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Patrick Olivelle: "India's Oldest Writings: New Perspectives on the Asokan Inscriptions"

Thursday February 3rd 2011, 7:30PM
Event Sponsor
Humanities Center, Ho Center for Buddhist Studies at Stanford, Department of Religious Studies
Levinthal Hall, Stanford Humanities Center.
Patrick Olivelle: "India's Oldest Writings: New Perspectives on the Asokan Inscriptions"


My paper will look at Aśoka's inscriptions through two lenses. I will examine them as texts and as articulations of an ideology. Considering these inscriptions as texts, thus, forces us to ask questions regarding their textual history. We see editorial interventions in several of the inscriptions, and the Major Rock Edicts and the Pillar Edicts can be viewed as textual anthologies. The paper examines the significance of the anthological nature of these texts and raises questions regarding their pre- and extra-inscriptional history.

Considering the Aśokan inscriptions as texts leads us also to the issue of their literary form. In this connection, let me first draw your attention to a literary feature of the texts that has been passed over in silence by previous Asokan scholarship. Some of these texts, especially those introduced with the refrain: "Thus says the beloved of the gods, King Piyadassi", are written in the first person using first person verbs and pronouns, except of course for this introduction, which is in the third person. There are others, especially those lacking this introduction, that are written in the third person without the use of first person verbs or pronouns. The paper address the significance of these two genres.

The second section of the paper dealing with ideology looks first at the very act of engraving writing and presenting the same language for the first time across the subcontinent, and drawing on similar phenomena in other imperial formations examines it as an act of imperial ideology. Second, I look at some of the doctrinal components of Dharma and especially at the silence with regard to other common doctrines, such as the Varṇa system and karma/rebirth ideology, and attempts to make sense of these. And finally, I attempt to reconceptualize the Asoka ideological agenda using the concept of "civil religion" popularized by the sociologist Robert Bellah, and finds here explanations for both the components of his Dharma and for his eloquent silences.

The XXXVIth Evans-Wentz lecture in Oriental Philosophy, Religion and Ethics 2011


Patrick Olivelle is Professor of Sanskrit and Indian Religions at the University of Texas at Austin, and taught previously at Indiana. Educated at the Universities of Oxford and Pennsylvania, he is one of the most distinguished Indologists of our day. He has published prolifically on classical Indian law, codes of conduct, renunciation and asceticism, his research encompassing many aspects of Hinduism and Buddhism alike. He has also authored new translations of many key Sanskrit texts, among them the Upaniṣads and Aśvaghoṣa's Buddhacarita.