Asok’s Junagadh edicts talk of governance sans violence, which may seem strange to today’s rulers

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By Hemang Desai*

“More than one hundred and fifty thousand people had become refugees (in the war) and more than one hundred thousand had died in the war.”

Before the reader assumes that these words describe the current wars in Syria and Iraq, it must be pointed out that these words are of the Mauryan Emperor Asok. He uttered them after his victory over the eastern kingdom of Kalinga in 260 BC. Profoundly distressed by the destruction inflicted by his war and seeking spiritual solace, Asok had turned to Buddhism.

This first creator of the sub-continental Empire in India had his capital at Patliputra; the greatest city in the world then, far beyond anything the Greeks could have built. Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador at the Mauryan court, has described the grandeur of Patliputra. Archaeological excavations in the suburbs of modern Patna have corroborated his description. Under the sway of the Mauryan Empire at the time, Gujarat has examples of this Mauryan architecture in the Junagadh town.

Junagadh nestles at the bottom of the sacred Girnar hills in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat. The examples of Buddhist architecture here are the oldest extant in Gujarat. These more than two-thousand-years old monuments include Buddhist caves, Sudarshan Lake and the rock edicts of Asok. The oldest extant Sanskrit inscription on the Indian subcontinent, that of the Kshatrapa king Rudradaman, is on the same rock.

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Located on 21º 25º N latitudes and 70º 05º E longitudes, Junagadh (literally Old Fort) has had a continuous existence since the time of Chandragupta Maurya. Compared with the rocky, dry and dreary part of Saurashtra, Junagadh is green due to the lush vegetation. The mythical Hindu city of Prabhas Patan existed in the same area. Praising Sorath (a medieval name of Junagadh area), Mirat-i-Sikandari exclaims:

“What a country is Sorath! As if the hand of heaven had selected the cream and essence of Malwa, Khandesh and Gujarat and had made a compendium of all that was valuable in those countries.”

Many Imperial dynasties of India have left their imprints on Junagadh. It indeed is an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, described as the Saurashtra Settlement Pattern. The shape of Junagadh along with the citadel (Uperkot) on the eastern side was almost a square. The town plan with its road network resembles Kautilya’s ‘ideal town plan’.

buddhist_ashok_edicts03Col James Todd of the British army discovered in 1822 AD the Rock Edict of Asok in Junagadh. A young British administrator based then in Calcutta, James Princep, deciphered this inscription in 1837, thereby changing the entire chronology of the Indian history.  Scholars have described the Asokan edict in Junagadh as being the most impressive among his edicts scattered across the Indian subcontinent. Apparently the quality of the edict so impressed the British military men and scholars that they maintained for a while that it was of copper! The language used in these edicts is Prakrit and the script used is Brahmi. The chiselled eloquence of the language of these edicts has been compared with that of the Bible.

Asok’s inscriptions introduced writing in India for the first time. Asok indeed was the first and perhaps only Emperor in the history of the world to have renounced war completely. But who was the intended audience of these edicts? The answer is given by Asoka himself in the edict of Dhauli:

“The following occurred to me. I shall issue proclamations on morality, shall order instruction in morality. Hearing this, men will conform to it. The Lajukas (administrators) also, who are occupied with many hundreds of thousands of men-these too were ordered by me: ‘In such and such a manner exhort ye the people’… Having this very matter in view, I have set up pillars of Dhamma, appointed Mahamatra (ministers) of Dhamma, issued proclamations of Dhamma. This edict must be read out to and listened to by full gatherings on every day of the constellation of Tisya and it may be listened to even by individuals on frequent other occasions. For the following purpose has this rescript been written here: in order that the judicial officers of the city may strive at all times neither undeserving fettering nor harsh treatment are happening to men.”  

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Asok’s edicts describe the idea of governance without violence which may seem strange to humanity today, for governance is a synonym of violence as it is experienced in most places across the globe today. The rock edict of Junagadh reads:

“The Beloved of the Gods, Piyadassi the king, has had this inscription on Dhamma engraved. Here, no living thing having been killed is to be sacrificed; nor is the holding of a festival permitted. For the Beloved of the Gods, the king Piyadassi, sees much evil in festivals, though there are some of which the Beloved of the Gods, the king Piyadassi, approves. Formerly in the kitchens of the Beloved of the Gods, the king Piyadassi, 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 three animals will not by killed in the future.”

The second major rock edict reads:

“Everywhere in the empire of the Beloved of the Gods, the king Piyadassi, and even in the lands of its frontiers, those of the Cholas, Pandyas, Satyaputras, Keralaputras, and as far as Cylon, and of the Greek king named Antiochus and of those kings who are neighbours of that Antiochus, everywhere the two medical services of the Beloved of the Gods, the king Piyadassi, have been provided. These consist of the medical care of man and the care of animals. Medicinal herbs whether useful to man or to beast, have been brought and planted wherever they did not grow. Along the roads wells have been dug and trees planted for the use of men and beasts.”    

junagadh1Historian Romila Thapar has noted:

“The tone of the Asokan edicts is certainly far more humble than of the inscriptions of Darius, the emperor of the old Persian Empire. This difference is largely due to the difference in the contents of the inscriptions. Darius was concerned mainly with proclaiming his greatness and the value of his achievements. Asok, though he did not refrain from boasting about his achievements in some edicts, was nevertheless more concerned with preaching the Dhamma.”  

Another historian Prof DD Kosambi has commented:

“These simple words deliberately avoid the lofty attitude and sonorous rhetorical periods of Darius, who proclaimed himself ‘Greek king, king of kings, king of provinces of diverse nationality, king of this mighty earth even to a far distance’. Asok never claims to be on special terms with the Almighty, nor does he boast of his lineage and his conquests. The sentiment is clear enough and it is to complete the movement of banning Vedic sacrifices.”

The success of Asok’s Imperial building program had a simple rule: Each building must be familiar to each citizen. Asok’s buildings adopt older building traditions of the region for this very reason. The Boria stupa in Junagadh is a perfect example of such a building programme. A stupa is a container or a shrine in which sacred relics are kept. The excavated relic casket and the remains of the stupa are on display at the Junagadh museum. Not far from the Boria stupa, is the Intwa Brick Monastery, whose structure resembles structures excavated far away Taxila in modern Afghanistan.

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Junagadh also has examples of medieval architecture of Rajput clans, Mahmud Begda and the more recent Babi kings. The high fort-walls of Junagadh tell stories about Princess Ranak Devi and Prince Ra Khengar.  Also, in the old town of Junagadh are examples of exquisite wooden houses that Gujarat is famous for. Junagadh is indeed a casket of the jewels of architecture.

*Independent researcher and writer. Pix: Courtesy Wikipemedia, Cyrus Mobedjee

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