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Ashoka Policy of Dhamma

Ashoka Policy of Dhamma

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Published by Ramita Udayashankar
Explain the salient features of Ashoka's policy of Dhamma and evaluate its impact on the downfall of Mauryan dynasty.
Explain the salient features of Ashoka's policy of Dhamma and evaluate its impact on the downfall of Mauryan dynasty.

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Published by: Ramita Udayashankar on May 08, 2013
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In spite of the prevalence of large number of sects and creeds, the votaries of different faiths were living in perfect harmony. Sometimes they even offered grants and endowments to one another. The Mauryan kings‟ religious charities were not confined to their own faith Brahmanism, but were liberally extended to Jainism and Buddhism also. Ashoka ascended the Mauryan throne around 269 BC. The diverse nature of the vast empire under Ashoka was exposed to social tensions and sectarian conflicts. Ashoka deviced the policy of Dhamma, which later became famous, as it promoted a harmonious relationship between the diverse elements of the empire. His policy was neither a part of Jainism nor Buddhism, nor a teaching of Hinduism. The co-existence of the orthodox and the heterodox belief systems, of the contradictory philosophical orders and also of long tradition of common social ethics, made Ashoka draw upon the Dhamma – “The essence of all religions as their common ground or root (mula)” to strengthen the bonds of mutuality and trust among the people. Ashoka‟s policy of Dhamma has been a topic of discussion among historians. The word Dhamma is the Prakrit form of the Sanskrit word dharma. It has been variously translated as piety, moral life, righteousness, and so on. However, many historians feel that Dhamma was not any particular religious faith or practice, so we should not translate Dhamma as religion. It was also not an arbitrarily formulated royal policy. Rather it was a way of life, a code of conduct and a set of principles to be adopted and practiced by the people at large. The policy of Dhamma was an earnest attempt at solving some of the problems that a complex society faced. However, the policy was nurtured in the mind of Ashoka and through it he attempted to resolve some of the tensions within the society. In propagating the Dhamma, he aimed at the social integration of the groups with the rest of the society and wished to cement the relations between the government and the people. The best way to understand what Ashoka means by Dhamma is to read his edicts. Ashoka used the medium of his edicts to expound the policy of Dhamma. The edicts were written primarily to explain to the people throughout the empire the principles of Dhamma. Most of the edicts have something or the other to say about Dhamma, i.e., about how keen Ashoka was that his subjects should practice Dhamma and how keen he was that the affairs of the state too was carried out according to the principles of Dhamma. To make principle of Dhamma accessible and understandable to all, he put up edicts or inscriptions at the

important points throughout the empire and sent messengers of Dhamma outside the empire. Ashokan inscriptions are of various kinds such as Major rock edicts, Minor rock edicts, and Pillar edicts. The rock edicts containing the principles of Dhamma have been found at Shahbazgarhi, Mansera, Kalsi, Sopara, Girnar, Dhauli, Juagada, Chitaldroog, Rupnath, Sasaram, Bairat, Maski, and Bhabra. The pillar edicts have been found at Topara, Meerut, Kasumbi, Lauriya – Araraj, Lauriya – Nandangarh, Rampurva, Sanchi, Rummindei, and Nigliva. Regarding this Dhamma, Dr. Romila Thappar observes that “Dhamma was Ashoka’s own invention”. It may have borrowed from Buddhist and Hindu thought but it was in essence an attempt on the part of the king to suggest a way of life which was both practical and convenient, as well as being highly moral. It was intended as a happy compromise for those of his subjects who did not have leisure to indulge in philosophical speculation, in fact, the majority of his subject. Further she extended her views, “Dhamma was aimed at building up an attitude of mind in which social responsibility, the behavior of one person towards was considered of great relevance. It was a plea for the dignity of man and for humanistic spirit in the activities of society”. She also underlines the political rationale behind the propagation of Dhamma. She minimizes the Buddhist element in Ashoka‟s Dhamma and asserts that there needs to be no connection between personal beliefs of a statesman and his public proclamations. The institution of the Dhamma mahamattas is one of the strongest arguments in support of the view that Ashoka‟s Dhamma did not conform to the religious policy of any one of the existing religions of his time, and further that it was not a purely religious policy but in fact covered a more extensive field, including broad aspects of economic, social, and political life. Dhamma was therefore an ideology intended to weld a sub continental society. Ashoka‟s Dhamma emerges as a way of life incorporating a number of ideals and practices. The theme of ahimsa is an important aspect of Ashoka‟s Dhamma and is frequently mentioned and emphasized. Rock Edict I declare prohibition of animal sacrifice and holiday of festive gatherings. Pillar Edict 5 refers to more sweeping prohibitions promulgated by Ashoka, 26 years after his consecration. The good conduct and social responsibilities that were part of Dhamma were anchored to certain key relationships. Rock Edict IX begins with a criticism of ceremonies performed by people, especially women, on occasions such as illness, marriage, birth, and setting forth on journeys. Rock Edict XI refers to the gift of Dhamma being the best of all gifts. It emphasised on respecting our elders, proper courtesy to slaves and servants, abstaining from killing animals, and liberty towards friends which is also the way in which ceremony of Dhamma is performed. Another important aspect of Ashoka‟s Dhamma was the generation of mutual respect and concord among people belonging to different sects or religious communities. This aspect of Dhamma has often been referred to as „religious toleration‟, a very poor understanding of Ashoka‟s policy. R. K. Mukherjee rightly stated that, “The Dhamma or religion which he preached in his edicts was not Buddhism or any particular creed. It was really the code of morals, the common foundation of the essence of all religions”.

