King Devanampiya Piyadasi – and the Discovery of Indian History

The Ashoka Chakra and the Lion Capital – these symbols of modern India connect us to our glorious past. They arouse in us a sense of pride and grandeur, reminding us of our long and magnificent heritage. Mahatma Gandhi, commenting on the national flag, said, “looking at the wheel some may recall that Prince of Peace, King Ashoka, ruler of an empire, who renounced power. He represents all faiths; he was an embodiment of compassion. … Ashoka’s Chakra represents the eternally revolving Divine Law of Ahimsa.” And according to Jawaharlal Nehru “we have associated with our flag not only this emblem but in a sense the name of Ashoka, one of the most magnificent names in India’s history and the world.” Today every school child in India learns about Emperor Ashoka's righteous rule over a vast empire, and about the Maurya and the Gupta dynasty, now referred to as the Golden Age of India.

What is not so widely known is that for hundreds of years Indians were completely ignorant of this glorious heritage of ours. While myths and legends were common, a historical awareness of India’s pre-Islamic past simply did not exist. Today it may be difficult for us to imagine, but till as recently as 1830 – not quite forty years before Gandhi’s birth – Emperor Ashoka was an unknown name.

King Devanampiya Piyadasi

Credit for initiating the long process of discovery of ancient Indian history must go largely to a group of remarkable scholars who were members of an equally remarkable institution The Asiatic Society of Kolkata, founded by Sir William Jones in 1784, with the goal of advancing the understanding of Indian history and culture.

One especially remarkable member of the Asiatic Society was James Prinsep, who arrived in India from England in 1819 at age twenty, to work at the Kolkata mint. From around 1830, Prinsep, while still working in the mint, would increasingly devote his spare time and energy to the activities of the Asiatic Society. He would eventually make a number of important breakthroughs, but one achievement stands out among all others: his decipherment of inscriptions known then as “Delhi no. 1”.

Members of the Asiatic Society had been aware of a stone column in Delhi known locally as the lat (staff) of Firuz. A number of inscriptions were found on it, which were copied and sent to the Asiatic Society in 1788, where Pundit Radhakanta Sarman was able to decipher some of the later ones (in Kutila script), but not others in an unknown script. These undeciphered inscriptions became known as “Delhi no. 1”. In course of time, similar pillars with similar undecipherable inscriptions were found in Allahabad and in Lauriya Nandagarh near Bettiah in Bihar. Many more such pillars – usually described by local legend as the gada (mace) of Bhima would eventually be discovered across the length and breadth of India. Prinsep and others plunged into an intense effort to decipher these inscriptions. This was not an easy task. Many letters were worn away and some were obliterated by later inscriptions. Moreover, in those pre-photography days, the copies of the inscriptions they had to work with were far from perfect.

The first breakthrough came in 1834. According to Prinsep, “upon carefully comparing them [the Delhi, Allahabad and Lauriya Nandangarh inscriptions] with a view to finding any other words that might be common to them … I was led to a most important discovery; namely that all three inscriptions were identically the same … except for a few lines at the bottom which appear to bear a local import”. The next clue would come from the great Stupa at Sanchi near Bhopal. Prinsep had received drawings and copies of inscriptions found at Sanchi. These included some short inscriptions found on stone railings around the main shrine – it were these “apparently trivial fragments of rude writing [wrote Prinsep] that have led to even more important results than the other inscriptions.” What followed was described by Prinsep in June 1837. “While arranging and lithographing the numerous scraps of facsimiles [from the Sanchi stone railings], I was struck by their all ending in the same two letters. Coupling their circumstance with their extreme brevity, which proved that they could not be fragments of a continuous text, it immediately occurred that they must record either obituary notices, or more probably the offerings and presents of votaries, as is known to be the present custom … ‘Of so and so the gift’ must then be the form of each brief sentence; … [this] led to the speedy recognition of the word danam (gift), teaching me the very two letters d and n, most different from known forms. … My acquaintance with ancient alphabets had become so familiar that most of the remaining letters in the present examples could be named at once on re-inspection. In the course of a few minutes I became possessed of the whole alphabet, which I tested by applying it to the inscription on the Delhi column.” Thus was deciphered the earliest Brahmi script, now known to be the most ancient post-Indus-Valley Indian script and the precursor of all Indian scripts in use today. So what did the inscription on the Delhi Pillar reveal? Prinsep read the first line as:

Devanampiya Piyadasi laja evam aha

Now that these inscriptions could be read, they still had to be understood. Prinsep – a Sanskrit scholar himself – along with a distinguished pundit set about the task. The language turned out to be one of the Prakrit languages, vernacular derivations of classical Sanskrit, which made translation a little difficult. But in a few weeks the translation of the “Delhi no 1” was ready:

Thus spake King Devanampiya Piyadasi. In the twenty-seventh year of my annointment I have caused this religious edict to be published in writing, I
acknowledge and confess the faults that have been cherished in my heart … Let stone pillars be prepared and let this edict of religion be engraven thereon, that it may endure into the remotest ages.

