Do you have questions like what is Ashoka Dhamma? Who was Ashoka? Was Ashoka a monk or a monarch? Did Ashoka adopt Buddhism? What did Dhamma contain? Is Ashoka Dhamma still relevant?
Why is Ashoka still known as a great emperor? What is the connection between Dhamma and Kalinga wars? If you have these questions but no one to provide a satisfactory answer about the policy of Dhamma, then this article is for you. Stay tuned.
This article presents the ideas of Ashok’s Dhamma along with the facts and relevant references. Major rock edicts are used as a reference to the ancient period of the king’s reign. Some common notions related to the policy of Ashoka dhamma and its similarity to Buddhism are also discussed in this article.
Who was Ashoka
Ashoka (268-232 BCE), both a monk and a monarch in the history of India, was the third king of the Mauryan Empire (322-185 BCE).
Chandragupta, the founder of the Mauryan empire, was his grandfather. He was the son of the second Mauryan ruler, Bindusar.
Ashoka is also known by some other names such as “Chakravarti Samrat” Ashoka the great. The literal meaning of Chakravarti Samrat is the emperor of emperors, whereas the literal meaning of the word Ashoka is ‘without any sorrow.’ He propagated Ashoka Dhamma.
Ashoka, as a great emperor of Ancient India, is remembered for many reasons. Many books are written about this king to describe his life and policies in Indian history, to name a few,
- Ashoka The Great by Wyzte Keuning.
- Ashoka, The Search for India’s Lost Emperor by Charles Allen.
- Ashoka and The Decline of The Mauryas by Romila Thapar.
- Ashoka The Great and Compassionate King by Subhadra Sen Gupta.
The eminent historian Radha Kumud Mukherjee brings the life of Ashoka in front of us through eight chapters of his books. According to him, the personal religion of Ashoka was Buddhism.
In the book named the Early History of India, Vincent Smith also puts the fact that Ashoka adopted Buddhism. But, he did so for a very short span.
On the other hand, Recent historians such as Romila Thapar provide some alternative viewpoints saying that Ashoka’s policy of Dhamma was neither a new religion yet it is a different one from Buddhist ideas. Some historians, while looking at ancient Indian history, also see Ashoka Dhamma as a new political philosophy proposed by the king.
How does a monarch become a monk
According to Buddhist texts, Ashoka was a ruthless king in his early life whose major aim was to create a vast empire. He launched many campaigns, before the Kalinga war, across the world to widen his empire. Going with this aim in his mind, the crown prince Ashoka further launched a campaign to conquer Kalinga.
In his journey of conquering Kalinga, which is also known as the Kalinga war, the king was shocked and sad with the deaths of the masses. As an impact, Ashoka renounced war and became a Buddhist monk.
This was the beginning of Ashoka Dhamma. The king not just forbids animal sacrifices but also gave up the consumption of meat or any food material coming as an outcome after the death of an animal.
Later, Ashok started propagating Dhamma and his ethical principles. Dhamma was some code of conduct, of living life. He also formed a group of some subordinate officers. The members of this group were known as Dhamma-Mahamatta.
The destruction of war and the conversion of Ashok can be understood by grown-ups by reading scholarly works. But, it is not that easy in the case of children. Thankfully, the conversion of Ashok is also explained by some authors in a child-friendly manner through storybooks like Instead of the war drums written by Uma Krishnaswami.
Other than that, Ashok also took the initiative of constructing some ancient stupas. Stupas are the places where Lord Buddha’s remains are kept. Each stupa has a part of Buddha’s remains.
Along with spreading Ashoka dhamma, he also wanted people to know about Buddha’s teachings which he ensured by the construction of Stupas. The famous Sanchi stupa in Madhya Pradesh is one of these stupas.
Lions taken from the Ashok pillar are still used in Indian currency coins as a logo. Moreover, Ashok Chakra, a wheel with twenty-four strikes, has secured a central place in the Indian flag. This chakra is shown with blue color in the flag.
Inevitably, Ashok and his ruling period leave behind many learnings for us. Today, Ashoka’s policy of dhamma is one of those aspects that makes him exclusively different from other emperors across the ancient world.
Now the question occurs, What is the meaning of the word Dhamma?
What is Dhamma
Dhamma is a Prakrit form of the word Dharma in the Sanskrit language, which is translated as religion in contemporary times. The word Dhamma is often read as piety, duty, moral precepts, moral principles in English to have a better understanding of Ashok’s Dhamma.
Still, there isn’t any particular word in English to define Dhamma in the context of Indian history. Therefore, the only way to understand the real meaning of Ashok dhamma is to put it in the context of that particular time in Ashoka’s reign.
