About one hundred fifty years back, Asoka occupied a negligible place among the Maurya rulers as very little was found in the Puranas regarding him. In 1837 A.D . James Prinsep deciphered an inscription written in Brahmi script which referred to a king titled Devanampiya Piyadasi.
Later on, many such inscriptions were discovered. In 1915 A.D., an inscription was discovered which speaks of Asoka Piyadasi (beloved of gods). It was corroborated by the Sri Lanka- chronicle, the Mahavansa. That established the fact that Asoka was written as Devanampiya Piyadasi in his inscriptions and that raised Asoka to greatness among the Mauryan emperors.
Asoka succeeded his father Bindusara. He has been regarded as a great emperor. H.G. Wells described him as “the greatest of kings.” And his greatness lay not in the extent or vastness of his empire but primarily in his character, and the principles and ideals for which he strove as a ruler.
Asoka has occupied a place not only amongst the great rulers of India but among those of the world. H. G. Wells writes, “It is not every age, it is not every nation, that can produce a king like this type. Asoka still remains without a parallel in the history of the world.”
The Accession to the Throne and Extension of the Empire:
According to Buddhist texts which alone supply us information regarding the early reign of Asoka, he seized the throne by killing ninety-nine of his brothers in a fratricidal war. But the story seems to be very much exaggerated with a view to glorifying Buddhism by drawing a contrast between the careers of Asoka before and after his conversion to Buddhism.
However, this is accepted that Asoka succeeded to the throne after a contest against his step-brother Susima. It is also generally held that he ascended the throne four years after the death of his father, though as Dr D R. Bhandarkar points out, there seems hardly any justification for it. Asoka has been referred to as Devanampriya and Priyadarsi though he preferred to call himself only as Raja (king).
The only conquest of Asoka was that of Kalinga after eight years of his accession to the throne. Kalinga was a powerful state and its territories touched the territories of the Mauryan empire. Therefore, its conquest was felt necessary for the security of the empire. Besides, its conquest could bring economic advantages to the empire. It would have facilitated better trade of the empire with south India and sea-trade with south Asian countries.
Therefore, Asoka decided to conquer Kalinga and attacked it. In the war which took place between Magadha and Kalinga, one hundred thousand persons were slain, one hundred and fifty thousands were taken as captives and many a times of that number perished because of wounds and injuries.
This terrible destruction and human misery changed Asoka’s view son life. He gave up wars of conquests and tried to find solace in peace and non-violence. And, according to Buddhist tradition, he was converted to Buddhism by the monk, Upa Gupta, shortly after the Kalinga war.
Yet, by that time the empire of Asoka extended from Kashmir in the north to far south excluding the kingdoms of the Cholas and the Pandyas and from the borders of Persia in the north-west to Bengal in the east. He kept this empire intact throughout his life.
Besides, Asoka had good and influential relations with several foreign countries. Nepal was under his sphere of influence and he married his daughter to one of its nobles. He had good relations with Ptolemy III, the grandson of Seleucus. Antigonus of Macedonia, Magas of Cyrene. Philadelphus of Egypt and Alexander of Epirus. The Mauryas, including Asoka. always kept good relations with Sri Lanka as well. Asoka exchanged missions with several rulers of these countries and commanded respect among them.
The Administration under Emperor Asoka (New Addition to It):
The basic structure of the administration established by Chandra Gupta remained the same during his reign. However, Asoka elaborated further the definition of Rajya Dharma (State-duties) aimed at material, moral and spiritual progress of his subjects and. thereby, extended the scope of public welfare obligations of the state and brought about certain additional reforms.
Asoka regarded his subjects as his children. He declared, “All men are my children and. just as I desire of my children that they may obtain every kind of welfare and happiness both in this and the next world, so I desire for all men.”
Therefore, he desired not only the material progress of his subjects but also their moral and spiritual progress. He did not feel satisfied even with this. He further declared, “There is no higher duty than the welfare of the whole world.” He tried to pursue this aim by sending religious preachers to foreign countries.
