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Asoka: The King and The Man

Asoka: The King and The Man
Item Code: NAC958
Author: Kiran Kumar Thaplyal
Publisher: Aryan Books International
Edition: 2012
ISBN: 9788173054334
Pages: 349 (12 B/W and 16 Color Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 9.8 Inch X 7.5 Inch
weight of the book: 940 gms
From the Jacket

The present volume comprising 11 Chapters deals variously with political and economic background and sources; classification and features of edicts; early life and family; conquests and extent of empire; administration; faith in Buddhism; dhamma; religious harmony; society and religions; monuments; and estimate of Asoka. Of five Appendices, the last one deals with the latest discovered Asokan inscription, brought to light by the author.

Some points may be highlighted. If Taxila Aramaic inscription was engraved during Asoka’s viceroyalty, then Priyadarsi, occurring in it, was not his coronation name. The first five lines of the Panguraria inscription do not refer to Asoka as viceroy on pleasure tour. Identifications and status of Asoka’s queens suggested by scholars are rejected, and alternate suggestions offered. The views that Asoka allowed the slaughter of two peacocks and one deer because he was fond of their meat, or because their meat was offered to family deity, have been countered. It is argued with evidence that Chandragupta, and not Bindusara, married a Greek princess. Asoka ruthlessly attacked Kalinga, as in the war of succession, its king had sided with his rival. Asoka has been criticized for granting merely three days for making appeal against death sentence, its review, judgment on the review and conveying the same to the petitioner. The circumstances of the presence of the Separate Rock Edicts at Sannati have been critically examined. Literary and epigraphic evidences show that elephant in Asokan art symbolises Buddha, and so the view that the Dhauli elephant represents Asoka is not correct. Asoka’s statement that as a lay Buddhist, after association with samgha, by exerting much he made people extremely pious, clearly shows that the dhamma he propagated was Buddhism, and leaves no scope for debate about it. The work contains copious citations from Asokan inscriptions and 24 Plates.

About the Author

Professor Kiran Kumar Thaplyal (b. 1936), after obtaining first class first Master’s degree in Ancient Indian History and Archaeology (1957, Lucknow University), served Archaeological Survey of India (1957-60), and later Lucknow University (1960-96) as Lecturer, Reader, Professor and Head of the Department of Ancient Indian History and Archaeology, Dean, Faculty of Arts, and Emeritus Professor. Epigraphy was one of the subjects he taught to the post-graduate students.

He is recipient of several Scholarships, Fellowships and gold medals including one for the best Ph.D. thesis. He was a Visiting Fellow at the Vikram University, Ujjain; Kurukshetra University; and Hindu University, Varanasi; a Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla; and a member of Central Advisory Board for Archaeology (Govt. of India). He has been honoured with Brahmi award for his contributions to Indolgy. In 2007, Lucknow University felicitated him for his ‘contribution to knowledge and development’. The Numismatic Society of India elected him its General President (2007), and awarded him the Altekar Medal (2010). In 2007, his students and friends brought out a Felicitation Volume in his honour.

He has published more than 100 research papers, and edited Jaina Vidya and Select Battles in Indian History (2 vols.). The books authored by him include Studies in Ancient Indian Seals; Inscriptions of the Maukharis, Later Guptas, Puspabhutis and Yasovarman of Kanauj; Sindhu Sabhyata (jointly); Jaina Paintings; Guilds in Ancient India; Coins of Ancient India (jointly); Village and Village Life in Ancient India; and The Imperial Guptas-A Political History.


With the deciphering of Deihi-Topra Pillar edict by Prinsep in 1837, the inscriptions of Asoka engaged the attention of a number of scholars and they became interested in their decipherment, translation and interpretation. In 1879 Cunningham’s Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, Volume I was published which was a study of all the Asokan epigraphs known till then, with text, translation and comments. Thereafter scholars like E. Senart, C. Buhler, V.A. Smith, D.R. Bhandarkar, R.K. Mookerji, Romila Thapar and several others have made significant contribution to Asokan studies.

