Asoka Maurya occupies a unique place among the rulers of India as well as of the world.
He occupies a unique place in the history of the world not because of his conquests and the vast empire ruled by him but because of the policy of Dhamma or Dharma enunciated and implemented by him.
Nevertheless, Asoka’s policy of Dhamma has become a topic of debate among historians because different scholars interpreted the contents and nature of Dhamma of Asoka from different perspectives.
For many years, historians have interpreted Asoka’s Dhamma as a synonym for Buddhism and believed that he made Buddhism the state religion.
However, this view has been questioned by modern historians who are of the opinion that Asoka’s Dhamma is not merely piety, moral life and righteousness based on religious beliefs but an attitude of responsibility of a ruler in a pluralistic state. These modem scholars are of the opinion that the ultimate aim of Asoka’s Dhamma is to create a harmonious atmosphere in the state where all people irrespective of their religious and cultural diversities, lived in peace and harmony as true friends recognizing their social responsibility with humanistic spirit in their day-to-day activities.
Our sources of knowledge about Asoka’s Dhamma are his edicts and administrative measures. Asoka’s major rock edicts, minor rock edicts and pillar edicts that were placed at different places in India contain his views about his Dhamma. By placing them at different localities, Asoka wanted them to be read by all people and translated into action by everyone. These epigraphs of years of his rule clearly reveal an evolution of his policy of Dhamma.
A critical study of the epigraphs and their contents show that Asoka made a distinction between personal faith and state policy. Asoka consciously made this distinction because he realized the necessity of such a policy for the stability and security of his kingdom to reduce the tensions created by the rise of new socio-economic formation during the Mauryan age. Though there is no evidence, direct or otherwise, of the prevalence of tensions undermining the solidarity of the social fabric, politico-economic structure, and religious harmony, Asoka might have anticipated and realized that if no earnest conscious effort was made to arrest the undercurrent of incipient tensions, the stability of the Mauryan empire would be in danger and it made him choose a mechanism of Dhamma.
Romila Thapar’s observation that Asoka’s Dhamma was an attitude of social responsibility aimed at building of an attitude of mind in which the social responsibility, the behaviour of one person towards another, was considered to be of great relevance appears to be very near to the truth. Further, the Dhamma of Asoka was a plea for the recognition of the dignity of man, and for a humanistic spirit in the activities of society.
Asoka found it necessary and useful to conceive a Dhamma on those lines because by family tradition, the Mauryans favoured heterodox sects that believed in the dignity of man. Tension in the shape of the status of the mercantile community, the power wielded by the urban guilds, the strain of a highly centralized political system and sheer size of the empire influenced Asoka to proclaim and practise such a Dhamma as would build bridges among all segments of society.
The Dhamma of Asoka has traits like toleration, non-violence and welfare measures. Asoka defined tolerance as “consideration towards slaves and servants, obedience to mother and father, generosity towards friends, acquaintances and relatives as towards priests and monks. Its basis is the control of one’s speech, so not to extol one’s own sector disparages that of another on unsuitable grounds. Therefore concord is to be commended so that men may hear one another’s principle”.
Asoka’s banning of gatherings at festivities indicates that he has perhaps, a lingering fear that such meetings may lead to declaration of open rebellion or may be the starting point of opposition to his policies. (Such attitude among kings is observed even during the medieval period when the Delhi Sultanate was ruling. Allaudin Khilji forbade his governors and subjects to gather on festive occasions.) Realizing this existing situation and understanding the vicissitudes of human behaviour, Asoka stressed on toleration and non-violence. For Asoka, non-violence implied both a renunciation of war and conquest by violence and a restraint on the killing of animals.
Besides these two aspects of tolerance and non-violence, Asoka tried to put into practice what he considered to be the welfare measures of utmost importance for the good of both men and animals, like planting of trees on both sides of the roads, building of rest-houses, digging of wells, etc. In order to implement his concept of Dharma, he appointed Dharmamahamatras.
However, in course of time, these appear to have become a type of priestly class interfering in the day-to-day activities of the people. The people naturally disliked their actions. It is to be admitted that though Asoka’s Dhamma was theoretically a sound proposition in principle, yet because of its loftiness, the ordinary people could not appreciate it. They could not understand the ideals as an instrument to establish equity and a sign of his real concern for the well-being of his subjects a socially relevant responsibility.
Yet, Asoka’s concept of Dhamma deserves all praise because he was the first known ruler who realized the need and necessity of the principle of Dhamma as a binding force between men belonging to divergent creeds, cultures and faiths to live in peace. His vision and effort to establish a friction-free society makes him shine bright in the galaxy of kings. Asoka deserves our appreciation and praise for evolving a new philosophy suitable to govern a pluralist society.