The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Oct 23, 2012

Lingua Franca Ashoka

I dip once every so often into Nicholas Ostler's Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World, a superb study of linguæ francæ (okay, I know that's incorrect and it should be lingua francas, but what's not to like about 'æ'?), and I find that I've forgotten what I've read the previous time. So it's a nice sort of infinite loop to be in. Or worrisome, if you want to think like that.

But anyway, that's neither here nor there. I remember reading elsewhere that Ashoka, once he was postbellumly saddened and enlightened, put up his edicts across his vast empire - from Afghanistan all the way south to the borders with Tamil country. In most places, the edicts were written in a script representing an Indian language, but out west, where the neighbours were Greek-speaking (Bactria and all),  they were set down in Greek and - I learn from Ostler - in Aramaic.

Ashoka's Edict in Kandahar, Afghanistan

This is a Greek transliteration of his edict - found in the 1950s (?):

δέκα ἐτῶν πληρη[....]ων βασι[λ]εὺς
Πιοδασσης εὐσέβεια[ν ἔδ]ε[ι]ξεν τοῖς ἀν-
θρώποις, καὶ ἀπὸ τούτου εὐσεβεστέρους
τοὺς ἀνθρώπους ἐποίησεν καὶ πάντα
εὐθηνεῖ κατὰ πᾶσαν γῆν• καὶ ἀπέχεται
βασιλεὺς τῶν ἐμψύχων καὶ οἱ λοιποὶ δὲ
εἲ τινες ἀκρατεῖς πέπαυνται τῆς ἀκρα-
σίας κατὰ δύναμιν, καὶ ἐνήκοοι πατρὶ
καὶ μητρὶ καὶ τῶν πρεσβυτέρων παρὰ
τὰ πρότερον καὶ τοῦ λοιποῦ λῶιον
καὶ ἄμεινον κατὰ πάντα ταῦτα
ποιοῦντες διάξουσιν.

And this is the Aramaic as written in Hebrew.

שנן 10 פתיתו עביד זי מראן פרידארש מלכא קשיטא מהקשט
מן אדין זעיר מרעא לכלהם אנשן וכלהם אדושיא הובד
ובכל ארקא ראם שתי ואף זי זנה כמאכלא למראן מלכא זעיר
קטלן זנה למחזה כלהם אנשן אתהחסינן אזי נוניא אחדן
אלך אנשן פתיזבת כנם זי פרבסת הוין אלך אתהחסינן מן
פרבסתי והופתיסתי לאמוהי ולאבוהי ולמזישתיא אנסן
איך אסרהי חלקותא ולא איתי דינא לכלהם אנשיא חסין
זנה הותיר לכלהם אנשן ואוסף יהותר.

And this is an English translation (of the Greek) by G. P. Carratelli:

Ten years (of reign) having been completed, King
Piodasses made known (the doctrine of)
Piety to men; and from this moment he has made
men more pious, and everything thrives throughout
the whole world. And the king abstains from (killing)
living beings, and other men and those who (are)
huntsmen and fishermen of the king have desisted
from hunting. And if some (were) intemperate, they
have ceased from their intemperance as was in their
power; and obedient to their father and mother and to
the elders, in opposition to the past also in the future,
by so acting on every occasion, they will live better
and more happily.

I've copied all these texts shamelessly from a Wikipedia page.

Why Aramaic? Well, that was the main language of communication across the Near East and the erstwhile Persian empire. (Recall it had fallen less than a century earlier.) Rather unchauvinistically, the Achaemenid rules of Iran didn't impose their own lingo on their subjects. The Greek bit is slightly more comprehensible - there were Greek-speaking peoples dotting the sundry Alexandrias set up by that maniac eponymous conqueror all the way from Greece to the Hindu Kush. According to Carratelli (the translator above) it appears that the Seleucid rulers of the area were in the process of establishing Greek as official bureaucratic language, but because it's unlikely that Ashoka was propagandising outside his empire, he must have been aiming his bilingual texts for Greeks living within it. (Why is it unlikely?)

Seleucus Nicator and Chandragupta Maurya (Ashoka's grandfather), as is well known, had signed a treaty establishing peace along their frontier. One of the terms was to allow intermarriage between Greeks and Indians, which would allow the former to skirt around the caste rules that dominated daily life under the Mauryas, establishing their position in society. (Prior to the discovery of the edict, it had been thought that Greeks achieved a status as fallen kshatriyas or not-impure sudras only later.) Clearly this socialisation of the Greeks had attained a natural level by the time of Ashoka, and his edict implies how widely understood this equilibrium was.

As for the Aramaic text, it contains Avestan religious words to denote Buddhist concepts, and is clearly addressed to the Iranian people living in the region. But they were not necessarily Zoroastrian (scholars are quite clear that they were non-Zoroastrian Mazdians, whatever that is, or some variant of Indo-Aryan religion). Carratelli suggests that Ashoka was aiming his message at the Scythians (Sakas) who had been living there for yonks.

G. P. Carratelli, G. Garbini, 'A Bilingual Graeco-Aramaic Edict by Asoka', Serie Orientale Roma XXIX, 1964.


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