Not to forget, Buddhism, as a religion, was prominent at that time. In effect, Dhamma is often related as belonging to Buddha’s teachings.
But, there is a need to explore and analyze the difference between the two. We will use the edicts of the great king Ashoka to capture the nature of his policy of Dhamma. Let’s see what Ashoka’s policy to propagate Dhamma contain.
Main Aspects of Ashoka Dhamma
Ancient India was a diverse and complex society with plenty of social and religious tensions along with sectarian conflicts. There was an ideological conflict between different religious sects.
Dhamma, which was not a new religion but was meant to reach the masses to maintain unity, was therefore inscribed on pillar edicts. The king didn’t impose Buddhism though he embraced Buddhism as he didn’t want to bound his ideas to any religion.
He knew that Brahmanical structure was strong enough to create further conflicts. To harmony, Dhamma was secular.
To understand the concept behind the policy of Dhamma in its divine form, the rock edict of Ashoka’s reign is a valuable resource for us. These edicts were written in the Prakrit language to make it comprehensible for a larger public.
Major Rock Edict i
The first rock edict prohibits animal sacrifice at festive gatherings. Animal sacrifice was practiced by various sects in Ancient times of India.
Major Rock Edict ii
This rock edict lays stress on social welfare as a social responsibility. It is about medicinal missions for living beings and not exclusively humans. Construction of roads, digging of wells, plantation of trees were some suggestions in this rock edict.
Major Rock Edict iii
This rock edict mentions being generous to Brahmans and Sramanas as good quality. It also focuses on obeying one’s mother and father, friends, and relatives.
Major Rock Edict iv
The sound of the war drums is replaced with the sound of Dhamma, indicating the divine form to the people.
Major Rock Edict v
It is about the institution of the Dhamma-Mahammata, the officers of the Dhamma in fourteen years of Ashoka’s reign. It also mentions about fair treatment of servants by their masters and of prisoners by the government officials and rural administrators.
Major Rock Edict vi
The relationship between the king and his subjects via the Dhamma Mahamattas was made clearer by this rock edict. The Mahamattas could report to the king at any time and place.
Major Rock Edict vii
To decrease and remove sectarian conflicts, this edict of Ashoka’s Dhamma asks for toleration among different religious sects and maintains unity.
Major Rock Edict viii
This rock edict is about the king’s Dhamma Yatra to propagate Dhamma. In order of Dhamma Yatra (tour), the hunting tours were eliminated.
Major Rock Edict ix
All ceremonies are described as useless in this rock edict. Dhamma which promotes harmonious relationships, was the only glory.
Major Rock Edict x
In this edict, the king embarked Dhamma and denounced glory.
Major Rock Edict xi
A further explanation of Dhamma is the inscription of major rock edict xi. The gift of Dhamma, the distribution (spread) of Dhamma, the detailed kinship Dhamma are the focus.
Major Rock Edict xii
This rock edict is a direct and emphatic plea for a harmonious relationship amongst the various sects.
Major Rock Edict xiii
Major Rock Edict xiv
It is a short edict in which Ashok explains that he has had these rock edicts inscribed throughout the country in complete or abridged versions.
Location of Ashoka’s Edicts
Ashok Dhamma was a set of principles and not a place or some material. But, the inscriptions or rock edict are the material to find out more about Ashoka Dhamma. There isn’t any single location of these rock edicts.
The edicts were inscribed throughout Ashoka’s reign, including the areas of present Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan, along with the Indian Subcontinent.
Principles of Ashoka Dhamma
After reading the major rock edict I to major rock edict XIV, some inferences as principles of dhamma are…
- Respecting one’s parents, relatives and elders is good quality.
- One should adhere to humane treatment with all living beings.
- One should think not only about themselves but about the larger society as a social responsibility.
- Social and religious tensions should be erased.
- Toleration should be maintained throughout sects.
- There is a father-child relationship between the king and the citizens, according to Ashoka Dhamma.
- Non-violence and non-glory should be followed by all by not only giving up wars but animal sacrifices and ceremonies as well.
- One should maintain and promote a harmonious relationship.
- Ashok launched and sent many missions to propagate Ashoka Dhamma. Such missions were sent to places like Egypt, Greece, and modern-day Sri Lanka.
Things to know about Ashoka Dhamma
10 things that you need to know about Ashoka Dhamma contains some notions and reality along with the relevance of Ashok’s Dhamma.
1. Notion: Ashoka’s dhamma is a religion based on the religious beliefs of the king
Reality: Dhamma is not a new religion. However, Dhamma is a Prakrit from Dharma which means religion in modern times. But, Ashoka’s Dhamma didn’t glorify any particular religion. It is a set of ethical principles proposed by the great Ashoka grew in terms of his spiritual journey.
