Pillars of Ashoka
Ashoka put up pillars all over his empire, in city-squares and along the highways. Today there are 33 of them left, and there are seven major types of messages that they convey. The text is written in a colloquial style, using local languages instead of the Sanskrit employed at the court. The pillars were his way of communicating directly with the people, informing them of his policies and his aspirations. They were also a way of spreading his presence throughout the empire, uniting it, and making every subject know who he was.
Darius, the king of Persia, had put up similar pillars where he had boasted about the number of people he had killed. Ashoka’s pillars invert this message. His pillars express his promise to rule his people with compassion and benevolence, to renounce violence and make sure that everyone is happy and well fed.
“I consider how I may bring happiness to the people. Not only to relatives of mine or residents of my capital city but also to those who are far removed from me. I act in the same manner with respect to all. I am concerned similarly with all classes. Moreover, I have honored all religious sects wiht various offerings, but I consider it my principal duty to visit the people personally.”
Given the fact that Ashoka is said to have been the one to introduced writing to India, it is easy to understand why he expressed himself in this fashion, but more difficult to understand who would read it. Presumably the message of each pillar had to be explained by public officials. Indeed, several of the inscriptions are intended for public officials too.
Along the borders of Ashoka’s empire there were pillars written in foreign languages such as Aramaic and Greek announcing that who ever was traveling this way now entered the lands governed by the benevolent king Ashoka.
The pillars were not put on plinths and they were usually crowned by a lotus symbol, but one of them shows instead four lions that are facing out in four different directions. At the time of the founding of the independent Indian state in 1947, this statue was turned into a national symbol and it is still depicted on all Indian bank notes.
History of Philosophy without Any Gaps: “Kautilya and Ashoka”
BBC Radio 4, Excess Baggage: “Ashoka’s India”
In Our Time: “Ashoka the Great”
History of the World in a Hundred Objects: “The Pillar of Ashoka”
Incarnations, “Ashoka: Power and Persuasion”