1 Kajihn

Ashoka Dhamma Essays

Ashoka had his personal faith in Buddhism. He had taken every step to propagate a universal Dharma or law.

He has described himself as a Buddha-Sakya in his Rock Edict shows his faith in the Buddhist Trinity, namely, Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

Ashoka was free from sectarianism and religious narrow mindedness. He never tried to forcibly convert others to his religion. His universal religion or Dhamma was acceptable to the people of all creeds and faiths and this religion or Dhamma was not Buddhism. It was free from rigid doctrines and dogmas.

In fact it was like a lesson in ethics, virtues and morality. The purpose of this religion was the elevation of making to a higher level of existence. So the religion Ashoka preached, was a code of morals and contains, the essence of all the religions Dr.

Radhakumud Mookheijee has rightly remarked. "But the Dharma or religion which he preaches in his Edicts was not Buddhism or any particular creed. It was really a code of morals, the common foundations the "Sara" or essence of all religions".

Ashoka's inscriptions nowhere contain the Buddhist doctrines of Arya Satya. Noble Eightfold path, or Nirvana. It contained instead the laws of eternal and universals goodness.

He preached : "Obedience must be rendered to mother and father, likewise to elders ; kindness must be shown towards animals; truth must be spoken, these some moral virtues must be practised.

In the same way the pupil must show reverence to the master, and one must behave in a suitable manner towards relatives".

Ashoka says in his Pillar Edicts, "Happiness in this world and in the other words is difficult to secure without great love of morality, careful examination, great obedience, and great fear of sin."

In fact Ashok was a great humanitarian and aimed at the general welfare of the people. He paid his special attention at the Strength of character and purity of soul, of the people. Therefore the Dhama or law of piety preached by Ashoka was comprised of the following fundamental principles.

1. Samyam or control of senses.

2. Bhavasuhi or purity of heart.

3. Samacharanam or equal treatment to all.

4. Kritajanta or gratitude.

5. Dridh -Bhakti or stead fastness of devotion.

6. Day or Kindness.

7. Satyam or truthfulness.

8. Saucham or the inner and outer purity.

9. Sadhuta or Saintliness.

10. Sushrusa or services.

11. Sampriti Patti or support.

12. Apichiti or reverence.

"Ashoka himself practised equal treatment to all sects, religions, castes and communities that lived in his vast empire and worked for the common good of all people.

His tolerance towards the Brahminic faith even when he was a believes in Gods, calling himself as the Beloved of the Gods (Devanam-Priya). His respect for Brahmanas and Sramanas and for all ascetics is known from his Edicts".

The spiritualisation of human character was the aim Ashoka's universal Dhamma. He instructed to give up violence, anger, cruelty, pride and envey, and to develop gentlenes.

He did not give importance to outer ceremonies. Punya came from correct conduct. The moral values, not the material, were the true rewards of life. Prof.

Radha Kumud Mookheiji writes," He thus ranks as the founder or the father of Universal Religion." Thus we see that the religion propagated by Ashoka had following specialties.

1 Universalism :

The religion propagated by Ashoka was free of sectarianism and applied and appealed to all alike. His religion contained the essence of religions.

2. Tolerance :

Although a staunch follower of Buddhism Ashoka was tolerant towards other religions. The motive behind his religion was the welfare and good of the humanity.

3. Ahimsa :

Ahimsa was one of the most important fundamental principal of his religion and he himself had become a staunch follower of the principle of Ahimsa.

He had prohibited animal sacrifice. Slaughter and killing of animals or any sort of creature had been completely forbidden.

Emphasis of Ethical ideas: His religion laid emphasis on the purity of conduct and moral and ethical values in life.

As remarked by Radha Kumud Mookheijee, "The Buddha's teaching begins and ends with enlightenment. On the whole it concentrates on moral aim and purpose."


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The word, Dhamma, is the Prakrit form of Dharma in Sanskrit. There have been attempts to find an equivalent English word: 'morality', 'piety', and 'righteouness' are the words used, though Romila Thapar favours 'virtue' in preference to the others.

However, scholars found it to be untranslatable into English as it was coined and used in a specific context. The word Dharma (or Dhamma) had not just one meaning in the literature and thought of ancient India.

Asokan Dhamma, for instance, cannot be equated with the term as it is used in other contexts. There is a lot of speculation and controversy on whether it can be equated with the Buddhist Dhamma itself.

Dhamma was not a religious faith as such, so it cannot be translated as 'religion'. Nor was it a royal policy formulated in an arbitrary manner.

It was a general statement on social norms-"a way of life incorporating a number of ideas and practices" (Romila Thapar). In his policy of Dhamma, Asoka seems to have tried to synthesise the various norms prevalent in the society of the time.

In his policy of Dhamma, the king could have found a means of solving the existing problems. It has been suggested that the Dhamma policy was an attempt to come to grips with the tensions in which a complex society was involved.

The Mauryan society was a multicultural society where various social, religious and economic forces counteracted one another.

As it is clear from the Arthashastra, a strong ruler, a smoothly working and capable bureaucracy and good communications existed in the Mauryan times and the ruler had to maintain his control over his empire at any cost.

One way of doing this was by exerting ruthless control through armed strength, deification of the ruler and similar stern methods.

The other option was for the ruler to declare his belief in a new faith by which the prominence of the other groups could be curbed and they be directed towards propagating the new ideas. It is this option that Asoka seems to have exercised to keep his empire unified.

On the political level, there was the need for a binding factor. The Mauryan Empire was not only more extensive than that of the Nandas but it also included a greater variety of people.

Imperial control had been imposed over a vast area that had earlier, for the most part, been divided into small kingdoms. The Dhamma policy, with its focus on social respon­sibility irrespective of caste or status, attempted to provide the cementing factor.

Tensions obviously existed between the various religious sects. Though Buddhism, Jainism and other sects like those of the Ajivikas had become popular the brahmans still had a strong hold on society.

The heterodox sects were opposed to such domination. There could have been areas within the empire where both the brahmanical and the sramanical cultures were not popular. (A.L. Basham in A Cultural History of India mentions two categories of religious leaders, brahmans and sramanas where the latter are referred to as 'heterodox ascetics'.

Mahavira, Buddha and Makkali Gosala are mentioned as sramana teachers.) In such diversity, there was a pressing need to generate mutual trust and harmony.

The ideas of Dhamma and the practices advocated by it were useful to bind and unite the various elements.

Asoka possibly did not have a large support from the orthodox and older elements at the court during the early part of his reign.

By giving support to the heterodox sects without opposing orthodox Brahminism, he could have been looking for a kind of support that would wean the people away from orthodoxy and make his own principles more ac­ceptable to them.

Romila Thapar notes that "the new beliefs were not violently opposed to the old and it was therefore possible to bring about a compromise".

Asoka issued edicts to explain and propagate his Dhamma policy. These edicts were meant to be read by various kinds of people from different walks of life. Thus the policy was directly communicated to his subjects.

Asoka also undertook public welfare measures and administrative reforms to propagate Dhamma. In his edicts, he mentions the welfare and other activities that were carried out.

He also explains the appointment of officers of Dhamma (Dhamma mahamattas) for the purpose and mentions his undertaking of royal tours (Dhamma yatras).


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