Sunday, September 24, 2006

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.”


Almost everything here comes from the two very illuminating books that I read recently. They are:

Kejariwal, O.P. 1988. The Asiatic Society of Bengal and the Discovery of India’s Past. Oxford Univ. Press, Delhi.

Keay, John. 1981. India Discovered The Recovery of a Lost Civilization. HarperCollins, London.


Anonymous Kamalakar said...

This is an excellent post on the laudable work by the early colonial administrators and scholars. I think in our postcolonial fervor sometime we tend undervalue the contributions made by these 18th and 19th century scholars. Our genuine criticism of colonialism and the manner, in which all kinds of activities those days only got done in aid of colonialism, should not make us forget the positives that have emerged from their work.
Another area in which good work was done was philology. The dictionaries produced by these colonial administrators and scholars helped our languages to be modernized. William Carey, Kittel, Nathaniel Brassey, Henry Forstar, Robert Drummond, Dr. Gundart, Vans Kennedy and others produced dictionaries in Bengali, Marathi, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, Hindi etc. William Carey seems to be remarkable in that he has dictionaries in Bengali, Marathi and Telugu. Oh, well, all these of course were part of the giant colonial machine and for its benefit, and Carey perhaps had a posse of scholars to help him; I don’t know. But I do feel we should respect the work put in by these people.
Therefore, I think you have a good piece here.

September 26, 2006 10:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well-written. Most people aren't aware of this knowledge.


September 27, 2006 3:50 PM  
Blogger OregonDad said...

Wow! Great summary. I found you via a link in Andrew Leonard's Salon article
about Tipu Sultan, "The Tiger of Mysore." I'm glad I did. Thanks.

September 28, 2006 4:19 PM  
Blogger Siddhartha Shome said...

Thanks for all the compliments. And special thanks to columnist Andrew Leonard for quoting from and linking to my article. His piece "The Tiger of Mysore" can be found here.

October 01, 2006 8:12 PM  
Anonymous Udaya Amaradasa said...

Enjoyed reading your article.

It is noteworthy to mention here that around the time of Ashoka, Lanka was ruled by king Devanampiya Tissa (306 BC - 266 BC). If I'm not mistaken, Devanampiya is a title meaning 'liked by the gods'.

According to Mahavamsa, and other ancient texts of Lanka, Ashoka and Devanampiya Tissa were friends who exchanged knowledge, men, and material. The biggest gift of Ashoka to Tissa is the sending of Ashoka's son Mahindra, a buddhist sage to Lanka who introduced Buddhism to king Devanampiya Tissa who in turn spread it in Lanka.

January 01, 2007 8:24 PM  
Blogger Siddhartha Shome said...

Udaya, thank you for your comment. Interestingly King Devanampiya Tissa of Lanka, whom you mention, was known to Turnour and Princep before they knew that Devanampiya Piyadasi of the inscriptions was Ashoka. For a while, Prinsep thought that the Devanampiya Piyadasi of the inscriptions was actually Devanampiya Tissa of Lanka - but he gave soon up the idea because there was no evidence of King Devanampiya Tissa having ruled those areas where the inscriptions were found. Of course soon after that, Prinsep and Turnour hit upon the correct identity of King Devanampiya Piyadasi in the inscriptions - Ashoka.

It is extremely fortunate that ancient texts of Lanka have preserved such an important part of India's heritage. After important centers of Buddhist learning like Sarnath, Nalanda, etc., were destroyed by various invaders, India herself lost the knowledge of much of her ancient past - it is said that when Bakhtiar Khilji sacked Nalanda in around 1200AD, the library was so huge that it burned for months . Interestingly, some of the ancient texts that were destoyed in Nalanda, were (and still are) preserved in their Tibetan translations in Tibetan Monasteries.

January 02, 2007 9:58 AM  
Anonymous said...

Great summary. William Jones' contribution to our understanding of Indian history is truly pathbreaking , but did he arrive at an inaccurate conclusion in equating Sandracottus in Greek literature to Chandragupta Maurya ? The Sandracottus found in Greek literature is more likely to be Chandragupta of the Gupta dynasty , son of Chandrasri alias Chandramas ( referred to by the Greeks as Jandramas ) and father of Samudragupta (Sandrosiptus in Greek literature).

