On January 26, India celebrates its Republic Day. On that day, 70 years ago, and three years after India’s Independence, the Indian Constitution came into effect, marking India’s transition to a republic.The new nation also adopted a new emblem on the same day, one that was inspired by an artefact patronised by an ancient king, the Mauryan emperor, Ashoka, who had lived from around 304 BCE to 232 BCE.
The emblem’s image – designed by Dinananth Bhargava when working with the Shantiniketan-based artist Nandalal Bose on the Constitution’s manuscript – is a replica of Ashoka’s Sarnath pillar’s Lion Capital. Located near present-day Varanasi, this sandstone pillar has been dated to around 250 BCE. It consists of four lions standing back to back on a circular platform on which are also depicted four smaller animals – a bull, a galloping horse, a lion and an elephant – separated by 24-spoked chakras, or wheels; the platform in turn is perched upon a bell-shaped lotus.
India’s national flag, adopted at Independence, too has the same chakra at its centre. Not only does the Lion Capital’s image appear on the Indian Constitution’s front page, it is also printed on the Indian state’s official stationery, on the cover-page of the Indian passport, and on every currency note.
A singular voice
Ashoka is a striking figure in India’s past as well as in global terms. In the Indian context, he emerged out of the relative fog of ancient history, not just in a few references but also in a most remarkable and numerous series of edicts inscribed on natural rock faces and man-made pillars. Ashoka’s edicts stretch from present-day Afghanistan in the northwest to Karnataka in the south, and from Gujarat in the west to Bengal in the east. And in these appears the booming and incredibly personal voice of an emperor who has left behind an outpouring of ideas that we can read and make sense of.
No king had written down their thoughts and guidelines for the public to view in this manner ever before, and none would thereafter at this sub-continental scale or in a personal, introspective voice that we usually associate with modernity. If anyone did, at least none survive in India or anywhere else in the world.
Ashoka began his rule around 269/268 BCE as the third ruler of the Maurya dynasty,the capital of which was Pataliputra, in present-day Bihar. Contemporary Greek writers like Megasthenes and Arrian call it “the greatest of Indian cities” and describe it as a bustling urban centre, well-protected and served by the lucrative riverine trade routes of the Ganga and the Sone. By the time that Ashoka came to the throne, the Mauryan empire encompassed much of the subcontinent, barring the peninsula past the Vindhyas. And this imperial legacy came to him from a family that may have been typical of its times in terms of its spiritual eclecticism: Ashoka’s grandfather, Chandragupta is believed to have been a Jain, who, when he grew old, embraced the traditional Jain method of fasting unto death and abdicated his throne to his son, Bindusara, who was,in turn, apparently influenced by the then popular Ajivika sect of renunciates.
The young Ashoka had many options to choose from. In what might be the most dramatic fit of remorse in history, he adopted the Buddhist faith after a brutal attempt at expanding his territories east into Kalinga, present-day Odhisha. Ashoka speaks, in his most well-known thirteenth rock edict, of his grief and regret after the carnage at Kalinga, and of how after which he was “devoted to the pursuit of dhamma [the Buddhist/right path], the love of dhamma, and to instructing the people in dhamma”.
Ashoka sent missions to the farthest ends of the subcontinent including the Himalayan regions and Sri Lanka, and to various parts of Southeast Asia to spread the message of the Buddha. Chinese Buddhist traditions too remember him as the first chakravartin or the first among the pantheon of rulers who kept the wheels of dhamma turning. Ashoka’s conversion then is an important moment in world history: his patronage of Buddhism transformed what was neither a very old nor the most popular tradition at the time into a state ideology, and inaugurated its rise to the position of a global religion, something that the Roman emperor Constantine would do five hundred year later for Christianity in Europe.
However, on this Republic Day, it is Ashoka the man of the world, rather than the man of his otherworldly spiritual quest, that is worth remembering. As his most recent biographer, archaeologist-historian, Nayanjot Lahiri shows in her deeply researched and imaginatively-written account, Ashoka evolved over life time as an innovative thinker and ruler who introduced entirely new ideas of kingship – clearly aiming to be a people’s emperor – that too in an empire of an unprecedented scale that would not be replicated for another millennium.
