The edicts of Ashoka come to life

TM Krishna sets four edicts to a Carnatic raga-tala-malika for The Edict Project

Vishnu Vasudev
8 min readOct 18, 2020

We have all heard of Ashoka, the great Mauryan emperor who lived in 3rd century BCE. The first word that comes to mind when one thinks his name is chakra. The second, inevitably, is pillar (especially to those of us familiar with Jayanagar locality in Bangalore and its vicinity), and following in a close third place is edict.

There are differing definitions of the word edict. It is either a proclamation, an order or instruction. What is common across the definitions is that it comes from a person of authority. Perhaps the most succinct definition is that from the Merriam-Webster dictionary — a proclamation having the force of law. I certainly associate sternness with the word “edict” — more an order than a plea, with implicit threat of consequence for non-compliance, coming from up on high, like for example, Moses’ Ten Commandments.

Then I listened to TM Krishna’s rendition of four such edicts, sourced from different inscriptions, and strung together in a Carnatic raga-tala-malika form — the first instalment from The Edict Project. Listen in yourself and you will appreciate why I was stunned by what I heard and read:

There is so much to unpack in this rendition — the message of each edict, what they collectively say of Ashoka, and the musical experiment itself. Maybe a good place to begin, is the translation:

(1) All my people are my children; I yearn for their welfare. Welfare how? Good in this world and the other.

(2)There is no gift like the gift of Justice, like relating to this gift of Justice; celebrating Justice and participating in Justice.

(3) Harmony is the best, what is harmony? Listening to reflections on justice. Listening to another’s reflection on Justice. Each listening to that willingly.

(4)After Kalinga was won, reflecting on Justice, practising Justice and enjoining Justice; Ashoka (Devanapriyasa) is contrite, and asks: Did Ashoka win Kalinga?

Let’s look at this one edict at a time, and then all together.

(1) A yearning, not a promise

The rendition begins with Ashoka trying to establish his standing among the people. My guess is that this edict was among the first in the inscription from which it was sourced. It sets the tone for further messages. His declaration is not boiler-plate. Most rulers over the ages have declared their intent to serve the people on the one hand, and on the other have ascribed to themselves the divine mandate to do so as their ruler.

Ashoka instead says he yearns for their welfare, as a father would for their children. In his choice of words he sends two signals — first, that goal (welfare) is not a given, is not in the least guaranteed , not even by an emperor with the wherewithal to issue edicts in distant lands. Second, what he is about to speak about is personal in nature — outside perhaps of the usual ambit of a ruler. This is not the striving of an achiever, born of ambition, but the yearning of a seeker, born of love, or at least, concern for another.

Kapi, a raga that evokes a combination of pathos with a tinge of hope like few others, beautifully conveys the extension of feeling in this message.

(2) The ecology of Justice

The second edict is the one I found the most counterintuitive, and therefore the most stunning, for two reasons. First, the idea of Justice as a gift. There is something beguilingly simple, straightforward and unnerving about this proposition. It implies that Justice is an entity, received by, or chanced upon very fortuitously by humankind. Unnerving because it suggests that a decidedly human-centric abstraction such as Justice is not a contrivance (say, of ‘civilization’) but born of the Universe, natural.

“Don’t try and fix what ain’t broken”. After positing Justice to be the greatest of gifts, I expected Ashoka’s dictum to be along the lines of, “therefore abide by it” or “this is what Justice means for you”. In other words, I expected to hear that this greatest of gifts was infallible and immutable. The second stunning counterintuition contained in these great few words is that Justice must be engaged with fully — celebrated, participated in, and related to. Justice may be the greatest of gifts, but it is not a benign or benevolent idol to be paid obeisance to, worshipped ritually.

In this way, Ashoka’s conception of Justice and our relationship with it seems to me akin to nature, to a wonderous and rich ecosystem that humanity has chanced upon. And like that of the best naturalists today, his advice is not to merely preserve it from afar, but to conserve it through thoughtful engagement.

This second stanza is tuned to the raga Shubhapantuvarali. This has never been a favorite of mine — I have long thought of it as depressive (until I listened to TV Ramprasadh sing it in live concert and found it weirdly and viscerally elevating). But in this case, it conveys both the majesty of the idea of Justice, and empathy for the burden that must be borne by the listener. Participate in Justice? Celebrate Justice? Relate to Justice? What do these mean? How can a mere individual do such things? The task seems necessary, intimidating and hopeless all at once, and the music seems to say “I hear you”.

(3) Harmony. Wait, what?

If the second edict was stunning and awesome, then what follows feels like a fun and fantastic roller coaster ride. Ashoka turns to harmony — what fun! Wait, now he’s back to Justice! They are related! Whoa! How did he do that? This is bait and switch etched in rock. First the lull — the steady, slow, calm, upward climb at the start of the roller coaster. Harmony is good, who can possibly argue with that? I know all that — be nice to each other, don’t be mean, live and let live, yada yada yada. But no. Ashoka has very specific advice.

