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Education And Learning In Ashoka’s Empire

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Education And Learning In Ashoka’s Empire

From ASHOKA The Great by Hon. Dr. S.K. Biswas

(From ASHOKA The Great by Hon. Dr. S.K. Biswas – Part II of a long dissertation dispelling the Indian Dark Age of Ignorance about their own history – first published in Yug-Udbodhan (or ‘Dhamma’) periodical, New Delhi. The article was published in four parts starting in July 1996, p12 and onward. (This periodical has ceased publishing due to the demise of K.P.R. Bandhu, editor). It is re-typed here from the original by Chakradhar Hadke, and readability has been improved by Priyantha Hettige, who also removed Christian terminology, etc., all done to reach a wider readership.)


Education And Learning In Ashoka’s Empire

– History of SCRIPT and Language

The inscriptions found on Emperor Ashoka’s pillars and his rock edicts shine a bright light on to the wide-spread literacy of Indian society, on the state of development of scripts, languages and literature of the India of about 2,300 years ago. However, today’s India has the largest illiterate population of this world.

But it was not like that in the Ashokan era. Generally people had some education and they were in a position to read and write; they were literate. Had the condition of mass literacy not prevailed, the emperor would not have taken pains to record his instructions in public places of mass gatherings, on the road side, in commercial complexes, at places of pilgrimage and even in the remotest places of his Empire. The general public was literate, certainly – or else the pious but expensive effort of cutting out and polishing pillars and leveling rocks just to inscribe messages in the vernacular language concerning morals, etc., by the Emperor would have been a futile exercise. The creation of these edicts only becomes meaningful if the people were literate.

Siddhartha Gautam achieved Bodhi or awakening to this world only after acquiring a good education, himself. As an ardent and democratic follower of Buddhism, the educated Ashoka was bound to promote universal education, too. Buddhism was a religion requiring knowledge and reasoning.

The Holy Bible threatens Adam and Eve with ‘sure death’ if they ever ate the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. It was therefore, a great and risky endeavour on the part of Adam and Eve to defy the threat of “sure death,” to defy the words of the Lord God just to get knowledge which would enlighten them to know and distinguish between good and bad. Gracious was the Lord God who, in his great wisdom and mercy, did not punish Adam with “sure death.”

And in Brahmanism, it is the same story for those living under their influence – the Sudras, Vaisyas and commoners were all denied their right to education and knowledge. Hinduism never allowed the common people to have the fruits from the Tree of Knowledge.

But in contrast to the God-based religions, Buddhism made the fruit of knowledge available to all – the cardinal point of spiritual attainment. They declared, “Satyam Eba Joyate” – the finest of the followers of this faith; benign Ashoka, established public schools, colleges and Universities. All the Buddhist monasteries operating in his empire were also establishments of learning. Pre-eminently, Buddhism is the religion of learning, discussion and rational debate; it is the road to Wisdom.

Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, and Indian Native Languages

Sanskrit was a prerogative of the priestly caste, the spiritual leaders of Brahmanism. Sanskrit was exclusively for the use of the priestly community, and was made an elite language. This enabled them to create a blanket of ignorance for the many, over the recent millennia. (Just as for the Dark Ages of Europe!)

In contrast, Buddhism requires its followers to have education. Sakya Sinha Gautama, the Buddha, used Pali and Prakrit, that is, the local vernacular languages or dialects of contemporary India, while preaching his Dhamma – the Buddha had to reach out to people in their own language – or fail. Similarly, three centuries later, Ashoka had to use language in his Edicts that people could read and understand.

Pali and Prakrit were the aboriginal forms of language of ancient India. These were the linguafranca of the entire northern India. Other languages like Sanskrit, etc, and modern languages like Bengali, Oria, Assamese, Bhojpuri, Moitheli, Hindi, Punjabi were born out of these Pali and Prakrit languages. Sanskrit was never a lingua franca of India. This was a communal language used exclusively by Brahmins for Bhramins. Others were not free even to learn this language. (As a result, according to the 1951 census Sanskrit was the mother tongue of only 555 Indians, this figure increased to 1,284 as per the 1971 Census. This being the case, it will be misnomer to call Sanskrit a language. It is a communal dialect.)