Rock Edict XII reflects the anxiety the king felt due to the conflict between sects and carries his plea for harmony. Ashoka‟s inscriptions have a great deal to say about the Dhamma of the king. Rock Edict VI talks of his ideas and goals – to promote the welfare of all his people, discharge the debt he owes to all beings, and ensure their happiness in this world and next. Rock Edict II mentions medical treatment of humans and animals, mentions construction of roads, wells, tree planting, etc. In his Rock Edict VII, Ashoka proclaims his desire that “all sects should settle everywhere”. The edict is a plea for toleration amongst all the sects. From Ashoka‟s statements in his inscriptions it is clear that the Dhamma he propagates consists simply of a set of desired forms of conduct and attitudes of mind. Rock Edict III declares that liberty towards Brahmanas and Sramanas is a virtue, respect to parents, etc are all good qualities. Rock Edict IV comments that due to the policy of Dhamma the lack of morality and disrespect towards Brahmanas and Sramanas, violence, unseemly behaviour to friends, relatives and others and evils of this kind have been checked. Rock Edict V refers to the appointment of Dhamma – mahamattas for the first time in the twelfth year of his reign. These special officers were appointed by the king to look after the interests of all sects and religions and spread the message of Dhamma in each nook and corner of the society. Rock Edict VIII states that Dhammayatras (tours) would be undertaken by the emperor. This enabled the emperor to come in contact with various sections of people in the empire. Rock Edict X denounces fame and glory and reasserts the merits of following the policy of Dhamma. The Dhamma is also negatively defined as aparisravam, i.e. freedom from evil. Rock Edict XIII is of paramount importance in understanding the Ashokan policy of Dhamma. The Dhamma that is thus presented in these Edicts is another name for the moral and virtuous life and takes its stand upon the common ground of all religions. Regarding the Ashoka Dhamma, Dr. Ray Chaudhari has pointed out that, “Ashoka preached the virtues of concord and toleration in an age when religious feelings ran high and disruptive influences were at work within the fold of the Jains and Buddhists. He preached non violence when violence in war, religious rituals, royal pastime and festive gathering was the order of the day. He eschewed military conquest not after defeat but after victory and pursued a policy of patience and gentleness while still possessed of the resources of a mighty empire”. He considered that Dhamma highlighted the moral and ethical principles common to all religious beliefs. D.R. Bhandarkar points out that: “Ashoka’s idea was to promote material and spiritual welfare of the whole world consisting not only of men but also of beasts and other creatures, not only again in his own kingdom but also over the world known or accessible to him”. The source of his idea was his Dhamma. Ashoka‟s Dhamma is a code of certain ethical principles and humanitarian ideals with its universal dimension.

In its positive aspect, we find the mention of certain virtues in the edicts, viz, Sadhuta (saintliness); apasinavam (freedom from sin); Daya (kindness); Danam (liberality); Satyam (truthfulness); Saucham (purity); Mardavam (gentleness); Samyama (self control); and Dharmarati (attachment to morality). In Pillar Edict I, love to Dharma, self-examination, obedience, fear of sin and enthusiasm are mentioned as requisites for the attachment of happiness in this world and the next. In Rock Edict III and IV the king gave the direction and even enforced it that the lower animals must be met kind treatment by their human masters. In Rock Edict XIII, the Dhamma is described in a nutshell as the right attitude towards all manifesting itself in non-injury, restraint, equal treatment and mildness in respect of all creatures, human beings as well as beasts and birds. In its negative aspect Ashoka has pointed out certain vices which should be avoided and not be practiced by human beings viz Krodhah (anger); manam (pride); irsa (envy) nisthuryam (cruelty); chandyam (rage or fury). In Pillar Edict II, Ashoka himself refers to his many and various kindnesses and good deeds in respect of man and beasts, birds and aquatic creatures. Ashoka also insists on dharmanusasanam, preaching morality as the supreme duty of the king, and accordingly he himself undertook a part of this public instruction in morality by moving among his subjects in different parts of the country, instructing them in morality and questioning them also about morality as stated in Rock Edict VIII. In Rock Edict VI, he asserts the promotion of good of all as the most important duty of the king, which could only be discharged by exertion and dispatch of business. The policy of non violence, according to some historians is a powerful cause for the downfall of Mauryan Empire. The Dhamma mahammattas destroyed the prestige of the Brahmans. Ashoka‟s advocacy of non violence and the principles of Dharma Vijaya demoralised the army as well as bureaucracy in the successive ages. Ashoka‟s principle of co-existence strove to bring together people following different faiths and to bind them in a harmonious union. His idea of peaceful co-existence suggests that there should not be shown dishonor and condemnation to another sect; all other sects should be honored by all men and in all ways. The principles of non-violence and peaceful co-existence reflected in Ashoka‟s Dhamma are the instruments of global force of “peace, progress and prosperity” that plays by the rules without hegemonic designs based on military might. Hence, it was an empire of righteousness, an empire resting on right and not on might. He also gave to his people belonging to different communities and sects, certain common ideas of thought and conduct which entitle him to be the humanity‟s first ruler with universal love and morality. He lives with us even today in our national emblem. Such is the influence of Ashoka‟s Dhamma on history.

A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India – Upinder Singh Ancient India – Vijay Kachroo India‟s Ancient Past – R. S. Sharma Ashoka and the decline of the Mauryas – Romila Thapar

Mauryan India – Irfan Habib Ashoka‟s Dhamma: A Symbol of Abdication and Endurance – Dr. Ranjeet Kedarta

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