Aśoka and the Use of Writing in Ancient India

Published by De Gruyter, and for the time being the whole book is open access: The Ancient World Revisited: Material Dimensions of Written Artefacts

This new article by Ingo Strauch, published as a book chapter, surveys the most recent research on the Asoka corpus. This is a very good introduction to the topic or an good update if you haven’t looked at it recently. Things have certainly shifted a bit since I first sat down and read all of Roy Norman’s articles on these important historical sources.

Abstract: Starting with a brief summary of the recent discussion on the introduction of writing in India, the article examines the material contexts of the written texts produced during the reign of the Indian emperor Aśoka (r. 268–232 BCE). Even if these inscriptions on rocks and rock pillars may not have been the first written evidence, they represent the most extensive and diverse corpus of written texts from the early phase of writing in South Asia. Although this corpus only covers a period of less than twenty years, it shows a fairly quick development and improvement in various material aspects of writing, including writing materials, techniques, surfaces and text transmission. At the same time, the variety of inscribed texts – from royal edicts to short label inscriptions and personal texts – illustrates the rather rapid spread of writing. Moreover, the texts shed light on the practical use of written documents in the dissemination of the emblematic dharma teachings of Aśoka.

The whole book shows influence from “the New Philology” and pays close attention to material culture.

And of course, these artefacts are front and centre in the issue of the Buddha’s historicity.


Fascinating, thanks for sharing, I would not have found this otherwise

1 Like

Wow, he’s really pushing his forthcoming graffiti paper hard in this one :laughing:

Given the comedy of errors in how the edicts were translated to stone, it does suggest mass illiteracy — even among the mahāmātras. Curious to hear @Meggers take…

1 Like

Eh :face_with_monocle: ? Not quite sure what you’re trying to drag me into here, but did you read the Introduction? They are indispensable. I am just now beginning to read that. Then I will read the Ashoka thing, unless something else catches my eye and I go there first.

1 Like

Didn’t you, on the other thread, claim to hold the view that reading and writing were widespread at the time of the Buddha?

I didn’t say that, I said I believe there has to be some type of literary tradition behind what everyone thinks is purely oral creation and transmission - from the vedas on down. Even the reading I gave states that in certain historical periods literacy was restricted to elites.

1 Like

Ah, thanks for clarifying :blush: