Mauryas are known from numerous sources, including Puranas and Buddhist texts, the Arthashastra and Greek sources
The rock edicts of Ashoka, the Mauryan emperor are still preserved at Kalsi, located about 40 kilometres from Dehradun, on the route to Chakrata. Ashoka is considered one of the greatest kings of India and both the national emblem, and the central chakra on India’s flag are derived from depictions on his pillar capitals.
Ashoka was the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya. Around 321 BCE, Chandragupta Maurya, with the help of Chanakya, his friend and later his minister, defeated Dhanananda, the last Nanda ruler, and took over his kingdom. This was the kingdom of Magadha with its capital at Pataliputra (Patna).
Bindusara came to the throne after the death of his father Chandragupta in 297 BCE. When Ashoka, the son of Bindusara, was born, his mother, happy to have a child, said, ‘Now I am A-shoka,’ that is, without sorrow. And so the child was named.
Between Chandragupta and Bindusara a vast territory had been conquered, which was inherited by Ashoka, who, it is said, fought against his brothers for four years, before defeating them and becoming the emperor in 269-268 BCE, ruling till around 232 BCE.
The Mauryas are known from numerous sources, including the Puranas and Buddhist texts, the Arthashastra and Greek sources. Archaeology too provides a background for their lives and times. But probably the most important source for Ashoka are his own statements and orders, contained in his inscriptions. These inscriptions are found at several places from Afghanistan to southern India, and from the west to the east.
James Prinsep, an Englishman, managed to decipher the long-forgotten script in which these inscriptions were written. Prinsep came to India in 1819 and worked in the Calcutta (Kolkata) and Banaras (Varanasi) Mints and in 1832 became the secretary of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Copies of these inscriptions were brought to him, and gradually, after first identifying a few letters, he was able to read them. The script was named Brahmi, while the language of the inscriptions was Prakrit or Pali. The inscriptions could be classified as Major Rock Edicts; Minor Rock Edicts; Pillar Edicts inscribed on tall stone pillars; and miscellaneous edicts.
After deciphering them, Prinsep attempted to identify the king, who did not provide his own name but called himself ‘devanam piya piyadasini raja’ or in some versions ‘laja’ (Sanskrit: devanam priya priyadarshini raja).
A number of Buddhist texts mention such a king, and at first, based on these, Prinsep thought they referred to a king of Sri Lanka, called Tissa.
Later, Prinsep managed to identify him correctly, and the rest, as they say, is history. In 1923 the discovery of the Maski inscription confirmed the identification, as it includes Ashoka’s name.
As the inscriptions are basically his commands and directions, they are known as edicts. All the edicts proclaim his dhamma, the Prakrit term for dharma, and contain instructions to his officials and people, as well as information about himself.
Ashoka added to his dominions by conquering Kalinga (Odisha), and his dhamma may have developed from this event. His thirteenth rock edict tells us that: ‘The country of the Kalingas was conquered by Piyadasi Raja beloved of the Gods, eight years after his coronation. In this war, one hundred and fifty thousand people and animals were captured, one hundred thousand were killed and many times that number perished.’ After this, the edict continues, the king decided to focus on an intense practice of the duties of dhamma, to a longing for dhamma, and to spread dhamma among the people. The sorrow caused by war was now deplorable to him, as so many innocent people suffered. In future, he would rule and conquer by dhamma. This long inscription explains how he plans to do this, not only in his own lands but in neighbouring countries across the north-west border. He ends by saying he has written this on stone so that his sons and grandsons would read it and would realise that a conquest by arms was not worthwhile, as only a conquest through dhamma brought happiness.
Kalsi contains all his 14 major rock edicts, which can still be seen. Some aspects of these edicts, found not only at Kalsi, but elsewhere too, are provided below:
First major rock edict: This states that formerly in the royal kitchens ‘many hundreds of thousands of living animals were killed daily for meat. But now, at the time of writing this inscription on dhamma, only three animals are killed, two peacocks and a deer, and the deer not invariably. Even these animals will not be killed in future’.
Second major rock edict (summary): ‘Everywhere in the empire of the Beloved of the Gods, the king Piyadasi, and even in the lands on its frontiers, two medical services have been provided, for men and for animals. Herbs useful to people and animals have been brought and planted wherever they did not grow, as well as roots and fruits. Along the roads wells have been dug and trees planted for the use of men and animals.’
Third major rock edict: ‘It is good not to kill living beings.’ (part of instructions in dhamma).
Fourth major rock edict: ‘Through his instructions in dhamma, abstention from killing and non-injury to living beings, deference to relatives, brahmanas and shramanas, obedience to mother and father, and obedience to elders have all increased as never before for many centuries.’
Fifth major rock edict: ‘It is hard to do good and he who does good does a difficult thing.’
Sixth major rock edict: ‘And whatever may be my great deeds, I have done them in order to discharge my debt to all beings. I work for their happiness in this life, that in the next they may gain heaven. For this purpose has this inscription of dhamma been engraved. May it endure long. May my sons, grandsons and great grandsons strive for the welfare of the whole world. But this is difficult without great effort.’
Innumerable books have been written about Emperor Ashoka, his conversion to Buddhism, his advanced ideas, and his desire for peace and for the welfare of both people and animals.
(The writer is a PhD in ancient Indian History, lives in Dehradun and has authored more than ten books)