Asoka like other powerful kings of ancient times conquered a new territory. But while the victory in war made others to launch further campaigns, the atrocities, death and devastation that the war brought in its wake made him a changed man. He gave up war and opted for peace, and exerted for the welfare of men and animals. Asoka’s pacifism emerged from strength, and not from weakness. Despite saying good bye to war, he did not hesitate to administer a warning to mischief mongers when it was needed (Rock Edict XIII). ‘All men are my children’ was no theory for him; he meant every word of it. He was concerned with the happiness of the people in this world and in the other world after that. The greatness of a ruler lies in his relevance not only in his times, but also in the times that follow. Asoka continues to be relevant even after two thousand and two hundred years.

His personal religion was Buddhism as is evident from his inscriptions and literary works. But as a king he showed equal respect to all religions. At the time when there existed differences between different sects, he preached people to maintain harmony and concord. In Rock Edict VII, he expresses his wish that followers of all sects should reside everywhere within his empire, and in Rock Edict XII he states that he honours all sects as they all preach self-control and purification of heart, and commends concordance among them. He exerted much for the propagation of dhamma, which was Buddhism meant for the laity, and comprised such noble ideas as are met with not only in Buddhism but also in practically all the religions. In fact his dhamma is more like a moral code. He introduced dhamma in different kinds of his social dealings. He urged people to do self-examination, and try to amend themselves by giving up bad habits and cultivating good ones. For the welfare of the public, trees were planted along the sides of roads, wells were dug at regular intervals and rest houses were built.

The ground rules of good governance were dear to the heart of Asoka. He was in constant dialogue with people through his inscriptions recorded throughout the length and breadth of his empire in a language understood by the common people. He was accessible to the reporters (prativedakas) at all places and all times, and they were to report to him without fail all such urgent matters as would need his immediate action. In order to be in direct touch with his people, Asoka toured extensively. His Minor Rock Edict I was issued when he had been 256 days on tour. He instructed his officials to tour the areas under their jurisdiction at regular intervals. For the present-day administration, this is a clear message that the officials should acquaint themselves with the condition of the people, know their grievances and redress them. Besides conducting administrative tour he and his officials imparted instructions in dhamma, to motivate people to lead a life of virtue. He created a new cadre of officials called dharma mahamatras who were to exert for the ethical uplift of the people, motivate royalty and commoners to be charitable, see that no one was harassed or punished by the officials without cause, and that the various sects maintained religious harmony.

He lived at a time when means of communications were minimal, yet he maintained contacts with five contemporary Greek kings and the king of Ceylon. He informed the then ruling Ceylonese king, Devanampiya Tissa, that he had become a lay Buddhist and sent message to him: ‘seek then O thou best of men, converting thy mind with believing heart, refuge in the best of gems’. He prepared grounds for the dissemination of Indian culture and religion in south and southeast Asia. Some names of missionaries mentioned in the Ceylonese chronicles are met with on the relic caskets found within stupa no. 2 at Sanchi. After the arrival of Asoka’s son Mahendra in Ceylon the foundation of the Mahavihara was laid, which was to develop into one of the greatest establishments of Buddhist religion. The right collar bone of Buddha brought from India was enshrined in the Thuparama dagaba. Sahghamitra brought a branch of the Bodhi tree to Ceylon which was planted there.

Asoka was a great ruler, a dedicated preacher and a benevolent patriarch, all rolled into one. His approach is rational and reconciliatory, but with doses of strictness when required. No wonder, he remains relevant for all times for his contribution to material and ethical welfare of the people and for diplomatic initiatives.

Professor Thaplyal and myself were students of Prof. C.D. Chatterjee, the great Pall scholar, and both of us were appointed Lecturers in the Department of Ancient Indian History and Archaeology, Lucknow University. Half a century back I had the good fortune of teaching ‘Asoka’ as paper at the post-graduate level, a subject which was so dear to me. I remembered by heart a number of Asokan inscriptions. After I joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1964, whenever Professor Thaplyal and myself visited each other we talked about Asoka, in one context or the other. My commitment to the subject remained strong all along. This might have weighed with Prof. Thaplyal in giving me the honour of writing ‘Foreword’ to his work.

