Asokan Magic at the Museum

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Asokan magic at the museum

By Neera Kashyap, Vol.II, Issue.XXI, November 2016

Introduction to the Author:

Neera Kashyap has worked as a newspaper journalist, specializing in environmental journalism; social/health communication and research. She has authored a small book of short stories for young adults, Daring to Dream, Rupa & Co, 2003 and contributed to anthologies from Children’s Book Trust, 2003, 2015 & 2016. Her essays have interpreted scriptures and ancient literatures for print journals such as Mountain Path and Life Positive. Her short fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction have been published in online literary journals Muse IndiaOut of Print Blog, The Bombay Literary MagazineThe Earthen Lamp Journal, Reading Hour (print), Cerebration and Kritya. She lives in Delhi.

It was only a panel, albeit long, that came down from the ceiling to knee height. Clear as marble in its glossy shades of black, grey and white. Mounted on the abacus were the familiar images of India’s national emblem – the galloping horse and the taut virile bull. The horse symbolized temporal royalty and Buddha’s vehicle towards liberation; the bull, the astrological sign of Buddha’s birth and the great inseminator of his teachings. The one-dimensional panel gave no indication of the animal symbols on the other side of the abacus, originally sculptured in the round: a muscular lion with its twitching tail symbolizing Buddha’s clan – the Sakya Simha, and the moving elephant signifying Buddha’s immaculate birth as the Queen mother dreams of a white elephant entering her womb. All four animals drove before them the 24-spoked wheels of the Moral law – the Dharma chakra, with the abacus surmounted by four lions – mouths open, paws splayed, manes descending shaggily down their chests. This was the first depiction of a lion in Indian history – an elaborate and complete creation of Asoka, bodhisattva and chakravartin of the Mauryan kings who ruled between the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C.E.

Capping a polished chunar sandstone pillar, the mounted lion capital would have stood 40 or 50 feet tall – noble and solemn, majestic and imposing. As a volunteer guide at the museum, one found it difficult to explain to tour groups the craftsman’s mastery of his material in this effulgence of perfection, especially after the varied but crude art of the Harappans. Yes, there was the special Mauryan polish achieved by an assiduous rubbing of the stone with hide, sand and cloth. Yes, the Achaemenid sculptors fleeing to Mauryan courts after Alexander’s conquest of Achaemenid Persia, brought a distinctive mastery of style and execution. But the pillar edicts bearing their imperial message came in the 27th year of Asoka’s rule, nearly two decades after he had erected the first minor rock edicts. They themselves characterized the pinnacle of his glory as visionary and implementer of a moral law that sought to bind society together; characterized his discourse on governance and his personal statement of how he saw himself: father to all, not Emperor elect.

The Bharut, Bodh Gaya and Sanchi stupas built to house the relics of the Buddha are rooted in Mauryan and post-Mauryan times. They draw attention to Buddha’s symbolic presence through the empty throne, his footprints, the Bodhi tree, the wheel, the serpent king – narrating stories in stone of his life and previous births. But Asoka’s dhamma or the moral law drew from all religions prevailing then: Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. At a lecture I once heard, noted historian and Asokan chronicler, Romila Thapar had taken pains to emphasize that Asoka had been largely seen only as a Buddhist. Liberated from that perspective, he had come to be known as a person committed to changing people and societies. While his dhamma was his own invention and ran parallel with Buddhist teachings, it was borrowed as much from Buddhist as from Hindu and Jain thought, the king attempting to suggest a way of life based on a high degree of personal ethics and socio-civic responsibility – practical, convenient and moral.

He understood his times. This understanding was coupled with an extraordinary degree of idealism. Both gave him the courage to experiment. His was a new political situation wherein imperial control was imposed over an entire subcontinent, previously consisting of small kingdoms and republics, similar but highly disparate. It was a period of doubts, when the Brahmanical stronghold built up through the later Vedic period (900 B.C.E onwards) was being attacked by new forces, spearheaded by Buddhism. There was the opening up of extensive trade. The caste of vaishyas (traders and moneylenders) became more important and felt antagonized by the unjustified privileges of the higher-caste Brahmans (priests and teachers) and Kshatriyas (ruling and military elite). The establishment of guilds in city life led to the emergence of a multicultural society at different levels of development, with economic, social and religious forces counteracting each other. Community life became more complex and needed a binding force.

