Pillars of Ashoka

Ashoka the Great, 268-232 BCE, renounced violence, converted to Buddhism, and started a number of projects to improve the lot of the poor, the aged and the widowed. In addition, he put up pillars all over his empire, often in city-squares or along major thoroughfares, on which he explained his policies and his aspirations. Today there are still thirty-three of these pillars in existence. Darius, the king of Persia, had put up similar monuments where he had boasted about the battles he had won and the number of enemies he had killed. But Ashoka inverted this message. His pillars express his promise to rule his people with compassion and benevolence, to renounce violence and make sure that every one of his subjects was happy and well fed. The text is written in a colloquial style, using local languages instead of the Sanskrit employed at court. The pillars were also a way of spreading his presence throughout the empire, uniting it, and making every subject aware of who their ruler was.

The only problem was that people in general were unable to read. For that reason, to make them understand what the pillars said, a public official was posted at the foot of each one of them. The officials explained the message but they also gathered information about the state of the country and the grievances of the population. This information was then used by the government in devising new policies. Along the borders of Ashoka’s empire there were pillars written in foreign languages such as Aramaic and Greek. They announced that whoever was traveling this way now had entered the lands governed by the great and benevolent king Ashoka.

External links:

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”