Probably, no wider definition of state duty could be possible than this. Besides, these were not simply the declared ideals of Asoka. He tried to achieve them through his state policies and personally exerted himself for it. He declared, “The welfare of the whole world is an esteemed duty with me, and the root of that again is the exertion and dispatch of business.” Asoka worked very hard to look after his administration.
He kept busy with state affairs all the time and his officers had free access to him for the affairs of public welfare even when he took his food or retired for rest. Thus, both in words and deeds, Asoka remained mostly unparalleled. Dr R.C. Majumdar writes, “Probably no ruler ever expressed the relation between the king and the subjects in a simpler and nobler language.”
Asoka, primarily, brought about the following reforms in the administration which he inherited from his father and grand-father:
I. Orders were given to Rajukas, Yutas and Mahamatras to remain on constant tour within their administrative areas with a view to keeping a watch on their subordinate officials so that they did not fail in their duty in providing justice and welfare to the people. It was also their duty to inform the Emperor about the prevalent condition of the people.
II. He appointed new classes of officers called the Dharam-Yutas, Dharam- Mahamatras and Stri Adhyaksha-Mahamatras (female Mahamatras). Their primary duty was to make efforts for the moral and spiritual uplift of the subjects. They tried to create an atmosphere of goodwill, toleration and mutual cooperation among different-religious sects. They arranged for financial help for the poor and other deserving persons. Stri-Mahamatras primarily looked after the welfare of women.
III. The Rajukas were given judicial powers so that the people could have easy and convenient access to justice.
IV. He decided that death-penalty was to be executed after three days of the judgement. He fixed certain days on which the prisoners and offenders were granted amnesty.
V. He decided that all people would be treated as equals before law and justice and the same laws, whether civil or criminal, would apply to them.
Asoka tried to bring about as much public welfare as was possible. The state arranged for the construction of canals, wells, roads, parks and shade-giving trees. It planted fruit-trees and medicinal plants imported from outside, if necessary. A special officer called Vrajabhumika was appointed to manage these works of public utility. Meat and fish-eating was prohibited on certain days of the year, particularly, in the palace of the king.
Unnecessary killing and hunting of the animals was also prohibited and measures were taken to protect forests from fire. Asoka substituted conquests of righteousness (Dharma) in place of the traditional policy of territorial expansion. He stopped his pleasure-trips and hunting excursions. Instead, he started going on religious pilgrimages, visited different Buddhist religious sites and along with them looked after the welfare of the common people. The same was expected of his officials.
Thus, Asoka acted as a benevolent king and the main feature of his policy always remained humanism. He claimed to have influenced many neighbouring kings of northwest by his enlightened policy. Yet, Asoka did not permit any laxity in the administration.
He neither removed the fear of punishment to the offenders nor reduced the number and strength of his army. Dr A.L. Basham seems to be very near the truth when he writes, “It seems that Asoka believed that, by setting an example of enlightened government, he might convince his neighbours of the merits of his new policy, and. thus, gain the moral leadership of the whole world. He, by no means, gave up his imperial ambitions, but modified them in accordance with humanitarian ethics of Buddhism.” But, whatever might be his motives, it is certain that he was successful in his administration
Asoka’s Dhamma (Dharma) and Measures to Promote It:
In the beginning, Asoka was a follower of Brahmanic faith. According to Buddhist text, the Mahavamsa, he worshipped several gods and goddesses and distributed food to sixty thousand Brahmanas every day. Kalhana, in the Rajtarangini, described him as a worshipper of Shiva. Therefore, it has been expressed that it was only after the war of Kalinga that he accepted Buddhism. Yet, his Dhamma was different from the Dharma which he pursued.
Dhamma is the Prakrat form of the Sanskrit word Dharma. However, Asoka tried to use it in a much wider sense. Scholars have expressed different opinions regarding the Dhamma of Asoka. Dr R.G. Bhandarkar says. “Asoka’s Dhamma is nothing more than secular Buddhism.” Dr N.K. Sastri writes, “Asoka turned Buddhism from a dry academic pursuit of knowledge to a colourful and emotional religion with wide popular appeal.”
Dr F.W. Thomas has remarked. “Asoka was undoubtedly a Buddhist, he became a lay disciple and then a monk, later he proclaims his regard for the religion and his personal faith.” However, Thomas holds the view that the Dhamma which Asoka tried to propagate amongst his subjects was not Buddhism. He writes, “On the other hand, we hear from him nothing concerning the deeper ideas or fundamental tenets of faith . . .”
He states that there is no reference to Four Nobel Truths, Eightfold Path, transmigration of soul, etc. in the ideas which Asoka propagated. Dr V.A. Smith also expresses the view that Asoka’s Dhamma had no affiliation with any particular sect but it was common to all Indian religions. The same way Dr R.K. Mookherjee writes. “The Dharma of the Edicts is not any particular Dharma or religious system, but a moral law independent of caste or creed.”
Thus, there are scholars who have expressed the view that Asoka had accepted Buddhism and propagated Buddhism or a little altered version of it while others contend that he did not propagate Buddhism but merely certain moral precepts. However, all scholars agree that Asoka did not propagate the fundamental tenets of Buddhism but only its moral precepts which were very much common to all religions of India.
This is also accepted that Asoka accepted Buddhism after the war of Kalmga and visited Sanghas and Buddhist religious places. Dr R.K. Mookherjee says that Asoka’s position was midway between that of an Upasak and a Bhikku (monk) viz., Bhikkugatika.
Therefore, most of the scholars have agreed that the personal religion of Asoka was, of course. Buddhism but what has been described as Asoka’s Dhamma and which was propagated by him amongst his subjects was different and contained those moral precepts which were certainly inspired by Buddhist teachings but were common to all religions of India.
In reality, Asoka’s ideal was more ethical and social than religious. He was not concerned with the particular religion of any individual but he desired that all people though pursuing different religions, should live in harmony with each other and cultivate habits of social good conduct. Asoka pursued this ideal and built up his policy of Dhamma on this basis due to several reasons.
Primarily, his own private beliefs, the circumstances of his age and the political necessity of holding a big empire intact were responsible for this policy. The Mauryas were not against Brahamanism but were definitely more sympathetic towards Jainism and Buddhism. Chandra Gupta Maurya had accepted Jainism during the latter years of his life. Therefore, Asoka’s family traditions were in favour of support to these new religious sects though, of course, with tolerance.
Asoka decided to favour tolerant Buddhism. Further, these new religious sects had created divisions in the society which were strengthened by changed economic circumstances.
The big empire under the Mauryas had increased facilities for trade and commerce which had created a new and prosperous class of people, mostly concentrated in cities. The new religious sects attracted large converts from the commercial class. The lower strata of the society too, in general, had sympathy with these new sects. This strengthened social divisions. Therefore, some efforts were felt necessary to maintain the social unity. Asoka’s Dhamma was one of them.
Dr Romila Thapar writes, “He was aided in this by the fact that these sects had the support of the newly risen commercial class and the mass of the population was not antagonistic to them. In addition to this, the new beliefs were not violently opposed to the old ones and it was, therefore, possible to bring about a compromise. Thus, Asoka saw the practical advantage of adopting the idea of Dhamma.”
The political necessity of keeping a vast empire intact was also in favour of such a policy. The people were divided amongst themselves not only on the basis of territorial divisions but also on the basis of cultural differences. The recently conquered territories and the annexation of different small states by the Mauryas had further intensified this problem.
It required a common ideal to foster unity amongst so divergent a populace. “The adoption of a new faith,” writes Dr Romila Thapar, “and its active propagation would act as a cementing force, welding the smaller units. It could be used as a measure to consolidate conquered territory, provided that was used wisely and was not forced upon unwilling people.”