The script used in the Ashokan Edicts, when discovered, came as a surprise to the British Colonists but must have been a huge surprise to the Indian scholars and historians. These scripts were unknown to the Indian scholars! It was definitely a matter of the greatest shame that all traces of these scripts had been lost to the autochthons, the natives of India. The Brahmins were so successful in their attempts to obliterate Buddhism and even the associated historical events, that when centuries after, the Europeans discovered these edicts, there was no Indian to recognize even his own language! To produce this condition of total national blackout, a terrible torrential flood of devastating destructions must have passed over the nation, the true nature of which can be only remotely imagined. The material aspect of civilization can be destroyed, with some diligence and effort; and it can be replaced with another.

But here we are dealing with a complete black-out of a thousand years of Indian Buddhism and its history and culture, akin to a blanket of lava laid over their past by the savage Aryan intruders.

Eventually, the scripts were deciphered by European scholars who named them Brahmi and Kharosti scripts. Some are written from right to left. These scripts opened up the flood gates of truth regarding the origin of Devanagari and other scripts that are used in the Indian language. Before the discovery of these scripts, Indian philologists thought that the origin of India scripts were the Phoenician scripts which were developed and used by the mercantile community of the ancient city-states of Babylon, Sydon, Tyre, etc., located on the eastern bank of Mediterranean Seas of old Caanan after 2500 BCE. But the discovery of the Ashokan scripts, the earliest available form of scripts in India, declared in no uncertain terms that these scripts were the relatives of the Indus Valley scripts which were used by the pre-Aryan indigenous Indians going back to 2000 BCE. And not any old foreign school of script but the Assura-scripts of the Indus Valley which are the mother of all scripts used in India. Let us record, here, some expert views on this issue: Acharya Sunit Kumar Chattopadhaya opines:

“When European scholars first examined Brahmi, they gradually formed the opinion that it was a derivative ultimately of the ancient Phoenician alphabet of about 1200 BCE which came either in a northern form directly into India, or in a southern form as it had developed in Southern Arabia. It was suggested by them that there was no system of writing known to ancient Indians, whether Aryan or pre-Aryan, and that Indian merchants who went for trade to Mesopotamia and South Arabia got the idea of writing of Prakrit dialects and Sanskrit, and this could have only taken place by 500 BCE, giving us finally the finished Brahmin alphabet of the Maura times. A certain similarity between the shapes of the Brahmi letters and those of the oldest Phoenician alphabet, both standing for the same or similar sounds, gave considerable support to this theory.

But the discovery of the Mohenjodaro writing has called for a revision of the view that India was indebted to the Semitic world for her script. It has been found that quite a number of symbols occurring in the Mohenjodaro writings have resemblance to the letters of the Brahmi alphabet. Moreover, the Brahmin consonant letters seems also to have been in use in the Mohenjodaro script. We can distinguish several stages in the evolution of this old and prehistoric Sind-Punjab writing, a pictorial and hieroglyphic, a syllabic, and then a much more simplified linear form which was probably alphabetical.

It is exceedingly likely that the Brahmi alphabet was just a modification of the Sind-Punjab script, and was in a flourishing stage before the Aryans arrived. They probably had no system of writing of their own, although they had occasion to come in touch with this great envision of civilization in Asia Minor and Mesopotamia. After they settled down on the soil of India, a modified form of the late Sind-Punjab script was in all likelihood adopted to write the Aryan language, which was at that time a kind of late Vedic Sanskrit. This adoption would appear to have taken place by 1000 bce., which alone made possible the compilation of the mass of Vedic literature, so long current orally, into four written compilations, the four Vedas which Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa is traditionally said to have accomplished. Vyasa was an older contemporary of the heroes of the Mahabharata, and the Mahabharata was, according to Pargiter and H.C. Raychaudhary, who followed quite different methods in working out the date, took place in the middle of the tenth century BCE. So that we would not be wrong in assuming that this became the finished Brahmi of 300 BCE. Even in Mauryan Brahmi, we find the script still hesitating in certain matters and not fully established as a system of writing, it did not know how to indicate properly double and conjunct consonants. The perfection of the Brahmin alphabet as a worthy competitor for Sanskrit with its scientific and accurate orthography would appear to have taken place as late as the early centuries of the Christian era.”