October 06, 2007 9:41 AM  
Blogger Dr. Manoshi Bhattacharya said...

Just wandered into your blog and am loving it! Quite a history buff myslef.

June 27, 2008 11:24 PM  
Anonymous Saad Akhtar said...

What a coincidence. Just landed on your blog and saw this article. Had seen a program on Discovery/History on this discovery today morning.

Agree with the first commenter - we tend to forget the contributions of the colonial scholars.

Will be going through your blog in more detail, and subscribing.

December 04, 2008 2:16 AM  
Blogger workhard said...

Hi.. this is an exceptionally informative post..

Haiku poetry

May 09, 2009 9:00 AM  
Blogger Sanjay & the Gang said...

All praise to colonial Historians, but what about the total mischief done by them regarding the time of Asoka & Gautama Buddha.
Max Mueller's confirmation of Jones' idea of Sandrokottus = Chandragupta Maurya is a naked fraud. Shame on them.

October 16, 2009 10:22 PM  
Blogger workhard said...

My GoD.. u must have done a lot of research and taken time for this post.. really impressive...

Good work...

Work from home India

December 19, 2009 8:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Ashoka" was a figment of the imagination of the pandits--and James Princep kinda fell for it.

There is not documented evidence that Ashoka ever existed--he was probably a compoiste figure made up to reseble several of the kings of the time.

Three Brits arrive in South Asia in the 18th centruy–get some rudimentary knowledge of Pali and Sanskrit and within a few weeks of their arrival they conjure up “Ashoka” the greatest king that ever was!!!!

For Hundreds of years no Bharati had ever mentioned Ashoka, nor written about him. What kind of people don’t remeber their greatest king ever? All of a sudden three White men describe Ashoka and he now is represented on the Bharati flag, currency notes and what not.

A clear case of manufactured history—

In order for Ashoka to exsit–there must be historical references to his rule–either by historians of his time or others who came into contact with him. Greek invaders who intermingled with the society, and impacted South Asia dramatically do not mention him at all. The Hellenic influences were the genesis of The Gandhara Civilization. Amazingly the Greek, great historians from the Homer days–never mention King Ashoka or any corruption of his name. Neither do any Bharati historians list Ashoka by name.

Now you say Piyadasi was the same as Ashoka? Hmm! So why call him “Ashoka”?

I will be curious to find out where the connection between the mythical figure and Sir James Princep. There is no record of a Lankan priest describing anything to the British linguist. Please clarify with documentary proof.

Here is an exceprt that describes how Ashoka was transformed from ephemeral myth to some semblance of relaity by three Britishers—who based their entire theory on two vague inscriptions–hardly “an overwheleming body of evidence”.

Editor Rupee News

January 18, 2010 10:04 AM  
Anonymous Suresh said...

Have you seen this blog ,gives totally different view, the above historians are the villians.


February 23, 2010 4:48 AM  
Anonymous Drummond scientific said...

Hi Siddhartha how are you doing dude? I visited your blog and really got aback of the information you have posted seems pretty informative and habitual of studying about Indian history..very interesting dear...good work done!..thanks!!

Drummond scientific

May 29, 2010 5:24 AM  
Blogger windwheel said...

Indians weren't ignorant of the Mauryas- at least not the Jains. Ajatashatru was more important for Dharmic religions in India and, moeover, better illustrated the iron law of karma. Indeed, a Japanese psychoanalyst thought Asians should more profitably look at an Ajatashatru complex rather than an Oedipus complex. Ashoka is less interesting for Jains than Kharevail, the Kalingan king who avenged his people upon Magadha and who, incidentally, also turned back the forces of Demetrius.
Praise of Ashoka as 'greatest king' arises from the Anglo Indian co-option of Utilitarian Benthamite philosophy of the omnescient Magistrate dealing in Sen like 'Nyaya'. Dharmic religion, understanding that information asymmetry and problems of preference revelation rendered such 'Nyaya' talk worthless, concentrated instead on Niti with Karma taking up the slack, so to speak.

August 16, 2010 3:11 AM  
Anonymous Sanchi said...

Thanks for nice informations .Article was really nice and easy to understand .

