Ashoka’s Dhamma – A Moral Code of Conduct


The term „Dhamma‟ corresponds to the Sanskrit word „Dharma‟ or „Dharman,‟ which is usually used in the sense of a custom or a law. According to the Buddhist tradition, the term stands for Buddha‟s doctrines or teachings. However, Ashoka used the term in a broader and much different way than its conventional sense. His edicts are the testimony of his idea of Dhamma. Defining Dhamma in very simple words, he believes in Dhamma simply as a good thing. In his opinion, the two basic attributes of Dhamma are fewer evils and many good deeds. The good deeds constitute kindness, liberality, purity of heart, truthfulness, gentleness etc., whereas cruelty, anger, rage, fury, pride, envy etc. are defined as evils. He insists on avoiding the sins and maximizing the number of good deeds.The traditional sense of Dhamma involves many types of rituals. In contrast, Ashoka‟s Dhamma never prescribed any ritual or any mode of worship.
As a devout Buddhist, Ashoka clearly declares his faith in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. However, the principles he desired to propagate were completely new to traditional Buddhism. He prescribes a common code of conduct to all the people in his empire irrespective of their caste, creed and religion. His edicts reflect that he was well aware of the nature of the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society of his time. Therefore, he intended to introduce an ethical code of conduct that would have been acceptable to one and all.
Ashoka‟s Dhamma mainly concerned the ordinary people of his empire. It aimed at bringing happiness in the lives of the common subjects. In spite of his belief in and respect for traditional Buddhist principles, Ashoka emphasizes the importance of happiness and describes it as the ultimate Phala (fruit) of Dhamma.As a practical ruler, he believed that the simple ethical code of conduct would lead to the happiness of his people. Due to this unique interpretation of his, Dhamma has been rightly described by many as Ashoka‟s own creation.
Main Features of Dhamma Mentioned in Edicts
The edicts gave Asoka the opportunity to expound his dhamma. While different major rock edicts talk about various aspects of the dhamma, the Major Rock Edict XI contains an elaborate explanation of the dhamma, apart from dealing with charity and kinship of humanity.
It clearly indicates that Dhamma was a secular teaching. From this major rock edict as well as the other major rock edicts we can mention the following as the main features of the dhamma:
Major Rock Edict I: Prohibition of animal sacrifices and festive fathering’s.
Major Rock Edict II: Describes the medical missions sent everywhere (land of Cholas, Pandyas, Satyaputras, Keralaputras, Ceylon, Antiochus) for men and animals. Plantation of medicinal herbs and trees and digging of wells along the roads.
Major Rock Edict III: On 12 years of his consecration, Yuktas (subordinate officers) rajukas (rural administrators) and the Pradesikas (head of the districts) were ordered to tour every five years and propagate Dhamma. It also mentions about being generous to Brahmans and sramanas and obedient to one’s mother and father, friends and relatives.
Major Rock Edict IV: The sound of the drum has become the sound of Dhamma showing the people the divine form.
Major Rock Edict V: Mentions about the introduction of the institution of the dhamma-mahammatas, the officers of the Dhamma in his fourteenth year of reign. It also mentions about humane treat­ment of servants by masters and of prisoners by government officials.
Major Rock Edict VI: It-makes the relationship between the king and his subjects via the Mahamattas more clear and now the Mahamattas are told to make their reports to the king at any time and place.
Major Rock Edict VII: It pleads for toleration amongst all sects.
Major Rock Edict VIII: In the tenth year of his reign Asoka went on a visit to Bodh-Gaya, to see the Bodhi-tree. Following this event he started a system of Dhamma-yatas which is described in this edict. Dhamma-yatas were occasions when he toured the country for the furtherance of Dhamma.
Major Rock Edict IX: All ceremonies are useless except Dhamma which includes respect for others and regard even for slaves and servants and donations to sramanas and Brahmans.
Major Rock Edict X: In this edict, Asoka denounces fame and glory and reasserts that the only glory he desires is that his subjects should follow the principles of Dhamma.
Major Rock Edict XI: It contains a further explanation of Dhamma. Here he refers to the gift of Dhamma, the distribution of Dhamma, the kinship thorugh Dhamma.
