indicating the justice system that was prevailing at that time, and also Asoka’s concerns with both moral and spiritual welfare of his people. All in all, we come to know more about one of the most exemplary rulers in the history of India, and probably the world.


CITATIONS

[1] As published in the website - www.preservearticles.com

URL : http://www.preservearticles.com/2011102916116/what-were-the-sources-of-mauryan-history.html

[2] As published in the website – www.wikipedia.com

URL : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edicts_of_Ashoka

[3] As published in the website – www.wikipedia.com

URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Edicts_of_Ashoka

[4] Pg 492, The Rummindei Inscription and the Conversion of Asoka to Buddhism, J. F. Fleet, Source: Journal of the Royal Aisatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland; Published by: Cambridge University Press.

[5] Pg 163, Rummindei Pillar Inscription of Asoka, S. Paranavitana; Source: Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 82, No. 2

URL: www.jstor.org

[6] Pg 273, The Pillars of Ashoka – Their Purpose, A. Ghosh; Source : East and Wesr, Vol. 17, No 3/4.

URL: www.jstor.org

[7] As published in the website – www.cs.colostate.edu

URL: http://www.cs.colostate.edu/~malaiya/ashoka.html#PILLAR

[8] Pg 165, , Rummindei Pillar Inscription of Asoka, S. Paranavitana; Source: Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 82, No. 2.

URL: www.jstor.org

[9] The Rummindei Inscription and the conversion of Asoka to Buddhism, T. J Fleet, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland.

URL: www.jstor.org

[10] The Rummindei Inscription and the conversion of Asoka to Buddhism, T. J Fleet, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland.

URL: www.jstor.org

[11] The Rummindei Inscription and the conversion of Asoka to Buddhism, T. J Fleet, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland.

URL: www.jstor.org

[12] The Rummindei Inscription and the conversion of Asoka to Buddhism, T. J Fleet, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland.

URL: www.jstor.org

[13] The Rummindei Inscription and the conversion of Asoka to Buddhism, T. J Fleet, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland.

URL: www.jstor.org

[14] History of Nepalese Architecture

For more reference, visit – www.nec.edu.np

[15] [15] Pg 273, The Pillars of Ashoka – Their Purpose, A. Ghosh; Source : East and West, Vol. 17, No 3/4.

URL: www.jstor.org

[16] Pg 351, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, Upinder Singh.

For more reference, visit: http://books.google.co.in/books?id=H3lUIIYxWkEC&pg=PA351&lpg=PA351&dq=nigali+sagar+pillar&source=bl&ots=xdbE2QeTgz&sig=eCRdxqJX0uTw6ay3M3tBTLIRAGY&hl=en&sa=X&ei=RKw1UruMG8mQrQfyy4C4Cw&ved=0CFIQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=nigali%20sagar%20pillar&f=false

[17] Pg A-183, Indian History(Opt), Krishna Reddy.

For more reference, visit: http://books.google.co.in/books?id=CeEmpfmbxKEC&pg=SL1-PA183&lpg=SL1-PA183&dq=nigali+sagar+pillar&source=bl&ots=fwIJqGRYzC&sig=yYFKkWo4SmoydKDMMQfw25XBHuY&hl=en&sa=X&ei=RKw1UruMG8mQrQfyy4C4Cw&ved=0CE8Q6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=nigali%20sagar%20pillar&f=false

[18] As given in the www.katinkahesselink.net

URL: http://www.katinkahesselink.net/tibet/asoka-locations.htm#NIGALI-SAGAR

[19] Pg 351, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, Upinder Singh.

For more reference, visit: http://books.google.co.in/books?id=H3lUIIYxWkEC&pg=PA351&lpg=PA351&dq=nigali+sagar+pillar&source=bl&ots=xdbE2QeTgz&sig=eCRdxqJX0uTw6ay3M3tBTLIRAGY&hl=en&sa=X&ei=RKw1UruMG8mQrQfyy4C4Cw&ved=0CFIQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=nigali%20sagar%20pillar&f=false

[20] As given in www.cs.colostate.edu

URL: http://www.cs.colostate.edu/~malaiya/ashoka.html#PILLAR

An inscription on the Ashokan Pillar at Qutb Minar.
An inscription on the Ashokan Pillar at Qutb Minar.
The Asokan Pillar at Sarnath which has been adopted to be the National Emblem of India.
The Asokan Pillar at Sarnath which has been adopted to be the National Emblem of India.
The Brahmi Inscriptions on the Asokan Pillar at Rummindei.
The Brahmi Inscriptions on the Asokan Pillar at Rummindei.
Inscriptions on the Nigali Sagar Pillar.
Inscriptions on the Nigali Sagar Pillar.

Facts about Emperor Asoka

  • Emperor Asoka, also known as 'Asoka the Great' was one of the greatest Emperors of India and for it was under his rule that for the first time most of India was unified as a single entity.
  • He was born to King Bindusara and Maharani Dharma, around 304 BC in Pataliputra, Patna - northern Indian state. His grandfather, Chandragupta Maurya, was the founder of the Mauryan Dynasty.
  • It is said that during the early years of his reign, he was a very short tempered person who engaged in war with different states. At that time, he was called Chandaasoka or 'Asoka the fierce'.
  • The war in Kalinga was the turning point in his life - the mass bloodshed opened his eyes to the belief of non-violence and Buddhism.
  • After converting to Buddhism and making it his state religion, he tried to propagate the religion all over Asia. In doing so, he sent his own son (Mahinda) and daughter (Sanghamitra) to different parts of Asia.
  • One of the pillars of Asoka at Sarnath was adopted as the National Emblem of India and appears on all Indian currency. It was originally located at the place of Buddha's first sermon. However, after being broken during the Turk and Islamic invasions, it was taken to be displayed at the Sarnath Museum.
  • It is a monolithic polished-sandstone pillar with over which Lion Capital was erected by Emperor Asoka. It has four back-to-back Indian lions and representations of a lion, an elephant, a horse and a bull below it. Also carved out in between them is the Dharma Chakra or the Wheel of Law, which has been adopted to be placed at the centre of the National Flag of India.
  • Underneath all this are the words 'Satyameva Jayate' meaning 'Truth alone triumphs' in Devanagiri Script - a quote from the Mundeka Upanishad, the last of the sacred Hindu Vedas.

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      Ojaswi Kavuri 4 years ago from Hyderabad, India

      I'm glad it was helpful, My Cook Book! Thanks for commenting. :D

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      Dil Vil 4 years ago from India

      Awesome history lesson. Thank you.