Religious texts of the time stressed man’s responsibility to his religion and to his ancestors. Brahmanism emphasized social responsibility largely within the confines of each caste, seeking solutions in increasing the rigidity of the caste system by leaving out the lower castes. Buddhism, on the other hand, emphasized a broader social consciousness through a system of social ethics by which responsibility was placed in the hands of each individual member of society. By following personal ethics, each individual could bind himself in social responsibility towards his fellow men. This individual-inspired social consciousness became the binding factor behind Asoka’s dhamma – binding region with region, class with class, ruler with ruled, sect with sect. Each individual was left free to follow his/her own religion, yet was unstintingly influenced to follow a common moral law. Persuasion was used over legislation to emphasize social responsibility to one’s fellow beings, the practical task of consolidating conquered territory carried out simultaneously.

Yet this was not dhamma as understood by the Buddhists or by Brahmans. There was no specific reference to Buddha or to his teachings, for the edicts were directed at the entire nation and only a few exclusively at the Buddhist monastic community. There is not a word about prayers, offerings, sacrifices or rituals. If there is reference to gods moving among men this is more as a predictable outfall of a robust practice of the dhamma. And because Asoka understood that, by holding out the possibility of heavenly bliss, he could raise the idea of social responsibility from mere etiquette to a genuinely felt responsibility that people already acquainted with the idea of spirituality in religion could relate to. Not surprisingly, the dhamma contains moral and not religious precepts, drawing from the essence of each religion, yet partisan to none.

The 12th Major Rock Edict is categorical: “(King Piyadassi,) the Beloved of the Gods does not consider gifts or honor to be as important as the advancement of the essential doctrine of all sects….its basis is the control of one’s speech, so as not to extoll one’s own sect or disparage another’s on unsuitable occasions, or at least to do so only mildly on certain occasions. On each occasion one should honor another man’s sect, for by doing so one increases the influence of one’s own sect and benefits that of the other man.…..Concord is to be recommended, so that men may hear one another’s principles and obey them. This is the desire of the Beloved of the Gods, that all sects should be well informed, and should teach that which is good, and that everywhere their adherents should be told, ‘The Beloved of the Gods does not consider gifts or honor to be as important as the progress of the essential doctrine of all sects.’”

Large lotus medallions and engravings ubiquitously decorate the gateways and railings to the stupas of Bharut, Bodh Gaya, Sanchi and Amravati – King Asoka’s legacy in that they grew out of what the king started. In Buddhism, the lotus symbolizes primordial purity and cosmic harmony. In Hinduism, it symbolizes beauty and non-attachment and is associated with important deities such as Brahma, Vishnu, Laxmi and Saraswati. The Sungas ruled immediately after the Mauryas. In the low-relief panels of the Bharut stupa built during their rule, there is a sense of motion arrested: men with elaborate head gear stand waiting, their faces quiet, hands placed over their hearts; row upon row of turbaned worshippers stand before a pedestal on which rests a Bodhi tree with a designed scroll flapping down; even an elephant roped down by monkey-like figures stands feet together, the animal bodies slanting forwards but motionless. The panels in the Bodh Gaya stupa are similar but more decorative than Bharut, more three-dimensional, more animated. It is in the later Amravati stupa constructed by the Satavahana kings that the green limestone is deep, delicate and fluid with motion. Just as each animal faces the dharma wheel in the lion capital, the lotus opens everywhere to the dhamma, transcending religions.

And what is the dhamma? In its simplest form, an Asokan edict states, “it is having few faults and many good deeds, mercy, charity, truthfulness and purity”. In its more detailed aspect, it emphasizes kindness, gentleness, obedience, vigilance, self-examination, truthfulness, purity and calmness of mind, forgiveness, enthusiasm, gratitude, self-control and love of the dhamma. Asoka even spelt out the faults to be avoided: jealousy, shortness of temper, harshness, rashness, obstinacy, idleness and slackness. He admonished vigilance and self-examination so people could see for themselves that cruelty, harshness, anger, pride and envy ‘are indeed productive of sin’. For Asoka felt convinced that there could be no practice of dhamma without goodness. He professed this to be difficult, both for the humble and the highly placed – especially for the highly placed -without extreme effort and renunciation!

He knew that his officers of dhamma, the dhamma mahamattas, could only follow his special mission of spreading the dhamma as well as imparting social welfare to the lower castes and the poor – a task neglected both by the Buddhist monastic order striving for personal salvation and a rigid Brahmanical caste system – by being impartial and just themselves. Therefore, his appeal to them was intense: “All men are my children. What I desire for my own children, and I desire their welfare and happiness both in this world and the next, that I desire for all men. You do not understand to what extent I desire this, and if some of you do understand, you do not understand the full extent of my desire.”