Major Rock Edict XII: It is a direct and emphatic plea for toleration amongst the various sects.
Major Rock Edict XIII: It is among the most important document of Asokan history. It clearly states that the Kaling war took place eight years after his consecration.
It mentions about the replacements of bherighosa (sound of war drums) by dhammaghosa (sound of peace), i.e., con­quest through dhamma instead through war.
Major Rock Edict XIV:  It is a short edict in which Asoka explains that he has had these edicts inscribed throughout the country in complete or abridged versions.
The main features of Asoka’s may be summarised as follows:
1. Service to father and mother, practice of ahimsa, love of truth, reverence to teachers and good treatment of relatives.
2. Prohibition of animal sacrifices and festive gatherings and avoiding expensive and meaningless ceremonies and rituals.
3. Efficient organization of administration in the direction of social welfare and maintenance of constant contact with people through the system of Dhammayatras.
4. Humane treatment of servants by masters and prisoners by government officials.
5. Consideration and non-violence to animals and courtesy to relations and liberality to Brahmins.
6. Tolerance among all the religious sects.
7. Conquest through Dhamma instead of through war.
The concept of non-violence and other similar ideas of Asoka’s Dhamma are identical with the teachings of Buddha. But he did not equate Dhamma with Buddhist teachings. Buddhism remained his personal belief. His Dhamma signifies a general code of conduct. Asoka wished that his Dhamma should spread through all social levels.
Religious Tolerance
Ashoka inherited a vast multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural empire from his father and from his grandfather. The ideas expressed in his ethical code are basic to all major religions. Unlike many other proponents of other religions, Ashoka never criticized other faiths to promote Buddhism. In fact, he encouraged equal and respectable treatment to all the existing religions of his time. Despite having unrestricted powers, he never misused them for forceful conversions. All his religious messages were polite and passive. Religious tolerance was the basic and unique feature of Ashoka‟s Dhamma.
Showing his affection toward Buddhism, Ashoka arranged several pilgrimages to Buddhist sites. However, this never turned into hostility toward other religions.Since he believed in the basic unity of all religions, he never hesitated to meet persons from other religions and openly declared that he honoured all sects. He advised against criticizing other faiths for praising one‟s own religion. He says that criticizing others would cause damage the reputation of their own religion.
Ashoka‟s policy of toleration means that he was neither a zealot nor a religious fanatic. He was in search of a religion that would create harmony and would work as a uniting force rather than a dividing one. In fact, he went a step ahead and supported rival religious groups such as Jains, Ajivikas and even Brahmanas. On the other hand, he expected his subjects to follow the same principles. Thus, it can be deduced that despite his favours to Buddhism, Ashoka seemed to be experimenting a secular religious model in his state.
Opposition to Superstitions
By introducing tolerance, Ashoka tried to propagate religious harmony amongst his subjects. He wanted to establish peaceful co-existence of all religions. However, he also showed the courage to ban festive gatherings. He believed that these gatherings led to divergent views. Moreover, Ashoka was completely against superstitions and openly discouraged religious ceremonies, especially those involving sacrifices.
In his messages, Ashoka specifically points out and opposes ceremonies and rituals on occasions of childbirth, marriage, the beginning of journeys, illnesses etc. He tried to dissuade his people from believing in superstitions and in turn, from performing ceremonies and rituals. He defines these rituals as “unnecessary” and “useless”.Through these messages, Ashoka mainly intended to save the lives of animals being slaughtered during these rituals and tremendous amount of money being spent on those.
Ashoka specifically objects to the involvement of women in these ceremonies. He also criticizes the family members as well as the neighbours who attend these ceremonies. Instead, he expects them to convince women not to waste their time and money on these ceremonies.  The appointment of Striadhyakshamahamatra was a major step in this direction.
Ashoka‟s keen observations of the contemporary social structure are reflected through his criticism of superstitions and rituals. In a region where superstitions and unnecessary rituals still occupy large parts of people‟s lives even in the 21st century, Ashoka‟s honest early efforts to eradicate social evils seem all the more relevant.
