Monuments of Morality: Unraveling the Legacy of the Ashokan Pillar

 Monuments of Morality: Unraveling the Legacy of the Ashokan Pillar

“Dhammaghosha is now replacing Bherighosha…” The significance of this statement found in Ashokan inscriptions is monumental. For the first time in world history, there was a King who understood the futility of war and instead considered looking after his subjects as the true aim of a KIng. Rightly known as “The Great”, this King was Ashoka,  and his legacy had been shrouded in mystery before James Princep, succeeded in deciphering the mysterious Brahmi script on various edicts and pillars over the length and breadth of India. 

      King Ashoka ruled over the Maurya Empire from 268 to 232 BCE, marking a pivotal period in Indian history. Initially known for his military conquests, including the brutal Kalinga War, Ashoka experienced a profound transformation after witnessing the devastating consequences of his actions. Embracing Buddhism, he renounced violence and dedicated his reign to principles of non-violence, compassion, and social welfare. Under his rule, extensive infrastructure projects flourished, including roads, hospitals, and universities, facilitating trade and cultural exchange. Coming back to the original inscription, Dhammaghosha means the sound of ‘Dhamma’ i.e Righteousness, which has now replaced the sound of Bherighosha which means the sound of War drums. 

      Ashoka spent tireless efforts to spread the teachings of Buddhism, not through force, but through moral persuasion and edicts inscribed on stone pillars throughout his empire. These Ashokan edicts promoted religious tolerance, social justice, and the welfare of all beings. The Ashokan pillars stand as towering monuments to an era of unparalleled governance and philosophical enlightenment.  

      These majestic pillars, adorned with intricate inscriptions and crowned with iconic animal capitals, offer a window into the ethos of ancient India. Carved from enduring stone, they served not merely as architectural feats, but as tangible symbols of Ashoka’s profound commitment to the principles of Dhamma, or righteous conduct. Each pillar, strategically placed across the vast expanse of the Mauryan empire, served as a beacon of moral guidance, proclaiming Ashoka’s edicts and teachings to his subjects. 

        In this article, we embark on a journey through time, unraveling the mysteries enshrined within these pillars, deciphering the messages they convey, and reflecting on their enduring significance in shaping the cultural landscape of India. Today, twenty of these iconic pillars survive. Two pillars were transported to Delhi by Firuz Shah Tughlaq, while later Mughal rulers orchestrated the relocation of several more, often resulting in the removal of their distinctive animal adornments. Additionally, numerous Ashokan pillars are today in the custody of British museums.

      Ashoka’s profound message continues to resonate deeply in contemporary society. Following India’s independence in 1947, his enduring legacy found a poignant expression when the Lion Capital of Ashoka, derived from one of his iconic pillars, was officially embraced as the State Emblem of India in 1950. This symbolic choice reflects the nation’s reverence for Ashoka’s principles of non-violence, justice, and tolerance, serving as a constant reminder of India’s rich historical heritage and its enduring commitment to upholding the values espoused by one of its greatest rulers.

     Ashoka considered himself as “A Father to all his subjects” and sincerely believed he needed to spread his new philosophy amongst the millions of subjects in his vast empire. For this, he devised the unique approach of inscribing edicts on rock structures and pillars which would be strategically placed throughout his empire. – It should also be noted that though he was spreading predominantly Buddhist philosophy, Ashoka did not mandate conversion to Buddhism nor did he establish it as the state religion. Instead, through his patronage and support, Buddhism flourished organically, spreading widely and swiftly across his empire. Ashoka’s approach exemplified a commitment to religious pluralism and freedom of belief, fostering a society where diverse spiritual practices coexisted harmoniously, a legacy that resonates through the annals of Indian history and beyond.

       The Ashokan pillars, towering architectural wonders, stand as testaments to the ingenuity and grandeur of ancient India. Ranging from 40 to 50 feet in height, these monumental structures are crafted from two distinct types of stone—utilizing one for the shaft and another for the capital. Typically hewn from a single piece of stone, the shafts boast a remarkable uniformity and solidity, attesting to the skill of the  craftsmen who meticulously shaped them.

