One of the greatest ruler who ever ruled on Indian subcontinent was Ashoka the great(268-232 BC) also known as King 'Devanam Piyadasi' through his various rock edicts. What makes him great is not that his empire was one of the largest ever in India but it was his method of conquering people by spreading the message of sprituality and peace or in other words Dhamma

However the King who once said that all my subjects are my children and it's my duty to take care of their welfare was not always a noble man like this . Buddhist scriptures describes him as a ruthless warrior prince in his early years who achieved magadha's throne by killing his 99 blood-brothers and even after getting the throne his lust for blood and violence didn't seize which earned him the title Chand-ashoka i.e(ruthless ashoka).

After the Kalinga war 261 BC where lakhs of people  including soldiers,women,children elderly were killed the greatest ideal and objective before, Ashoka was the propagation of Dhamma. The policy of Bherighosha(Subdueing through War & aggression) was now replaced by Dhammaghosha(ruling through ethical and moral principles). The Dhamma, as explained in ashoka's edicts is not a religion or religious system but a 'Moral law' 'a common code of conduct' or an 'Ethical order'.

In pillar edict II Ashoka himself puts the question: What is Dhamma? Then he lists the two basic attributes or constituents of Dhamma: less evil and more good deeds. He says such evils as rage,cruelty,anger,Pride and envy are to be avoided and instead more good deeds like kindness,liberality,truthfulness,gentleness, self-control,purity of heart, attachment to morality,inner and outer purity etc. are to be pursued vigorously.

What was Ashoka's Dhamma
Ashoka during Kalinga war

The Dhamma as explained by Ashoka was a moral code of living which he explained to his subjects in various provinces through his pillar and rock edicts where he prescribed some codes a good citizen and more importantly a good human should adhere to.

For example his Rock Edict XII mentions the following codes

  • Obedience to mother and father,elders,teachers and other respectable persons.
  • Respect towards teachers.
  • Proper treatment towards ascestics, saints, slaves and dependents, the poor and miserable, friends aquintance,companions and relatives.
  • Liberality towards ascestics, friends,comrades,relatives and the aged.
  • Abstention from killing of living beings.
  • Non injury to all living creatures.
  • Spending little and accumulating little wealth.
  • Mildness in case of all living creatures.
  • Truthfulness.
  • Attachment to morality.
  • Purity of heart.
Thus, Ashoka tried to instill moral law (Dhamma) as the governing principle and forced in every sphere of life. Dhamma of Ashoka,this is a code for moral and virtuous life. It had nothing to do with god, soul or religion . 

He asked people to have control over their passion, to cultivate purity of life and character in innermost thoughts,to be tolerant to other religions,to abstain from killing or injuring animals and to have regard for them,to be charitable to all, and to be respectful towards parents, teachers and towards other elders. To treat all with kindness including slaves, saints and other less privileged sections of the society.

Ashoka's rock edict at national museum delhi
Ashoka's rock edict at National Museum, Delhi.

Ashoka made Dhamma as a mission of his life. He not only preached but also practiced these principles. He gave up hunting and killing of animals , meat and non veg dishes were rarely cooked in his royal kitchen. 

He established hospitals not only for humans but also tor animals. All the major roads in his Empire were provided with shady trees and rest-houses at frequent distance for travellers with ample facilities of food and water . He made several donations to various religious sects and also sent his daughter and son to various countries to spread the message of Dhamma.

What was the need of Dhamma

Most historians agree with the fact that losses at Kalinga made Ashoka realise that in a diverse country like India where there were many sects, religions,beliefs and ethnicities were residing it was not feasible to rule by the might of sword. He realised that it was much better to appeal to good senses of citizens and invoke their real human values . 

Which would automatically make them good humans and  then good citizens . Thus diminishing the possibility of frequent rebellions and the empire would remain intact. He therefore was determined to propagate his message of Dhamma to his people all over the empire. 

Ashoka's empire
Ashoka's Empire (Image credit-BB polly from Wikimedia Commons)

In the far off provinces he used local scripts like Kharoshthi in northwest to propagate his message. He also appointed special officers called dhamma mahamattas to deliver his message across the length and breadth of his empire. Various Rock edicts and Pillar edicts were installed at important routes and places so that people could get access to Emperor's message.

This strategy it seems worked as for the most of the time during his rule Ashoka's empire remained free from rebellions and intact . Many kings and emperor came in later centuries who ruled over various parts of India but none of  their empire or kingdoms could match the extent of Ashoka's empire. 

It was indeed a big feat accomplished by Emperor Ashoka, ruling over the whole Indian subcontinent peacefully without the use of sword was no easy task as we have seen throughout history and it was Ashoka's Dhamma which played a significant part in keeping his vast empire intact.

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