Origins in the Indus Languages

Even prior to the discovery of the Indus scripts many historians could trace out the fact that Indians were highly literate and they had their own scripts and written language and dialects. General Cunningham opined on the issue:

“In this brief examination of the letters of the old India alphabet, I have compared their forms at time of Ashoka, or 250 BCE with the pictures of various objects and of the different members of the human conviction that many of the characters still preserved, even in their simpler alphabetical forms, very strong and marked traces of their pictorial origin. My comparison of the symbols with the Egyptian hieroglyphics shows that many of them are almost identical presentations of the same objects. But as the Indian symbols have totally different values from those of Egypt, it seems almost certain that the Indians must have worked totally different values from those of Egypt, it seems almost certain that the Indians must have worked out their system quite independently, although they followed the same process. They did not, therefore, borrow their alphabet from the Egyptians.

“Now, if the Indians did not borrow their alphabets from the Egyptians, it must have been the local invention of the people themselves, for the simple reason that there was no other people from whom they could have obtained it. Their nearest neighbors were the people of Anana and Persia, of whom the former used a Semitic character alphabet of Phoenician origin, reading from the separate detached strokes, which has nothing whatever in common with the compact form of the Indian alphabet.”

It is now very interesting that before the discovery of the Indus-scripts, in 1921, what was a mere speculative opinion for Cunningham, became an authentic and proven historical fact for Dr. Suniti Kumar Chattopadhyaya. On the basis of the archaeological and circumstantial evidences he has indicated that the Indus scripts were the mother of all the schools of scripts used in India even in the modern period. And this course of change or development (primarily artificial) could not have been tracked down in the absence of the Ashoka scripts (used on the Edicts), which stands at the middle path or as the first stage of change or shift from the original form to the final stage of its transition.

Suniti Kumar Chattopadhayay has also very rightly commented that the Aryans had no script or modality to record their ideas and communiqué. That is why they did not bring any documentary evidence along with them at the time of their arrival in India. No, they could not produce any written document, soon after subduing Assura of India. That is why it took around a thousand years for them to learn the India mode of writing, the scripts and language. It took so much time because for the first few centuries they spent their time destroying all marks and traces of literacy of the pre-Aryan Assura people or to artificially transform them into different shapes so that in posterity, the sons of this soil could not recognize and understand their ancestral language! And that is what really happened. No Indian could, therefore, recognize or read the Ashokan language or scripts. Nobody knew about the Pali language or scripts. Nobody knew about the Pali language which had an enormous volume of literature, older and more voluminous than Sanskrit literature.

Aboriginals use Indus-Scripts Today

From philological stand point, it is usually understood that the language used by the minority foreigners will not survive for long in an alien country, in the midst of a hostile atmosphere. In our case, the foreign Aryan language which was an unwritten one, was bound to be merged and mingled into the ocean of advanced and written language existing in the pre-Aryan highly civilized era of cultured Indians. This is why, even the more developed English and the Arabic-Urdu language which had its written form of literature, failed to replace any of the Indian languages, like Tamil, Telgu, Malayalam etc. It is in the circumstances, reasonable to conclude that the unwritten language of the savage, pastoral Aryans annihilated written Indian language.

In the circumstances, it is interesting to note the Sindh-Punjab aboriginal scripts have been found in the area of the Bengal-Bihar border also. The Bihar Transport officer N.K. Varma, claimed to have deciphered the script, discovered in the archaeological ruins of pre-Aryan Indian Assura civilization of the Mohejodaro Harappa region. He, to his great surprise, found the Santhals (tribe) to have used the Indus scripts by the Santhals of Sahib Ganj. This opens up a flood gate of suppressed truth that some autochthons of India, sitting 3000 Km. away and 3000 year’s dark distance away in time, are using the aboriginal scripts even to this day.

Plagiarized by the Aryans

Having made a comparative study of the vocabulary of the Vedic texts and the Ashokan edicts, along with the language of the Santhals of Sahib Ganj on the Bengal-Bihar border, we seem to have removed the veil and can see a clear picture of the native language of India. It is obvious that the Aryans not only grabbed the scripts of native Indians, as has been suggested by Dr. Suniti Kumar Chattopadhyaya, but they also plagiarized the language and vocabulary of the natives of India. The victor Aryans, simply gave some artificial twists in the pronunciation and spelling the structure.

