The Sarnath Lion Capital & The Emblem Of India

"It has been decided that the State Emblem and Seal should consist of the Sarnath Lion Capital of Asoka"

Something remarkable happened in India in the second century B.C. Out of the myriad successions of kings and emperors, one took a pause from the struggle of power – and spoke directly to his subjects.

When you handle a piece of Indian currency today, a part of that message continues to be spread. The emblem of India, to be found on every official government document and legal tender, is the Sarnath Lion Capital of Emperor Ashoka (284-232 B.C).

The Lion Capital is one of 33 edicts (pillars and stones upon which Ashoka sought to communicate his ideas and story to his people) that survive today. The Mauryan Emperor had a story to tell, and knew he had to tell it himself, under the title ‘Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi’. Previous generations of kings merely went about their business, invading and annexing other lands – their constant military success their only testimony to history.

Ashoka was, for a while, little different. He was raised in a time of great conquerors of the world; Alexander the Great, Ptolemy and his own grandfather – Chandragupta Maurya. He led a very bloody attack on the kingdom of Kalinga, located in modern day Orissa. The aftermath of the war served as a profound experience for Ashoka. 100,000 were killed, 150,000 were deported and many more made to suffer and die from the consequences of war.

The emperor was moved to renounce violence, and take up the path of Dhamma – the Buddha’s teachings. Across his empire and in the empires of his neighbours, he sent emissaries to spread the message of peace and non-violence. To the question of what is Dhamma, Ashoka’s own edict  provides a good answer:

Dhamma is good, but what constitutes Dhamma? (It includes) little evil, much good, kindness, generosity, truthfulness and purity.

While the Buddha existed in or prior to Ashoka’s time, the earliest known record of his existence remains the Mauryan king’s stone edicts. Of these, the Lion Capital was carved in the spot where the Buddha is said to have taught his first disciples.

Four lions, back to back, standing atop an abacus, on which is engraved a bull, an elephant, a horse, a lion and a pair of feet. Below this, supporting the above is an inverted lotus flower. And between the animals is a multi-spoked wheel, representing Dharma.

Sadly, this monument was lost to time for many centuries, though it was mentioned in the travels of Xuanzang in the 7th century A.D. In 1903, a British Civil Engineer named F.O. Oertal unearthed the pillar at a site in Sarnath, based on legends and with no prior archaeological experience.

There are legends of Ashoka written in Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, Japanese, Burmese, Tibetan, Thai and Sinhala. Many of these mention how he built 84,000 stupas to house 84 tenets of Buddhist thought.

The Lion Capital’s edict is part of the ‘schism’ series; which mandates that no one cause dissension within the monks and nuns. But the Emblem of India does not include, rather, it takes the phrase ‘Satyameva Jayate’ from the Mundaka Upanishad. “Truth alone prevails.”

Ashoka’s edicts served the dual purpose of spreading the idea of peace and Buddhism as well as enunciating the emperor’s deeds. They spell out his administrative reforms and his list of do’s and donts. According to the edicts, he built rest-houses, dug wells and planted shady banyan trees for travellers. Interestingly, one edict serves as an early law against animal slaughter.

Twenty-six years after my coronation various animals were declared to be protected – parrots, mainas, aruna, ruddy geese, wild ducks, nandimukhas, gelatas, bats, queen ants, terrapins, boneless fish, vedareyaka, gangapuputaka, fish, tortoises, porcupines, squirrels, deer, bulls, okapinda, wild asses, wild pigeons, domestic pigeons and all four-footed creatures that are neither useful nor edible. Those nanny goats, ewes and sows which are with young or giving milk to their young are protected, and so are young ones less than six months old. Cocks are not to be caponized, husks hiding living beings are not to be burnt and forests are not to be burnt either without reason or to kill creatures. One animal is not to be fed to another.

Many of Ashoka’s edicts no longer reside in India. Those that were rediscovered in the 19th century, are now part of the countries of India, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Ashoka’s original intent would have been to be even more global; his emissaries travelled as far as Burma, Greece and the Levant. Of the latter, Ashoka had a direct connection, for the empire of Seleucid the Great was his neighbour. His edicts mention Antiochus of the Seleucid Empire and Ptolemy III of Egypt.

As far as it is known, Ashoka did not have any wars with his neighbours. His ‘change of heart’ was a marked shift from his earlier persona – when he was known as ‘Candashoka‘, rage-filled Ashoka. Peace and tolerance were his ultimate message.

All religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart

On December 29, 1947, the Ministry of Home Affairs released a press communique stating:

The Government of India have now approved a design for their State Emblem and Seal. It has been decided that the State Emblem and Seal should consist of the Sarnath Lion Capital of Asoka as it exists at present, looked at from the side which shows the lions on an abacus which has a Dharma Chakra in the centre, a bull on the right and a horse on the left, and the outlines of the Dharma chakras on the extreme right and left. The bell-shaped lotus at the bottom of the Capital has been omitted as the capital would become too long for effective use as a State Emblem or Seal.

On January 26, 1950, Ashoka’s Lion Capital was adopted as the Emblem of India. The principles of non-violence had by then come full circle with the rise of Satyagraha during the Indian freedom struggle. But the subsequent clashes with Pakistan held a tragic irony to them – 14 of the known edicts reside in a single location in Pakistan, Mansehra. They are the earliest irrefutable known evidence of writing in South Asia, according to UNESCO.

But 33 is a small number, it turns out. In 2016, a team from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) used a geographic modelling technique to identify 121 more locations in India where further edicts could be unearthed.

The modern Indian state; the very idea of India, is built upon the foundations of Ashoka, his empire and his edicts. Like fans of a novel series that ended too soon, we can only but wait and see if there are more edicts and reflections of Ashoka’s times to be unearthed. What little we know of Ashoka has given us so much, already.

You can read a complete list and translation of the 33 known edicts here.


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