Therefore, Asoka put before his subjects the ideal of Dhamma. However, besides his family traditions and social and political necessities of his empire, Asoka depended on the ideals of Buddhism because it represented not only the religious fervour of the age but also a popular intellectual movement. Dr Romila Thapar writes, “Asoka was certainly attracted to Buddhism and became a practising Buddhist. But the Buddhism of his age was not merely a religious belief, it was, in addition, a social and intellectual movement at many levels, influencing many aspects of society. Obviously any statesman worth the name would have had to come to terms with it.” Thus, his personal beliefs and the necessities of the empire gave birth to his policy of Dhamma.
The Dhamma which was propagated amongst his subjects had the following essential features:
I. It emphasized certain moral precepts which had their roots in family life of individuals. It taught that each member of the family should be respected. An individual should respect his father, mother , elders, teachers and seniors in status or age and, one should be considerate and liberal to ascetics, Brahamanas, Bhikkus, friends, relatives, companions, servants, dependents, the poor, the afflicted and to all those who were disabled by age.
II. In the 2nd Pillar of Asoka Edict, the people were advised to observe compassion, liberalism, truthfulness and purity in their personal lives.
III. It emphasized Ahimsa (non-violence) to all men and animals. It insisted on the recognition of sanctity of all life. Therefore, it was against the killing of animals for any purpose.
IV. It advised people to leave all sinful passions like cruelty, anger, envy and pride.
V. It advised people to leave ritualism and, instead, to pursue virtuous deeds.
VI. It advised people to convert all personal virtues into social virtues.
VII. The description on the 12th Rock-edict of Asoka stated that the people should not only tolerate all religious sects but develop a spirit of reverence for all. It declared that all people should talk sweetly to each other, purify their hearts, study the religious texts of each other, abstain from criticising each other and praising their own religions, and they must observe non-violence in their personal, social, national and international life.
Thus, Asoka’s Dhamma was a code of moral duties, benevolent acts and freedom from passions for an individual. It comprised both personal and social moral virtues. The principles of Dhamma were such as could be acceptable to people belonging to any religious sect. Therefore, it could not be equated with Buddhist Dhamma. The Dhamma of Asoka was a practical code of conduct of social ethics which formed the basis of all religions.
Its primary instinct was social responsibility. “For Asoka” writes Dr Romila Thapar, “Dhamma was a way of life, the essence of what he had culled from the moral teachings of the various thinkers known to him, and probably his own experience of life. It was based on a high degree of social ethics and civic responsibility.”
Further, the Dhamma of Asoka was based on extreme toleration and its principles were freely drawn from moral precepts of all religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. The credit to create his Dhamma has also gone to him as writes Dr Romila Thapar, “Dhamma was Asoka’s own invention.”
And, when he propagated his Dhamma, he did not propagate any particular religion. Rather, he desired that his subjects should practise religious toleration, engage in virtuous deeds and fulfill social obligations irrespective of religious distinctions.
Dr Romila Thapar writes, “In the propagation of his Dhamma Asoka was attempting to reform the narrow attitude of religious teaching, to protect the weak against the strong, and to promote, throughout the empire, a consciousness of social behaviour so broad in its scope that no cultural group could object to it.”
Further, Asoka did not force his Dhamma on his subjects. He tried to persuade them to accept it. When he appointed Dhamma-Mahamatras also he did not desire to pursue and enforce a religious policy to promote any particular religious sect but desired to promote the economic, social, religious and political life of all his subjects.
If he would have desired to promote a particular sect, then there was no necessity to create the office of Dhamma-Mahamatras as all religious sects existing at that time were not only free but capable enough to propagate their sects without the support of the State. Particularly, it was very much true of Buddhism. Dr Romila Thapar writes, “Had the Dhamma conformed to any of the religions, more particularly Buddhism, the institution of Dhamma-Mahamatras would have been superfluous.”
