review article

mrabe at mrabe at
Sun Aug 25 09:56:20 UTC 1996

As an Art historian I wish to affirm S. Vidyasankar's points about the
absense of pre-Ashokan epigraphs.  No one, to my knowledge, doubts the
presumption of a long pre-Ashokan visual arts tradition in North India,
carving in wood and ivory, painting on plaster. etc. The great novelty of
the Mauryan period, and pre-Ashokan at that, was the introduction of stone
carving (and epigraphy) on a monumental scale -- and yes, under the
influence of contacts with Achaemenids and Alexander's Yavanas.  Still the
best word on this subject is John Irwin's series of articles in the
Burlington Magazine, c. 1973.*

>While it may be possible that the Brahmi script was completely invented
>in Asoka's time, shouldn't one expect some record of such invention
>somewhere? Surely, the introduction of a script and its widespread use
>(with regional variations) over vast regions in Asoka's empire must have
>meant a significant change in the culture of a people who had absolutely
>no writing prior to the event. Didn't a king who meticulously recorded
>the missions of various dhamma-mahamatras feel the need to record so
>significant a change as introducing writing in a preliterate society?
>I am not asking this question lightly. The absence of evidence of writing
>prior to Asoka's time is interpreted as evidence of absence of writing.
>Similarly, does not Asoka's silence on the issue qualify as evidence
>that the Brahmi script was not invented by him?
>My point is that nowhere does absence of evidence imply evidence of absence.
>Just as arguments for the existence of a script prior to Asoka are weak, so
>also is the argument that Asoka (or a team of scholars sponsored by him, or
>by some other Mauryan king, for that matter) invented the script. Given that
>the radiocarbon dating from the recent finds from Sri Lanka have been doubted,
>all that can be legitimately said is that the earliest evidence of the Brahmi
>script is in Asoka's inscriptions, which is nothing more than a statement of
>S. Vidyasankar

* Irwin, John, "'Ashokan' Pillars: a reassessment of the evidence,"
Burlington Magazine 115 (Nov. 1973): 706-20.

Irwin, John, "'Ashokan' Pillars: a reassessment of the evidence, Part II:
Structure" Burlington Magazine 116 (Dec. 1974): 712-727.

Irwin, John, "'Ashokan' Pillars: a reassessment of the evidence, Part III,
Capitals" Burlington Magazine 117 (Oct. 1975): 631-643.

Irwin, John, "'Ashokan' Pillars: a reassessment of the evidence, Part IV,
Symbolism" Burlington Magazine 118 (Nov. 1976): 734-53.

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