Thanks again

October 13, 2010 11:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One correction - King Ashoka was the grandson of Chandragupta II who established the gupta dynasty.

Chandragupta Maurya (of Maurya dynasty) predates Ashoka by 700 years.

January 27, 2011 7:00 AM  
Blogger Shyam said...

The comments on "Sandrokottus = Chandragupta" is quite interesting and has been raised here too.

Also from this blog.
"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...These dates ...has become the primary chronological reference point for the study of ancient Indian history"

If Sandrokottus IS NOT Chandragupta, then this could mean the reference point of India's ancient history is INCORRECT. This could also lead to different date's and even challenge some of the historical events that occurred (Megasthenes Indika)

Is there a verdict on this "Sandrokottus IS NOT Chandragupta" thing?

April 14, 2011 8:26 AM  
Blogger Siddhartha Shome said...

There have been a number of comments here regarding the controversy about Sandrocottus being Chandragupta Maurya. There is a school of thought that claims that William Jones' conclusion that the Indian king known to Greek History as Sandrocottus is Chandragupta Maurya is incorrect, and that Sandrocottus is in fact Chandragupta of the Gupta dynasty rather than Chandragupta Maurya of the Maurya dynasty.

Well, this argument is indeed correct to the extent that as of now there really is no iron-clan evidence that equates Sandrocottus with Chandragupta Maurya. There is a fair amount of ambiguity here. The Greek knowledge and record of Sandrocottus is based on the records of Megasthanes, who was an ambassador to the court of Sandrocottus. Megasthanes' record 'Indica', has long disappeared, and only fragmentary second-hand references to 'Indica' from other Greek sources are available to us. And references to events, places and people gleaned from such fragmentary references to 'Indica' are not exactly crystal clear. Such is the evidence available.

However, it is almost certain from the historical record that Sandrocottus does NOT refer to Chandragupta of the Gupta dynasty. Ample evidence exists in this regard. For instance there are many references to the Kushans in Gupta inscriptions, coins, etc., and even in the style of dress, etc. Thus it can be said fairly conclusively that the Gupta dynasty did not predate the Kushans. Now, the dates for the Kushan dynasty have been established with a high level of certainty, based primarily on Chinese sources. From these we know for sure that the Kushans (and hence the Guptas too) came many centuries after Alexander and Megasthanes and Seleucus Nicator. So there is no way that the Sandrocottus that Megasthanes met was Chandragupta of the Gupta dynasty.

So, based on the historical evidence available to us today, it is reasonable to conclude that Sandrocottus most likely refers to Chandragupta Maurya. However, this is not a conclusion that is beyond reasonable doubt. But the conclusion that Sandrocottus is NOT Chandragupta of the Gupta dynasty seems to me beyond reasonable doubt.

It is entirely possible that some new historical evidence will surface that will prove that Sandrocottus refers to neither Chandragupta Maurya nor Chandragupta of the Gupta dynasty, but to someone else entirely.

April 25, 2011 1:28 AM  
Blogger MeMirza said...

I just started a new blog initially my focus is on places in Hyderabad worth a visit. Any advice would be great.

February 19, 2012 3:01 AM  
Anonymous Sandeep said...

"Sir William Jones had landed in Kolkata .... He was man of learning, eager to know more about India. During his five month long voyage from England on board the frigate Crocodile, ...."

William Jones cannot be called a genuine scholar.
Read Dr. Aich's book 'Lies withlong legs' to understand William Jones's scholarship

You can read the book online at
Give your comment here.

March 20, 2012 11:23 PM  
Anonymous r k pandit said...

wow,what a great discussion we have seen on this blog,i personaly feel that this blog is in a sense just like the asiatic society,keep it up,the more criticim we see the better picture will surface.

August 29, 2012 3:50 AM  
Blogger sanjeev kumar said...

It is a wonderful blog, very impressively written. You can also find more information about history for your better preparation & understanding.

January 04, 2013 3:30 AM  
Blogger Perkunas said...

Just reading, The Search for the Buddha: The Men Who Discovered India's Lost Religion," by Charles Allen (2002) and am finding it to be a great book by a man whose family goes back 6 generations in the British Raj. Great writer on a great topic.

May 04, 2016 6:07 PM  

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