Diodotus-I Was Ashoka

by Ranajit Pal

The Ashoka that one encounters in the standard textbooks on Mauryan history is hardly a flesh-and-blood hero.[i] One can feel his presence from his remarkable Edicts which speak of an unparalleled love and sympathy for men and other beings, yet some crucial aspects of his life remain unknown. Not a single archaeological relic of Ashoka has been found at Patna, said to be his capital. Apart from the Edicts, there is little inscribed material. In a moment of inspiration Romila Thapar writes that he could have been a half-Greek, cousin of Antiochus II, but then she unceremoniously dumps him at Patna. Rummaging among the heap of Jonesian absurdum at Patna, she wonders why there are no edicts at his so-called capital[ii]. What she does not state is that there are no relics of even Chandragupta or the Nandas at Patna. Although writers like H. P. Ray express satisfaction abut the punch-marked coins attributed to him, this has been disputed. It is difficult to believe that the ruler of such a vast empire could manage only with such primitive coins while even minor Indo-Greek kings had such excellent coins. Palaces unearthed near Patna have been said to be his, but in the absence of inscriptions this is unacceptable.


In The Nittur Edict Ashoka Calls Himself The Ruler Of Parthia


"Mahalake hi vijitam" ('Vast is my empire'), proclaims Ashoka, but how extensive really was his dominion in the West? It is impossible to recognize the real Ashoka without answering this question. In the Nittur Edict he explicitly calls himself the king of Pathavi[iii] - an unmistakable allusion to Parthia or Parthava of the Achaemenian records. Writers like Romila Thapar attempt to explain this away by suggesting that Pathavi corresponds to Prithvi, or the Earth, and that the statement only demonstrates royal vainglory. This is absurd. A world emperor like Ashoka who sent missionaries to kings of many other parts of the Earth surely was not so foolish as to call himself the ruler of the Earth. His links with Parthia is in fact hidden in his name Ashoka Vardhana itself. Vardanes was a common Parthian King-name.

Some Of The Indo-Greek Kings Of Seistan Were Mauryas

Ashokas inscribed statues have been found from far away Kanganhalli in Karnataka the implication of which has not dawned upon writers like Prof. Thapar. The great art historian Alfred Foucher noted that the Buddhist symbols like the lion, the lotus etc. had no antecedents in the art of Eastern India where one must expect them. This is linked to the fact that no original Buddhist texts have been unearthed from modern India. Foucher was not aware of the blunder of Jones yet from his profound study of art history he made the very significant remark that the Mauryan empire must have extended in the north-west to the Hindu-Kush, and to the west as far as Aria and Seistan. G. Tucci pointed out that even the Stupa is of west Asian origin. Similar views were held by A. Coomaraswamy.

Foucher's remark, in a sense, opens a Pandora's box. If Seistan and Bactria were within the Maurya empire it is not unnatural to expect that the Indo-Greek rulers of Bactria and Seistan were somehow related to the Mauryas. From the fact that Seleucus' daughter became a member of the Mauryan royal family, it can be easily argued that Ashoka could have been an Indo-Greek[iv]. His name Ashoka Vardhana links him with Parthian Kings like Vardanes, Satibarzanes etc.. Romila Thapar suggests that Antiochus could have been his half-brother. It turns out that Ashoka's history matches that of Diodotus-I almost line by line.

Who Ruled Arachosia?

The Kandahar Edict clearly shows Ashoka as the master of Arachosia, whereas the numerous coins of Diodotus-I found from this area indicate that Diodotus was the sovereign of this region. The problem can be resolved only by assuming that Ashoka was the same as Diodotus-I. Significantly whereas Ashoka has many inscriptions and  

                                         Coin portrait of Diodotus-I or Ashoka

No coins, Diodotus-I has many coins but no inscriptions which clearly shows that they complement one another. The coins of Ashoka are one of the best in the world.

