Ashoka (269-232 BC) the first Indian ruler of South Asia to have established imperial control over the greater part of the sub-continent including pundravardhana (modern Bogra in North Bengal) considered to be a province or an administrative unit of the Maurya empire. Either Bindusara or his son and successor Ashoka possibly annexed the region to Maurya Empire. Though Chandragupta Maurya set up the first extensive empire in the sub-continent, it was only Ashoka who for the first time established a trans-Indian empire. On the death of his father king Bindusara in 273-272 BC, Ashoka was crowned in 269-68 BC after about four years of struggle for succession among the sons of Bindusara. Ashoka came out successful in the struggle and ruled the empire until about 232 BC. In early part of his regal life, Ashoka expanded his empire to almost all parts of the sub-continent, but the blood-spattered Kalinga War changed his political and moral outlook. In his Rock and Pillar Edicts, Ashoka stated how the Kalinga War changed him into a moral man. Since then he devoted himself to establishing universal peace and moral regime in all spheres of life. Non-violent Dhamma became his guide for the rest of his life.
Ashoka ruled his vast empire from pataliputra (a place in and around modern Patna). From the point of view of the source of imperial revenue and propagation of Dhamma, historians consider the Ganges Valley as the core of his vast empire.
Until the orientalist researches revealed the extent and depth of ancient civilizations, our knowledge about Ashoka was limited to some sketchy information provided by the purana literature in which Ashoka appeared as an inconspicuous ruler of the Maurya dynasty. However, in 1837 james prinsep deciphered some of Ashoka's Rock Edicts and came to the conclusion that Ashoka was much greater king than narrated in the Purana literature. Prinsep informed us for the first time that Ashoka became a Buddhist and preached Buddhism in the name of dhamma. Studying some more inscriptions of the time of Ashoka Prinsep came to a further conclusion that Ashoka abandoned the policy of conquests after the Kalinga War. He became a Buddhist and assumed a religio-royal title devanampiya piyadassi (the beloved of the gods, Piyadassi) dedicating him to the cause of promoting peace and welfare of the mankind. Subsequent discoveries and interpretations of Ashoka's numerous Rock and Pillar Edicts reveal Ashoka's empire and his attitude to life, politics and ethics. The numerous Rock Edicts of Ashoka discovered in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries acquaint us not only with the personality of the king but also with the events of his reign and nature of his administration. In his 13th Rock Edict, Ashoka articulated his attitude to life, polity and religion. Never before and after his regime, we find royal thought and activities of ancient times so plainly and extensively documented as those of Emperor Ashoka's regime. Ashoka described in his Edicts the effects of warfare on human peace and welfare. The Kalinga War taught him how destructive could be the impact of wars on human organisations, welfare and peace. He argued that war could not be supported on any ground, religious, moral and political.
Ashoka reflected on the evil effects of warfare both at social and individual levels and came to believe that people's love and support and general welfare could be established by abandoning the path of warfare and undertaking the responsibilities of establishing peace and social harmony based on love and responsibilities. He defined his new thought in his state and religious policy what he collectively called Dhamma, which was his own idea of religion and morality. Ashoka expounded his Dhamma through numerous Rock and Pillar Edicts addressed to state officials and people. He described how the Kalinga War changed his mind and what he wanted to do to establish the environment of peace and social harmony among the subjects of his empire. The 13th Rock Edict described in details the impact of the Kalinga War made on his mind. It goes:
'When he (Ashoka) had been consecrated eight years the Beloved of the Gods, the king Piyadassi, conquered Kalinga. A hundred and fifty thousand people were deported; a hundred thousand were killed and many times of that perished. Afterwards, now that Kalinga was annexed, the Beloved of the Gods very earnestly practiced Dhamma, desired Dhamma, and taught Dhamma. On conquering Kalinga the Beloved of the Gods felt remorse, for, when an independent country is conquered the slaughter, death, and deportation of the people is extremely grievous to the Beloved of the Gods, and weighs heavily on his mind. What is even more deplorable to the Beloved of the Gods, is that those who dwell there, whether brahmans, shramans, or those of other sects, or those house holders who show obedience to their superiors, obedience to mother and father, obedience to their teachers and behaved well and devotedly towards their friends, acquaintances, colleagues, relatives, slaves and servants ' all suffer violence, murder and separation from their loved ones. Even those who are fortunate to have escaped the wrath of war and whose love is undiminished [by the brutalising effects of the war] suffer from the misfortunes of their friends, acquaintances, colleagues and relatives. This participation of all men in suffering weighs heavily on the mind of the Beloved of the Gods....
'The Beloved of the Gods believes that one who does wrong should be forgiven as far as it is possible to forgive him. And the Beloved of the Gods conciliates the forest tribes of his empire.... and wishes that all beings should be allowed to live unharmed, self-controlled, calm in mind, and gentle... (Description of countries of Asia and Europe where he sent his envoys to propagate Dhamma). This inscription of Dhamma has been engraved so that any sons or great grandsons that I may have should not think of gaining territories by new conquests....They should only consider conquests by Dhamma to be a true and permanent conquest, and delight in Dhamma should be their whole delight, for this is of value in both this world and the next' (Translated by Romila Thapar in Ashoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, Oxford University Press 1997, paperback, pp.255-57).
