VegHist Ep 4: Ashoka. On India’s animal advocate Buddhist king and the spread of the śramanas; with Bharati Pal and Suchandra Ghosh; at the Kalinga rock edict, India

A sculptured elephant walks out of the stone. Brahmi "pinman" script is superposed on the background. There is a Buddhist pagoda in the background.

In the largest ancient Indian empire, at the height of its power, its Buddhist king advocates for animals in his edicts, and tries to change India for good.

Episode 4: Ashoka

In the fourth century BCE, the śramaṇa movement (anti-violence anti-ritual ascetics) has produced three religions: the vegetarian Jains, the freegan(ish) Buddhists, and the mysterious (and now vanished) Ājīvikas. The Mauryan Empire is absorbing almost all of the subcontinent, from present-day Afghanistan to the Bay of Bengal.

At its height in the middle of the third century BCE, the king – Ashoka – has edicts carved in stones and columns across the realm. Alongside the rulings and propaganda you might expect, his edicts oppose the slaughter and abuse of animals.

Ian travels to the Indian Museum in Calcutta to speak with historian Dr Suchandra Ghosh. And he visits a hillside that looks down on the battlefield that – King Ashoka says – turned him way from violence forever, and where Ashoka erected an edict that still stands today.

Play or download (44MB MP3) (via iTunes)


  • Dr Suchandra Ghosh (Calcutta University) (
  • Dr Bharati Pal (Odisha State Museum)
  • Dr U.C. Dwivedi (Patna Museum)


These are the artefacts of the Ashoka and his dynasty we talk about during the show. Please select a thumbnail to bring up the gallery:


The translations of the edicts of Ashoka Maurya are based on those of Hultsch 1925Ven. S Dhammika 1993, and Romila Thapar 1999. I had a look at the original work of Prinsep and Wilson (PDF) who decoded the Brahmi characters in the nineteenth century.

The Indian diplomat is Megasthene. He was based in Pataliputra, at King Chandragupta’s court, and his work Indika (PDF) (various fragments and translations) remained the major Greek source on India for centuries.

Translating “dāsa” – slave or servant?

When Ashoka defines dharma, he starts with a list of who should be treated properly, beginning with “bonded servant”. This is how I translated “dāsa” – a word scholars variously translated as “servant”, “slave”, or simply left untranslated. (It has other meanings, too, like “religious devotee”, but not here.)

So what is a dāsa? We know from a contemporary orally transmitted book of governance that they couldn’t change master unless they bought their freedom, but they also had legal protections against abuse, demeaning tasks, property theft, or being sold on to someone else. Ancient Greek commentators say there’s no slavery in India, implying they don’t recognise dāsas as slaves.

My original script used the translation “slave”, explained that in more detail, and added:

Ashoka usurps the spiritual monopoly of Brahmins, spreads a casteless religion, and his attempt to change a continent’s values is astounding; but it’s still a stratified society. He does not seem to change that.

I changed it because that would have been a distraction from the story.

But accepting that dāsas are quite different to Greco-Roman slaves, they’re still forced labourers in any modern sense. And the Mauryan empire has a Greek corner in which Greek-style slavery presumably did exist. (In one text, the Buddha says that the Greeks have only two castes – slaves and free.)

We look back at Ashoka from the perspective of a society that finds all forms of human slavery abhorrent but generally takes it for granted that other animals exist for humans. We’re used to assuming that the first injustice is challenged before the second, but that’s not always the case.

Of course, the word “slavery” today principally conjures up the racist “peculiar institution” of the southern United States and Caribbean, and the transatlantic slave trade. When the movement to abolish those horrors gets going, campaigners against the abuse of animals will be part of the alliance. But that’s seven episodes (and almost 2000 years) away.


The interviews were recorded in early 2014, before the the lion capital was seriously damaged in a museum accident.

Recording these interviews was a little hectic. In order to make a different interview in Calcutta on the Saturday after interviewing Dr Ghosh, I took an overnight train to Bhubaneswar on for Friday morning, gave myself a day to set up the Dhauli interview, head back overnight to Calcutta for another interview; and then back to Bhubaneswar in the hope of gathering material on Sunday. (Which you’ll hear in episode six.)

The following Monday was Holi, the Indian spring festival of colours. Folk in the west have embraced it as a chance to throw brightly coloured powder at each other.

