Did Greek kings send letters to Asoka?

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    civfanatic Retired Moderator

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    This article was written by Oskar von Hinuber in the 2010 Journal of the American Oriental Society. The original article contained large numbers of Greek letters, which I did not include due to formatting issues.
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    As soon as script was introduced in India the art of writing letters may have been practiced. If it was, this is not known directly from any surviving correspondence of the third century B.C., of course. Nor are letters mentioned in early literature before Kautalya, who, in his "Chapter on royal orders" (säsanädhikära II 10) describes at an uncertain date how official letters are to be written. Only by the middle of the first millennium A.D. letters are mentioned occasionally in Sanskrit dramas, mostly in passing, and in Buddhist literature, frequently, particularly in the Jätäkas.

    Only one drama, the Mudräräksasa (V 9/10), is more explicit: one of Râksasa's letters is intercepted and opened secretly "without violating the seal." Luckily, the beginning of the letter is read out (väcitah): svastiyathästhänarn kuto'pi ko'pi kam apipurusavisesam avagamayati "Well-being! According to the right order: from somewhere somebody informs some high-ranking personality." After this summary of the address the content proper begins. This paragraph provides some vague ideas about the form of an ancient Indian letter, but only of the beginning. For, unfortunately, the end of the letter is not quoted. Epistolary literature from India, on the other hand, such as the Lekhapaddhati, begins only almost a millennium later.

    Nothing is known, at least not directly, about letters written at the time of Asoka more than half a millennium earlier than the time at which Visakhadatta probably composed his Mudräräksasa. Therefore it will remain forever unknown how many, if any, letters were produced by the Maurya administration. However, given the area of the kingdom, the number of letters might have been considerable. For, according to Plutarch, already King Seleukos I Nikator (r. 305-281), as a contemporary of Asoka's grandfather, complained: "It is said that he used to say: If people knew how laborious only writing so many letters is and reading them, they would not pick up a crown that is thrown away"—though most likely there were not as many official letters read and written by Seleukos as those issued by the chancery of Pope Gregory XI (1370-1378 ), which churned out no less than 15,450 official letters already during the first year of his eight-year pontificate—not including the secret correspondence! It is well known, however, that Asoka sent dütas 'emissaries' (RE XIII 131,10 Bloch) to convey messages either written or orally, or rather both, to various people, because we learn from the Vlth Rock Edict about "oral orders" issued by Asoka. Much later, the letter read out in the Mudräräksasa and other references confirm that it was not at all unusual to add an oral message to the written one.

    The content of Asoka's messages can be inferred from the Xlllth Rock Edict: They were meant to spread his dhammavijaya, which he considered as the highest victory and which he wished to propagate everywhere, also far beyond India, where the Greek king (yonaräja) Amtiyoka (-ga) is ruling and even beyond his realm farther to the west to four [Greek] kings (captäro 4 räjäno) Turamâya (Tulamaya), Aintekina, Maka (Maga), Alikasudara. It is apparent from the text that Antiochos/Antiyoka as the nearest neighbor is mentioned in a special position at the beginning, which might also hint at somewhat closer contacts.

    During Asoka’s reign the western contacts of the Maurya administration could look back to a certain tradition already. Northwestern India was part of the Achaemenid Empire and consequently it was and is often surmised that Achaemenid art influenced the earliest stone monuments in India, the Asoka or partly pre-Asokan pillars, after artisans emigrated from Persia to India after Alexander's conquest. Even the wooden palace built by Asoka in Pât;aliputra is sometimes considered as some sort of wooden replica of the architecture at Persepolis: "une doctrine séduisante" as L. de La Vallée Poussin says, but probably not more than that. All this is well known and more or less likely, though there is not too much to substantiate these very general assumptions, even if they are considered as probable

    The most obvious and undeniable trace of this cultural contact, however, is the adoption of the Kharosthî script. The idea of installing inscriptions might well have travelled together with the script. And for a long time Achaemenid influence has been seen in some of the formulations used by Asoka in his inscriptions. The very vocabulary used in the northwest for writing inscriptions, the verb ni-pis together with the noun dipi, are Iranian. Old Persian wordings such as dipim naiy nipistäm akunaus (Xerxes V 22) "he did not have an inscription written" might well have stimulated Asoka to formulate in the northwestern version of his edicts ayi dhramadipi nipista (RE V O).

