Saturday, August 1, 2015

NAYANJOT LAHIRI - Upon This Rock: What the stone edicts of Ashoka tell us about India’s great Buddhist ruler

'Ashoka’s utter uniqueness is that in this, the one and only record that he caused to be made of a successful war, the conventions of state propaganda are turned on their head. The triumph is recorded as a disaster. Defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory. A chronicle of imperial misfortune is concocted in defiance of the established practice of all preceding time. The emperor weeps when he ought to swagger. This reversal is now so well known that we hardly see it any longer for what in essence it was, and remains: a staggering overturning of the very conception of kingship. 

The account graphically captures Ashoka’s pain and repentance in his hour of victory. Remarkably, it is also the only surviving contemporary description of the catastrophe.. in Ashoka’s edict, the compassionate and caring king is born, and proclaims himself, as the writer HG Wells recognised, for the first time in world history..'


The personal upheaval was, perhaps inadvertently, also a powerful and new political idea: by replacing subjugation with compassion as the fundamental principle of monarchy, it introduced the earliest glimmerings of a rule of law, in which ordinary folk and the citizenry, rather than only the elites and royalty, were consequential. If one were, for a moment, to visualise the scenario symbolically, it could take the shape of Ashoka calling for a copy of the Arthashastra and setting it on fire in full public view...'

THERE IS NOTHING ESPECIALLY STRIKING about the cluster of rocks which crowns the edge of a low hilly ridge near the village of Erragudi in the Andhra region. From a distance, the cluster appears unremarkable, while the ridge on which it sits is somewhat bare, rising out of a patchwork of cultivated fields and sparsely dotted with vegetation. The rocks on it stand a mere 30 metres or so above the plains.

Cascading down the rocks is a dramatic waterfall of words. More than a hundred lines in the ancient Brahmi script are imprinted across several of the boulders. Large portions of this scrawl are exceedingly clear, the characters boldly etched across the rock face. Some segments have deteriorated, while a few of the lines have been defaced by modern graffiti. Yet not even the English and Telugu scribbles of contemporary visitors can diminish the overwhelming impression of messages from antiquity created by the profusion of these ancient words. This copious transcription is part of a royal enunciation. The words and phrases that comprise it were composed by and inscribed at the instructions of Ashoka, the sorrowless one, the third emperor of the dynasty of the Mauryas, and ruler of a terrain that stretched, at one point, from Taxila in the north-west to Kalinga in the east.

Some 2,200 years ago, Ashoka made himself visible through the words that he caused to be inscribed at Erragudi, as well as at scores of other places across India and beyond. They represented an extraordinary democratic innovation—no ruler before him appears to have thought it necessary, or found the technology, to speak directly to his or her subjects. In keeping with Ashoka’s territorial ambitions, the scale of this project was truly imperial. The edicts were inscribed and installed across his lands, often in more than one language. A large and adept provincial administration helped carry his voice out to his subjects. They may even have reached those on the borders of the empire, an important consideration for a monarch who had undergone a religious conversion—one of the most famous in world history—and wished to reassure all people that the path of his dhamma was open to anyone who wished to follow its precepts with the right morals and true zeal. He transformed the way in which the state communicated with its people; in doing so, he hoped to transform the state itself.

These inscriptions also represent a kind of historical daybreak, ending a long phase of faceless rulers in the Indian subcontinent. In approximately 600 BCE, kings emerged out of the realms of tradition to set up and rule over several kingdoms stretching from the highlands of the north-west frontier to the lowlands of the Ganges, and southwards across the Vindhya mountains to the Godavari River on the Deccan Plateau. There were kings of greater or lesser power, rulers who were aspirants to the appellation “chief king of all kings,” and influential confederate clans.

Over a relatively short period of time—roughly coinciding with the domination of Athens in the classical period—a large part of this profusion of political entities was absorbed into a single imperial realm. From Magadha, in the middle Gangetic plains of Bihar, a succession of kings ruled over this empire, which straddled large parts of India. The first of these was the imperial house of the Nandas; they were followed by the Mauryas. From the fourth century BCE till the advent of Ashoka, circa 269 or 268 BCE, there were said to have been 11 monarchs, nine in the Nanda dynasty followed by the two Maurya kings who preceded Ashoka: Chandragupta, Ashoka’s grandfather, who overthrew the Nandas and founded the new dynasty, followed by Bindusara, Ashoka’s father.

But though king succeeded king and one century followed another, the only evidence we have of those times are the versions of them preserved in surviving accounts by others—some accurate, others fanciful, and practically never contemporary to their lives. These remaining records are the Puranas, certain Buddhist and Jaina texts, and histories of a sort by people who are referred to as “classical authors,” mainly literate companions in Alexander’s entourage—as also the famous Megasthenes, who visited the court of Chandragupta. These sources provide us with nearly all the information that we now have of India’s rulers and states in that antique time.

The rulers themselves failed to speak to their subjects, and therefore to us. Many of their names, and those of their principalities, are known: Janaka of Videha, Pasenadi of Kosala, the Magadha monarch Bimbisara, Pradyota of Avanti. But how such kings defined their domains and powers, how they appeared to their subjects, what they and their queens donated, and what kind of worship prevailed in their courts—these remain hidden, because no royal epigraphs or labelled sculptures, no coins carrying royal portraiture or the names of kings and queens, not even palaces, or communications emanating from such places and people, have endured.

