Asoka: From Greek's Perspective

The expedition of Alexander in India opened the doors of Far East to Greek culture. Although The Great could not reach the Gange, as his troops were tired and dissatisfied, and even though later on his successors, the Seleucids monarchs, lost the conquered territories in less than a century the bridge between the cultures had been laid down. Most certainly one of those who contributed in building this transcultural exchange on the Indian side was Asoka, probably the greatest Indian ruler of III century B.C. being his dominion vast and including huge Indian territories among which also the present Bengali, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Asoka belonged to the Maurya dynasty, grandson of its founder Chandra Gupta and son of Bindusara, and known as the good monarch of Pataliputra. Several diverging stories about this king have been found in the Divyavadana, the Asokavadana, the Mahavamsa and similar writings all narrating the story of a merciless king who embraced Buddhism and completely changed his attitude becoming an illuminated monarch. Apparently in the beginning of his kingdom Asoka invaded Kalinga (currently Orissa state, India), but the awfulness of the war, the sufferings of his soldiers and citizens and even the remorse felt for the defeated enemy (later on he apologised for the Kalinga war and reassured its population he would have never pursue any other expansion) were the final push for Asoka to a major change in his character as he had a pivotal role in extending Buddhism through India and the Hellenistic world..

But what Asoka (or Ashoka) is renowned for is the numerous inscriptions that he has spread all over his kingdom, as Asoka dedicated most of his life trying to transfer the application of Buddhist doctrine to the administration of his immense realm. This is a wonderful epigraphic treasury, mainly based on edicts issued by the monarch half way between decrees and sermons. Asoka’s edicts are essentially issued in order to enact the reorganization process he was carrying out based on new moral principles. He strongly aimed at generating within his borders a harmonious community. Asoka after having embraced Buddhism, follows the rules of Dharma that recommend virtue and meditation and consequently he rules and concomitantly preaches the new doctrine. He proclaimed his belief in ahimsa, non-violence and supported tolerance of all faiths. Some inscriptions also refer to the Ionians (this is the way all Greeks and non Greeks of Anatolia and Middle East were named by Indians) and some also refer to old diplomatic relations with Greek kings, started with Chandra Gupta and Seleukos and followed by Antioch II, Ptolemy II.

His inscriptions in a certain sense express the ideal self-proclamating and philanthropic Hellenistic monarchy characteristics as Asoka self-assumed the title of Devanampiya Piyadasi i.e. Beloved of the Gods He Who Looks On With Affection. Moreover in both Hellenistic and Asoka’s monarchy justice is the main issue and the monarch super partes is expected to rule it. Nevertheless the two monarchs’ inspiration is different, for in the Greek world what is supposed to guide the monarchs is reason alone, whereas Asoka rules in full accordance and respect of faith. Hellenistic kings never set their minds to create true proselytises, but used religion principally to legitimate their appointment.

Asoka used to write his edicts without using the mannerist language we are used to find in ancient royal proclamations. His personal tenor witnesses his very peculiar and articulated personality. As all preachers Asoka is often drifted away by tedious repetitions and an overly doctrinaire tone; he frequently refers to his efforts and achievements not for self praise sake, but more likely to show to his citizens/adepts the results of a true commitment to Buddhism. Asoka seems very keen in being a wise and just monarch and to administer his country as what Romans would have called a pater familias. Asoka was in fact also scrupulous as to the enactment of his decrees. His administration was consequent to his edicts, as state resources were used for public works, judicial reforms, cultivation improvements, building residencies, network of wells and roads. In order to verify the state of art of his projects Asoka personally used to perform recurrent scrutiny visits and encouraged his functionaries to do as well.

Asoka’s decrees have been excavated in numerous locations in India, Nepal, Afghanistan and Pakistan. His edicts were written on rocks at the margins of his kingdom and on columns along the main roads and where as many pilgrims as possible could be assembled and read them. Their weight is about 50 tons and they can reach the height of 15 metres; initially (as only few capitals have survived) they used to be capped by a lion or a bull or a horse. Their main language – and sometimes the sole – is Brahmi script that is the earliest post-Indus corpus of texts and the root of all Indian and Southeast Asia scripts. Nonetheless the edicts found in the eastern part of the kingdom are written in a proto-Magadhi, very likely the administrative language of Asoka functionaries. As to the decrees issued in western part of India they are in Sanskrit. Two inscriptions of Alexandria of Arachosia, found nearby Kandahar (South Afghanistan) in the 60s are very interesting examples of Asoka thought. Some of them are in Greek and Aramaic; somehow this testifies the strong will of the King Piodasses (as the Greeks called him) to enlarge the influence of his doctrine also among the Greeks and Iranic people by also exchanging ambassadors. Asoka issued this bilingual edict on the sects preaching charity and modesty. His 13th Rock Edict witnesses that he tried to spread Buddhism to the realms of Antiochus II, Ptolemy I, Antigonus, Alexander of Epirus and Magas of Cyrene. The most diffused religions in that age were the Sramanas, Brahmins, Ajivakas and Jains; and he preached that all religions cease from self eulogise and criticism of others. And it is important to note that the Greek word for sect is diatribe which means school of thought or philosophical, as well as the Greek word for tolerance and harmony is eusebeia (piety). Very likely the Greek philosophers of Arachosia, a city located in the very border of both Asoka kingdom and the Hellenistic world, are those who have somehow translated the Asoka credo and diffused it in the Middle East together with He convened a Sangha Council at Pataliputra in order to establish the true nature of Dharma practice and to banish those who would not adhere to it. Following this Council, he decided to extend his missions – involving also his son, Mahendra and his daughter Sanghamitra – to other countries, which included the Anatolia and Ionian Greeks, Ghandar, Kashmir, Himalaya, Mysore. Sri Lanka, Burma, Malaysia and Sumatra.

Asoka died in after thirty-seven years of sovereignty. By reading Asoka’s edicts it seems quite unambiguous that the myths about this wise and just monarch are a reality and definitely allow Asoka to be considered one of the greatest illuminated monarchs of the ancient world. Although it is hard to establish the actual effectiveness of Asoka’s government, unquestionably his edicts must be considered a significant gift to the progress of a more spiritually based political system and individual introspective attitude, as in politics Asoka was convinced that state’s major task was to truly defend and support the welfare of its citizens and in ethics Asoka preached and encouraged generosity, tolerance and mutual respect.

(omissis)… King Piodasses made known the doctrine of

Piety to men; and from this moment he has made

men more pious, and everything thrives throughout

the whole world. And the king abstains from killing

living beings, and other men and those who are

huntsmen and fishermen of the king have desisted

from hunting. And if some were intemperate, they

have ceased from their intemperance as was in their

power; and obedient to their father and mother and to

the elders, in opposition to the past also in the future,

by so acting on every occasion, they will live better

and more happily.