Art of Asia
- Yaksha and Yakshi
- An Indian ivory statuette in Pompeii
- The Pillars of Ashoka
- Lion Capital, Ashokan Pillar at Sarnath
- The Didarganj Yakshi
- Bodh Gaya: The Site of the Buddha’s Enlightenment
- Bodh Gaya: center of the Buddhist world
- The stupa
- Bharhut Stupa Relief Sculptures
- Jatakas: the many lives of Buddha as Bodhisattva
- Beliefs made visible: Hindu art in South Asia
- A Buddha from Mathura
- Gandharan Sculpture
- The Gupta period
- The Caves of Ajanta
- The Cave of Shiva at Elephanta
- Images of Enlightenment: Aniconic vs. Iconic Depictions of the Buddha in India
A Buddhist king
What happens when a powerful ruler adopts a new religion that contradicts the life into which he was born? What about when this change occurs during the height of his rule when things are pretty much going his way? How is that information conveyed over a large geographical region with thousands of inhabitants?
King Ashoka, who many believe was an early convert to Buddhism, decided to solve these problems by erecting pillars that rose some 50’ into the sky.  The pillars were raised throughout the Magadha region in the North of India that had emerged as the center of the first Indian empire, the Mauryan Dynasty (322-185 B.C.E). Written on these pillars, intertwined in the message of Buddhist compassion, were the merits of King Ashoka.
The third emperor of the Mauryan dynasty, Ashoka (pronounced Ashoke), who ruled from c. 279 B.C.E. – 232 B.C.E., is widely believed to be the first leader to accept Buddhism and thus the first major patron of Buddhist art. Ashoka made a dramatic conversion to Buddhism after witnessing the carnage that resulted from his conquest of the village of Kalinga. He adopted the teachings of the Buddha known as the Four Noble Truths, referred to as the dharma (the law):
Life is suffering (suffering=rebirth)
the cause of suffering is desire
the cause of desire must be overcome
when desire is overcome, there is no more suffering (suffering=rebirth)
Individuals who come to fully understand the Four Noble Truths are able to achieve Enlightenment, ending samsara, the endless cycle of birth and rebirth. Ashoka also pledged to follow the Six Cardinal Perfections (the Paramitas), which were codes of conduct created after the Buddha’s death providing instructions for the Buddhist practitioners to follow a compassionate Buddhist practice. Ashoka did not require that everyone in his kingdom become Buddhist, and Buddhism did not become the state religion, but through Ashoka’s support, it spread widely and rapidly.
One of Ashoka’s first artistic programs was to erect the pillars that are now scattered throughout what was the Mauryan empire. The pillars vary from 40 to 50 feet in height. They are cut from two different types of stone—one for the shaft and another for the capital. The shaft was almost always cut from a single piece of stone. Laborers cut and dragged the stone from quarries in Mathura and Chunar, located in the northern part of India within Ashoka’s empire. The pillars weigh about 50 tons each. Only 19 of the original pillars survive and many are in fragments. The first pillar was discovered in the 16th century.
Lotus and lion
The physical appearance of the pillars underscores the Buddhist doctrine. Most of the pillars were topped by sculptures of animals. Each pillar is also topped by an inverted lotus flower, which is the most pervasive symbol of Buddhism (a lotus flower rises from the muddy water to bloom unblemished on the surface—thus the lotus became an analogy for the Buddhist practitioner as he or she, living with the challenges of everyday life and the endless cycle of birth and rebirth, was able to achieve Enlightenment, or the knowledge of how to be released from samsara, through following the Four Noble Truths). This flower, and the animal that surmount it, form the capital, the topmost part of a column. Most pillars are topped with a single lion or a bull in either seated or standing positions. The Buddha was born into the Shakya or lion clan. The lion, in many cultures, also indicates royalty or leadership. The animals are always in the round and carved from a single piece of stone.
Some pillars had edicts (proclamations) inscribed upon them. The edicts were translated in the 1830s. Since the 17th century, 150 Ashokan edicts have been found carved into the face of rocks and cave walls as well as the pillars, all of which served to mark his kingdom, which stretched across northern India and south to below the central Deccan plateau and in areas now known as Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. The rocks and pillars were placed along trade routes and in border cities where the edicts would be read by the largest number of people possible. They were also erected at pilgrimage sites such as at Bodh Gaya, the place of Buddha’s Enlightenment, and Sarnath, the site of his First Sermon and Sanchi, where the Mahastupa, the Great Stupa of Sanchi, is located (a stupa is a burial mound for an esteemed person. When the Buddha died, he was cremated and his ashes were divided and buried in several stupas. These stupas became pilgrimage sites for Buddhist practitioners).
Some pillars were also inscribed with dedicatory inscriptions, which firmly date them and name Ashoka as the patron. The script was Brahmi, the language from which all Indic language developed. A few of the edicts found in the western part of India are written in a script that is closely related to Sanskrit and a pillar in Afghanistan is inscribed in both Aramaic and Greek—demonstrating Ashoka’s desire to reach the many cultures of his kingdom. Some of the inscriptions are secular in nature. Ashoka apologizes for the massacre in Kalinga and assures the people that he now only has their welfare in mind. Some boast of the good works that Ashoka has done, underscoring his desire to provide for his people.
The Hinayana Period
The pillars (and the stupas) were created in the Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle) period. Hinayana is the first stage of Buddhism, roughly dated from the sixth c. to the first century B.C.E., in which no images of the Buddha were made. The memory of the historical Buddha and his teachings was enough to sustain the practitioners. But several symbols became popular as stand-ins for the human likeness of the Buddha. The lotus, as noted above, is one. The lion, which is typically seen on the Ashokan pillars, is another. The wheel (cakra) is a symbol of both samsara, the endless circle of birth and rebirth, and the dharma, the Four Noble Truths.
