In the Khyber valley of Northern Pakistan, three large boulders sit atop a hill commanding a beautiful prospect of the city of Mansehra. A low brick wall surrounds these boulders; a simple roof, mounted on four brick pillars, protects the rock faces from wind and rain. This structure preserves for posterity the words inscribed there: ‘Doing good is hard – Even beginning to do good is hard.’
The words are those of Ashoka Maurya, an Indian emperor who, from 268 to 234 BCE, ruled one of the largest and most cosmopolitan empires in South Asia. These words come from the opening lines of the fifth of 14 of Ashoka’s so-called ‘major rock edicts’, a remarkable anthology of texts, circa 257 BCE, in which Ashoka announced a visionary ethical project. Though the rock faces have eroded in Mansehra and the inscriptions there are now almost illegible, Ashoka’s message can be found on rock across the Indian subcontinent – all along the frontiers of his empire, from Pakistan to South India.
The message was no more restricted to a particular language than it was to a single place. Anthologised and inscribed across his vast empire onto freestanding boulders, dressed stone slabs and, beginning in 243 BCE, on monumental stone pillars, Ashoka’s ethical message was refined and rendered in a number of Indian vernaculars, as well as Greek and Aramaic. It was a vision intended to inspire people of different religions, from different regions, and across generations. [Continue reading…]