Ashoka’s Policy of Dharma:
Ashoka’s policy of dharma has often been equated with his conversion to Buddhis. He is credited with the propagation of the tenets of the Buddhist sect.
It appears that diverse religious ideas and practices existed in the vast empire of the Mauryas.
But the followers of such sects as Buddhism. Jainism and Ajivikism were held in contempt by the brahmanas, whose position they must have undermined.
The ideological conflict between the Vedic brahmanas and the followers of the newly-born protestant creeds may have been a potential source of social and religious tensions. Another element in these heterogeneous strands, co-existing during the Mauryan period was the presence of a large foreign population in the North-West.
It would have been a difficult task for any ruler to maintain unity in an empire composed of such diverse elements as outlined above. Perhaps the only alternatives available were either to enforce control through armed strength or to unify the population through a common set of beliefs. Ashoka adopted the second alternative as his policy of reform.
It was against this background that he expounded his policy of dhamma to eliminate social tension and sectarian conflicts, and to promote a harmonious relationship between the diverse elements of the vast empire. Ashoka’s dhamma was neither a new religion nor a new political philosophy. Rather, it was a way of life, a code of conduct and a set of principles to be adopted and practised by the people at large. (Dhamma is Prakrit form of the Sanskrit word Dharma).
One of the striking features of Asoka’s edicts is that he regards himself as a father figure. He constantly speaks of the father-child relationship between the king and his populace. In spite of his religious eclecticism, Ashoka denounced all useless ceremonies and sacrifices held under the influence of superstition. The first Rock Edict prohibits the ritual of animal sacrifice and festive gatherings.
The second Rock Edict describes the various measures taken by him such as the construction of roads and medical centres for men and animals. This is followed by advice to be liberal and generous to both Brahmins and sramanas. This again stresses the fact that the ruler was not bigoted about one religion.
In the seventh Pillar Edict he orders the dhamma-mahammatas to look after the Brahmins and Ajivikas. The Dhamma-mahammatas were a special cadre of officicals started by Asoka in the fourteenth year of his reign and they were responsible for the practical aspects of the propagation of dhamma and the welfare of the different religious sects.
This indicates that the moral precepts preached by him were different from Buddhism. Asoka also started a system of dhammayatas or Yatras whereby be toured the country and preached the dhamma to the people.
Thoughout his edicts Ashoka stresses the importance of the family. The emphasis is on respecting elders including religious elders, a humane and just attitude towards servants and slaves and a high degree of social responsibility and civic ethics.
Though himself convinced of the truth of Buddha’s teaching, Ashoka never sought to impose his sectarian belief on others. The prospect that he held before the people at large is not that of sambodhior nirvana but of svarga (heaven) and of mingling with the Devas.
Main Features of Contents of the Dhamma (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:
1. Major Rock Edict I:
Prohibition of animal sacrifices and festive fathering’s.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. Major Rock Edict IV:
The sound of the drum has become the sound of Dhamma showing the people the divine form.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. Major Rock Edict VII:
It pleads for toleration amongst all sects.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. 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.
11. 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.
12. Major Rock Edict XII:
It is a direct and emphatic plea for toleration amongst the various sects.
13. 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.
14. 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.