Why a pillar?
There are a few hypotheses about why Ashoka used the pillar as a means for communicating his Buddhist message. It is quite possible that Persian artists came to Ashoka’s empire in search of work, bringing with them the form of the pillar, which was common in Persian art. But is also likely that Ashoka chose the pillar because it was already an established Indian art form. In both Buddhism and Hinduism, the pillar symbolized the axis mundi (the axis on which the world spins).
The pillars and edicts represent the first physical evidence of the Buddhist faith. The inscriptions assert Ashoka’s Buddhism and support his desire to spread the dharma throughout his kingdom. The edicts say nothing about the philosophical aspects of Buddhism and scholars have suggested that this demonstrates that Ashoka had a very simple and naïve understanding of the dharma. But, as Ven S. Dhammika suggests, Ashoka’s goal was not to expound on the truths of Buddhism, but to inform the people of his reforms and encourage them to live a moral life. The edicts, through their strategic placement and couched in the Buddhist dharma, serve to underscore Ashoka’s administrative role and as a tolerant leader.
Edict #6 is a good example:
Beloved of the Gods speaks thus: Twelve years after my coronation
I started to have Dhamma edicts written for the welfare and happiness of the people, and so that not transgressing them they might grow in the Dhamma. Thinking: “How can the welfare and happiness of the people be secured?” I give my attention to my relatives, to those dwelling far, so I can lead them to happiness and then I act accordingly. I do the same for all groups. I have honored all religions with various honors. But I consider it best to meet with people personally.
Essay by Dr. Karen Shelby
 The details and extent to which Emperor Ashoka was a practicing Buddhist is a topic debated by scholars, though it is widely accepted that he was the first major patron of Buddhist art on the Indian subcontinent. For more discussions as to whether or not Ashoka was a "secular" ruler, see Akeel Bilgrami, ed.,Beyond the Secular West (Columbia University Press, 2016); Charles Taylor and Alfred Stepan, eds., Boundaries of Toleration: Religion, Culture, and Public Life (Columbia University Press, 2014); and Ashis Nandy, "The Politics of Secularism and the Recovery of Religious Tolerance," Alternatives XIII (1988), pp. 177-194. For more on Ashoka's relationship with the Buddhist community and doctrine, see Alf Hiltebeitel, "King Asoka's Dhamma," in Dharma (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010), pp. 12-18 and John S. Strong, The Legend of King Asoka: A Study and Translation of the Asokavadana (Princeton University Press, 1983).
Want to join the conversation?
- "Individuals who come to fully understand the Four Noble Truths are able to achieve Enlightenment, ending samsara, the endless cycle of birth and rebirth."
What happens then? What is life after samsara like? Or is it just nothingness...
Edit: 3/30/16, keep in mind I see nothingness as almost a good thing, so no disrespect is intended in that part of my comment, thanks to all who have responded in turn!(2 votes)
- After samsara, the cycle, you would be reunited with Brahman the supreme being in Hinduist religion. Apparently Buddhism adopts some of the teachings from Hinduism. So basically, It could be called 'nothingness'.(5 votes)
- what was written on the pillars(4 votes)
- Written on these pillars, intertwined in the message of Buddhist compassion, were the merits of King Ashoka.(2 votes)
- "written in a script that is closely related to Sanskrit" this is incorrect. Sanskrit is a South Asian language than can be written in any script. One normally sees Sanskrit in Devanagari these days but historically it was written in a variety of scripts. The script of the pillars is Brahmi and the language is Prakrit. Brahmi influenced many South and South East Asian scripts and Prakrit is related to but different grammatically from Sanskrit.(3 votes)
- What were the viharas made of? Was it made out of mud, bricks or rock-cut caves or something else?
And is there a topic about the Mauryan empire history, Cause I need to learn about it!(2 votes)
- from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vihara
In the early decades of Buddhism the wandering monks of the Sangha, dedicated to asceticism and the monastic life, had no fixed abode. During the rainy season (cf. vassa) they stayed in temporary shelters. These dwellings were simple wooden constructions or thatched bamboo huts. However, as it was considered an act of merit not only to feed a monk but also to shelter him, sumptuous monasteries were created by rich lay devotees (Mitra 1971). They were located near settlements, close enough for begging alms from the population but with enough seclusion to not disturb meditation.
On the Mauryan Empire, look here: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/maur/hd_maur.htm(3 votes)
- It would be great if you could post the Archaemenid influence in the Mauryan Pillar Art? As in what features are similar?(1 vote)
- Greek contact with ancient India was established when Alexander the Great invaded northwest parts of India, what is now Gandhara in Pakistan. Iconography of the Greeks met with the Indian philosophy to produce IndoGreek Art. fOr more, read mArg publication on the subject.(3 votes)
- Hi, its is very brief and interesting article. i need its full reference for my thesis.
- I think videos would be nice for this topic... John Green's (<3) is a bit unspecific and brief.(2 votes)
- why did the mauryan empire decline?(1 vote)
- Only the first three Mauryan rulers were powerful. the rest of them were not as powerful as their predecessors. After Ashoka died the empire started to become weak. Half century after the death of Ashoka there was revolt in empire led by their army chief General Pushyamitra Sunga when the Maurya King Brihadratha ruled in Magadha.(2 votes)