Ashoka’s Dhamma: Religion or Not?

The dhamma is prakrit form of the sanskrit word dharma. However, ashoka tried to use it in a much wider sense. Scholars have expressed different opinions regarding dhamma of ashoka. Some are of the view that his dhamma is nothing more than buddhism others feel that it was not a particular religious system but a moral law and code of ethics independent of caste or creed.

Most scholars agreed that personal religion of ashoka was buddhism but what has been described as his dhamma and which was propagated by him among his subjects was different and contained those moral prospects which were certainly inspired by buddhist teachings but were common to all religions of india. In reality ashoka’s ideal was more ethical and social than religious. He was not concerned with particular religion of any individual but he desired that all people though persuing different religions should live in harmony with each other and cultivate habits of good social conduct.

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Ashoka pursued this ideal and built up this 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 mauryans as such were not against brahmanism but were definitely more sympathetic towards jainism and buddhism. Chandragupta maurya had accepted jainism during later yrs. Of his life. Therefore, ashoka’s family traditions were in favour of support to these new religious sects. Though offcourse with tolerence.

Further these new religious sects had created divisions in the society which were strengthened by changed economic circumstances. The big empire under the mauryans had increased facilities for trade and commerce which had created a new and prosperous class of people mostly concentrated in the cities. This strengthened social divisions. The new religious sects attracted large converts from this commercial class. The lower strata of the society also in general had sympathy with the new sects. All this added to creating divsions in the society.

Therefore some efforts were felt necessary to maintain the social unity and ashoka’s dhamma was one of them. Accordingto romila thapar, “ashoka was aided in this by the fact that these sects had the support of the newly risen commercial class and the mass of population was not antagonist 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, ashoka 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 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 mauryans had futher intensified this problem. It required a common ideal to foster unity among so divergent a populous. The adoption of a new faith and its active propagation would act as a cemetic force, welding the smaller units. It could be used as a measure to consolidate conquered territory provided that it was used wisely and was not forced upon unwilling people.

Therfore, ashoka put before his subjects the ideals of dhamma. He depended on the ideals of buddhism because it represented not only the religious fervour of the age but also a popular intellect movement. Dr. Romila thapar writes-“ashoka was certainly attracted to buddhism and became a practicing 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 the society.

Obviously any statesman worth the name would have to come to terms with it. Thus, his personal beliefs and the necessities of the empire gave birth to his policy of dhamma. Ashoka and his dhamma or law of piety engraved on rocks and pillars in order to spread buddhism contained these principles: •mastery over the senses •purity of thought •gratitude •steadfastness of devotion •kindness •charity •purity •truthfulness •service •reverance it emphasised certain moral pre-sects which had their roots in the family life of the individual. It taught that each memberof the family should be respected.

An individual should respect his father, mother, elders, teachers, and seniors. One should be considerate and liberal to ascetics, brahamanas, bhikkus, relatives, friends, companions, servants, dependents, the poor, the afflicted and those who were disabled by age. People were advised to observe compassion, liberalism, truthfulness, and purity in their personal lives. It emphasised ahimsa or non-violence to all men and animals and recognised sanctity of all life. It adviced people to leave sinful passions like cruelty, anger, envy, pride. To refrain from personal virtues into social virtues.

The 12th rock edict of ashoka stated that people should only tolerate all religious sects but also develop a spirit of reverance for all. People should talk sweetly to each other, purify their hearts, study religious texts of each other, abstain from criticism of another’s religion and praise of one’s own religion. Thus, ashoka’s dhamma was a code of moral duties, benovalent acts, freedom from passions, it comprised both personal and social moral virtues. Its principles were such as could be acceptable to people belonging to any religious sect. Its primary instinct was social responsibility.

It was not buddhism; Dhamma was ashok’s own invention and creation. When he peopagated his dhamma, GE was not propagting any particular religion rather he desired that his subjects should practise religious tolerance, engage in virtuous deeds and fulfill social obligations irrespective of religious distinctions. Ashoka was attempting to reform the narrow attitude of religious teachings to protect the weak against the strong and to promote throughout his empire a conciousness of social behaviour so broad in its scope that no cultural group could object to it.

The efforts of ashoka were successful though offcourse with limitations. The efforts brought about no permanent results. According to romila thapar-“basically it 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 weak a solution because the problem lay at the very root of the system. ” yet ashoka deserves praise for what he tried, for bringing harmony amongst the people and unity in his empire.

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Ashoka’s Dhamma: Religion or Not?. (2018, Mar 09). Retrieved from