Devanampiya and Devadatta

By which name was Ashoka known in the west? From the fact that the Greco-Roman writers do not refer to Piadassi or Asoka, Romila Thapar concludes that he was unknown in the West[v] This is absurd; Asoka was one of the greatest Emperors of history who had sent religious emissaries to the farthest corners of the civilized world. The classical writers must have used a different name (the name Asoka is rare even in his edicts). The classical writers, Prof. Romila Thapar tells us, did not refer to Ashoka[vi]. This is clearly absurd ; they must have used a different name, not Ashoka or Piyadassi. A careful study shows that Devanampiya, the most common name of Ashoka in the Edicts is in fact the same as Devadatta[vii] or Diodotus. The interpretation of Devanampiya as `beloved of the Gods' is superficial. Ashoka states that his ancestors were Devanampiyas, which shows that it is a patronymic, not a title - even Chandragupta was a Devanampiya or Diodotus (of Erythrae). 'Nam' in Persian and 'Nomos' in Greek means 'law' another Persian word for which is 'Dat'. Thus Devanam is the same as Devadat. Piya or Priya may have had the sense of a redeemer as in the case of the name of Priam of Troy. Many Parthian Kings assumed the titles Priapatius and Assak. As can be seen from the Shahnama, the Avesta and Xerexes' inscriptions, `Deva' initially meant a clan, not god. Ignorance of this has led to senseless translations of Ashoka's Edicts as `Gods mingled with men'. Only oblique scholarship has obscured that the name Devadatta occurring in the second line of Ashoka's famous Taxila pillar inscription refers to Ashoka himself. The line "l dmy dty `l " which Marshall and Andreas translated as `for Romedatta', refers to Devadatta.

Ashoka died exactly when Diodotus died; Ashoka's Edicts stopped appearing in 245 BC[viii] the year of Diodotus' death. According to Wheeler, the first Edicts were inscribed 'in and after 257BC'. A.K. Narain and others maintain that Diodotus proclaimed himself as king by about 256 BC. The great Indologist F. W. Thomas noted that in his Edicts Ashoka did not mention Diodotus Theos who should have been his neighbour[ix]. It is difficult to imagine that the man whose religious overtures won the heart of nearly the entire civilized world failed to impress upon his god-like neighbour. Ashoka does not mention Iran also in his Edicts; the nearest foreign king that he mentions being Antiochus. This may indicate that the Syrian King stationed at Seleucia near Babylon was indeed his neighbour. Ashoka does not refer to Devadatta because he was Devadatta himself.

Who Erected Pillars In India Before Ashoka?

The find-spot of a relic is of great importance in the reconstruction of history but one of the many problems in Indian history is that pillars were frequently re-written and re-erected at different locations. Unfortunately the effect of this misuse by later rulers has often been overlooked by gullible historians. Even though the weight of some of the Ashokan pillars is about thirty tons, it is not safe to assume that these were erected in their present locations. In the fourteenth century Sultan Feroz Shah was so impressed by the Ashokan pillars that he had two of them shifted to Delhi, one from Meerut and another from Topra in Ambala district, about 90 miles northwest of Delhi. F. J. Monahan[x] wrote,

The fact that ten of the pillars bear inscriptions of Ashoka is proof they were erected not later than his reign; it does not prove that none of them was erected earlier.

The fame of Samudragupta as one of the greatest conquerors of India rests on his famous Allahabad inscription which was rewritten on an old Ashokan pillar. Kulke and Rothermund[xi] suggest that it was transported from Kausambi. In the Mudrarakshasa Chandragupta is called Piadamsana. From this H.C. Raychaudhuri concluded that

... it is not always safe to ascribe all epigraphs that make mention of Priyadarsana, irrespective of their contents, to Ashoka the Great.

Although Ashoka was the first to use pillars and other monuments for the propagation of Dhamma, the intriguing fact that emerges from his edicts is that pillars similar to those bearing his edicts had been in existence in India before his time; in the seventh of his Pillar Edicts, after recording that he has erected 'pillars of the Sacred Law' (Dhamma-thambani), Ashoka writes,

The Devanampiya speaks thus: this inscription of Dhamma is to be engraved wherever there are stone pillars or stone slabs, that it may last long.

The crucial question that arises now is who had erected these pre-Ashokan pillars?

The Lion Of Chaeronea And Ashoka's Lions

Wheeler was amazed by the double-lion capitals at Persepolis but could not recognise that these could have been erected by Alexander. When the Sarnath pillar was first discovered it created a flutter of sensation on an international scale. Sir John Marshall wrote[xii],

The Sarnath capital, on the other hand, though by no means a masterpiece, is the product of the most developed art of which the world was cognisant in the third century B.C.

