The Lion Capital of Ashoka is a sculpture of four Asiatic lions standing back to back, on an elaborate base that includes other animals. A graphic representation of it was adopted as the official Emblem of India in 1950. It was originally placed atop the Aśoka pillar at the important Buddhist site of Sarnath by the Emperor Ashoka, in about 250 BCE. The pillar, sometimes called the Aśoka Column, is still in its original location, but the Lion Capital is now in the Sarnath Museum, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India. Standing 2.15 metres (7 feet) high including the base, it is more elaborate than the other very similar surviving capitals of the pillars of Ashoka bearing the Edicts of Ashoka that were placed throughout India several of which feature single animals at the top; one other damaged group of four lions survives, at Sanchi.
The capital is carved out of a single block of polished sandstone, and was always a separate piece from the column itself. It features four Asiatic Lions standing back to back. They are mounted on an abacus with a frieze carrying sculptures in high relief of an elephant, a galloping horse, a bull, and a lion, separated by intervening spoked chariot-wheels. The whole sits upon a bell-shaped lotus. The capital was originally probably crowned by a 'Wheel of Dharma' (Dharmachakra popularly known in India as the "Ashoka Chakra"), with 24 spokes, of which a few fragments were found on the site. A 13th-century replica of the Sarnath pillar and capital in Wat Umong near Chiang Mai, Thailand built by King Mangrai, preserves its crowning Ashoka Chakra or Dharmachakra. The wheel on the capital, below the lions, is the model for the one in the flag of India.
The six surviving animal sculptures from Ashoka pillars form "the first important group of Indian stone sculpture", though it is thought they derive from an existing tradition of wooden columns topped by animal sculptures in copper, none of which have survived. There has been much discussion of the extent of influence from Achaemenid Persia, where the column capitals supporting the roofs at Persepolis have similarities, and the "rather cold, hieratic style" of the Sarnath sculptures especially shows "obvious Achaemenid and Sargonid influence".
Very similar four-lion sculptures are on the capitals of the two columns supporting the south torana of the Ashokan or Satavahana enclosure wall round the Great Stupa at Sanchi. Like other Ashoka pillars, the one at Sarnath was probably erected to commemorate a visit by the emperor.
There were no surviving traces above ground of the Sarnath pillar, mentioned in the accounts of medieval Chinese pilgrims, when the Indian Civil Service engineer F.O. Oertel, with no real experience in archaeology, was allowed to excavate there in the winter of 1904-05. He first uncovered the remains of a Gupta shrine west of the main stupa, overlying an Ashokan structure. To the west of that he found the lowest section of the pillar, upright but broken off near ground level. Most of the rest of the pillar was found in three sections nearby, and then, since the Sanchi capital had been excavated in 1851, the search for an equivalent was continued, and it was found close by. It was both finer in execution and in much better condition than that at Sanchi. The pillar appeared to have been deliberately destroyed at some point. The finds were recognised as so important that the first onsite museum in India (and one of the few then in the world) was set up to house them.
What is being preached may be symbolised by the group of four lions of the capital. A group of four lions joined back to back symbolizes a group of four things of equal importance. The lion is frequently used as a symbol of the Buddha, as at Sanchi, and the animals on the abacus below also have symbolic meaning in Buddhism. The capital is clearly Buddhist and Mauryan in origin and thus probably symbolizes the spread of Dharma, and perhaps the extent of the Maurya Empire in all directions, or four parts of the empire. Alternatively, the group of four lions and bell jointly symbolize preaching of 'the Four Noble Truths' of Buddhism to all; those that emphasize the Middle Path. The symbol U with a vertical line placed symmetrically inside it symbolizes 'The Middle Path'. The Middle Path is the fundamental philosophy of Buddhism, the Buddhist Dharma.
A further clue could be the cylindrical portion of the Lion Capital. On the wall of the cylinder the bull, the horse, the Lion and the Elephant all in the moving position are being placed in between the Chakras. These could symbolize Bull, Lion, Horse and Elephant rolling the Chakras.
A study of the ancient coins and other archaeological finds of India and Sri Lanka reveals the fact that Buddha had been symbolized with a Horse, Lion, Bull, Elephant and a pair of feet. The Tamil epic Manimekalai mentions worship of a pair of feet. Pairs of feet made of stone had been discovered in Jaffna Peninsula, Anuradhapura and in a number of places of Tamil Nadu.In a number of Buddhist inscriptions of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, a pair of feet had been symbolized with a pair of fish or a pair of conch shells. In this way the symbols sculpted in the cylindrical portion of the Lion Capital represents Buddha rolling the Dhamma Chakra; that is, Preaching the Dhamma.
As Theravada Buddhism rejects symbolization of Buddha and Buddhism, the Lion Capital may be claimed as one of the finest sculptures of the main tradition that developed into Mahayana Buddhism several centuries later.
Whenever the emblem is used by state governments or any other government body, the words Satyameva Jayate in Devanagari script (सत्यमेव जयते) has to be used right under the emblem as per the statute, State Emblem of India (Prohibition of Improper Use) Act, 2005.