Ashoka’s Kandahar Edicts: An Emperor’s Message To The World

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He may have reigned more than 2,000 years ago but Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (r. c. 269 – 232 BCE) could teach us a thing or two about social media. It’s why the Emperor, whose capital was Pataliputra in present-day Bihar, had messages inscribed in rock, in faraway Kandahar, in Afghanistan.

These messages, known as the ‘Kandahar Bilingual Rock Inscription’ and the ‘Kandahar Greek Edicts’, are among the 30-odd Edicts of Ashoka scattered across his kingdom, and are the western-most Ashokan Edicts that we know of. The Bilingual Rock Edict is also the earliest-known Ashokan inscription, dating to 260 BCE.

Not only were these edicts thousands of miles from Ashoka’s capital, neither of them was inscribed in Brahmi, a script widely used in the Indian subcontinent at the time. They were written in languages not native to India – one in Greek and in Aramaic, and the other only in Greek. What were they doing in Kandahar and who were they meant for?

Ashokan inscriptions across the subcontinent-PHGCOM | Wikimedia Commons

We know that Ashoka, filled with remorse after the gruesome Kalinga War (c. 261 BCE), converted to Buddhism and wanted to spread the message of Dhamma. As if to lighten the burden of guilt over the bloodshed he had caused, he zealously inscribed edicts encouraging people to follow the moral principles needed to create a just and humane society. Some of them were mainly sermons and proclamations meant as instructions on how to run a kingdom.

Ashoka got his edicts inscribed on rocks and pillars across his kingdom, which extended across much of India and parts of present-day Pakistan, Nepal and Afghanistan. The Edicts of Ashoka – they are classified as Major and Minor Rock Edicts, Pillar Edicts and cave inscriptions – are among the earliest-known inscriptions in India.

These edicts were not randomly placed. Interestingly, there was none in Ashoka's capital; most of them were positioned at the frontiers of his kingdom and on highly trafficked trade routes and pilgrimage sites, which guaranteed that plenty of people would read his message.

The choice of Kandahar is especially interesting. It was a critically important region in ancient times as it controlled the main trade route that connected the Indian subcontinent with Central Asia and the Middle East.

Near the present-day city of Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, lies Old Kandahar. Known as ‘Alexandria Arachosia’ in ancient times, it was one of the many cities founded or re-established by the Macedonian Emperor, Alexander the Great, who in his global conquest arrived at the frontiers of the subcontinent.

Chehel Zina Mountain at Kandahar | Wikimedia Commons

Old Kandahar was subsequently ruled by several dynasties, from the Mauryas (c. 322- 185 BCE), Indo-Scythians (c. 200 BCE- 400 CE) and Sassanids (224-651 CE) up to the Mughals (1526-1857) and Safavids (1501-1736), among others.

It was on the outskirts of the Old City that Ashoka’s Kandahar Bilingual Inscription was discovered, under some rubble during excavation work in 1958. It had originally been carved on an oblong block of limestone near the Chehel Zina (Forty Steps) mountain, a natural bastion of the Old City.

If it’s eyeballs you’re after, could there be a better place to put out your message?

The choice of Greek and Aramaic for this edict reveal an interesting chapter in Kandahar’s history. Written in the tenth year of Ashoka’s reign, around 260 BCE, the Bilingual Edict was located on the border of Ashoka’s kingdom with the Hellenistic world, a Greco-Bactrian kingdom founded in Afghanistan by a satrap of Alexander.

There was a significant Greek population living in the region in Ashoka's time and the Emperor was going all-out to get his message across to his Greek (Yavana) subjects. On the other hand, Aramaic was the language of the Achaemenid Empire, a Persian Empire, and this part of the edict was probably meant for the Kambojas who had settled in the north-western region of the Mauryan Empire.

Kandahar Bilingual edict of Ashoka | Wikimedia Commons

Although the inscription is rather short, it sheds light on Ashoka’s transformation. It records how the Emperor staunchly abstained from killing any living being. It even claims that the King’s hunters and fishermen gave up hunting and that the people had become more obedient and respectful.

Interestingly, the Aramaic part of the Bilingual Edict mentions “our Lord, Priyadasin (Ashoka)”, which suggests that Ashoka had control over the southern region of Afghanistan, where Kandahar is located. He probably inherited the territory as part of a peace agreement between his grandfather Chandragupta Maurya, and the Macedonian General, Seleucus Nicator, around 305 BCE, in which Seleucus had ceded this region to the Mauryan King.

Perhaps to make doubly sure he drove his message home, Ashoka got a second inscription inscribed in Old Kandahar. Called the Kandahar Greek Edicts of Ashoka, it was written in Greek, on a plaque that was probably fixed to a stone building.

Kandahar Greek Edict of Ashoka | Wikimedia Commons

It is one of the Major Rock Edicts of Ashoka, and like many of the others, it probably had all 14 Major Edicts inscribed on it. However, when it was found, the Kandahar Greek Edict comprised only parts of Edict XII and Edict XIII. While Edict XII discusses moral behaviour, Edict XIII describes the terrible Battle of Kalinga.

The Kandahar Greek Edict and a plaster cast of the Bilingual Edict were preserved in the Kabul Museum. Sadly, they were stolen when the museum was looted in 1992-94. Their current location is unknown, as is the location of the original Bilingual Edict.

We can only hope that these invaluable pieces of history have not been lost forever.