Web exclusive: Ashoka—and his edicts—the first emperor of dhamma

Asokan edicts dispersed throughout his empire were messengers of dhamma

shutterstock_214477522 Sanchi stupa

The Rock and Pillar edicts of the Mauryan ruler Asoka (r. 273- 232 BCE) are inscriptions engraved on pillars, gigantic boulders and caves. These are dotted around various places of the Indian subcontinent and Afghanistan. One of the notable rulers of world history, Devanampiya (Beloved of the Gods) Piyadasi (one of amiable looks) Raja (King) Asoka has left a blueprint of his ideas and ideals in the form of Edicts. Reflecting the benevolent attitude and activities of the Emperor, the Royal proclamation in the edicts were issued after the fateful Kalinga war of 261 BCE. The large-scale devastation due to war moved Asoka very much and he relinquished war in favor of victory by dhamma (righteous path/piety). The concept of dharma (religion in Sanskrit) or dhamma (Prakrit version of dharma) of the Emperor denoted that it was not religion, but a path of self-righteousness based on moral and ethical principles. The Asokan edicts dispersed throughout his empire were messengers of dhamma. These earliest records of epigraphy in India were living testimony to the greatness of the Emperor, who was very much concerned for the material and moral welfare of his subjects. He not only insisted on high ethical standards for his subjects, but also set a high ideal for himself. Here was an Emperor who had said, “All men are my children”. The dhamma of Asoka based on certain moral principles and civic responsibility, became the way of life for an individual. He initiated the policy of dhamma with the precise motive of unifying political units and people professing different faiths. The pragmatic approach of this resulted in gaining support from the rising merchant class and general mass of population. Asoka's dhamma became a cementing force for the Empire. As a testimony to the Emperor, the Indian government adopted the four-lion capital of the Asokan pillar as its national emblem when the country became a Republic on January 26, 1950. The wheel of dhamma was put in the center of Indian national flag.

Asoka was crowned in the year 269 BCE and looked after the various affairs of the state as well as expanded the territorial extent of the Empire. After eight years, the Emperor turned attention towards the Kingdom of Kalinga, located in the eastern coast of India, corresponding roughly to modern Orissa and parts of northern Andhra Pradesh. Kalinga was a powerful kingdom as well as prosperous due to oceanic trade. The famous Kalinga battle was fought in the year 261 BCE resulting in victory of the Magadhan Emperor. Kalinga was incorporated into the Magadhan Empire with headquarters in Tosali. But the killing of about one hundred thousand people, imprisoning one hundred and fifty thousand, deporting many persons and large scale devastation due to war moved Asoka very much. A remorseful Asoka had a change of heart. Although the Buddhist traditions spoke about conversion of Asoka to Buddhism by monk Upagupta after the Kalinga war, most probably the Emperor adopted the new religion after a great deal of thinking. It was a gradual process. Asoka as a patron of Buddhism changed the course of history not only in the Indian subcontinent, but also of Far East and Southeast Asia.

Asoka began to engrave his ideas on Rocks and Pillars after the Kalinga war. These inscriptions were vehicles for circulating his agenda. Eschewing the earlier path of Brahmnical faith, Asoka envisaged a new doctrine. It was quite different from the avowed principles of Buddhism; Four Noble Truths, Eight Fold Path, transmigration of souls and others. He propagated certain moral precepts, which was common to all Indian religions. It was inspired by Buddhism to a large extent, but moved in a new direction of lofty ideals pertaining to ethics and morality. Asokan edicts engraved on Rocks and Pillars throughout his empire were messengers of dhamma.

The inscriptions of Asoka are distributed over an extensive area encompassing present day Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal and India. James Prinsep first translated the Asokan text into English in 1837 and identification of Piyadassi with Asoka was confirmed in 1915 after discovery of an inscription. About 42 inscriptions on rocks, pillar and caves are presently known. These are written in three languages; Prakrit, Aramaic and Greek. The four scripts used are; Brahmi, Khoroshti, Aramaic and Greek.

Asoka had inherited from Bindusara, an extensive Empire having a well organized administrative set up. He looked after various affairs of the state for eight years and then turned attention towards the Kalinga. The large-scale destruction and deaths changed the heart of the Emperor and he was attracted towards Buddhism. The Buddhist missionaries were dispatched all over the continent as well as abroad. Sona and Uttara were sent to the Burma (Myanmar)-Thailand region. The brother and sister team Mahindra and Samghamitra went to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). India’s cultural contact with Southeast Asia gained pace having far reaching repercussions in the form of cultural rapprochement between the two regions afterwards. The Emperor granted religious endowments, built viharas (monasteries), constructed eighty four thousand stupas (reliquary mounds) and erected commemorative pillars for propagation of Buddhism. Asoka was one of the finest builders of ancient India. The monolithic stone columns of Asoka were architectural wonders. The Sarnath column was the most exquisite one among the columns with its fine art of polishing, dressing, chiseling and shaping of stone. The Sanchi stupa has remained a place of tourist attraction. A special class of officers called dhammahamattas (officers of righteousness) was appointed to propagate the dhamma. He also convened the Third Buddhist Council in 250 BCE to prevent rift within Buddhism. It was decided in the Pataliputra conclave to compile Saddhammasamgaha (true Buddhist doctrine).

The Asokan inscriptions engraved on boulders, pillars and cliff places have become a milestone in the history of humankind. Radiating from the Indian subcontinent and reaching the Far East as well as Middle East, its impact was tremendous in varied arenas. India’s cultural contact with Southeast Asia gained pace having far reaching repercussions in the form of cultural rapprochement between the two regions afterwards. The Buddhist missionary activities as enshrined in the Edicts made Buddhism popular in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos Cambodia and Vietnam. Asoka's contact with the Hellenic world was evident from reading of the inscription. The edicts have considerable impact in framing a timeline for ancient Indian history. The multilingual inscriptions bequeathed by Asoka became the earliest deciphered writings and the phonetic scripts used therein made pictographic script dumped into relics of history.

Asoka emerges from the edicts as a ruler deeply concerned with the welfare of his subjects and impartial to any class. These edicts proved the greatness of King, who was very much concerned with material and moral welfare of his subjects. The inscriptions prove that Asoka had deep commitment for health care, environmental protection and animal welfare. His vision was far ahead of his times. His path of dhamma and ahimsa (non-violence) as enumerated in the edicts is very much relevant in the contemporary world. The emphasis on state morality and duty for protection of its subjects as prescribed in the inscriptions has much more bearing in present day in the context of state terrorism in many parts of the world. There were many monarchs in ancient and medieval times of Indian history, but very few were like Asoka, the Great. With unflagging zeal, Asoka accomplished his mission. The prescriptions, virtues and ideals enumerated in the edicts became frame of reference for kings, rulers and individuals.

The writer is was previously Professor, Sambalpur University and Northern University of Malaysia. Senior Academic Fellow of ICHR. Senior Academic Consultant of OSOU Sambalpur.