Understanding Ashoka in the light of dhamma

Lucy Kamei

Ashoka, the third ruler of the mighty Mauryan Empire in ancient India is one of the few rulers in the world who had been bestowed upon with the epithet ‘The Great’ primarily because of his renouncement of violence and warfare and his lifelong endeavour to rule with peace and compassion on the lines of Dhamma. Ashoka’s Dhamma is a set of moral principles which was designed to bring about social harmony and good governance. This transformation of an ambitious and ruthless emperor to a peace-loving and compassionate man with an almost saint-like demeanour is something that has always fascinated the world.

In the year 1837, James Prinsep, an English scholar deciphered an inscription which was written in the ancient script, Brahmi. This inscription revealed the benefactor to be ‘Devanampiya Piyadassi’ which is translated as ‘The beloved of the gods, Piyadassi’. In the preceding times, many more inscriptions by the same king had been discovered and deciphered. These inscriptions had boggled the world of historians for quite a long period of time because the identity of this king remained mysterious until the year 1915 when another variant of the inscription was deciphered in which the king called himself ‘Devanampiya Ashoka’. It was a very important moment in history because it had been ascertained and confirmed that the king ‘Devanampiya Piyadassi’ was none other than the Mauryan ruler, Ashoka.

Ashoka ruled the Mauryan Empire from c. 268 to 232 BCE. As a prince, he was the governor of Ujjayini, the western province of the empire and it is said that it was there that he met his wife, Devi who was a pious Buddhist and it is probable that his first stint with Buddhism may have occurred because of his association with her. Sources also said that Ashoka came to the throne after eliminating all his brothers in a bloody war of succession after the death of his father which reveals the ambitious and ruthless side of the king’s personality. After ascending the throne, the only major war he fought was the campaign of Kalinga which seemed to have filled the king with remorse, and popular opinion has it that this event was a turning point of his life. After about a couple of years after the dreaded War of Kalinga, Ashoka converted to Buddhism and made it his life mission to live and rule in accordance with Dhamma.

Dhamma is a universal law or righteousness, a set of moral principles and ethical values to bring about social and religious harmony. Ashoka implemented his Dhamma by inscribing the words on huge natural rock surfaces in places where it would be easily accessible to the people and where they could conveniently assemble and read them. He also erected magnificent pillars which are usually mounted by beautiful animal sculptures and on the shaft of the pillars were inscribed the words of Dhamma. These pillars were probably carried through river-ways to different locations and were erected in strategic places where it would be easily seen and noticed by the people.

One of the most important teachings of Dhamma was ‘Ahimsa’ which means ‘non-violence’ or ‘non-injury’ which is also one of the paramount teachings of Gautama Buddha. It is in accordance with the ideal of Ahimsa that Ashoka renounced warfare and conquest by violence. However, the king understood his duty towards his subjects as the ‘father’ of the kingdom and in doing so he also gave a stern caution against rebellions by his ‘children’. Not only did he limited the number of animals that were to be slaughtered in the royal kitchen but Ashoka also listed a number of animals, birds and fish that were considered rare and were to be conserved, which is one of the earliest attempts in history made by a person or organization to preserve wildlife. He was said to have encouraged the planting of medicinal herbs to promote good health for both human beings and animals. Ashoka also set up the world’s first veterinary hospitals.

The virtue of religious tolerance and mutual respect among all people is also one of the most important aspects of Dhamma. The king, sitting in a position of power and authority could have easily enforce Buddhism on his subjects but rather than resorting to religious bigotry and fanaticism, Ashoka emphasized on equal respect and reverence towards all religions and religious leaders of his time. He also urged the people to be respectful towards parents, teachers, elders and even to be kind to slaves and servants. Not only Ashoka but the Mauryan kings are also known in history for their tolerance, respect and even eclecticism when it comes to their religious affinities. They also patronized and made several generous donations to the popular religions and sects of the time and one can assume that the people of the kingdom did not have to fear about professing their religious beliefs during the reign of the Mauryans.

Ashoka condemned baseless rituals and ceremonies of his time which according to the king play no part in the spiritual growth of a person. This unconventional initiative must have been a bold step made by a monarch in a kingdom whose occupants were vastly of Brahmanical faith. The Brahmanical religion at that time was dominated by rituals, ceremonies and sacrifices and therefore Ashoka may have heedfully or unheedingly earned the dissatisfaction or even wrath of the Hindu populace.

Promoting the welfare of the common people in the kingdom was one of the efforts of Ashoka. He created a high ranking elite cadre of officials called the Dhamma Mahamattas who were appointed for the purpose of touring the different corners of the kingdom to preach the king’s Dhamma and also to help and assist the poor, the old people and the needy. This is a clear indication that this king was genuinely concerned about the welfare and well-being of his subjects irrespective of caste, religion or any social category they belonged to.

Ashoka lived more than 2000 years ago but his views and principles preceded his time. He dreamt of and attempted to build an ideal if not a utopian state where there is peace and harmony, where people do not let religion, caste or status come in the way in their conduct with each other, where everybody and not just high-borns, the rich and the powerful are respected but also servants and slaves are treated kindly and respectfully, where even animals are treated well and protected. We, in the 21st century are talking about world peace, social security, equality, secularism, environmental conservation and wild life protection but King Ashoka had already talked, preached and worked on the issues that were aforementioned. 

Sadly, the king’s ideals proved to be too pragmatic and ahead for his time that the whole system of Dhamma laid by Emperor Ashoka collapsed after his death. Many scholars even blamed Ashoka’s Dhamma to be one of the reasons for the decline of the Mauryan Empire. As we examine the ideals, goal and vision of Ashoka’s Dhamma in its intricate entirety, we cannot help but notice the fact that it is to a considerable extent relevant and needed in the world today. One cannot help but imagine that had Ashoka lived in our time with effective transport system and with fast internet making the world so much virtually smaller and communicable, how much he would have succeeded in implementing Dhamma in the world today!

The past is gone but it never fails to make us understand the present clearer and plan for the future better. Ashoka’s ideals may have been labelled as impractical or even foolish back in his time but as we look at it now, we see that in the midst of its utopian and seemingly unachievable ideals, there are also lessons to be learnt and ethics to be admired and followed as Arthur J. Toynbee said “History not used is nothing, for all intellectual life is action, like practical life, and if you don’t use the stuff well, it might as well be dead”.

The writer is Assistant Professor, Department of History, St Joseph’s College (Autonomous) Jakhama.