Professor Thaplyal is a scholar of repute. He has taught Asokan history, epigraphy and palaeography and has contributed a number of articles on various aspects of the history of that great king. Recently in 2009 he authored a monograph on the Ratanpurwa inscription of Asoka, which was brought to light by him and was published by Jnana-Pravaha. It was more than due that a scholar of his eminence should author a book on Asoka incorporating the latest evidences on the subject. He has written on a much discussed subject with a difference and a style of his own. I am sure this work will find a place of pride in the plethora of material on this subject.

By asking a person like me, who has shifted his loyalty from academics to administration, to write the ‘Foreword’ to his book, Prof. Thaplyal has shown a character, only he is capable of. His scholarship and dedication can well take care of such a handicap.


A few words about howl came to write this book. After my lectures on Asoka, at the Jnana-Pravaha, Varanasi, the Late Prof. R.C. Sharma, then Director of that Institute and former Director General of the National Museum of India, requested me to author a book on Asoka for the Institute. He provided the guidelines-it should be handy, well illustrated, deal exclusively with matters relating to Asoka and his edicts, include the latest evidence of the epigraphs discovered, contain in brief important views of scholars on different problems, preferably in their own words, and contain copious quotations from the Asokan inscriptions. I told him that a good number of standard works on the subject were already there, and named a few of them. He said that through the works named by me were scholarly, they did not fully fit in his scheme. He argued that as I have been a student of Prof. C.D. Chatterjee, a great Pali scholar who was a student of Prof. D.R. Bhandarkar-an authority on Asoka, and also since I held the chair that was held by Prof. Chatterjee and before him by Prof. R.K. Mookerji whose contributions to Asokan studies are well known, following their tradition I should also write a book on Asoka. This argument did not have the desired effect, as these names instead of inspiring me to do the needful, made me conscious about my limitations. But when he told that I must accede to the request of one, who has been my friend for well nigh half a century, I was left with no option, and the work was undertaken as a Senior Fellow of Jnana-Pravaha.

Perhaps no king in Indian history has received so much of attention of scholars as Asoka, and there is a vast mass of literature dealing with various aspects of his history. Harry Falk, in his recent major work, Asokan Sites and Artefacts (2006) has given the most detailed Bibliography on Asoka and matters related to him and his times and the number of books and articles together run in several hundreds. In the Bibliography given in the present work only select books and articles have been included. I have, however, listed all my papers dealing with various aspects of the history of Asoka, as I wish to take this opportunity of offering my sincere thanks to the editors and publishers of the journals or volumes for publishing them, or accepting them for publication. In this work, I have freely drawn on matter contained in them.

I would like to mention that in the preparation of this book the works that had been the most helpful were those of V.A. Smith (Asoka), D.R. Bhandarkar (Asoka), E. Hultzsch (Corpus lnscriptionum Indicarum, Vol. I), R.K. Mookerji (Asoka), B.M. Barua (Asoka and his Inscriptions), H.C. Raychaudhuri (Political History of Ancient India), D.C. Sircar (Asokan Studies) and Romila Thapar (Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas). In this connection, I would also like to mention three recently published scholarly works-Asokan Sites and Artefacts by Harry Falk, Asoka in History and Historical Memory edited by Patrick Olivelle, and To Uphold the World by Bruce Rich. In writing the chapter on Art most helpful were the writings of N.R. Ray. I have tried to incorporate the views of different scholars on controversial points and at times shown my concurrence or disagreement with them, and in a few cases suggested new interpretations. Important art remains created under the patronage of Asoka have been illustrated.