Social Solidarity
Ashoka was well-acquainted with the diverse and heterogeneous nature of the then existing society where Brahmanical scriptures had legitimized social inequality. Despite Buddhism and Jainism‟s efforts to propagate equality in pre-Mauryan times, the Varna hierarchy, caste hegemony and social disabilities had not entirely disappeared. Ashoka needed a uniting force against this multicultural element. By banning sacrificial slaughter of animals, he had already created unhappiness among the priestly class. Choosing to respect only Buddhism would surely have created unrest against his rule. Plus, he was in no position to directly attack the caste system based on Brahmanical supremacy. Instead, he chose to use Dhamma to minimize social inequality and reduce social tensions. By openly expressing respect for the Brahmanas, the Sramanas, the Ajivikas and Buddhist, he not only avoided direct confrontations, but also eliminated sectarian conflicts.
The model embraced by Ashoka was accommodative as well as suitable to bring social solidarity. Though his Dhamma reflects intellectual and religious currents of the time, it definitely worked as a unifying force. He tried to promote a harmonious relationship between the diverse components of his vast empire. The principles of Dhamma were acceptable to the traditional varna-based society in the core areas of the empire, from the Atvikas, or the forest people to the foreigners on the north-western border.
Equality among human beings in Ashoka‟s empire wasn‟t limited to caste-distinctions. He also expected considerate relationships between parents and children, between elders and youngsters, and even between masters and slaves.25 In a way, he seems to be making a plea for the dignity of men irrespective of their social, religious and economic status. Inculcation of virtuous behaviour through Dhamma was the best way to bring social solidarity in his opinion.
Ashoka believed that harmony and affection amongst men could only lead to peace and equality.26 He believed that home and family were the starting points of morality. He thought that the establishment of proper relations between individual in the domestic circles would ultimately extend from homes to communities. Ashoka had genuine concern and hope for the concord of communities and the harmony of creeds. Above all, considering the times in which he made efforts toward equality, harmony and social solidarity Ashoka can only be described as a leader well ahead of his times.
Propagation of Dhamma
For the purpose of permanently recording the doctrines of the Dhamma, Ashoka inscribed them on rocks and pillars. He also appointed a special class of officers called Dhamma-Mahamatras for propagating Dhamma and for promoting its practice throughout the kingdom. He sent his emissaries to the independent kingdoms of southern India and to Hellenistic kingdoms to propagate his ideas.
As an integral part of Dhamma he tried to promote the welfare of men and beasts by digging wells, planting trees, establishing hospitals etc. To facilitate medical treatment he planted medicinal herbs not only within his kingdom, but also outside its limit as well for the benefit of the inhabitants of those countries, which shows his greatness as a ruler and as a man.
Though Ashoka embraced Buddhism, he remained a true humanist. Inspired by the idea of humanism Ashoka tried to propagate true humanitarian ideas to all.
Dhamma was a governing principle of Ashoka‟s empire. He took sincere efforts to reduce social conflicts and religious intolerance by introducing the policy of Dhamma. More importantly, the socio-historical context in which Ashoka implemented this policy is more impressive.
In today‟s world, where religious fanaticism and social tensions have become a part of present reality, Ashoka‟s Dhamma becomes all the more relevant. The present paper is a modest attempt to explore the ways in which Ashoka used Dhamma as an instrument of social solidarity and religious harmony.
Thus, Ashoka tried to instill moral law (Dhamma) as the governing principle and forced in every sphere of life. Dhamma of Ashoka, thus, is a code for moral and virtuous life. He never discussed god or soul or religion as such. He asked people to have control over their passion, to cultivate purity of life and character in innermost thoughts , to be tolerant to other religions, to abstain from killing or injuring animals and to have regard for them, to be ch aritable to all, to be respectful to parents, teachers, relatives, friends, and ascetics, to treat slaves and servant kindly and above all to tell the truth.

Sunday, 30th Mar 2014, 12:39:08 AM

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Thanku sir
Nov 02, 2017 10:12 AM
Sir, can you provide notes about city states in northern India in ancient time
Jan 18, 2019 05:17 PM