DHARMA:  The real story of Ashoka must begin with the “Dharma.”  The term is closely associated
with Ashoka and Buddhism but has its roots in the Proto-Indo-European verb “dhr”, “to hold”, used to describe the cosmic law underpinning the universe.  By the fifth century, BCE, the Buddhists gave the term a new meaning:  “the ultimate truth as contained in the body of teachings expounded by Sakyamuni Buddha.”  As his edicts suggest, Ashoka intended the term “Dharma” to be inclusive, that it represented a religiously founded civil ethics for all state citizens of the Maurya Empire as well as a specific religion, principles, its tenets and practices usually identified as the Buddhist dharma.  (From: Allen, Charles. “Ashoka;” P. xix)      

However Ashoka came to embrace the teachings of the Buddha, there is no question that his conversion to Buddhism was both heartfelt and ironclad.   Following his adoption of Buddhism somewhere in the fourth of fifth year of his reign, Ashoka’s devotion to The Dharma was absolute, never wavering from the application of its precepts of governance and moral and ethical guidance for the remainder of his 40 year reign.  

Of particular creativity was the Emperor’s means of distributing and popularizing the Dharma throughout his kingdom.  What we might call today billboard advertising  (“hoardings” in India), Ashoka’s Dharma tenets were craved permanently into huge cliff faces measuring hundreds of feet across, giant rocks, some carved in elephant shapes, and in slabs of stone.  At the beginning of his reign, these rock edicts were located adjacent to principal road junctions and other gathering places away from towns, while later they began to appear in urban areas when the Emperor’s reign was presumably more secure as were the security of his rock edicts.  The first of these edicts were chiseled into stone about 250 BCE and are called the “Minor Rock Edicts” and were followed by more such rock carved edicts of which more than two dozen have been re-discovered.  The Rock Edicts, of which 14 have been rediscovered, pillar edicts carved into massive smooth stone pillars often at the sites of Buddhist stupas, and other stone works carved with the Dharma, number in the dozens today and given that so much of India’s age old sculptural and architectural stonework has disappeared through “adaptive re-use” and wanton destruction, it is not far fetched to assume that such pillars and rock billboards were nearly as common in Maurya as hoardings are in India today.  Ashoka appears to have predated the advertising wizards of Madison Avenue by a couple of centuries.

As important as the Dharma edicts were, Asoka’s construction of Buddhist stupas, the addition of protective walls and enclosures at Buddhism’s holiest sites, and the subscription of donations for Buddhist memorials and reliquaries throughout the country are equally key to Ashoka’s successful rule and the spread of Buddhism.   Legend has it that some 84,000 such religious constructions and artifacts were created during Asoka’s reign from today’s Calcutta (Kolkata) to the borders of Afghanistan.  Literally thousands of such sites and markers have been uncovered all across India and beyond during more than a century of archeological work.

Ashoka’s Edicts, the propagation of The Dharma across the breadth and depth of the Mauryan Empire and beyond, has no known comparable in all human history.   Two “events” assisted in the spread and permanence of Asoka’s rock edicts, the formation of a Sanskrit precursor language with a written alphabet derived from the local Krashoti script just prior to his reign and the transition from wooden to stone construction that occurred at around the same time.  

The clearest way to convey the true revolutionary import of Ashoka’s Dharma are though his own words.  The following are the first seven of the Fourteen Rock Edicts:        


1.  Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, has caused this Dharma edict to be written.  Here in my domain no living beings are to be slaughtered or offered in sacrifice.  Nor should festivals be held, for Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, sees much to object to in such festivals, although there are some festivals that Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, does approve of.

Formerly, in the kitchen of the Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, hundreds of thousands of animals were killed every day to make curry.  But now with the writing of this Dharma edict only three creatures, two peacocks and a deer, are killed, and the deer not always.  And in time not even these three creatures will be killed. 

2.  Everywhere within Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi’s domain, and among the people beyond the borders, the Cholas, the Pandyas, the Satiyapurtras, the Keralaputras, as far as Tamraparni and where the Greek king Antiochos rules, and among the kings who are neighbors of Antiochos, everywhere has Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, made provision for two types of medical treatment: medical treatment for humans and medical treatment for animals.  Wherever medical herbs suitable for humans or animals are not available, I have had them imported and grown.  Wherever medical roots or fruits are not available I have had them imported and grown.  Along roads I have had wells dug and trees planted for the benefit of humans and animals. 

3. Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, speaks thus: Twelve years after my coronation this has been ordered:  Everywhere in my domain the Yuktas, the Rajjukas and the Pradesikas shall go on inspection tours every five years for the purpose of Dharma instruction and also to conduct other business.

Respect for mother and father is good, generosity to friends, acquaintances, relatives, Brahmans and ascetics is good, not killing living beings is good, moderation in spending and moderation in saving is good.  The Council shall notify the Yuktas about the observance of these instructions in these very words.

4.  In the past, for many hundreds of years, killing or harming living beings and improper behavior towards relatives, and improper behavior towards Brahmans and ascetics has increased.  But now due to Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi’s Dharma practice, the sound of the drum has been replaced by the sound of the Dharma.  The sighting of heavenly cars, auspicious elephants, bodies of fire and other divine sightings has not happened for many hundreds of years.  But now because Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi promotes restraint in the killing and harming of living beings, proper behavior towards relatives, Brahmans and ascetics, and respect for mother, father, elders, such sightings have increased.  