The set of rock edicts designated as ‘Fourteen Rock Edicts’ by some scholars (e.g. Bhandarkar) and ‘Major Rock Edicts’ by others (e.g. Romila Thapar), has been referred to in this work as ‘Rock Edicts’, and the set of pillar edicts, designated by scholars as ‘Seven Pillar Edicts’ or ‘Major Pillar Edicts’, as ‘Pillar Edicts’. There is considerable difference of opinion whether the years mentioned in Asokan inscriptions are current or lapsed. Whereas the evidence of Pillar Edict V, which speaks of twenty-five jail deliveries in 26 years, would suggest current years are meant, the Kandahar I bilingual inscription clearly speaks of lapsed regnal year. It is possible that Asoka used current years for the Pall inscriptions and lapsed ones for the Greek and Aramaic ones. In this work I have taken the years as current ones. Asoka has dated his inscriptions with reference to his abhisheka (coronation). Following some scholars, I have taken the date of accession and coronation as the same and used ‘regnal’ year for the abhisheka year, though some scholars, on the evidence of the Sri Lankan chronicles, believe that there was a gap of four years between the two.

While working on this book, in January 2009, a photograph of a new inscription was brought to me by Dr Neeraj Pandey that he had received from two local persons-Shri Vinay and Shri Virendra, who had got it from one Shri Devi Dayal Maurya. Some letters of the inscription were not clear in the photograph. Dr Pandey and Shri Samrat Chakraborty explored the site of the inscription, and took a few photographs of the epigraph. With the help of these photographs, I, assisted by Dr Niraj Pandey and Dr Chandraneel Sharma, deciphered the inscription. Thereafter, within a month, I wrote a monograph entitled A New Asokan Inscription from Ratanpurwa, which was published by Jnana-Pravaha, and thus a new inscription of Asoka was brought to light-the latest so far known. The text, translation and photograph of the inscription have been given in Appendix V of this book.

The system of transliteration of Devanagari letters into Roman letters followed in this work is the same as met with in the publications of the Archaeological Survey of India, and a key to its use has been given in a separate page, ahead. Diacritical marks have not been used in case of modern names-personal or geographical. A few oversights in some scholarly works, have been pointed out for the benefit of the students. I beg for the indulgence of the readers for the errors that might have crept into the book.


I am grateful to Smt Vimala Poddar, Managing Trustee of Jnana-Pravaha, for kindly providing facilities for the study and for showing keen interest in the progress and early publication of the work. I am thankful to Prof. Kamal Giri, Director of the Institute, for her constant inquiries about the progress of the work and for her courtesy. Dr N.P. Joshi, Acharya in the same Institution, who despite his ninety years of age is actively engaged in academic work, has been a source of inspiration. Thanks are due to Dr Manoj Pandey, Assistant Director, Museums and Administration, Dr Chandraneel Sharma, Assistant Director, Research and Publication, Shri Samrat Chakravarti and to Shri A.K. Ghanekar, and all other members of the staff of Jnana-Pravaha for their help in various ways.

Professor S.P. Shukla and Dr Prashant Srivastava went through the entire work and Dr R.S. Bisht, the first four Chapters of it, and made valuable suggestions. Professor Shukla also prepared the accompanying map and Dr Srivastava provided much help in preparing the press copy. My deep thanks to these scholars, who have been my students. Shri Priyonath Srivastava deserves my sincere thanks for some suggestions. I thank the staff of the libraries of Lucknow University, Lucknow; Archaeological Survey of India, New Delhi; National Museum of India, New Delhi; State Museum, Lucknow; American Institute of Indian Studies, Gurgaon; and Benaras Hindu University, Varanasi, for providing facilities for study. Shri K.K. Saxena, former Chairman, Board of Revenue, Rajasthan Government, was my colleague in the Department of Ancient Indian History and Archaeology, Lucknow University, from 1960 to 1964, and taught the paper on Asoka. I have not seen anyone who has such a great admiration for Asoka as he has. He was deeply interested in this work and had been making constant inquiries about its progress. I feel happy to have a few words from his pen by way of Foreword. I thank Shri Vikas Arya for bringing out this book promptly and nicely.