The question now was, who was this person Devanampiya Piyadasi? Prinsep initially thought it could be the Buddha himself, for, so far as scholars then knew, no single Indian monarch had ruled over such a vast territory as was covered by the pillars and rock inscriptions. This explanation, however, had soon to be given up because the inscriptions referred to ‘such and such year of my reign’, and the Buddha had never been a monarch. Unfortunately, wrote Prinsep, “in all the Hindu genealogical tables with which I am acquainted, no prince can be discovered possessing this very remarkable name”. The mystery was solved within a few short months, with information gleaned, not from archeological sites in India, but from distant Sri Lanka. George Turnour, a member of the Ceylon Civil Service, had taken upon himself the task of translating Sri Lankan Buddhist texts in Pali into English – a rather daunting task, since “no dictionaries then existed … and no teacher could be found capable of rendering them into English”. Turnour persisted, however, and his work threw light not only on the history of Sri Lanka but also on the history of Buddhism in India. Around August 1837 while going through a major work of Pali Buddhist literature, the Dipowanso, he came across one passage, which read:

Two hundred and eighteen years after the beatitude of Buddha, was the inauguration of Piyadassi … who, the grandson of Chandragupta, and own son of Bindusara, was at that time viceroy at Ujjayani.

So finally, the mystery was solved. King Devanampiya Piyadasi was none other than Ashoka, already known from the Sanskrit king lists as a descendent of Chandragupta Maurya and, from Himalayan Buddhist sources, as a patron of early Buddhism. Now, his historicity was dramatically established. With the discovery of Ashoka as the righteous ruler of a vast empire, a glorious chapter in the history of India was thrown open. Of course, much work still remained to be done. More and more evidence would be found over the years confirming Ashoka as King Devanampiya Piyadasi – but it would not be until 1915 that the matter was settled beyond all doubt when a rock edict referring to Ashoka explicitly as “Ashoka” was found in Maski in Raichur district in Karnataka.

William Jones – the Pioneer

Thirty-six years before Prinsep’s arrival in India, in September 1783, Sir William Jones had landed in Kolkata to take up his appointment as a judge in the Bengal Supreme Court. He was man of learning, eager to know more about India. During his five month long voyage from England on board the frigate Crocodile, Jones had made a long list of topics he wanted to explore in India. These topics give an indication of the vast scope of his inquiry. Among them were (i) the laws of Hindus and Mahomedans, (ii) the history of the ancient world, (iii) modern politics and geography of Hindustan, (iv) Arithmetic and geometry and mixed sciences of Asiatics, (v) poetry, rhetoric and morality of Asia, (vi) the best accounts of Tibet and Kashmir, and (vii) Mughal administration.

Upon arrival in India Jones realized that in order to embark on his journey of inquiry he would have to learn Sanskrit. With the help of his teacher – Pundit Ramlochan – Jones became an accomplished scholar of Sanskrit. His first great insight – about a common origin of what is today known as the Indo-European family of languages – came in 1786. Here it is in his own words.
“The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin and more exquisitely refined than either; yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of the verbs, and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong, indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.”

In 1789 Jones published an English translation of the Sanskrit play Shakuntala, written by Kalidasa, whom Jones called the ‘Shakespeare of India’. Shakuntala had quite a reception in Europe. It was translated into all major European languages, was adapted for the English stage, the Parisian Opera and the German theater, and influenced many a litterateur, including Goethe – that giant of German literature. As S.N. Mukherjee commented, “after Jones’ publication of the Shakuntala and the Gita Govinda no one could deny the merits of Indian literature.”

Another key discovery made by Jones was that the Indian king known to Greek history as Sandracottus was in fact Chandragupta Maurya, which enabled him to establish the dates (accurate to within 10-15 years) of Chandragupta Maurya’s reign. These dates have come to be known as the ‘sheet anchor of Indian history’, and this has become the primary chronological reference point for the study of ancient Indian history. Many important dates, such as the birth of the Buddha and the reign of Emperor Ashoka, were calculated based on this reference point.

However important Jones’ individual discoveries may have been, his most important contribution was the establishment of the Asiatic Society, which he founded on 15th January 1784, within months of his arrival in Kolkata. This society represented the first successful attempt to study ancient Indian history in a systematic – ‘scientific’ – manner. Not only did the Asiatic Society itself play a leading role in the discovery of Indian history, it also spawned the Archeological Survey of India, founded in 1861 by Major General Sir Alexander Cunningham, whose interest in Indian archeology and antiquity had been sparked by James Prinsep.

Ambiguity About British Legacy

During the Raj, Britain’s economic exploitation of India was appalling. Moreover, the sheer contempt that many (perhaps most) of the British held for Indian civilization is obvious. This is exemplified by Lord Thomas Macaulay’s famous 1835 Minute on Indian Education: “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India … that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanscrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgements used at preparatory schools in England.”

However there were also among the British many who gave back to India as much as they took – men like William Jones and James Prinsep. The British are widely credited with certain achievements in India, like creating a workable administrative structure, establishing modern universities and colleges, building the railway network, and the magnificent Indian Army. But it went beyond that. Men like Jones and Prinsep – and the institutions they built – gave us a sense of our glorious pre-Islamic history and culture. And men like William Lambton and George Everest – and the institutions they built – gave us the first accurate knowledge of our geography (link). These ideas of Indian culture, ancient history and geography inspired Indians and created a sense of nationhood. These ideas also played a major role in the nationalist movement that swept the country in the first half of the twentieth century. Gandhi, for instance, read the Bhagavad Gita for the first time in Sir Edwin Arnold’s English translation while a law student in London – and was deeply influenced by it.

As author V.S. Naipaul puts it, “out of the encompassing humiliation of British rule, there would come to India the ideas of country and pride and historical self-analysis. …For every Indian the British period in India is full of ambiguities.”