     The journey from quarry to construction site was no small feat. Laborers toiled in quarries located in Mathura and Chunar, regions nestled within the expansive reaches of Ashoka’s empire in northern India. These skilled workers meticulously cut and painstakingly dragged massive stone blocks, each pillar weighing approximately 50 tons, across often challenging terrain to their designated locations. 

    The Ashokan pillars, with their distinctive physical attributes, serve as tangible embodiments of Buddhist philosophy and symbolism. Predominantly crowned by sculptures of animals, each pillar stands adorned with an inverted lotus flower, a pervasive symbol within Buddhism. 

         This symbolism holds profound significance, mirroring the core tenets of Buddhist doctrine. Let us see how. The inverted lotus flower atop each pillar carries profound metaphorical weight. In Buddhist philosophy, the lotus flower symbolizes purity and spiritual awakening. Its ability to emerge unblemished from muddy waters serves as an allegory for the practitioner’s journey towards enlightenment amidst the challenges and trials of existence.

        The animal sculptures atop the pillars, often depicting lions or other revered creatures, symbolize various virtues and qualities extolled within Buddhist teachings. These animals, predominantly lions or bulls, are depicted either seated or standing. Lions hold particular significance, being associated with the Buddha’s Shakya lineage and symbolizing royalty and leadership across various cultures. They represent strength, courage, and majesty, qualities that resonate with the aspirational goals of spiritual seekers.

        These meticulously carved animals, rendered in the round from a single block of stone, exhibit remarkable craftsmanship and symbolic resonance. Through their presence atop the pillars, these iconic figures not only evoke reverence but also serve as potent visual representations of power, nobility, and spiritual heritage, enriching the cultural landscape of ancient India.

     Some pillars don’t have edicts but the majority of them do possess edicts. In the 16th century, English traveler Thomas Coryat stumbled upon the Ashokan pillars amidst the ruins of Old Delhi. Initially mistaking their appearance for brass due to their striking glow, Coryat soon realized they were crafted from highly polished sandstone. Intriguingly, the pillars bore upright script reminiscent of a form of Greek upon closer inspection. In the early 19th century, further discovery of more edicts and pillars stoked much interest throughout the historical and linguistic circles of the world. It captured the fascination of European scholars, notably within the scholarly circles of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in Calcutta. It was James Prinsep, serving as the secretary of the Society, who achieved the remarkable feat of deciphering Brahmi. 

        Between 1836 and 1838, Prinsep published a series of seminal articles in the Society’s journal, unveiling the secrets of this ancient script. His breakthroughs were made possible through the foundational epigraphic research conducted by scholars such as Christian Lassen, Edwin Norris, H. H. Wilson, and Alexander Cunningham. Their collective efforts laid the groundwork for Prinsep’s groundbreaking work, which not only unlocked the mysteries of Brahmi but also paved the way for a deeper understanding of India’s rich linguistic and cultural heritage.

    The Ashokan pillars bear inscriptions in various scripts, reflecting the diverse linguistic landscape of ancient India. In the eastern regions, notably East India, the script used is Brahmi. Conversely, in the northwestern territories, such as Kandahar, the script employed is Kharosthi. Notably, in the western regions, inscriptions appear in Greek and Aramaic, underscoring Ashoka’s concerted efforts to communicate with the myriad cultures and peoples within his vast empire. This multilingual approach exemplifies Ashoka’s commitment to fostering understanding and unity among the diverse populations under his rule, leaving a lasting legacy of linguistic and cultural exchange. 

    The influence of Ashoka’s pillars extends far and wide, with discoveries spanning across vast swathes of territory, from northern India to regions stretching southward below the central Deccan plateau. These monumental structures have been unearthed not only within the borders of modern-day India but also in neighboring countries such as Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.

