Policies and Reforms of Ashoka the Great of Mauryan Empire
Ashoka's policy of dhamma has often been equated with his conversion to Buddhism. He is credited with the propagation of the tenets of the Buddhist sect. But as we have seen earlier, this interpretation is based on an unquestioned acceptance of Buddhist texts which narrate several stories connected with the ruler. In order to appreciate the various nuances of Ashoka's policy, it is necessary to describe the different religious and social strands prevalent at the time. This will also explain the reasons for Ashoka's adoption of the new policy of dhamma.
Prior to the rise of the Mauryan empire, Brahmanism had developed into a complex system. Vedic ritual continued and philosophical speculation acquired a new dimension. Several sects arose seeking to explain the beginnings of the universe. While many of these accepted the authority of the Vedic texts, three prominent sects questioned this authority. These were the Buddhists, the Jainas and the Ajivikas. Jainism had exerted considerable influence on the early Maurya rulers and we know that Chandragupta had adopted the life of a Jaina ascetic in his later years. Similarly, the Ajivikas sect was also popular with the rulers. It is narrated in the Divyavadana, that an Ajivika saint had been consulted on the birth of Ashoka and it was this saint who had predicted Ashoka's greatness. Ashoka donated two caves to the Ajivikas in the Barabor Hills in the thirteenth year of his reign. One of the later Mauryas, Dasharatha, is known to have dedicated three caves in the Nagarjuni Hills to the Ajivika sect.
The most prominent of these sects was Buddhism, mainly because of its order of monks and nuns. The bhikkhus preached the law during the cold and hot seasons, but retreated to the monasteries during the rains. In contrast to elaborate Brahmanical sacrifices, Buddhist ritual centred around the worship of the stupa, and stressed on its lay followers the need to adopt a path of moderation and rational thinking. As a result, the appeal of Buddhism was both extensive and widespread. It attracted the ordinary masses as well as the expanding commercial classes. These trading communities were given a low status in the Brahmanical hierarchy and placed in the third category of Vaishyas.
In addition to the introduction of these new ideas, the social fabric was also in a process of change. The pastoral way of life of the Vedic period had given way to an urban culture. Urban centers had emerged in the Ganga Valley around the middle of the first millennium B.C. and were well established by the time of the Mauryan period. The complexities of urban living and the growth of trade and commerce as major occupations demanded a more closely knit organization. Buddhism was ideally suited to this situation as it emphasised a broader social consciousness, unlike Brahmanism where social responsibility was largely confined to one's own caste.
Another element in these heterogeneous strands which co-existing during the Mauryan period was the presence of a large foreign population in the north-west. The nucleus of this concentration was the city of Taxila. Situated on an important highway, Taxila was a crucible of Indian and Greek ideas. This co-mingling and mutual acceptance was further stressed on account of Taxila's status as a provincial capital under the Mauryas.
It would have been a difficult task for any ruler to maintain unity in an empire composed of such diverse elements, as outlined above. Perhaps, the only alternative were either to enforce control through armed strength or to unify the population through a common set of beliefs. Ashoka adopted the second alternative as his policy of reform. A close study of his inscriptions shows that the dhamma of Ashoka was unique to the King. It, perhaps, incorporated many beliefs from Buddhist and Hindu thought, but it was basically a highly moral, practical and convenient way of life. This will become clear as we discuss the edicts of Ashoka.
One of the striking features of Ashoka's edicts is that he regards himself as a father figure. He constantly speaks of the father-child relationship between the king and his populace. The first Rock Edict prohibits the ritual of animal sacrifice and festive gatherings. It is not quite clear why gatherings should have been banned. Perhaps, Ashoka feared that at such meetings public opinion may be stirred against his policy of reform. Or perhaps, Ashoka's opposition was to the practice of useless ritual. This occurs again in the ninth Rock Edict where Ashoka attacks the performance of useless ceremonies and the expenditure incurred on them. The second Rock Edict describes the various measures taken by him such as the construction of roads and medical centres for men and animals. This is followed by advice to be liberal and generous to both Brahmins and Sramanas. This again stresses the fact that the ruler was not bigoted about any one religion. In his seventh Pillar Edict, he orders the dhamma mahamattas to look after the Brahmins and Ajivikas. The dhamma mahamattas was a special cadre of officials set up by Ashoka in the fourteenth year of his reign and they were responsible for the practical aspects of the propagation of dhamma. They were active not only in the region of Magadha, but were also sent to the frontier areas and among neighbouring peoples. The fact that Ashoka felt it necessary to establish a separate group of officials indicates that the moral precepts preached by him were different from Buddhism. If his dhamma had been the same as Buddhism, then it would have been easier to enlist the support of monks and nuns for its propagation. But this was not the case. Instead, one of the duties of the dhamma mahamattas was to look after the welfare of the different religious sects, including the Buddhists. What is also interesting is that the power of these officials gradually increased. They were allowed entry into the homes of the people, including members of the royal family, and were asked to make their report directly to the king.
In the tenth year of his reign, Ashoka went on a visit to Bodh Gaya to see the Bodhi tree. This event is described in the eighth Rock Edict and with it started a system of dhammayatas. These yatas or yatras were occasions when the ruler toured the country and preached the dhamma to the people. Not only did Ashoka visit places of Buddhist pilgrimage during these tours, but he also made generous donations to Brahmanas and other religious sects.
Throughout his edicts Ashoka stresses the importance of the family. The emphasis is on respecting elders, including religious elders, a humane and just attitude towards servants and slaves and a high degree of social responsibility and civic ethics. A second category of edicts are those addressed to the sangha. These were issued either to commemorate a pilgrimage or, as in the case of the Bhabhra edict, show the King's faith in Buddhism. The Bhabhra edict was issued towards the end of Ashoka's reign and states the faith of the King in the Buddha, the dhamma and the sangha. But this category of edicts showing the King's personal faith are different from the first category discussed above. Throughout, Ashoka seems to have maintained a distinction between his personal beliefs and the secular dhamma preached by him.