Listen. Listen willingly. Listen willingly to others. Listen willingly to others’ reflections. Listen to others’ reflections on Justice. What a beautiful twist! Again, Ashoka’s conception of harmony is not detachment, not ignoring the inconvenient, not smiling and moving on. It is not about engaging less so as to not cause trouble, to reduce the chances of disturbing a fragile peace. His recommendation is more. More thinking (if one is to listen to others’ reflections, we all have to reflect in the first place). More listening. More coming together to engage with each other. It is not benign tolerance or acceptance. It is engagement. And engagement with each others’ ideas of Justice, that great but interrogable gift.

In saying so Ashoka not only holds the open-minded listening of others’ views as essential, but does two very specific things. He thrusts the responsibility for harmony on to the people, and he implies no one view of Justice is above the other, not even his own.

This edict is tuned in the raga Mohanam. The sudden shift away from the weighty subject of Justice and the awesome responsibility of engaging with it, to the more happy and benign theme of harmony provides the recipient of the immediate relief. This is fittingly reflected in the beautifully executed switch from Shubhapanthuvarali to Mohanam. Everyone relaxes a little when Mohanam is on. And everyone is willing to listen to Mohanam because it is so familiar and friendly, which is on point for a verse about listening to others. In the whole rendition, I personally found the lines on coming together to willingly listen to others’ reflections of justice the most moving, and this I am sure is because of the beautiful combination of tenderness and conviction that Mohanam is able to convey.

(4) Introspection as a sign of strength

Of course Ashoka won Kalinga, hence the edicts far and wide. The question he poses in the fourth edict (which I assume is situated at the end of an inscription, as a coda) is purely rhetorical. But it sends three important messages. First, by expressing self-doubt so publicly, he endears himself to his people, and identifies as one among them, on this journey of life. Second, he shows that introspection, contrition, humility, the changing of one’s mind are not signs of weakness; indeed, like for him, open-minded reflection can be a source of immense strength. And finally, he offers himself up as a living example of one who has engaged with Justice (again, clearly with no harm done, as proved by the existence of the edict itself).

By Ashok.tapase — This file has been extracted from another file: Ashoka‘‘ Minor Rock Edict at Gujarra, Datia District, Madhya Pradesh, India.jpg,

This last edict is in the raga Desh. Apart from the lyrics having ‘desh’ in them, I assume the raga was chosen for largely symbolic reasons, given the Ashoka Chakra is the national emblem of India. Equally, it is adept as a vehicle for the majesty and poignancy of an emperor, the Devanapriyasa no less, expressing doubts about his greatest military achievement.

Taken together

What struck me about this rendition, apart from the stunning content of the lyrics and the magnificent way in which it has been brought alive through music, is the conciseness of language, and the way in which these four selected edicts have been strung together. Collectively, they provide a broad sweep of giant themes — welfare, goodness, Justice and harmony — dealt with precision. The more obvious way to string these themes together would have been to go from welfare >goodness > harmony > Justice. The genius of the composition (whether intentional or not), is that it does not follow such an obvious path. Instead it goes from welfare >goodness >Justice > harmony > Justice. In following this zig-zag, it keeps the listener on their toes and totally engaged. If the major theme of the composition is Justice, its animating force is the the plea for mindful, open engagement. The composition itself is is a masterclass on how to trigger such engagement.

Closing thoughts

There seems to me a striking parallel between Ashoka’s prescription for harmony and Gandhi’s conceptions of satyagraha and ahimsa. Gandhi (at least later, if not at first) insisted that there it was wrong to translate satyagraha as ‘passive resistance’. There was nothing passive about satyagraha — quite the opposite — it was an unflagging commitment to the adherence to truth. It took effort and commitment. Similarly, working toward harmony requires constant engagement not only with others, but with the idea of Justice. Gandhi saw ahimsa (nonviolence) and satyagraha as intertwined but distinct. Ahimsa was the means to an end — satyagraha was the end. From his edict, it would seem that to Ashoka listening and active engagement were the means to achieving harmony (the end).

It is very easy to be cynical about Ashoka — “sure, it’s all well and good to spout philosophy once you are emperor”, “how on earth could he have maintained such a large empire and be peace-loving”, “all of this is was a giant PR exercise” or “sure, he massacred his way through Kalinga and then discovered non-violence, very convenient”. Nevertheless, whatever the motivation, it takes an awesome amount of courage to show vulnerability, to share responsibility, and to treat those you rule as thinking people capable of their own valid thoughts and views of the world. And it takes a great trust in humanity to urge those you rule to think more rather than less.

I should also note that there are of course very many different interpretations of dhamma / dharma — I am responding to the meaning as translated in the video — Justice. But whether interpreted in any other way (e.g. duty, way of doing things, norms) the animating message of more listening, engagement and open-mindedness remains.

And finally, this is of course not the first time that TM Krishna has produced not-traditionally-Carnatic-music-content as a Carnatic music video. His first well-known effort of the sort was his famous Poromboke Paadal video, which I have written about here.

I can’t wait to listen many more edicts set to music.



Vishnu Vasudev

I write mainly about my experience as a listener of Carnatic music.