The Edicts of Ashoka are a collection of more than thirty inscriptions on the pillars, as well as boulders and cave walls, attributed to Emperor Ashoka of the Mauryan Empire who reigned from 268 BCE to 232 BCE. Ashoka used the expression Dhaṃma Lipi (Prakrit in the Brahmi script: 𑀥𑀁𑀫𑀮𑀺𑀧𑀺, “Inscriptions of the Dharma”) to describe his own Edicts. These inscriptions were dispersed throughout the areas of modern-day Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and provide the first tangible evidence of Buddhism. The edicts describe in detail Ashoka’s view about dhamma, an earnest attempt to solve some of the problems that a complex society faced. According to the edicts, the extent of Buddhist proselytism during this period reached as far as the Mediterranean, and many Buddhist monuments were created.
These inscriptions proclaim Ashoka’s adherence to the Buddhist philosophy which, as in Hinduism, is called dharma, “Law”. The inscriptions show his efforts to develop the Buddhist dharma throughout his kingdom. Although Buddhism as well as Gautama Buddha are mentioned, the edicts focus on social and moral precepts rather than specific religious practices or the philosophical dimension of Buddhism. These were located in public places and were meant for people to read.
In these inscriptions, Ashoka refers to himself as “Beloved of the Gods” (Devanampiya). The identification of Devanampiya with Ashoka was confirmed by an inscription discovered in 1915 by C. Beadon, a British gold-mining engineer, at Maski, a village in Raichur district of Karnataka. Another minor rock edict, found at the village Gujarra in Datia district of Madhya Pradesh, also used the name of Ashoka together with his titles: “Devanampiya Piyadasi Asokaraja”. The inscriptions found in the central and eastern part of India were written in Magadhi Prakrit using the Brahmi script, while Prakrit using the Kharoshthi script, Greek and Aramaic were used in the northwest. These edicts were deciphered by British archaeologist and historian James Prinsep.
The inscriptions revolve around a few recurring themes: Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism, the description of his efforts to spread Buddhism, his moral and religious precepts, and his social and animal welfare program. The edicts were based on Ashoka’s ideas on administration and behaviour of people towards one another and religion.
Besides a few inscriptions in Greek and Aramaic (which were discovered only in the 20th century), the Edicts were mostly written in the Brahmi script and sometimes in the Kharoshthi script in the northwest, two Indian scripts which had both become extinct around the 5th century CE, and were yet undeciphered at the time the Edicts were discovered and investigated in the 19th century.
The first successful attempts at deciphering the ancient Brahmi script were made in 1836 by Norwegian scholar Christian Lassen, who used the bilingual Greek-Brahmi coins of Indo-Greek king Agathocles to correctly and securely identify several Brahmi letters. The task was then completed by James Prinsep, an archaeologist, philologist, and official of the East India Company, who was able to identify the rest of the Brahmi characters, with the help of Major Cunningham. In a series of results that he published in March 1838 Prinsep was able to translate the inscriptions on a large number of rock edicts found around India, and to provide, according to Richard Salomon, a “virtually perfect” rendering of the full Brahmi alphabet. The edicts in Brahmi script mentioned a King Devanampriya Piyadasi which Prinsep initially assumed was a Sri Lankan king. He was then able to associate this title with Ashoka on the basis of Pali script from Sri Lanka communicated to him by George Turnour.
The Kharoshthi script, written from right to left, and associated with Aramaic, was also deciphered by James Prinsep in parallel with Christian Lassen, using the bilingual Greek-Kharoshthi coinage of the Indo-Greek and Indo-Scythian kings. “Within the incredibly brief space of three years (1834-37) the mystery of both the Kharoshthi and Brahmi scripts (were unlocked), the effect of which was instantly to remove the thick crust of oblivion which for many centuries had concealed the character and the language of the earliest epigraphs”.
The first known inscription by Ashoka, the Kandahar Bilingual Rock Inscription, in Greek and in Aramaic, written in the 10th year of his reign (260 BCE).