    Moreover, the following wording is used by Asoka at the beginning and only at the beginning of all seven Pillar Edicts and five of the fourteen Rock Edicts (III, V, VI, IX, XI; Jaugada I, II [devânam piye hevam äha]): devänam piye piyadasi läjä hevam äha, which is supposed to echo: Oätiy Därayavaus xsäyadiya, DB I 6 "Saith Darius the King." If Asoka used the Persian inscriptions as a loose model here, he did not, most unfortunately, follow Darius in giving his genealogy at the very beginning of the inscription.

    These traces of Iranian influence are visible only after the end of the Achaemenid Empire, when contacts had been established with the new western power, the Greeks. The presence of Megasthenes as an ambassador of Antiochos I Soter (281-261) at the court of Pataliputra is as well known as that of his successor Daimachos dispatched by Antiochus II Theos (261- 246) to Bindusara and of the rather shadowy Dionysios sometimes supposed to come from Ptolemaic Egypt according to a note by Pliny. However, Iranian presence also continued. The inscription of Rudradaman written in 150 A.D. mentions the presence of a "governor" at Girnar during the reign of Asoka, whose name Tusaspha is clearly Iranian.

    In contrast particularly to the very uniform introduction to Asoka's Pillar Edicts, there is quite some variation in the opening of the Minor Edicts. The unusual beginning of Brahmagiri, which is in some points similar to that at Pângurâriâ, is of particular interest. The Minor Rock Edict at Brahmagiri begins:
    suvamnagirite ayaputasa mahämatänam ca vacanena isilasi mahämätä ärogiyam vataviyä. hevam ca vataviyä. devänampiye änapayati
    “From Suvannagiri. Wishes for freedom from illness are to be conveyed by the words of the prince and the high officials to the high officials at Isila. And thus should be spoken: Devanainpiya orders ...”

    Here an opening formula is used for the first time, one that reappears much later in innumer- able copper plate grants: "from a certain place . . . the king commands," using the ablative in the beginning and the verb äjnäpayati. Moreover, the beginning of the letter known from the Mudräräksasa kuto 'pi ko 'pi kam api. . . avagamayati suggests a very similar opening formula.

    Clearly the officials at Isila are addressed here in the same way as in a letter. And indeed as far back as 1982 K. R. Norman mentioned "covering letters" in connection with the Minor Rock Edicts, 20 however not in connection with the opening of Brahmagiri, but in a discussion of the end of the Rûpnâth and Sahasrâm inscriptions:
    iya ca athe pavatisu flekhäpetaviye ti. hida ca athi siläthambhe siläthatnbhasi likhäpetaviye ti
    “And this texts must be engraved on rocks. If there is a stone pillar, it must be caused to be engraved on a stone pillar” (K. R. Norman, p. 226).

    Norman (p. 227) comments on this sentence in the following way: "The absence of the phrase from the other twelve versions suggests, however, that it was not part of the edict, but merely formed part of the 'covering letter.'
    The same statement would not only apply to the opening sentence of Brahmagiri, but also to the end of the last Pillar Edict also discussed in this context by Norman, where content and wording are again similar: etam devänam piye ähä. iyam dhammalibi ata athi siläthambhäni va siläphalakäni va tatha kataviyä ena esa cilathitike siyä "This said Devânampiya. Where there are stone pillars or stone slabs this inscription on the Dharma must be produced there so that it may last for a long time."

    For many years I was not really convinced of the existence of these "covering letters" inferred here by Norman. This changed almost in the time of a minute, while reading the "Lettre d'Information du Collège de France" no. 25 of March 2009 (p. 14). This newsletter reported on a series of lectures delivered at the Collège de France in Paris in late 2008 by the Italian scholar Biagio Virgilio, Professor of Classics at Pisa, under the title "La corre- spondence du souverain hellénistique." In his lecture Virgilio announced a new and revised edition of C. Bradford Welles' "Royal Correspondence in the Hellenistic World." Published in New Haven in 1934 (repr, Rome 1966), this collection was careful and comprehensive for its time, but a new edition became necessary because Welles knew of only seventy-five inscriptions in 1934, while over the past seventy-six years more material has come to light and about 450 inscriptions are known today.

