Brahmi older than ASHOKA used in ceylon from 800BC

Brahmi older than ASHOKA used in ceylon from 800BC

The Brahmi Script from which all Indic scripts are

derived appeared suddenly and dramatically during

the reign of Asoka, the Mauryan emperor ~250 B.C.

(Salomon, 1995).
Brahmi Inscription – Kusumadasasya(Flowers servant)

– Click to Enlarge
There is no material evidence of any script being used

in the Indian subcontinent until this time. Of course,

ancient writings on parchment, bark and cloth would

not be expected to survive any length of time in the

Indian climate. Strikingly, no supporting evidence

in the form of writing instruments or images of scribes

(e.g., ancient Egypt) have been found, either.

So when and where did Brahmi arise?
There are 3 theories:

1. The Ancient Indian Theory: The Brahmi writing

system predates the Mauryas and evolved in India

without any outside influence.

2. The Mesopotamian Theory: Commerce with

ancient Babylon exposed Indian traders to Aramaic

scripts which they then adapted into Brahmi.

3. The Mauryan Theory: Asoka invented a new

script with the help of the “learned Pandits” at his court.

1. The Ancient Indian Theory: >1000-500 BC
We do have evidence that writing and scripts

were known before Asoka. The early grammarians,

Panini and Katayana, refer to scribes and “yavana-lipi”

(loosely translated as the “script of the Greeks”).

Evidence of scripts is also hinted at by the early

Buddhist Canon. The Buddha, who often provides

good social commentary on life circa 450 BC in the

Indo-Gangetic plains, specifically prohibited members

of his Order from playing a children’s “Lettering” game,

where “letters are traced in the air, or on a

play-fellow’s back”.

One could argue on end about the impossibility of the

existence of a grammatical tradition from ‘old’ Gargi

to Panini without any scripts. However, these savants

were trained to know “by heart” the vast corpus of

Sanskrit literature. Writing may not have been

important. Moreover, severe doctrinal diktats

were in force to keep knowledge a secret (rahasya)

and to never divulge it to ‘impure minds’. Therefore,

if pre-Asokan writing and scripts did exist, they

may have been concealed. Until we have more

evidence we can only speculate – history being

about facts rather than plausibility.

2. The Mesopotamian Theory 800 – 700 BC:
Trading contacts existed between South India

and Babylon. Besides artifacts, South Indian

words for the traded goods entered the local

language in Mesopotamia – rice, ivory, apes and

peacocks. It is possible that the Aramaic script used

in Mesopotamia was modified for Indian purposes

during this cultural encounter (Rhys Davids, 1903).

Ancient Aramiac is a terse language with barely any

vowels, which are “assumed” from knowledge of the

language. Georg Bühler (1896) painstakingly studied

congruences between Aramaic and Brahmi.

He suggested that many of the alphabets were

simple reversals of the Aramaic script for writing

from left-to-right – Aramaic, itself, being written

from right-to-left. (Note that there have been

examples on Brahmi on coins being

written right-to-left.)The problem with this theory is thatcritical Indian

sounds do not exist in Aramaic (Scharfe, 2002).

The Vedic literature of India abounds

with cautions against mis-pronouncing even a single syllable.Inone story, Indra kills the

    person invoking him

    because of such an error.

    All the Indian sounds

    were critically important and had to be a part of the script and writing system.

    3. The Mauryan Theory ~250 BC:
    Inscriptions of the Achaemenid Empire

    Asoka saw the rock-face inscriptions and monuments

    of the Achaemenid Empire of Darius when he was the

    Governor of Gandhara in the North-West of the Indian

    subcontinent. Upon his return to Pataliputra, the

    imperial Mauryan capital, he used similar ideas and

    inscribed his edicts on rock-faces and pillars.

    In a variation, Goyal (in Gupta & Ramachandran,

    1979), speculated that a group of “learned pandits

    of the age of Asoka” hammered out the Brahmi script

    by consensus. He based his evidence on the primitive

    forms of the early Brahmi script and the Pali canon

    suggesting an

    illiterate culture at the time. In other words, it was a

    Mauryan invention.

    Unfortunately, most of the historical information

    about Asoka is from Buddhist sources compiled

    centuries later, by the Buddhist clergy. They focus

    on Asoka the Good after his Kalingan massacre,

    (”one hundred and fifty thousand deportations,

    one hundred thousand deaths … many more died…”

    – 13th Rock Edict) and subsequent epiphany.

    Traditional Hindu and Greek sources barely

    mention Asoka, much less the invention of

    any script during his reign.

    What is indisputable is that he did inscribe

    his messages on pillars and rocks, all over

    the Indian subcontinent, in the imperial

    Brahmi script. To quote the Emperor in his

    own words, “… had these Dhamma edicts

    written in brief, in medium length, and in

    extended form. Not all of them occur everywhere,

    for my domain is vast, but much has been written,

    and I will have still more written.”

    The pillars and inscriptions are interesting in

    their own right. Inscriptions were engraved at

    different times of Asoka’s rule. Some in his 12th

    regnal year and some in the 26-27th.

    Variability in Pillar Styles
    Asoka Pillars at Lumbini and Vaishali

    The underlying pillars differ in their design,

    ornamentation and the material used. Notice

    the stylistic differences between the different

    pillars at Lumbini and Vaishali. Oddly, no

    Pillars with Brahmi inscriptions have been found

    at the Mauryan capital city, Pataliputra.

    Variations between Early Asokan Brahmi Rock

    Inscriptions, Girnar and Later Asokan Brahmi

    from the 6th Pillar Edict, Meerut –

    word spacing gets better.

    Girnar and Meerut Brahmi
    The quality of the typography in inscriptions

    also varies. The earliest inscriptions show no

    spaces in between the words while the later ones

    show distinct word spaces. Often, words from

    local dialects occur in the inscriptions. Some

    errors in the inscriptions suggest sculptors

    reading from pre-written copy and making

    “typos”. This creeping standardization suggests

    a sudden exposure to the Brahmi script by

    Mauryan sculptors.

    There are other tantalizing mysteries.

    There are theories that Asoka did not erect

    the pillars himself but simply inscribed on

    pre-existing ones (Irwin, 1973). In the

    7th Major Pillar Edict, he orders his guidelines

    to be engraved “wherever there are stone pillars

    or stone slabs.” If true, this opens another can of

    ancient worms – who did put up those pillars?

    More mysteries. Recently, pot-shards with Brahmi

    letters were found in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, and

    dated to 600-500 B.C. If these dates hold, then the

    Brahmi script reached Sri Lanka about the

    time of the Buddha – a full 2-3 centuries before

    Asokan monuments were inscribed! However,

    this is still controversial. Hopefully, more finds will

    settle the issue.

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    Published in: on September 21, 2008 at 6:34 am  Leave a Comment  
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