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Ashoka and Monk Moggaliputta-Tissa at the Third Buddhist Council; By Photo Dharma from Penang

The Ancient India

What is ‘Dhamma’?: A Religious Policy by Ashoka the Great (2/2)

By Smera Sarnath Sonker

This is a continuation of the previous article in this series. Kindly refer to that if you haven't read it by clicking below:

DHAMMA: The Law on Piety

The ideological conflict between the Vedic religion and newly emerging beliefs such as Buddhism, Jainism, Ajivikaism, was speculated as a potential source of social and religious tensions. It was against this background, of a possible communal discord, that Ashoka presented and explained the theory of Dhamma to unite all the sects having this in common, in order to eliminate the tension and thereby, knitting a strong and united empire.

Dhamma is the Prakrit equivalent of the Sanskrit word ‘dharma’, translated as religion in modern times (Jha, 1999). However, in terms of Ashoka’s edicts it has a wider sense.

Dhamma’, in a sense, was an ethical code to inculcate a social responsibility among the people, it was different from various religions popular at that time. The ultimate goal of Dhamma was to create a harmonious environment where all people, irrespective of their caste and religion, lived in peace and harmony with each other so as to ensure the security and stability of the empire.

For Ashoka, Dhamma was a way of life and was based on a high degree of social ethics and civic responsibility. Dhamma was meant to reach every member of the society for which Ashoka formed a different cadre of officers known as the ‘Dhamma-Mahamattas’.

The 13th Rock Edict expresses an idea of conquest by Dhamma instead of by war and violence i.e. dhammavijaya instead of digvijaya. Ashoka was successful in his dhammavijaya by eliminating aggressive warfare. Thus, he includes the Greek kingdoms of Syria, Egypt, Cyrene, Macedonia and Epirus as having being conquered by Dhamma, whereas in fact all that may have happened was a cordial exchange of embassies or missions or merely the sending of one of these by Ashoka to the Greek kings mentioned.

Ashoka has described Dhamma as compromising a great number of virtues like truth, compassion, liberality, purity and minimum number of sins. The 3rd pillar edict makes an attempt to differentiate between good and bad deeds.

Ashoka believed that if people ordered their lives according to the principles of Dhamma then, their goal to attain happiness would be fulfilled.

The Minor Rock Edict of Maski mentions the author as “Devanampriya Asoka”, definitively linking both names, and confirming Ashoka as the author of the famous Edicts; Sudeep m — Own work

Description on several edicts:

In order to understand the concept behind the Dhamma the description on the following edicts can be referred to (in brief):

Major Rock Edict I prohibits animal sacrifice in public gatherings and festivities.

Major Rock Edict II discusses certain measures of social welfare for both men and animals, such as, building hospitals, roads, wells, planting trees, etc.

Major Rock Edict III tells us that on the order of the king, Pradesikas (head of the districts), Yuktas (subordinate officers), Rajukas (rural administrators) toured every 5 years to propagate Dhamma.

Major Rock Edict IV mentions that the sound of drums became the sound of dhamma showing divine form to people.

Major Rock Edict V acquaints us with the introduction of a new cadre of officers, i.e. the Dhamma-Mahamattas, in the 12th year of Ashoka’s reign. Their main function was to maintain communal harmony and spread the message of Dhamma. It also talks about the fair and humane treatment meted out to servants and prisoners.

Major Rock Edict VI makes the relationship between king and his subjects, through Dhamma-Mahamattas, crystal clear. The mahamattas are told to make their reports to the king at any time, irrespective of what he may be occupied with at the moment; whether he be in the palace partaking of its various pleasures, or engaged in occupation of a private nature, or if he be outside in the park, the officials had access to him at any time. The class of officers bringing news about the people were known as Pativedakas.

Major Rock Edict VII pleads for toleration among all sects. It seems that, during that time, there might have been intense tension among the various sects therefore, this plea was made to unite them, so as to ensure the stability and security of the kingdom.

Major Rock Edict VIII mentions the replacement of hunting expeditions of the king with Dhammayatras with the main purpose to propagate Dhamma.

Major Rock Edict IX attacks ceremonies and customs performed in Vedic religion after birth, illness, marriage, setting out on a journey, and suggests to follow Dhamma instead and lays stress on respect even of the slaves.

Major Rock Edict X here, Ashoka condemns all glory and the only glory which he desires is that his subjects should follow the principles of Dhamma.

Major Rock Edict XI contains further explanation of Dhamma. It emphasises on the principles of Dhamma and refers to the gift of Dhamma, distribution of Dhamma and kinship through Dhamma.

Major Rock Edict XII is a plea towards toleration among all sects so as to maintain the unity and stability of the empire.

Major Rock Edict XIII mentions that the sound of war drums (bherighosha) has been replaced by sound of peace (dhammaghosha) that means to conqueror world war has been replaced by Dhamma.

By Chrisi1964

Following were the main principles of Dhamma:

  • One should always obey and respect their parents and elders.
  • One should always love and care for younger people.
  • People should live with peace and harmony.
  • Elder should develop an understanding with the children.
  • One should be honest, charitable and kind to everyone including servants and slaves.
  • There should be mutual respect among people. People should love each other.
  • People should respect all the religions and be tolerant.
  • Everyone should follow the principle of non-violence i.e. Ahimsa and non-injury to all living beings.
  • One should have a good conduct of character and should believe in Karma.

In all, Ashoka’s law of Dhamma was somewhat different from Buddhism. Ashoka’s explanation of what he means by the Dhamma indicates that it was a secular teaching. It was a liberal code of life which could be incorporated by anyone irrespective of their religious beliefs. It was more like a moral code of conduct.

In Ashoka’s edicts it has been suggested that Dhamma has been taught in two ways that are — persuasion and regulation. Ashoka admits that more results have been achieved by persuasion than regulation.

The scene depicts the graceful figure of Asoka’s Queen standing in front of the railings of the Buddhist monument at Sanchi


Ashoka was quite successful in his religious policy and policy of Dhamma as he was able to maintain peace and order throughout his reign and no solid evidence of communal discord has been found during his reign. Conclusively, it can be deduced that he was a liberal and tolerant king; he respected all religions.

Post Kalinga war his entire strategy changed, he left his aggressive war policy behind and started following Buddhism and the path of diplomacy and non-violence, because of such policies he is still celebrated as ‘Ashoka the great’, a true non-violent emperor who loved his people as his own children.



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