After a couple of centuries following the advent of the Buddha in the sixth century BC, the history of India in the third century BC witnessed another great figure, in the person of emperor Asoka. Much has been written about that king by various scholars in different countries and in different languages on the basis of what literary sources tell about him and what he has conveyed in his epigraphs. In the present chapter it is intended to give a synoptic view of the political and economic condition before the advent of Asoka, and also a brief survey of the sources for the history of that king.

Political and Economic Background

In the sixth century BC, Sindh and Gandhara formed a part of the Achaemenian empire as its twentieth satrapy, as is evidenced from the inscriptions of the Achaemenian kings, and continued to be so till the fourth century BC. It is known that the tax from this region was paid to the Achaemenian kings in gold dust. A contingent of Darius III’s army that fought Alexander in the battle of Arbela comprised Indian soldiers. The campaigns of Alexander mark an important event in Indian history as it brought Hellenistic West Asia into closer contact with India.’ In the trans-Indus and Afghanistan area there were Greek settlements even before the invasion of Alexander.

After the death of Alexander there was a political upheaval in India, in which Chandragupta Maurya overthrew the Nandas and became master of a vast empire. During his reign, Seleucus Niketor, the heir of Alexander’s empire in Syria and the founder of the Seleucid dynasty, launched an invasion against him. The end of this unsuccessful invasion was marked by a treaty between the two, according to which the Greek invader handed over the four provinces of Aria, Arachosia, Gedrosia and Paropamisadae to the Maurya king (Chapter 4). There was also a matrimonial alliance between the two as a result of which, in all probability, a Greek princess was introduced into the Mauryan family (Chapter 3). The Mauryas were masters of ‘a geographically extensive and politically centralized empire,’ and their territories became more open to Western influences. Taxila had been a cosmopolitan city, and was known as a centre of administration, trade, commerce, education and learning. The great grammarian Panini, the author of the Ashddhyayi, belonged to the north-western region, and Kautilya, the preceptor of Chandragupta Maurya and the author of the Arthasastra, had his education in Taxila. Prince Asoka had been a viceroy of the north-western province of the Mauryan empire, with Taxila as its headquarters, for some time. The Maurya kings were well acquainted with Iranian and Greek cultures and traditions, and a part of the population in Taxila and a sizable population in the region around Kandahar and Laghman, as the presence of Asokan inscriptions in Greek and Aramaic languages in those regions suggests, would have been of Greek and Iranian origin. There was considerable contact with foreign nations, resulting in a good deal of interaction and lot of give and take of both commodities and ideas between the peoples of different cultures, regions and nations, and ‘India was … firmly established in an international context.’ There were exchanges of embassies, that led to the coming to Pataliputra, the Mauryan capital, first of Megasthenes during the reign of Chandragupta Maurya, and then Deimachus - the latter first as representative of Seleucus and then of Antiochus I, both kings of Syria. Dionysius, a Greek envoy, came to the Maurya court from the court of Ptolemy Philadelphus, king of Egypt (285-47 BC), either during the reign of Bindusara or that of Asoka. According to Athenaeus, Amitrachates (i.e. Bindusara) made a request to Antiochus I (280-261 BC) to send him sweet wine, figs and a sophist. The Greek king sent the first two and conveyed that a sophist could not be sent as sophists were not marketable commodity among the Greeks.

The Mauryan empire comprised different ethnic, social and economic components, and followers of different religions. With a view to increasing social cohesion amongst such varied people and make them follow his policy, Asoka took the help of the dhamma, which besides creating religious harmony was also helpful in consolidating his political and economic power. N.R. Ray is of the view that ‘Asoka’s dhamma-vijaya was more an imperial policy than a religious missionary movement.’

