Ashoka, the Great

According to legend Ashoka was not good looking but obviously possessed other qualities since, even as a young prince, he was given charge of the Viceroyship of Ujjain. Buddhist texts inform us that a revolt took place in Taxila during the reign of Bindusara and Ashoka was sent to quell it. This he did without antagonising the local populace. Corroboration for this may be sought in an Aramaic inscription from Taxila which refers to Priyadarshi, the viceroy or governor. Unfortunately, as the inscription is damaged, the reading is somewhat uncertain.

As regards Ashoka’s accession to the throne, there is general agreement in the sources that Ashoka was not the crown prince but succeeded to the throne after killing his brothers. There is however no unanimity in the texts either regarding the nature of the struggle or the number of his brothers. At one place the Mahavansha states that Ashoka killed his elder brother to become the king whereas elsewhere in the same work, and also in the Dipavansha, he is said to have killed ninety nine brothers. It seems that, though there was a succession struggle, a lot of its description appears to be plain exaggeration.

In one of his inscriptions, Ashoka states that only after two and a half years of his rule did he become a zealous devotee of Buddhism. This is also clear from a close study of his edicts, which show that his fervour for Buddhism increased in his later years. Similarly Buddhist texts associate Ashoka with the meeting of the Third Buddhist Council at Pataliputra in century 250 B.C. but the emperor himself does not refer to it in his inscriptions. This stresses the point that Ashoka was careful to make a distinction between his personal support for Buddhism and his duty as emperor to remain unattached and unbiased in favour of any religion.

It seems that in his later years Ashoka began to lose his grip over the governance of the empire. There is no unanimity in the sources regarding his successor and this would suggest a period of instability and confusion, though later Mauryan rulers continued for another fifty years. Finally in the second century B.C. the dynasty collapsed completely and gave way to the Shungas.

James Prinsep and discovery of Asoka Inscriptions

It was the curiosity and methodicalness of British oriental scholars of the nineteenth century that finally helped to rescue Emperor Ashoka from obscurity. The most important contribution to the de-mystification of both Ashoka and Buddha came from the work of James Prinsep (1798-1839), a gifted engineer, draughtsman and numismatist (Allen 2002: 140-99; Allen 2012: 120-81; ODNB 2004: Vol. 59, 570-2). A man of great energy and enthusiasm, he was admired by all who came to know him, as can be witnessed in Excerpt 6.3 below. The early British scholars had come across the Ashokan pillar and rock edicts, but had been unable to decipher the Brahmi script of the inscriptions. Most literature in ancient India was transmitted orally. Leaving aside the Harappan script, which remains undeciphered and therefore unintelligible, the first written documents of India were the Ashokan edicts of the third century BCE, carved in two principal scripts of Kharoshthi and Brahmi. By the third century BCE, Brahmi had become the dominant script, which means that its earliest development must be traced back at least 500 years, to the eighth century BCE. It is from Brahmi that the scripts for the varied languages of both the Indo-Aryan family and the Dravidian family of languages came to be developed (Fischer 2005: 105-20). It was Prinsep who was able to break the code of the Brahmi script after carefully studying the script of certain rock and pillar edicts and comparing it with that on a gateway of an important Buddhist stupa, that at Sanchi in Central India. The Mauryan coins that were being discovered at this time were also to prove useful in establishing some pattern in the inscriptions (Prinsep 1858: Vol. 2,1-34, 55-101). The diverse data collected was then coordinated with the huge amount of information from Sri Lanka that became available after the translation of a major Buddhist text, the Mahavamsa or the Great Dynastic Chronicle, by another Englishman, George Turnour, in the early 1830s. The first major breakthrough came with the deciphering of the opening sentence in all the edicts, which proclaimed: ‘Devanamapiya piyadasi laja hevam aha’, meaning literally: ‘Beloved-of-the-Gods, beloved king, spake thus’, commonly translated as: ‘Thus spake King Piyadasi, Beloved of the Gods’. Prinsep’s work also clarified the confusion caused by the fact that there had been a king of Sri Lanka called King Devanamapiyatissa, who had been converted to Buddhism through the efforts of the Indian king Dharmashoka, the wheel-turning monarch of India. Prinsep stated conclusively that Devanamapiya piyadasi referred to Dharmashoka, not to King Devanamapiyatissa of Sri Lanka. The final deciphering of the script in 1837 and the identification of the name of Ashoka within the text of a number of edicts were Prinsep’s crowning glory. Like Sir William Jones, he helped to greatly expand our knowledge of Indian history.


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