What N.K.Varma has deciphered in the Indus script, on the basis of the symbols, used by the Santhals of Sahib Ganj is revealing. “They use symbols akin to Indus inscription in their writings and songs known as verses of “Karm Bintee” describe a beautiful land of seven rivers, “Eay Nay Daishm” “Dag Gorhan” as to denote writing. Some other tribal words as deciphered by Varma are: “Nayke-priest; Eay-seven; Nai-river; Daishm-land or country; O Rab—O God; Gooi—cow; Kaskom—cotton; Abharan—dress or cloth,” etc. If we analyse further we find that these words mentioned above, as used by one of the famous autochtrons (native) groups, are very familiar to us, such as:- Pooja; Khond (Kar) Karma; Bintee; Dag (line_ Grohan (take or make); Nayak, Sat; Nadi; Desh; Gaai; Abharan (Sanskrit). In some form they exist in the Vedic language.

All of these words are available in the Pali language too. If we analyze the Ashokan inscriptions we find the words are Pali and they form the vocabulary of the early Vedic language too. Let us take some examples: “Sayameba Joyate”, Sab Munispaja Mamaa”; or “Asu putra prapoutra Me navam Vjiyam Ma Vijityavam” etc., as has been written by the Emperor Ashoka the Great in his inscriptions. The word “Satyadharma” has been used in the Rig Veda as an adjective of a native Indian called, Agni, the son of Bala Assure; the word “Joy” is abundantly available, the word “Munish” in the Rig Veda denotes common village – subjects, artisans or peasants. The word “ Muni” -the saint exists in the Vedas, “Sab” denotes Sarba; “Paja” denotes praja; “Mama” denotes Mama. The words “Putra”, “Prapoutra”, “Bavam” “vijoy” etc. are frequently used in the early Vedic and Sanskrit language with the same meaning.

Similarly, we may find traces of most of the Vedic-cum-Sanskrit words in the common tongue of the remote illiterate villagers who does not know anything of the Sanskrit language. India villagers of upper India generally used the word “piba” for expressing the verb “drink”. The word “pani” (water) appears to have come from the “pani” (the Bank of businessmen who used to sail across the seas during the pre-Aryan period).

The very familiar word today, “pannya-drabya” meaning commodities is derived from the word “pani”. The Aryans had neither mercantile people, nor slaves or dasa with them, while, the word Dasa and the servile classes was very familiar in the pre-Aryan India. The word “das” has been taken by the Aryans from an Indian source. Likewise most of the words in the Vedic language are available in the Ashokan-pali language, in the use of the Santhals and these are taken from its original source in the pre-Aryan Indian language and literature.

This situation is corroborated by the fact that the number of people with Sanskrit as their mother tongue is only 555 and 1284 as per the Census Reports of 1951 and 1971 respectively. The Aryans have never been reported to be a barren race. They have never suffered any massacres, etc. The orthodox Aryans are not reported to have deserted their mother tongue at any point of time. Despite this, the number of people with Sunskrit as their mother-tongue was so few simply because it was never their mother tongue. This was a language as developed artificially from the native language of India. They very fondly called this language “Sanskrit” – that is purified from some dirty, impure-ore language. The Aryan Brahmins thus not only condemned the common people of India as low, but also made out that the language they spoke was impure and polluted.

The Ashokan inscriptions show that the linguafranca of at least the Northern India, from the Himalaya to Vindya mountains, and from the Indus to the Ganges was this Pali-Prakrit language with its varying dialects. General Cunningham calls them the Punjabi, the Ujjaini, and Magadhi. This was a very normal phenomenon which resulted from the country’s vastness. The Ujjain dialect is marked by the entire absence of “R” for which “L” has been substituted: e.g., Laja for Raja, Dasalatha for Dasaratha, etc.

The tangible evidence provided by the Ashokan script, the scripts of Indus nature, which were available in the Indus valley, has shown us a bridge between the modern Santhals writing and its genesis, as used in the Mohenjodaro-Harappa writings. Without finding the Ashokan scripts it would not have been possible for us to explain the missing-links of current languages and scripts of the country. From these edicts, it is easy to deduce that the Aryans destroyed the aboriginal Indian language in course of the first takeover that they fought in this land to destroy Buddhism. Language is the preserver of the cultural and religious heritage. It is the scripts, language and literature which records the ideals and ideology of a civilized race so that their posterity can use it and can derive benefit from it. Therefore, to destroy all the evidences of the religious ideals of pre-Aryan India, the prevailing Buddhism of the Indus regions the Aryans annihilated our scripts, language and literature.

End Pt II


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