But what puzzled scholars like Foucher was that if it assumed that Ashoka was a native of Bihar as R. Thapar and other Indologists state, his fascination for the lion symbol remains an enigma. The lion is an intrusive element in Indian art. On the other hand the lion symbol was favoured in Mycenae. It was also a symbol of great importance for the Macedonians. When Phillip wanted to commemorate the great Macedonian victory at Chaeronea, he setup the famous lion statue. It is thus very likely that his illustrious son had also erected lion capitals in India; it is well known that he always carried a small golden lion. However, it can be argued that Ashoka borrowed the lion symbol from Nebuchadrezzar's Babylon - lions guarded the famous E-Sagila - oorr from the Sumerians who also had a preference for the lion symbol; Gudea's double lion mace-head is well known[xiii]. As Cumont noted, the lion was a symbol of ancient Lydia. Four lions also guarded the Meghazil tomb near Amrit, but the fact that Ashoka was an Indo-Greek closely related to Seleucus' line makes it more likely that his lions were Greek-inspired. However, though truth is indestructible it is often stranger than fiction - the historians job has been made nearly impossible by Ashoka who had no qualms about overwriting on the much-sought-after pillars of Alexander.

Alexander's Altar That Once Stood Near Hyphasis

After the middle ages one of the first westerners to notice the Ashokan pillars was the Englishman Thomas Coryat who came to Delhi in 1616. Coryat was greatly impressed by the superbly polished forty feet high monolithic column and presumed that it must have been erected by Alexander the Great 'in token of his victorie' over Porus. In Coryat's time the script of the inscriptions in the pillar was undeciphered but today, thanks to Prinsep, we know that it contains an inscription of Ashoka; yet there is more to it than meets the eye. We know that many of Ashoka's pillars were not erected by him.

After the mutiny at Hyphasis Alexander gave up his plans to march further east and to commemorate his presence in India erected twelve massive altars of dressed stone as a thanksgiving to the deities who had blessed his success. Arrian wrote,

He then divided the army into brigades, which he ordered to prepare twelve altars to equal in height the highest military towers, and to exceed them in point of breadth, to serve as thank offerings to the gods who had led him so far as a conqueror, and also as a memorial of his own labours. When the altars had been constructed, he offered sacrifice upon them with the customary rites, and celebrated a gymnastic and equestrian contest.

Surprisingly, although most of the writers place the altars on the right bank of the river, Pliny placed them on the left or the eastern bank. He wrote (vi, 21),

The Hyphasis was the limit of the marches of Alexander, who, however, crossed it, and dedicated altars on the further bank.

Pliny's information suggests a reappraisal of the age-old riddle of Alexander's altars. Precisely how far east had Alexander and his men come? This has been a matter of inconclusive debate; Sir E.H. Banbury held that the point where Alexander erected the twelve altars cannot be regarded as determined within even approximate limits but the Indian evidence now sheds new light on the problem. Masson placed the altars on the united stream of the Hyphasis and Sutlez[xiv]. McCrindle also wrote that the Sutlez marked the limit of Alexander's march eastward[xv] and this is precisely the locality from which Feroze Shah transported a colossal pillar to Delhi. R. Thapar ignores Alexander's momentous voyage[xvi] and writes that though at present there is no archaeological evidence, Topra was probably an important stopping place on the road from Pataliputra to the northwest. This clearly skirts the central issue. It is impossible to think that anyone other than Alexander could have erected such a grand pre-Ashokan pillar in this locality. There can be little doubt that the Delhi-Topra pillar[xvii] which now bears Ashoka's seventh edict is in fact one of the missing altars of Alexander the Great.