These and many other kinds of Dharma practice have been encouraged by Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, and he will continue to promote Dharma practice.  And the sons and grandsons and great grandsons of Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, too will continue to promote Dharma practice until the end of time; living by Dharma and virtue, they will instruct in Dharma.  But practicing the Dharma cannot be done by one who is devoid of virtue and therefore its promotion and growth is commendable. 

This edict has been written so that it may please my successors to devote themselves to promoting these things and not allow them to decline.  Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, has had this written twelve years after his coronation. 

5.  Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, speaks thus:  To do good is difficult.  One who does good first does something hard to do.  I have done many good deeds, and, if my sons, grandsons and their descendants up to the end of the world act in like manner, they too will do much good.  But whoever amongst them neglects this, they will do evil.  Truly, it is easy to do evil.

In the past there were no Dharma Mahamatras but such officers were appointed by me thirteen years after my coronation.  Now they work among all religions for the establishment of Dharma, for the promotion of Dharma, and for the welfare and happiness of all who are devoted to Dharma.  They work among the Greeks, the Kambojas, the Gandharas, the Rastrikas, the Pitinikas and other peoples on the western borders.  They work among soldiers, chiefs, Brahmans, householders, the poor, the aged and those devoted to Dharma – for their welfare and happiness – so that they may be free from harassment.  They (Dharma Mahamatras) work for the proper treatment of prisoners, towards their unfettering, and if the Mahamatras think, “This one has a family to support,” “That one has been bewitched,” “This one is old,” then they work for the release of such prisoners.  They work here, in outlying towns, in the women’s quarters belonging to my brothers and sisters, and other relatives.  They are occupied everywhere.  These Dharma Mahamatras are occupied in my domain among people devoted to Dharma to determine who is devoted to Dharma, who is established in Dharma, and who is generous. 

This Dharma edict has been written on stone that it might endure long and that my descendants might act in conformity with it. 

6.  Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, speaks thus:  In the past, state business was not transacted nor were reports delivered to the king at all hours.  But now I have given this order, that at any time, whether I am eating, in the women’s quarters, the bedchamber, the chariot, the palanquin, in the park or wherever, reporters are to be posted with instructions to report to me the affairs of the people so that I might attend to these affairs wherever I am.  And whatever I orally order in connection with donations for proclamation, or when urgent business presses itself on the Mahamatras, if disagreement or debate arises in the Council, then it must be reported to me immediately.  This is what I have ordered.  I am never content with exerting myself or with dispatching of business.  Truly, I consider the welfare of all to be my duty, and the root of this is exertion and the prompt dispatch of business.   There is no better work than promoting the welfare of all the people and whatever effort I am making to repay the debt I owe to all beings to assure their happiness in this life, and attain heaven in the next.

Therefore this Dharma edict has been written to last long and that my sons, grandsons and great grandsons might act in conformity with it for the welfare of the world.  However, this is difficult to do without great exertion. 

7.  Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart.  But people have various desires and various passions, and they may practice all of what they should or only a part of it.  But one who receives great gifts yet is lacking in self-control, purity of heart, gratitude and firm devotion, such a person is mean. 

NOTE: Unlike Part I, the Rock Edicts of Ashoka referenced here are word for word those included in Allen’s “Appendix” to “Ashoka.”


1.  This seems to be a direct slap in the face of Brahman (Hindu) authority and practices, and a rather audacious and inflammatory – if mildly stated – condemnation of blood sacrifices so intimately connected with age old traditional Brahmanical religious rites.   In addition, the admonition against animal slaughter is an unheard of exhortation given this era in India’s history. 

2.  What? Medical treatment and supplies for humans and animals provided by the state?  Water wells and shade trees along roadways provided by the state?  Surely one of the most revolutionary concepts in all ancient history.

3. Respect for others, generosity and non-killing of living things (a Jain concept) along with moderation in spending and savings sounds like a prescription torn straight from the pages of the New Testament or the Rights of Man.

4.  I find this an amazing edict for the promotion of non-violence carved into stone three centuries Before the Common Era and could have been promulgated by Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. with not a single word altered.   This is essentially Ashoka’s rules of behavior edict describing how people are to interact with one another.

5.  As with the Disciples of Jesus Christ two and a half centuries later, Ashoka has empowered a team of Dharma Mahamatras to ensure that his Dharma is being properly taught and followed throughout his kingdom.  The admonition to do good rather then evil resonates with Christ’s message as well and is a fundamental ethic of Ashoka’s Dharma and the passage concerning the "release" of prisoners has to be extraordinary for the age.  

6.  A paean to good, efficient governance, this Rock Edict illuminates the detail by which Ashoka governed and his demand to be informed of everything that was happening from his within his own palace and throughout the far reaches of his Empire.  It is extraordinary.

7.  Probably the most extraordinary of the 14 Rock Edicts.  The straightforward and powerful edict that all religions should be respected and various religious practices tolerated is probably one of the most profound ethical, moral and societal principles ever produced in human history. 

I still have found no analysis of why it is that Buddhism became so popular and widespread all across Asia.  Unlike virtually every prior and nearly all subsequent diffusion of religious structures, nearly all were accompanied by the sword and musket but not Buddhism.  Perhaps Ashoka's Dharma, as humane and compassionate as the edicts were and the parallels to the Buddha's revolutionary teachings of tolerance, compassion and mutual respect struck a chord with folks who just might have been tired of the endless warfare, death and destruction wrought upon them as they simply tried to go about their ordinary lives unmolested by the terrors of rule.

Just recently, 2015-2016, an Indian television outfit broadcast a series about Ashoka.  It was immensely popular,

Have A Good Day!!



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