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An Indian King's Mark on Kandahar

Author: Phiroze Vasunia
Publication: NDTV.com
Date: December 25, 2015
URL:   http://www.ndtv.com/opinion/an-indian-kings-mark-on-kandahar-1258580

Kandahar is once again in the news, and for reasons that are all too familiar. Earlier this month, the Taliban mounted an assault on Kandahar airport that left over 40 people dead, while it has continued operations in the neighbouring province of Helmand. There was a moment in its history, however, when a statesman put up notices in the area that held out the promise of hope and non-violence. As we come to the violent end of another violent year, it seems appropriate to reflect on the king and his message.
         
I am thinking of Ashoka and the inscriptions that have been uncovered in Afghanistan since the 1950s. One bilingual rock inscription discovered in Afghanistan is, in fact, among the most interesting of the king's official pronouncements and was found by excavators in 1957 in the region of Kandahar. The edict was inscribed in two languages, Greek and Aramaic, and was probably set up in about 260 BCE (Ashoka lived from about 304 to 232 BCE). The piece of rock on which it was carved used to be in the National Museum in Kabul and, like many Afghan treasures, has since vanished, though one can find old photographs on the internet.

 This is what the ancient Greek says, in an admittedly awkward translation: "After completing ten years, king Piodasses [Ashoka] showed piety [eusebeia] to men and thus he made men more pious and all things prosper across the whole earth. And the king abstains from [killing? eating?] living creatures, as do other men, and the king's hunters and fishermen have given up hunting. And those who were intemperate have put a stop to their intemperance according to their ability and [become] obedient to their father and mother and elders, unlike the past. And in the future, they will live better and more happily, by acting in this manner at all times." The Aramaic text is slightly different (it refers to qshyt, "truth", rather than "piety", for example); in any event, there are many extraordinary things about the inscription, not least the ideas expressed by the ruler, the languages in which it was written, and the location in which it was set up.

 Let's stay with the Greek for a moment. The Greek word eusebeia, which occurs regularly in classical Greek, can mean "piety" or "respect toward the gods or parents", but it can also denote something like "virtue", and perhaps the word is used to convey this range of meanings. The word is a Greek rendering of dhamma (Pali) or dharma (Sanskrit), though it is worth noting that Ashoka's use of the word dhamma is not quite the same as what we might understand by the term today. The king's edicts are themselves an attempt to work through and communicate the range of the concept, which appears to centre on ethical practices and behaviour. The Greek word eusebeia is not an exact equivalent of dhamma, but Ashoka is deploying a word that he or his advisers think may correlate to the king's sense of dhamma and have similar resonances in the Greek. The king shows a linguistic and, we may say, political flexibility in his official statements, as is evident from the fact that they were composed in Greek and Aramaic as well as Prakrit, and in different scripts.

 When Ashoka used Greek and Aramaic in his rock inscription in Kandahar, he was deploying languages that had been in the area for decades, in the case of Greek, and centuries, in the case of Aramaic. The inhabitants of the region knew these languages because their previous overlords were Achaemenid Persians, who used Aramaic as their chancellery language, and Alexander the Great and his Greek-speaking soldiers. Greek would certainly have been familiar to some of the inhabitants of Kandahar in Ashoka's day. Greek texts of the Major Rock Edicts XII and XIII of Ashoka were also displayed in the area of Kandahar, as scholars learned in 1963. Two further Greek inscriptions have since been discovered in Kandahar, one a poem on the base of a statue in 1978, the other a poem on a stele in 2002.
           
 It may appear remarkable that Ashoka devoted so much attention to the northwest, but the region was connected to centres of power in India and open to Persia and Central Asia and beyond them to the cultures of the eastern Mediterranean. Kandahar has been a city of strategic value for centuries. The Thirteenth Major Rock Edict implies that Ashoka communicated the message of dhamma to the faraway kingdoms of Antiochus II Theos, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, Antigonus II Gonatas, Magas of Cyrene, and Alexander (of Epirus or Corinth). Whatever the political motivation behind his missions, the king's desire to spread dhamma (and to be seen to spread it) outside the borders of his own territories is astonishing. Few Indian rulers of antiquity were as assiduous as Ashoka in promulgating their ideas and philosophy; fewer still set up edicts or claimed to dispatch emissaries in order to promote an ethical agenda.
           
 Edict XIII also mentions Kalinga and the remorse that Ashoka (the king "without sorrow") felt after the devastation of war, and this part of the Edict also survives in the fragments of the Greek translation that were discovered in Kandahar in the early 1960s. In contrast to the bombast of other rulers from the ancient world, Ashoka speaks in his inscriptions of regret, tolerance, non-violence, and compassion for living beings. Of course, he could not have reigned over an immense territory for over three decades, from about 269/268 to about 232 BCE, simply by affecting the stance of a dewy-eyed renouncer, and he doubtless incorporated his ethical code into a pragmatic and politically efficient philosophy. As Romila Thapar reminds us, Major Rock Edict XIII, with its expression of remorse and grief, was set up everywhere in the kingdom except in Kalinga itself. A universalizing ethic of the kind proclaimed in the edicts would have helped Ashoka with the governance of his diverse land-based empire. And yet, as Nayanjot Lahiri writes, "The contrast with the archetypically self-serving politician is so stark and rare that Ashoka arouses in historians a knee-jerk admiration virtually unseen in South Asia until the appearance of Mahatma Gandhi."

 Thanks to the current state of Ashoka studies, we understand the ruler, his ambitions, and his politics more thoroughly than before. To name only a couple of authors, Harry Falk has published a beautifully illustrated account of the edicts and their dispersion across South Asia, while Charles Allen has written an absorbing history of the modern scholarly search for the emperor. A recent publication by Lahiri, Ashoka in Ancient India, offers the most up-to-date and accessible analysis of the ruler and his inscriptions. The edicts continue to be recovered, the last discovery (a minor rock edict) occurring in 2009 at Ratanpurwa in Bihar, and the studies continue to proliferate. Thapar's old classic, Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, was re-published in 2012 by OUP India in an affordable paperback edition with a valuable new "preword" by the author.
           
 The inhabitants of Kandahar have suffered extremes of grief, violence, and misery for decades. It is a measure of how desperately things need to change that the values that Ashoka mentioned in his edicts seem so incongruous in the city and its environs today.

Phiroze Vasunia is Professor of Greek at University College London and the author, most recently, of 'The Classics and Colonial India' (Oxford, 2013)
 
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