         Strategically positioned along trade routes and in bustling border cities, the pillars served as beacons of Ashoka’s edicts, intended to reach the widest possible audience. Moreover, they were strategically erected at pivotal pilgrimage sites, ensuring that Ashoka’s messages resonated deeply within the spiritual heartlands of Buddhism. These sacred locations included Bodh Gaya, the revered site of Buddha’s Enlightenment; Sarnath, where he delivered his First Sermon; and Sanchi, home to the majestic Mahastupa, or Great Stupa of Sanchi.

          By strategically situating the pillars in these significant locales, Ashoka ensured that his principles of moral governance and religious tolerance reverberated throughout the ancient world, leaving an indelible mark on the cultural and spiritual landscape of the region for centuries to come. Also, the Ashokan pillar inscriptions encompass a diverse range of content, reflecting both secular and moral themes. In some inscriptions, Ashoka expresses remorse for the brutal Kalinga massacre, acknowledging the suffering it caused and pledging a commitment to benevolent governance henceforth. These apologies serve as poignant reminders of Ashoka’s transformation from a conqueror to a compassionate ruler, prioritizing the welfare of his subjects above all else.

    Conversely, other inscriptions highlight Ashoka’s altruistic endeavors, proudly detailing the many benevolent initiatives undertaken during his reign. From the establishment of hospitals and welfare programs to the promotion of religious tolerance and ethical conduct, these inscriptions underscore Ashoka’s unwavering dedication to the well-being and prosperity of his people.

    The Ashokan pillars, iconic symbols of ancient India’s cultural and religious heritage, are closely associated with the Hinayana or Lesser Vehicle period of Buddhism. This epoch, spanning from approximately the sixth century to the first century BCE, marked the early phase of Buddhist development characterized by the absence of Buddha imagery. During this time, adherents of Hinayana Buddhism emphasized individual enlightenment and self-liberation, eschewing the creation of Buddha statues or icons. The Ashokan pillars, erected during this pivotal period, reflect the fundamental principles and teachings of Hinayana Buddhism. The article has already observed the symbolism of the Lion and the Lotus. More striking is the presence of the Chakra or “the Wheel”.

     The wheel (Chakra) is a central motifl on the Ashokan pillars, representing the essence of Buddhist philosophy. It embodies the cyclical journey of existence, known as samsara, wherein beings undergo birth, death, and rebirth endlessly. The wheel encapsulates the core teachings of the dharma, particularly the Four Noble Truths, which elucidate the nature of suffering, its origin, cessation, and the path to liberation. As a powerful emblem of life’s impermanence, the wheel serves as a constant reminder of the transient nature of worldly phenomena and the imperative to transcend suffering. Encouraging practitioners to pursue the noble path, the wheel symbolizes the aspiration for enlightenment and liberation from the cycle of rebirth.

  There is also debate regarding Ashoka’s choice of Pillars to propagate his philosophy. Some Scholars theorize that Persian artisans, drawn by opportunities in Ashoka’s empire, introduced the pillar form, prevalent in Persian art, to India. However, it’s plausible that Ashoka adopted the pillar due to its preexisting significance in Indian art. Alternatively, the Pillar could be a result of the fusion of artistic influences, where Persian craftsmanship merged with indigenous Indian traditions, shaping the distinctive style of the Ashokan pillars. Such cross-cultural exchange underscores the complexity of artistic development during Ashoka’s reign, reflecting a synthesis of diverse cultural elements that contributed to the creation of these iconic monuments.

     In conclusion, the Ashokan pillars stand as enduring testaments to Emperor Ashoka’s profound legacy and enlightened governance. Through their monumental presence and intricate inscriptions, these pillars convey Ashoka’s commitment to moral leadership, religious tolerance, and social welfare. Serving as beacons of enlightenment across the vast expanse of ancient India, the pillars continue to inspire awe and admiration, reminding us of the transformative power of ethical governance and the enduring relevance of Ashoka’s teachings in fostering peace and compassion in our world today. 

Amaan Bakhsh

Related post