The Edicts are divided into four categories, according to their size (Minor or Major) and according to their medium (Rock or Pillar). Chronologically, the minor inscriptions tend to precede the larger ones, while rock inscriptions generally seem to have been started earlier than the pillar inscriptions:
- Minor Rock Edicts: Edicts inscribed at the beginning of Ashoka’s reign; in Prakrit, Greek and Aramaic.
- Minor Pillar Edicts: Schism Edict, Queen’s Edict, Rummindei Edict, Nigali Sagar Edict; in Prakrit.
- Major Rock Edicts: 14 Edicts (termed 1st to 14th) and 2 separate ones found in Odisha; in Prakrit and Greek.
- Major Pillar Edicts: 7 Edicts, inscribed at the end of Ashoka’s reign; in Prakrit.
The Minor Rock Edicts (in which Ashoka is sometimes named in person, as in Maski and Gujarra) as well as the Minor Pillar Edicts are very religious in their content: they mention extensively the Buddha (and even previous Buddhas as in the Nigali Sagar inscription), the Sangha, Buddhism and Buddhist scriptures (as in the Bairat Edict).
On the contrary, the Major Rock Edicts and Major Pillar Edicts are essentially moral and political in nature: they never mention the Buddha or explicit Buddhist teachings, but are preoccupied with order, proper behaviour and non violence under the general concept of “Dharma”, and they also focus on the administration of the state and positive relations with foreign countries as far as the Hellenistic Mediterranean of the mid-3rd century BCE.
Minor Rock Edicts
The Minor Rock Edicts are often Buddhist in character, and some of them specifically mentions the name “Asoka” (Ashoka in Brahmi script.jpg, center of the top line) in conjonction with the title “Devanampriya” (Beloved-of-the-gods).
The Minor Rock Edicts of Ashoka (r.269-233 BCE) are rock inscriptions which form the earliest part of the Edicts of Ashoka. They predate Ashoka’s Major Rock Edicts.
Chronologically, the first known edict, sometimes classified as a Minor Rock Edict, is the Kandahar Bilingual Rock Inscription, in Greek and in Aramaic, written in the 10th year of his reign (260 BCE) at the border of his empire with the Hellenistic world, in the city of Old Kandahar in modern Afghanistan.
Ashoka then made the first edicts in the Indian language, written in the Brahmi script, from the 11th year of his reign (according to his own inscription, “two and a half years after becoming a secular Buddhist”, i.e. two and a half years at least after returning from the Kalinga conquest of the eighth year of his reign, which is the starting point for his remorse towards the horrors of the war, and his gradual conversion to Buddhism). The texts of the inscriptions are rather short, the technical quality of the engraving of the inscriptions is generally very poor, and generally very inferior to the pillar edicts dated to the years 26 and 27 of Ashoka’s reign.
There are several slight variations in the content of these edicts, depending on location, but a common designation is usually used, with Minor Rock Edict N°1 (MRE1) and a Minor Rock Edict N°2 (MRE2, which does not appear alone but always in combination with Edict N°1), the different versions being generally aggregated in most translations. The Maski version of Minor Rock Edict No.1 is historically particularly important in that it confirmed the association of the title “Devanampriya” with the name “Asoka”, thereby clarifying the historical author of all these inscriptions. In the Gujarra version of Minor Rock Edict No.1 also, the name of Ashoka is used together with his full title: Devanampiya Piyadasi Asokaraja.
The full title Devanampiyasa Piyadasino Asokaraja (𑀤𑁂𑀯𑀸𑀦𑀁𑀧𑀺𑀬𑀲 𑀧𑀺𑀬𑀤𑀲𑀺𑀦𑁄 𑀅𑀲𑁄𑀓𑀭𑀸𑀚) in the Gujarra inscription.
There is also a unique Minor Rock Edict No.3, discovered next to Bairat Temple, for the Buddhist clergy, which gives a list of Buddhist scriptures (most of them unknown today) which the clergy should study regularly.