    Virgilio talked about royal orders, which were inscribed on stones in Hellenistic Asia Minor. On reading this, K. R. Norman's "covering letters" almost at once come back to one's mind. Checking the Hellenistic inscriptions yields a big surprise, because here indeed are covering letters engraved into the stone as part of the inscriptions, and, as with Asoka, these covering letters contain instructions about what to do with the royal proclamations. Most luckily and in happy contradistinction to the officials of Asoka, their Greek counterparts occasionally considered these instructions to be part of the order and consequently found it worthwhile to preserve a text, such as the following one, at the beginning of the inscriptions or separately. The essential sentence is "And to write a copy on a stone pillar and place it in the very same temple." This recommendation is expressed in a letter sent perhaps by Antiochus VIII Epiphanes (121-96) in the late second century B.C. (?). In another covering letter written in 204 B.C. by Antiochus III Megas (222-187) it is said: ". . . that the copies are inscribed on a stone stele and set up in the place where they may est be seen." A similar wish that the inscription may be visible for a long time is expressed by Asoka at the end of the last Pillar Edict cilathitike siyä as quoted above.

    Lastly, the well-known beginning of these as of many other Greek letters should be recalled: "King Antiochos sends greetings to Anaximbrotos." This is comparable to the introduction to inscriptions in India as already demonstrated. Similar wordings are found in other Greek letters beginning from at least 254/3. Actually there may be many more covering letters once the approximately 380 additional letters not yet known to C. Bradford Welles are published by B. Virgilio.

    Given the presence of ambassadors of Hellenistic kings in India and the dütas sent to the Hellenistic kings by Asoka, it is perhaps not too farfetched to assume that Aáoka received letters from Greek rulers and was acquainted with the Hellenistic royal orders in the same way as he perhaps knew of the inscriptions of the Achaemenid kings. An exchange of letters between Asoka's predecessor Bindusara and Antiochus is even mentioned. For, luckily, the learned company of about thirty participants, discussing various matters over a long meal lasting many days accompanied by an equally long conversation, at one point turned to various kinds of particularly delicious fruit, among others dried figs highly valued by different people in different regions. Luckily, also Bindusara liked them and asked Antiochus—obviously in a letter—to send some: "As even Amitrochates the king of the Indians wrote to Antiochos asking to buy and send to him—as Hegesander says—sweet wine and dried figs and a phi- losopher. And Antiochos answered in a letter: We shall send dried figs and sweet wine to you, but it is not lawful among the Greeks to sell a philosopher." This well-known anecdote mirrors the fact that there was some memory among the Greeks of close contacts between the Hellenistic world and India some four hundred years before the time of Athenaios or of the slightly older Hegesander. The correctness of the Indian name allows us to put a certain trust in the quality of the memory.

    Therefore, it is not impossible that Asoka indeed knew from his envoys or from correspondence about the Greek "pillar edicts" which he imitated, without, however, following his Greek model in having complete covering letters engraved into the stone occasionally. The Greek model could also account for the wording "where there are pillars or stone slabs" chosen by Aáoka. For the Greek word for ‘pillar’ also means ‘slab’. This assumption is supported by the fact that in spite of the choice allowed by Asoka at the end of the last Pillar Edict to use pillars or stone slabs, we do not have any trace of a Pillar Edict on a stone slab. For the fragmentary Buner slab clearly is a modern forgery on the model of the inscription of the pillar at Topra, as shown by Falk
    Lastly, it is perhaps helpful to recall that writing started with Asoka's reign and therefore neither inscriptions nor letters could have possibly been written earlier. There was no Indian model available for either letter or inscription, and looking beyond India was not at all a far-fetched idea. Thus Asoka may have looked to Persia for rock inscriptions and to the steles of the Seleucid kingdom for his pillar edicts. How far, on the other hand, an indigenous Indian model such as oral messages, if any are preserved in Vedic literature, could have helped to create the opening formula for letters remains to be seen. Moreover, formulas used when meeting and greeting persons might have been involved.

    If then it is considered possible that Asoka's siläthambhasi likhäpetaviye was part of a covering letter and stimulated by the model found in Greek covering letters to royal orders, this would support and gain support from a different assumption put forward almost forty years ago by H. Scharfe that there is a Hellenistic model also for devänam piya used as title by As'oka and once used also for kings in general in Rock Edict VIII. (The Greek model is unable to be displayed).

    Thus the royal correspondence of the Hellenistic kings would be another minute stone in the very fragmentary mosaic that must be put together if it is intended to trace relations between India and the West from direct evidence in ancient monuments and not only from equally fragmentary literary sources. This allows us to recover not only Iranian models suspected long since to be present in the inscription of Asoka, but also stimulating thoughts perhaps derived from the then contemporary Hellenistic Greek culture.
     
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