Ashoka's reign was particularly marked by the reorganization of the Buddhist Sangha. With Ashoka's patronage and support the Third Buddhist Council at Pataliputra in c. 250 BC was organised. He rendered his patronage to Theravada sect of Buddhism and asked the Sangha to expel the dissidents. It was at this council that decision was taken to send Theravada missionaries to all parts of Asia and even beyond and make Buddhism an actively proselytizing religion. Ashoka mentions in his Edicts various countries of Europe and Central Asia with whom he exchanged diplomatic and other missions. Ashoka's edicts were written generally in local script. While Prakrit in brahmi was the dominant scripts in Ashokan inscriptions, regional languages including south Indian and Hellenic languages were also used in relevant places in the interest of making Buddhism known to peoples of all languages.
The concept of Dhamma was indeed a response to contemporary conditions characterised by Vedic faiths, Buddhism and Jainism. Ashoka selected some values of the existing faiths and thoughts and synthesised them to create a new ideology. Ashoka's great empire included multiple religious, cultural, ethnic and social systems. He looked at such plurarity with the pride that all of them were safe under his care. The principle of his Dhamma was such that it was acceptable to peoples of all religions, caste and creed. Tolerance to all was the basic message of Dhamma. Tolerance, according to Ashoka, should be extended to all people and to their beliefs and ideas. He defined tolerance as kindness towards slaves and servants, respect for teachers, obedience to mother and father, generosity towards friends, acquaintances and relatives, regard for and donations to brahmans and shramanas, a concern for all living beings. Ashoka asserts in Rock Edict 12 that one's greatest responsibility in life is to think about the welfare and security of all faiths, not only of his own.
Ashoka started propagation of his ideology of Dhamma, as attested by his 5th Rock Edict, from the 13th year of his reign. In this Edict, Ashoka directed the officers of Dhamma to be kind to prisoners. He directed them to release from prison all prisoners who had children, and who were old, infirm, and sick. Ashoka declared in several of his Edicts that he wanted welfare and happiness for the mankind. How he wanted to achieve the goal has been engraved in his 6th Rock Edict. Love and tolerance towards all faiths and practices made the core of the thought of Dhamma. Ashoka's environmentalist commitment has been enshrined in his second Rock Edict, in which he directed his people to show kindness not only to man, animal and birds, but also to world of vegetation. He asked all to plant fruit trees and medicinal herbs and trees for fuel, and never to disturb the natural growth of vegetations.
One institutional aspect of Ashoka's propagation of Dhamma was the system of holding local assemblies by the rajukas or empire's rural officers by beating of drums and giving the assembled crowd the sermons that 'they must obey mother and father, obey the teachers; have mercy on living beings; speak the truth always. (Minor Rock Inscriptions, tr. R. Thapar, Ashoka and the Decline of the Maurya, p. 259).
Ashoka's philosophical views about state and statecraft declare the culmination of an epoch of a few centuries of rational inquiry and cultural development. The change from the nomadic pastoral culture of the early Aryans to more settle and urban culture under the Mauryas led to a revolutionary change in the religious, social, economic and political outlook of the people. The Jain and Buddhist thoughts had tremendously influenced the movement of the mind of the era making a shift from the sacrificial tradition of rites and rituals of the Brahmanic culture to the critical and independent abstract approach of the Maurya era was indeed a great transition from sacrifice to the establishment of love and tolerance in social and political relations.
It is well-known that Ashoka was not an avowed Buddhist when he entangled himself in a war of succession after the death of his father Bindusara. His interest in Buddhism grew after his accession to the Maurya throne. Historians are largely in agreement that Brahmanical courtiers of Ashoka had little support to Ashoka in the war of succession and that phenomenon might have influenced Ashoka to develop interest in resorting to the alternative Buddhist thought of the time. In this he was also influenced possibly by the changed social environment of the rise of a commercial class and expanded contact with the Hellenic world.
Thus Ashoka identified the new economic environment as an opportunity to reach the people by adopting the idea of the Dhamma. Integrating the small political units into his larger political domain might be another consideration of Ashoka's new state policy of Dhamma. His dream might have been the unification of the myriad political entities into the Maurya sovereignty without enacting the Kalinga experience again. His dream goes close in similarity to the political unification of Europe by Charlemagne and Constantine in the name of Christianity. Buddhists, who were previously frowned upon by Brahmanists were now restored to a safe and respectable position by recognising them as a peaceful religious sect under the banner of Dhamma. In analysing Ashoka's concept of universal state, scholars are also inclined to give importance to the contemporary Buddhist ideal of chakravartin or universal emperor, who is free from sin and symbol of kindness. Such a universal king is also available in contemporary Jaina thought of digvijayins. But in his Edicts Ashoka had never claimed to be either chakravartin or digvijayins. [Sirajul Islam]
Bibliography Romila Thapar, Ashoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, Oxford, 1997, AL Basham, The Wonder that was India, London, 1954, S. Chattopadhyaya, Bimbisara to Ashoka, Calcutta, 1977.