Hellenistic Influence On Mauryan Art

The Indo-Greek identity of Ashoka throws a flood of light on the history of Mauryan art. Here one must pay tribute to scholars like Sir John Marshall, Alfred Foucher and Niharranjan Ray who were not aware that Ashoka was Diodotus-I yet made no mistake in recognizing the Hellenistic content of Mauryan art. Marshall realized that the lion capitals of Ashoka represent a new era in Indian art that has no precursors. Their fixed expression, authentic spirit, canon-based form and stylization all betray a strong Hellenistic inspiration. Niharranjan Ray echoes a similar sentiment[xviii]. Ray doubted that the impetus could be from Achaemenid Persia and traced it to Hellenistic art. The history of the Topra pillar leaves no doubt about how this stimulus was transmitted. The failure to recognize that Chandragupta was in fact Sashigupta who was once a satrap of Alexander has been at the root of many problems in the interpretation of Gandhara art and Mauryan art. However, though Marshall and Ray came very close to the truth, they failed to see Alexander's hand behind the lions of Ashoka.


[i] Curiously Wikipedia, the standard online encyclopedia adopts distinctly different yardsticks in the treatment of the life histories of Julius Caesar and Ashoka. There is a much greater emphasis on the miraculous and the fantastic in the case of Ashoka. The picture of Ashoka and the description of many anecdotes betray a callous approach which should be denounced in the strongest terms. This is gossip not history. See http://en.wikipedia.org/Ashoka.

[ii] R. Thapar, Aoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, Oxford University Press, 1961, p. 20. She writes without any warrant that the identification of Pataliputra is certain (p. 233). She has no diificulty in imagining a wooden palace at Patna of Asoka whose architecture is all stone.

[iii] In the Minor Rock Edict  I Asoka describes his dominion as Jambudvipa which is uncritically assumed to be the same as modern India. In the version of the edict found at Nittur in Tumkur district of Karnataka the emperor calls it Pathavi. K.P. Jawasawal wrote that Jambudvipa was a much wider territory covering nearly the whole of civilized Asia.

[iv] Wheeler wrote, 'It is just possible that Ashoka had Seleukid blood in his veins; at least his reputed vice-royalty of Taxila in the Punjab during the reign of his father could have introduced him to the living memory of Alexander the Great, and, as king, he himself tells us of proselytizing relations with the Western powers'. 'Early India and Pakistan', Thames and Hudson, 1968, p. 170.

[v] Her categorical remark, Greek sources mention Sandrocottus and Amitrochates but do not mention Aoka presupposes that the Greeks would only use the name Aoka. Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, Oxford Univ. Press, p. 20.

[vi] D.C. Sircar added that Ashoka was unknown because there was no foreign representative in his court. This is clearly absurd; the emperor who claims to have sent emissaries no distant corners of the globe cannot have been unknown to the western world.

[vii] After his conversion to Buddhism Ashoka had to change his name Devadatta as it was a hated name among the Buddhists.

[viii] R. Thapar is unaware that the reason why Ashoka's edicts stopped appearing after 245 BC is that he died in that year. The year of Ashoka's death given by Thapar and others is 232 BC but this is clearly a mistake. Diodotus' son, who was also a Diodotus, died in 232 BC.

[ix] 'Ashoka', in Cambridge History of Ancient India, p. 453.

[x] Like Vincent Smith, Monahan was a distinguished British historian who was a member of the Indian Civil Service, 'The Early History of Bengal', 1925, p.227.

[xi] Kulke, H., and Rothermund, D., 'A History of India', Rupa, 1991, p. 86.

[xii] 'Cambridge History of Ancient India', ed. E.J. Rapson, p.562.

[xiii] Ranajit Pal, 'Gotama Buddha in West Asia', Annals of Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, vol. 77.

[xiv] It has to be borne in mind that in ancient times the two rivers united at a point forty miles below their present junction.

[xv] McCrindle, J.W., "Invasion of India by Alexander the Great", New Delhi, p. 120.

[xvi] "Ashoka and the Decline of the Mauryas", Oxford University Press", 1961, p.230.

[xvii] The precise location is Firozabad near Delhi.

[xviii] 'Compared with later figural sculptures in the round of Yakshas and their female counterparts or the reliefs of Bharhut, Sanchi and Bodhgaya, the art represented by these crowning lions belongs to an altogether different world of conception and execution, of style and technique, altogether much more complex, urban and civilised. They have nothing archaic or primitive about them, and the presumption is irresistible that the impetus and inspiration of this art must have come from outside.' 'Age of the Nandas and Mauryas', Motilal Banarasidas, 1967, p. 376.