Dhamma-Mahamatras did not help in the propagation of any particular religious sect. They, rather, helped the people in due observance of their respective religions without being detrimental to each other’s faith and one of their primary duties was to assist the destitute, the aged and the unfortunate ones in the society. Thus, the ideal of Asoka in the propagation of his Dhamma was a novel ideal.
Probably, no other Indian ruler, either before or after him, was guided in his state policies by a higher ideal than this. Only the Mughal emperor, Akbar deserves comparison with him but as Nilakanta Sastri states, “He (Asoka) came much nearer success than Akbar.” This is why Asoka has been ranked amongst the greatest rulers of the world.
Asoka adopted the following measures to propagate his Dhamma:
I. He got engraved expressions from his ideas on various stone pillars and rocks which enable us to know not only his ideas but also measures which he adopted to propagate them. These rock-edicts and pillars also provide us useful information about his life and reign.
These have been divided into the following four types:
a. Fourteen Rock Edicts
A set of fourteen inscriptions engraved on rocks have been found at eight different places, viz., in the districts of Peshawar, Hazara, Dehradun, Girnar (Kathiawar), Thana (Bombay), Dhauli and Jaugada (Orissa) and Kurnool (Andhra Pradesh).
b. Vlinor Rock Edicts:
An edict engraved on minor rocks at thirteen different places has been found, viz., one at Rupnath (Jabalpur), one at Bairat (Jaipur), one at Sasaram (Bihar), one at Maski (Raichur), five at different places in Mysore, one in Madhya Pradesh, one in Kurnool district, one in Mirzapur district of UP, and one in Andhra Pradesh.
c. Seven Pillar Edicts:
These were engraved on six pillars found at different places. The complete set of seven edicts is found only on a single pillar row at Delhi. The other pillars contain only six of the edicts.
d. Other Edicts:
The remaining inscriptions engraved on rocks, pillars and walls of caves have been found at different places, most important of them being at Lumbinivana, Taxila, Jalalabad and Kandhar.
Different scripts were used for different inscriptions of Asoka, according to the language of the region.
II. Asoka practised what he meant to propagate. He stopped taking meat, killing of birds and animals in the palace and hunting and pleasure tours. Instead, he started visiting the holy places of Buddhism, engaged himself in public welfare work and charity and behaved tolerantly with people of all faiths. The Barabara caves were dedicated by him to the sect of Ajivikas.
III. He guided his public behaviour according to the Dhamma. He stopped animal-fighting and other such entertainments and. instead, encouraged religious fairs and festivals. After his conquest of Kalinga, he stopped wars of conquests and started Dhamma-vijaya, viz., propagation of religion.
IV. He appointed Dhamma-Mahamatras to propagate his idea of Dhamma, religious toleration amongst his subjects and to help the poor, the old and the disabled.
V. He assigned similar responsibilities to his officers like Rajukas, Yutas and Pradesikas.
VI. The Third Buddhist Council met during his time at Pataliputra. It was presided over by the monk Moggaliputta Tissa and it deputed missionaries to different countries. At this very time, Mahendra and Sanghamitra, his son and daughter respectively, were sent to preach Buddhism in Ceylon. Other missionaries visited not only the different parts of India but also Western Asia, Egypt and Eastern Europe.
The efforts of Asoka were successful, though, of course, with limitations. His subjects tried to follow his Dhamma and it spread to distant foreign lands as well. Yet, the efforts brought about no permanent result. Romila Thapar writes, “Basically, it (the policy of Dhamma) failed to provide a solution to the problems which it set out to solve. The social tensions remained, the sectarian conflicts continued. In a sense Dhamma was too vague a solution, because the problem lay at the very root of the system.”
Successors of Asoka:
The Maurya empire proceeded towards its fall after the death of Asoka. Seven kings, viz., Kunal, Dasarath, Samprati, Salisuk. Devaverma, Satadhanva and Brihadratha followed Asoka in succession during a period of fifty years. The last ruler of this dynasty, Brihadratha was killed by his commander-in-chief Pushyamitra Sunga who laid the foundation of a new dynasty, the Sunga dynasty.