But in his stone messages, we encounter Ashoka himself speaking about the several watersheds of his royal life, and we witness how he recreated his own path while trying to remould the lives of people in his empire, and beyond. Candour and emotion, death and decimation, honest admissions and imperious orders—all of these are found in the Ashokan edicts. Since his messages were not inscribed all at once but over many years, it becomes possible to examine Ashoka’s persona not as that of a static sovereign, but an emperor of uncommon and evolving ambition.

Through these missives, Ashoka literally carved out a presence for himself. We encounter him on rocks and pillars right across India, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He chose to ensure that his administration sent out multiple copies of his messages. That he wanted to be heard in the same way in Afghanistan and in Andhra, in Karnataka and in Kalinga, also means that Ashoka’s version of his life and deeds is the one that was likely the best known, certainly during his own lifetime. There is no other example, in fact, of an ancient ruler whose voice, in the course of his own life, resonated in such a unique way across South Asia and further afield, articulating the shifting contours of his imperial aspirations.

IN HIS EARLY YEARS, it is a virtual certainty that Ashoka was very much within the ideal mould of kingship enshrined in the ancient text of the Arthashastra. This was grounded in military success and the building of a vast empire. Because of his conquering ambitions, and their consequences, Ashoka, who until this point seemed remote to the point of invisibility, becomes historical and real. The first event of his reign that Ashoka chose to mention in his edicts was a major military expedition he led. This was the assault, in approximately 260 BCE, on Kalinga, a state on the eastern seaboard of India, in what now forms part of modern Odisha and Andhra Pradesh.

His ambitions were cultivated, and realised, in an age of war and territorial aggrandisement. Take the specific time of Ashoka’s march: it happened a little after Rome began its extended conflict against Carthage with the first of the three Punic Wars, which, all told, lasted more than a hundred years, between 264 and 146 BCE. Some 300 years before Ashoka, the army of the Persian Empire, with its centre in what is now Iran, crossed into Europe, and also stamped its authority across regions that stretched from Turkey in the west to north-west India in the east. Persia was the first superpower of its time, and, about two centuries later, its model inspired Alexander’s successful emulation. Starting from his small kingdom of Macedon, near Athens, he crushed revolts in several Greek cities before leading an expeditionary force that annexed kingdoms in Africa and Asia, extending from Egypt to Persia, and eventually defeated adversaries as far east as Punjab.

When Alexander died in his thirties, this vast empire, difficult to hold effectively at the best of times, quickly broke up into smaller realms. In Egypt, one of his generals became the satrap and founder of a new dynasty. The fourteen kings of this dynasty, all bearing the name Ptolemy, ruled Egypt for almost three centuries. By the time of Ashoka’s consecration, the early Ptolemies had ensured that Egypt was the principal naval power of the eastern Mediterranean. In those parts of Asia which lay to the east and north-east of India, similar kinds of consolidation would soon commence. Some 15 years after Ashoka’s Kalinga march, King Zheng, later the first emperor of the Qin dynasty, came to power, and by 221 BC, after conquering rival states, he presided over the unification of China around a centralised bureaucratic monarchy.

Given all these conflicts and rivalries, it is hardly surprising that a considerable part of the history of the ancient world is written about war. Homer, in about the eighth century BCE, relating incidents around the conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans, and Herodutus, in the fifth century BCE, writing of the expanding Achaemenid empire of Persia, are probably the best-known chroniclers of ancient conquest—Homer more poetic and Herodotus more gossipy and historical.

Why wars were thought necessary at all is a question which strikes us immediately and forcefully, but we dismiss it out of hand as foolish because of many of the precepts outlined in treatises such as the Arthashastra—that power must lie in the hands of powerful and capable men at the apex of armies, that the sustenance of dominion requires the expansion of power via these men and their armies because the alternative is loss of dominion and enslavement. Beyond this worldview, of competitive imperialism as necessary to survival, lie other causes, such as the predominantly male desire to acquire goods and land, food and women. 

In the Warring States period of Chinese history, in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, we see that controlling territory became crucial to the consolidation of political domination. Over much of ancient history, territorial expansion also ensured enormous economic benefit. The acquisitions of the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II, circa the ninth century BC, are an example. Even among his smaller campaigns, the booty included 40 chariots with men and horses, 460 horses, 120 pounds of silver, 120 pounds of gold, 6,000 pounds of lead, 18,000 pounds of iron, 1,000 vessels of copper, 2,000 heads of cattle, 5,000 sheep, 15,000 slaves, and the defeated ruler’s sister.

How much of this Weltanschauung formed the mental horizons of Ashoka cannot be specifically known, but conquerors and kings from the West were very much part of political happenings in South Asia at the time his grandfather captured power. So the possibility of this emperor having been influenced by the world beyond South Asia is very far from remote. Plutarch, in his biographical history of Alexander, writes that Chandragupta, when a mere lad, saw Alexander in person. When he began to rule from Pataliputra, embassies from the Western powers came to his court; later, in Bindusara’s years as sovereign, they were present again. (A charming story told about him and Antiochus I of Syria highlights this: the Indian monarch asked for sweet wine, dried figs, and a sophist—a teacher in the classical Greek tradition—to which Antiochus’s reply was that while figs and wine would be sent, it was forbidden by law to sell a sophist.)

Ashoka’s expedition to Kalinga was preceded by massive and careful arrangements, from ascertaining the strength of the enemy’s forces and understanding the terrain through which the army would move to deciding on the season best suited to the operation...


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