A few other inscriptions of Ashoka in Aramaic, which are not strictly edicts, but tend to share a similar content, are sometimes also categorized as “Minor Rock Edicts”. The dedicatory inscriptions of the Barabar caves are also sometimes classified among the Minor Rock Edicts of Ashoka.
The Minor Rock Edicts can be found throughout the territory of Ashoka, including in the frontier area near the Hindu Kush, and are especially numerous in the southern, newly conquered, frontier areas of Karnataka and southern Andhra Pradesh.
Minor Pillar Edicts
Minor Pillar Edict on the Sarnath pillar of Ashoka, and the Lion Capital of Ashoka which crowned it.
The Minor Pillar Edicts of Ashoka refer to 5 separate minor Edicts inscribed on columns, the Pillars of Ashoka. These edicts are preceded chronologically by the Minor Rock Edicts and may have been made in parallel with the Major Rock Edicts.
The inscription technique is generally very poor compared for example to the later Major Pillar Edicts, however the Minor Pillar Edicts are often associated with some of the artistically most sophisticated pillar capitals of Ashoka, such as the renowned Lion Capital of Ashoka which crowned the Sarnath Minor Pillar Edict, or the very similar, but less well preserved Sanchi lion capital which crowned the very clumsily inscribed Schism Edict of Sanchi. According to Irwin, the Brahmi inscriptions on the Sarnath and Sanchi pillars were made by inexperienced Indian engravers at a time when stone engraving was still new in India, whereas the very refined Sarnath capital itself was made under the tutelage of craftsmen from the former Achaemenid Empire, trained in Perso-Hellenistic statuary and employed by Ashoka. This suggests that the most sophisticated capitals were actually the earliest in the sequence of Ashokan pillars and that style degraded over a short period of time.
These edicts were probably made at the beginning of the reign of Ashoka (reigned 268-232 BCE), from the year 12 of his reign, that is, from 256 BCE.
The Minor Pillar Edicts are the Schism Edict, warning of punishment for dissent in the Samgha, the Queen’s Edict, and the Rummindei Edict as well as the Nigali Sagar Edict which record Ashoka’s visits and Buddhist dedications in the area corresponding to today’s Nepal. The Rummindei and Nigali Sagar edicts, inscribed on pillars erected by Ashoka later in his reign (19th and 20th year) display a high level of inscriptional technique with a good regularity in the lettering.
Major Rock Edicts
The Major Rock Edicts of Ashoka refer to 14 separate major Edicts, which are significantly detailed and extensive. These Edicts were concerned with practical instructions in running the kingdom such as the design of irrigation systems and descriptions of Ashoka’s beliefs in peaceful moral behavior. They contain little personal detail about his life. These edicts are preceded chronologically by the Minor Rock Edicts.
Three languages were used, Prakrit, Greek and Aramaic. The edicts are composed in non-standardized and archaic forms of Prakrit. Prakrit inscriptions were written in Brahmi and Kharosthi scripts, which even a commoner could read and understand. The inscriptions found in the area of Pakistan are in the Kharoshthi script. Other Edicts are written in Greek or Aramaic. The Kandahar Greek Edict of Ashoka (including portions of Edict No.13 and No.14) is in Greek only, and originally probably contained all the Major Rock Edicts 1-14.
The Major Rock Edicts of Ashoka are inscribed on large rocks, except for the Kandahar version in Greek (Kandahar Greek Edict of Ashoka), written on a stone plaque belonging to a building. The Major Edicts are not located in the heartland of Mauryan territory, traditionally centered on Bihar, but on the frontiers of the territory controlled by Ashoka.
Major Pillar Edicts
Major Pillar Edicts (Delhi-Topra pillar), and one of the capitals (from Rampurva) which crowned such edicts.
The Major Pillar Edicts of Ashoka refer to seven separate major Edicts inscribed on columns, the Pillars of Ashoka, which are significantly detailed and extensive.