2. Notion: Ashoka dhamma was a new political philosophy to expand his vast empire
Reality: Ashoka’s heart changed after the Kalinga war. He got more inclined towards dhamma and its propagation. He adopted dhamma as the only principle to live his life peacefully. Moreover, he wanted to promote his moral precepts to his populace, whom he considered as his child.
3. Notion: There were two Ashoka in Ancient India- one monk and one monarch
Reality: Ashoka the Great was both a monk and a monarch. He was a monk due to his principles and a monarch due to his social responsibilities. He was an emperor like never before.
4. Notion: Dhamma is not relevant today
Reality: Dhamma is a code of conduct based on morality and moral duties. The relevance of Ashoka Dhamma in contemporary times is discussed further in this article. We can see that Ashoka adopted secular teachings. He promoted secularism and toleration of differences which is relevant even today.
5. Notion: If Buddhist missionaries and Buddhism were already there. Dhamma wasn’t needed
Reality: Buddhism, again, was a religion, whereas Dhamma contained some principles. The king decided to spread his ideas beyond religious beliefs. Buddhism emerged as opposition against the Brahmanical structure.
Those who liked Buddhism converted themselves as Buddhists, but others remained somewhat untouched by Buddhist ideas.
Dhamma didn’t raise demand for converting to any other religion. One could practice it along with his/her own religion.
6. Notion: Ashoka Dhamma and Buddhism are similar
Reality: People who are inclined towards Buddhism may read Ashoka’s Dhamma with Buddha’s teachings. Lord Buddha inspired Ashoka, but Dhamma is different from Buddhism.
7. Notion: Dhamma is just a collection of sound phrases having no relation with real or personal life
Reality: Dhamma was very separate from the royal household of the king. It was related to the immediate social environment of human beings. King brought Ashoka Dhamma to eliminate social tension.
8. Notion: Only Buddhist follow Dhamma
Reality: Buddhists follow Buddhism. There are some similarities between Dhamma and Buddhism. But, that doesn’t mean that only Buddhist monks are followers of Dhamma. Anyone can follow Ashoka Dhamma.
9. Difference between Ashoka Dhamma and Buddhism
To put it all together, Ashoka Dhamma was different from Lord Buddha’s Buddhism. Ashoka’s definition of Dhamma explains that Dhamma is a code of conduct that anyone can follow. Religion doesn’t need to play a role there, whereas Buddhism is a religion.
We see that Dhamma is different from religion and the reason behind Dhamma was also different. But is Dhamma still relevant?
10. Relevance of Dhamma in modern time
Indubitably, there were some shortcomings of Ashoka Dhamma, e.g.
- Deep religious and social beliefs of the masses opposed Dhamma by relating it to Buddhism.
- Conflicts within Mahamattas and the general population became a barrier in the propagation of Dhamma.
- Ashoka’s successors didn’t propagate Dhamma.
Still, Ashoka Dhamma is relevant even today. According to the modern scholar Romila Thapar, Dhamma was not only a document of Ashoka’s humanity, but it was an answer to the socio-political ideological conflicts of that time.
Though Ashoka’s private empire failed just after a few years of his propagation of Dhamma yet, Ashoka Dhamma contains many answers for modern-day lives.
India, being a plural society, has never been easy to keep united and rule peacefully. The great king, through his policy of Dhamma, was able to unite his populace throughout his reign.
He maintained a relationship with his populace by declaring them as their children, and he was the father. He also ensured parity by assigning Dhamma-Mahamattas the role of officers looking after the members of his society at a grassroots level.
Ashoka also declared his availability as a king by inscribing that any Mahamatta could reach him at any time. He didn’t allow religion to become a barrier by adopting secular ideas and codes of conduct.
That is the reason why Ashoka had a great impact on Indian culture and even outside India. He combined his principles of ruling politics with philosophy and spirituality. Even his rock edict mention that true conquest is by virtue.
There have been emperors in history who imposed their religion over others or those who suppressed other religions. He could have imposed Buddhism; on the contrary, Ashoka promoted secularism.
Ashoka’s life is a true example of heart change. Ashoka Dhamma holds many insights and inferences for us in contemporary times. Diversity is often taken as a challenge by everyone, be it a ruler, an officer, or a teacher.
But, Ashoka embarked with his well-thought principles and spread humanism throughout his vast empire. Furthermore, he thought of spreading his ideas to the general population by relating his ideas and language to their immediate environment. Ashoka Dhamma was unique in itself.
Someone has rightly said, “History is not what is gone. History is what we live on every day. It is important to know about history. Because it gives us many insights for our present and the future.”