Lahiri’s close examination of the content, location, and historical context of his numerous edicts unpacks the regional variations in the edicts but also, perhaps for the first time, brings together a narrative of how these ideas changed as the emperor aged and grew more self-assured. Three things about his life and reign stand out.
A vast empire
First, what Ashoka was faced with was the most multicultural and multilingual expanse any single ruler in the subcontinent had had to grapple with until then. How would the Emperor communicate his messages to all concerned? In much of north and south India, Ashoka has his provincial administrators render his communiqués in the Brahmi script and Prakrit – the official language of administration at the time.
But what of the places where Prakrit was not understood widely? For instance, thousands of kilometres away from Pataliputra was Kandahar, an area that lay on the great trade routes that connected different parts of Asia, and formed the northwestern edge of the Mauryan empire. This, even in the third century BCE was a cosmopolitan region:it had once been a province of the Persian empire, but there were also communities of Greeks here, descendants of the soldiers who had stayed behind after Alexander’s invasion just a few decades ago, and of course other locals and those who travelled along the trading passes.
The Pataliputra-based emperor chose to be pragmatic: instead of expecting people to find a Prakrit translator, he made sure his words could be understood by all and had them inscribed in Greek and Aramaic, the two languages popular in Kandahar and its surrounding area.
The second challenge for the Emperor was that different regions of the subcontinent, as far back as the third century BCE (as also now), had their own local traditions and beliefs. On the simple issue of diet – whether to eat meat or not – an issue that still causes much controversy in India, Ashokan edicts offer clear evidence of his flexibility. In accordance with his eagerness to promote dhamma, in many of his edicts, particularly ones he issued a few years after he had been king, Ashoka ordered his people to limit animal slaughter.
Yet, as Lahiri notes, he would have been aware that he could not impose this injunction on one and all: in the Karnataka-Andhra belt, for instance, meat-eating and animal sacrifice were integral to the people’s customs and convincing them to do otherwise would have been tough. Along with the proscription that “no living being should be slaughtered for sacrifice” then, the Emperor also tried to teach by his own example: earlier, thousands of living beings were being sacrificed in the king’s palace “for the sake of curry” every day, he notes, but now, “only three living creatures were killed [daily]…two birds and one animal”.
Ashoka’s caution, it seems was justified: as archaeological evidence of abundant animal remains from Afghanistan shows, it is unlikely that anyone in Ashoka’s meat-loving territories ever took his orders seriously.
A third, and as Ashoka’s experience shows, perhaps the biggest issue facing all pre-colonial Indian rulers, was to assess the degree to which to push their own personal ideologies on their people. Ashoka, with his zeal of a new convert, did plaster the empire with the explications of his own dhamma. But as Lahiri points out, even the self-described “Beloved of the Gods”, the man who is supposed to have brutally decapitated rivals to the throne in his youth and, by his own admission, had mass-slaughtered much of the population of Kalinga, was careful when imposing his newfound philosophy.
Once again, the edicts suggest that Ashoka’s dhamma was broad enough to be inclusive and accessible to all, even to those who didn’t necessarily follow the Buddha’s path. Not only did Ashoka instruct his administrators to respect and protect members of all persuasions but he also encouraged his people to mutually respect one another’s sects: concord, as he notes in one of his edits, is commendable.
Ashoka died at the age of 72 after having ruled over much of the subcontinent for nearly four decades. Unusual again for an ancient Indian king is the fact that we now have a visual depiction of the Emperor, albeit one from a few hundred years after his death, in the form of a stone-relief unearthed during excavations at Kanaganahalli in Karnataka containing an inscription that identifies him as such. But it is his edicts, which were not issued all at once but at different times during his reign,that reflect the nuanced picture of a humanitarian ruler – one who was willing change his mind and adopt a flexible approach to governing a geographically vast and culturally diverse territory.
We will never know how closely Ashoka followed these principles in real life. What we do know is that these ideas inspired a generation of Indian leaders who produced the Constitution and chose the republic’s symbols. The fact that of all the experiments in people’s power that the end of colonialism begat, India remains one of the most durable, owes at least in some measure, to how the founders read the remarkably public and self-reflective life experience of India’s “first emperor”.
Aparna Kapadia is a historian of South Asia at Williams College in the US. She is the author of In Praise of Kings: Rajputs, Sultans and Poets in Fifteenth-Century Gujarat.