Ashoka and his Dhamma

Ashoka is considered as one of the greatest kings in Indian history. He is praised not so much for his militaristic activity as for his policy of Dhamma. According to some of scholars Ashoka was a follower of Buddhism and through Dhamma he tried to propagate the principles of Buddhism.

But this does not seem to be true as Dhamma had nothing to do with the propagation of Buddhism. It was a code of conduct or ideal social behaviour common to all religions of the world, which he appealed to his subjects to follow. Although Ashoka himself believed in Buddhism, he never discriminated against other faiths or religions.

A closer look at Asokan edicts illustrates that basic attributes of Dhamma included compassion (daya), charity (dana), truthfulness, purity and gentleness. Pillar Edict III asks subjects to control violence, cruelty, anger and envy. Rock edict I call for a ban on animal sacrifice and social gatherings like samaj. The Rock Edict II declares measures to be taken for the construction of hospitals, roads, inns, wells and planting of shade giving trees. Third, Fourth and Twelfth rock edicts ask people to respect parents, relatives, brahmanas and shramanas (monks).

He also appointed a special type of officials called dhamma mahamatras. Their main function was to over see and supervise the peaceful function of the principles of Dhamma. Twelfth rock edict is specially important since it says "the king Piyadassi, the beloved of the gods, respected all sects whether ascetics or householders, and he honours them with gifts and honours of various kinds... let an alien sect also be respected on every occasion."

It shows clearly that neither Dhamma was Buddhism nor Ashoka was trying to convert people to Buddhism. However, the question is why did he give so much attention to this policy? Historians believe that by the later half of Ashoka’s rule, expansion of the empire was almost complete. It was an empire having different cultural, social and religious groups.

In order to save the empire from political tensions arising out of these differences there were two ways. He could either increase the size of armed forces to seek military solutions to these conflicts, which might have needed increased taxes and in turn could lead to more resistance. Another alternative was peaceful resolution of various conflicts by cementing and welding of divergent groups.

Ashoka chose the second alternative in order to promote harmony and peace in his kingdom. Thus, Ashoka has an important place in Indian history because he was the first king to initiate policies of peace rather than of war and aggression.