These edicts are preceded chronologically by the Minor Rock Edicts and the Major Rock Edicts, and constitute the most technically elegant of the inscriptions made by Ashoka. They were made at the end of his reign, from the years 26 and 27 of his reign, that is, from 237 to 236 BCE. Chronologically they follow the fall of Seleucid power in Central Asia and the related rise of the Parthian Empire and the independent Greco-Bactrian Kingdom circa 250 BCE. Hellenistic rulers are not mentioned anymore in these last edicts, as they only appear in Major Rock Edict No.13 (and to a lesser extent Major Rock Edict No.2), which can be dated to about the 14th year of the reign of Ashoka circa 256–255. The last Major Pillar Edicts (Edict No.7) is testamental in nature, making a summary of the accomplishments of Ashoka during his life.
The Major Pillar Edicts of Ashoka were exclusively inscribed on the Pillars of Ashoka or fragments thereof, at Kausambi (now Allahabad pillar), Topra Kalan, Meerut, Lauriya-Araraj, Lauria Nandangarh, Rampurva (Champaran), and fragments of these in Aramaic (Kandahar, Edict No.7 and Pul-i-Darunteh, Edict No.5 or No.7 in Afghanistan) However several pillars, such as the bull pillar of Rampurva, or the pillar of Vaishali do not have inscriptions, which, together with their lack of proper foundation stones and their particular style, led some authors to suggest that they were in fact pre-Ashokan.
The Major Pillar Edicts (excluding the two fragments of translations found in modern Afghanistan) are all located in central India.
The Pillars of Ashoka are stylistically very close to an important Buddhist monument, also built by Ashoka in Bodh Gaya, at the location where the Buddha had reached enlightenment some 200 years earlier: the Diamond Throne. The sculpted decorations on the Diamond Throne clearly echoe the decorations found on the Pillars of Ashoka. The Pillars dated to the end of Ashoka’s reign are associated with pillar capitals that tend to be more solemn and less elegant than the earlier capitals, such as those of Sanchi or Sarnath. This led some authors to suggest that the artistic level under Ashoka tended to fall towards the end of his reign.
Languages of the Edicts
Three languages were used: Ashokan Prakrit, Greek (the language of the neighbouring Greco-Bactrian kingdom and the Greek communities in Ashoka’s realm) and Aramaic (the official language of the former Achaemenid Empire). The Prakrit displayed local variations, from early Gandhari in the northwest, to Old Ardhamagadhi in the east, where it was the “chancery language” of the court. The language level of the Prakrit inscriptions tends to be rather informal or colloquial.
Four scripts were used. Prakrit inscriptions were written in the Brahmi and Kharosthi scripts, the latter for the area of modern Pakistan. The Greek and Aramaic inscriptions used their respective scripts, in the northwestern areas of Ashoka’s territory, in modern Pakistan and Afghanistan.
While most Edicts were in Ashokan Prakrit, a few were written in Greek or Aramaic. The Kandahar Rock Inscription is bilingual Greek-Aramaic. The Kandahar Greek Edict of Ashoka is in Greek only, and originally probably contained all the Major Rock Edicts 1-14. The Greek language used in the inscription is of a very high level and displays philosophical refinement. It also displays an in-depth understanding of the political language of the Hellenic world in the 3rd century BCE. This suggests a highly cultured Greek presence in Kandahar at that time.
By contrast, in the rock edicts engraved in southern India in the newly conquered territories of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, Ashoka only used the Prakrit of the North as the language of communication, with the Brahmi script, and not the local Dravidian idiom, which can be interpreted as a kind of authoritarianism in respect to the southern territories.
Ashoka’s edicts were the first written inscriptions in India after the ancient city of Harrapa fell to ruin. Due to the influence of Ashoka’s Prakrit inscriptions, Prakrit would remain the main inscriptional language for the following centuries, until the rise of inscriptional Sanskrit from the 1st century CE.