In its socio-civic aspect, the dhamma translated simply into good behavior towards slaves and servants; obedience to mother and father, friends and relatives; generosity to sramanas and brahmans; abstention from killing living beings; frugality in spending and in owning the minimum of property. These aspects were repeated in different edicts as Asoka believed there was beauty in these topics and repetition may help people conform to them. Repetition was also used to report progress in the practice and reach of the dhamma, even as he appealed to lay practitioners to articulate it to others in a spirit of shared fellowship. The inscriptions on the edicts were engraved in prominent places to reach as large a group as possible. The language used was Asokan Prakrit with regional variations – the language most commonly spoken – and not Sanskrit, the language of culture. The edicts were publicly read out every single day, and at special gatherings and events. This made the public aware of the king’s wishes and the human relationship he wished fostered between his officials and the public.

Asoka lived for 69 years and ruled for 37. In his seventh year of rule, he waged war on Kalinga, the only significant kingdom in the subcontinent to resist his father, King Bindusara. With its conquest and effective subjugation of the remaining unconquered territory to the south, Asoka could regard himself as emperor of all India, the subcontinent experiencing an unbroken peace for the next three decades. This gave him scope to experiment and follow processes that had the chance to unfold naturally. As pointed out by Romila Thapar in her book, ‘Asoka and the decline of the Mauryas’, “Mainly Buddhist sources made Asoka out to be a monster of piety –suddenly changing from extreme wickedness to extreme piety and eventually suffering at the hands of non-believers – a picture not endorsed by his edicts and inscriptions.” He was first an upasaka, a lay follower of the Buddha, then approached the sangha, then approached the Bodhi tree and only then traveled with the relics. “Assuming that his deepened interest in Buddhism began after the war, it took him two and a half years to become a zealous Buddhist on his own admission… If he had been suddenly converted to Buddhism, this change would have swung him to the other extreme”, writes Thapar.

The first of Asoka’s public pronouncements were made in the minor rock edicts about 260 B.C.E, three years after the Kalinga war and ten years after his anointment as king. The brutality of the conquest had a devastating impact both on the people of Kalinga and on Asoka. It may have taken him three years to accept this fact and act upon it. Even his dhamma mahamattas were appointed only in the thirteenth year of his kingship, giving him scope to evolve his vision of dhamma from clear personal conviction before attempting its widespread dissemination composite with social and economic welfare. In fact, he categorically states that all his welfare measures – medical care for humans and animals, gifts to ascetics, gold to the poor, compassion to prisoners, planting of herbs and trees for medicine, fruit and shade, digging of wells and watering places and building of rest houses – were done “in order that my people might conform to dhamma.”

King Asoka was neglected and forgotten for over two thousand years. His edicts first began to be deciphered by British archaeologist and historian James Prinsep around 1837, but it was only in 1915 that these edicts came to be identified with him by name. What caused his decline? Thapar suggests that “his humanitarianism was gradually overshadowed by his belief in his own achievement in having changed men’s natures, until at the end of his reign, he appears to have become overconfident of this achievement, and succumbed to his own ego”. Excessive enthusiasm may have also produced a reaction as could have an obsession with the dhamma as the final answer to everything. There are already hints in the edicts of his own great and commendable deeds, albeit to discharge his own debt to all beings, but also as citations of his great achievements in establishing the dhamma: “The gods, who in India up to this time did not associate with men, now mingle with them, and this is the result of my efforts.”

Texts indicate that he was physically unattractive. There is a photograph that depicts him in the southern gateway of the Great Sanchi stupa flanked by his two queens. Standing directly below the Bodhi tree, his right arm is over one queen while the other queen holds his left hand. He is tottering backwards, and looks stumpy, pumpkin-faced and faint. French scholar Alfred Foucher interprets this either as overwhelming grief that overcame him when he was told that his beloved tree was perishing, or of the emotion that seized him at the sight of a spot so sacred. There is another photograph – this time of the stupa at Amravati built two centuries after Sanchi. Here the fainting monarch has been transformed into the bodhisattva-chakravartin. He is bejeweled with ear-loops, necklaces, waistbands and bangles. His body is slim and graceful. His eyes are closed and his hands are folded, finger-tips meeting at the chin – folded perhaps in greeting or in prayer – probably prayer.

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