I alighted in Bhubaneswar, Orissa. I’d given myself a day to setup and a day to interview. My solution in India when I hadn’t managed to set anything up with phones and emails beforehand was to turn up on people’s doorsteps – and the local Archaeological Survey of India office can be relied upon to know everyone. They very kindly sent me to Dr Pal at the museum.

This is probably where I should mention that Holi is a much bigger deal in Orissa. There’s a major procession with religious idols, and two linked festival days. So I’d turned up on the Friday before a bank/public holiday weekend. And at the end of the working day, just before starting her holiday, Dr Pal very graciously got into a motor-rickshaw for the Dhauli hillside.

That schedule meant I completely missed Holi on the following Monday, apart from sharing the carriage with young folk whose clothing was still tinged with coloured powder.


The actors were Jeremy Hancock, Sandeep Garcha and Vinay Varma as King Ashoka Maurya.

The series has included some brilliant actors in a range of roles, but this is the first episode where a single actor carries the show in a single role. Vinay is an accomplished Hyderabad-based actor who has appeared in a range of Hindi and Telugu films, TV series, and theatre.

The music is by Robb Masters, and Michael Levy.

The clip played under discussion of Greek India is the “Epitaph of Seikilos”, taken from a Greek gravestone, performed by Michael Levy on his album “The Ancient Greek Lyre”.

The composite image (of the Dhauli elephant with text of the edict) is available for re-use under a CC-BY-SA license; attribution should link back to this page (or list in physical media) and name either the “The Vegan Option” or “Vegetarianism: The Story So Far”. The original photograph is by Michael Gunther.

Special thanks to the Archaeological Survey of India, and to Nimi Hirani of The Philosophy Club Ahmedabad (FB) for advice and interpretation throughout my time in India.

This episode was sponsored by Kickstarter backers Menka and Ajay Sanghvi, to whom I’m very grateful.


Where there are no established Anglicisations (eg “Ashoka” for “Aśoka”), I have rendered Indic languages in Latin letters with marks called diacritics, loosely following the IAST standard explained at Jainpedia. For example “ś” is a soft “sh”, and a bar over a vowel lengthens it.

Aśoka, and James Prinsep. 1838. On the Edicts of Piyadasi, or Asoka, the Buddhist Monarch of India, Preserved on the Girnar Rock in the Gujerat Peninsula, and on the Dhaulí Rock in Cuttack; with the Discovery of Ptolemy’s Name Therein. [Calcutta].
Dhammika, Shravasti, Aśoka, and Buddhist Publication Society. 1993. The Edicts of King Asoka: An English Rendering. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.
Hiltebeitel, Alf. 2001. Rethinking the Mahabharata: A Reader’s Guide to the Education of the Dharma King. University of Chicago Press. 1
Hultzsch., Eugene, and Aśoka. 1925. Inscriptions of Aśoka. Vol. 1. Corpus inscriptionum indicarum,. Oxford: Printed for the Govt. of India at the Clarendon Press,.
Thapar, Romila. 1997. Aśoka and the Decline of the Mauryas. Rev. ed. Delhi : Oxford University Press,.
Wilson, H. H, and Aśoka. 1836. On the Rock Inscriptions of Kapur Di Giri, Dhauli and Girnar. [Place of publication not identified].


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About Ian McD

I'm a British new media person with a passion for radio, and interested in the kind of stories best told when we see humans as part of the world of animal minds. I blogged about why I'm producing The Vegan Option.

5 responses to “VegHist Ep 4: Ashoka. On India’s animal advocate Buddhist king and the spread of the śramanas; with Bharati Pal and Suchandra Ghosh; at the Kalinga rock edict, India”

  1. Avatar for Ian McD
    J. F. Edmundson says :

    Absolutely superb! Thoroughly enjoyed listening & learnt a great deal. Thank you.

  2. Avatar for Ian McD
    Eli Tistelö says :

    Thank you SO much for all the good work and valuable history-lessons!!!
    I wonder where I can find ” the Greek idiom for vegetarianism”?

    • Avatar for Ian McD
      Ian McD says :

      It’s “to abstain from animate (empsychos) beings” – used in the Kandahar edict (now lost) as well as used in a number of Greek sources to describe Orphic and other vegetarians.

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