During Mauryan rule there was a network of roads within the empire and outside it. One road ran from Taxila, the provincial capital of the Mauryas, to Tamralipti via Pataliputra, the imperial capital, linking many towns and cities in between. Another road went from Taxila via Bactria and reached the Black Sea, and still another, from Taxila via Kandahar where a few Asokan inscriptions have been found), to Persepolis and Susa. There was a sea route through Persian Gulf and river Tigris reaching Seleucia, and another linking the west coast of India with Arabian ports. Through these routes there was a brisk intercourse in trade and commerce. This led to increase in prosperity and with that there was a great crave amongst prosperous people for luxury items, which in turn led to flourishing craft activity. The vaisyas, some of them wealthy merchants, became conscious of their power acquired by economic prosperity. Some merchants, traders and artisans organized themselves into guilds to safeguard themselves against kings and officials, who were on the look out for the opportunity to exploit them, and from the dacoits who would seize every opportunities to loot them, as also to have a greater say in economic matters.

The Maurya kings had to deal with the different social and ethnic groups in their vast empire, and they would have benefitted by the earlier successful Achaemenid experiment in dealing with similar problems. Asoka got his inscriptions engraved in the language and script prevalent in different areas. Kharoshthi, which was used for writing inscriptions in Prakrit language in the north-western region, as seen in the recording of the Rock Edicts at Shahbazgarhi (Peshawar district) and Mansehra (Hazara district), was derived from the Aramaic script, which together with Aramaic language had been in use in some parts of the Achaemenian empire. The Aramaic as well as the Greek scripts and languages, foreign to Indian tradition, were in use by some Iranians and Greeks living within the Asokan empire in regions which had formerly been under Achaemenian rule.

There are some resemblances between Achaemenian and Mauryan architecture and sculpture. Megasthenes in the description of the palace at Patalipura was reminded of the Persian ‘paradise’ and ‘apadana’ type ‘audience hail.’ The ground plan of the Asokan pillared hail1’ found in the excavations at Pataliputra resembles the Achaemenian hundred pillared hall at Persepolis. The polish on Asokan pillars resembles that on Achaemenian pillars, and the bell capital of Asokan pillars has similarity with the capital of the Achaemenian pillars. Two griffon figures, perhaps part of Mauryan throne found at Patna (Chapter 10) show an Achaemenid influence. The Barabar caves though showing some features of earlier Indian wooden buildings are taken by some scholars as influenced by tombs of a much earlier date in Media and Persia, and the polish imparted on them as a result of following the practice of polishing masonry works in Iran. Some blocks of stone lying near Chunar quarry bear Brahmi and Kharoshthi inscriptions, most of them post-Asokan and a few of Asokan period. The Kharoshthi inscriptions suggest that the stone carvers had come from the north-west.

The practice of engraving edicts on rock or on stone pillars by Asoka may have been borrowed from the Achaemenids. The Kharoshthi version of Rock Edicts contains the old Persian word dipi instead of the Indian form dipi and the words nipista, nipesita and nipesapita are found, instead of Indian words likhita, likhapita and lekhdpita, respectively, met with in Brahmi inscriptions. Some words in Kandahar I Aramaic version of Asokan edict have been identified by scholars as of Iranian origin. Taxila, Kandahar and Laghman—the find-spots of the Aramaic inscriptions, must have had a sizable Aramaic-speaking population, mostly of Iranian extraction. The Yonas (Greeks) and the Kambojas (Iranians) referred to as compound term (RE V, RE VIII) were the two closely related ethnic groups who inhabited those areas in fairly large numbers. One of the major roles of Asoka was ‘to bring India into the orbit of ... international culture, to raise her from...tribalism to the internationalism of the contemporary world.’ Smith is of the view that ‘India was never up to quite recent times more exposed to the impact of foreign ideas than it was during the Mauryan age.’


List of Illustrationsxix
Roman Equivalents of Devanagari Lettersxxi
2.Classification of the Edicts and Their Salient Features15
3.Personal Life and Family45
4.Conquest and Extent of Empire80
6.Asoka as a Buddhist147
7.The Dhamma of Asoka187
8.Asoka’s Prescription for Sectarian Harmony212
9.Aspects of Religion and Society as Gleaned from Asokan Inscriptions225
Appendix I:Alphabetical List of the Find-spots of Asokan Edicts275
Appendix II:Date of Asoka283
Appendix III:Chronology of Asokan Edicts and Events of His Reign Based on Them287

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