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Back to the future with Asoka

The call for a clean India is not new. Asoka had it carved in stone back in the 3rd century BCE. If I’m repeating this stuff, it’s only to say that we carry his reminders on our passports (and because my closest skytrain stop in Bangkok is ‘Asok’). Renuka Narayanan writes.

art and culture Updated: Jan 23, 2012 20:04 IST

The call for a clean India is not new. Asoka had it carved in stone back in the 3rd century BCE. If I’m repeating this stuff, it’s only to say that we carry his reminders on our passports (and because my closest skytrain stop in Bangkok is ‘Asok’).

We know Asoka through his edicts, which are scattered over more than 30 places in India, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Carved in the Brahmi script, the languages they use are ancient Magadhi and Sanskrit, though one bilingual edict in Afghanistan is reportedly in Aramaic and Greek. There are 14 big rock edicts, seven big pillar edicts, minor pillar and rock edicts and the Kalinga rock edicts.

In 1837, James Prinsep deciphered a stone pillar in Delhi. He identified a king who called himself ‘Devanampiya Piyadassi’, the beloved of the gods. This name was found on several other rocks and pillars. More edicts by the same king were discovered in the decades that followed. Scholars wondered if this was the famous Mauryan king Asoka praised in Buddhist literature. Not until 1915, when another edict was discovered, actually naming Asoka and matching the rest in content, could they confirm it.

They say Asoka was born around 304 BCE and became the third ruler of his dynasty after his father Bindusara. In 262 BCE, Asoka, after a brother-butchering war, invaded Kalinga (Orissa) with a huge army. He had been a token Buddhist for two years before that for political reasons, but as everyone knows, the shock of the carnage he caused made him re-assess his commitment.

The person who emerges from the edicts is anxious to be thought of as good and is overly puritanical in places. But he’s got a plan. His first rock edict says: esahi vidhi ya iyam, dhamma paalana, dhamma vidhane, dhamma sukhiyana , dhamma gotiti, ‘For this is my rule: rule by the law, of the law; prosperity by the law, protection by the law.’ In Rock Edict Two, he says he’s had medicinal plants and herbs grown to treat both humans and animals in every part of his kingdom and where things were lacking, he imported them.

His call for civic sense goes: dhamma sadhu, kiyam chu dhamme iti/apasinave, bahu kayane, daya, dane, sache, suchaye. ‘Dhamma is good, but what is dhamma? A bit of evil, a lot of good; kindness, generosity, truth and purity (cleanliness).’

Now, if only we’d listen.

Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture shebaba09@gmail.com