Dhamma policy of Ashoka

The word Dhamma is associated with the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka. Dhamma is the Prakrit form of the Sanskrit word Dharma which means righteousness. Dharma has been variously translated as Eu’sebeia or doctrine of piety as per Greek edict found in Shar-i-Kuna (Kandhar), Qsyt or truth and Data or Law in Aramaic from the pillars found from Shar-i-kuna and Taxila respectively.

Lion capital excavated in Sarnath


From the above meaning of the word, it becomes quite clear that the word Dhamma has nothing to do with Buddhism and was an attempt of the king to convey his message to the subjects in the most appropriate language. By language, we mean the different languages that were used by the King which could be easily understood by the people. For example, in the North-West, languages like Aramaic and Greek was used and similarly Prakrit in Brahmi script was used near the Deccan area.

Purpose

The question arises why would a King of Ashoka calibre would try to reach its subjects. Why the King was so eager that he put so much energy and money to propagate such policy. The answer lies in three reasons.

1.     Socio Economic background:

The Mauryan empire was the most formidable kingdom at that time in India. This means the empire had evolved into a centre of trade. The increase trade lead to the rise of commercial class. With the rise of commercial class, the strata started to demand for more rights and this lead to rigidity in the varna system. To get flexibility, this class and the lower class often adopt new sects mostly heterodox sects. The increase in size of empire also means tribes were also included which also demanded certain rights. Such conditions often lead to tension situation in pockets of the empire.

2.     Religious conditions:

The flexibility of Buddhism and rigidity of the Brahmanical rituals was a clash point. Often, it was perceived that Buddhism was more liberal and had a more simplistic outlook against the rituals and sacrifice of the Hinduism. More and more people were attracted towards Buddhism since it had minimum or no sacrificial rules. Also, when Ashoka ascended the throne, his administrative setup had already many cultures like Jain, Greeks, etc.

3.     Polity

The rise of Magadh and Mauryans saw incorporation of new territories. The new territories include the Gana Samghas, tribes. The conquests also include the inhalation of previous existing administrative apparatus. Such a new mixture was difficult to manage with sheer power. Thus, Ashoka devised a way by which minimum conflict could occur and gave rise to his policy of Dhamma

Feature of the Dhamma

The edicts were written primarily to explain the principles of Dhamma. This is the reason why most of the edicts have something or the other to say about Dhamma, Ashoka was very keen that the affairs of the state too were carried out according to the principles of Dhamma.

  • It laid stress on non-violence.
  • It also include certain welfare measures like planting trees, digging wells,etc.
  • Dhamma mahamattas were appointed to implement and popularise various aspects of Dhamma.
  • It prohibited sacrifice of animals and also banned festive gatherings.
  • It pleaded for tolerance among all sects.
  • It censored the ceremonies adopted by wives and mothers and prohibited all ceremonies during birth marriage,etc and stressed on uselessness of the ceremonies.
  • Replacement of Bherighosa by  dhammaghosa i.e  conquest by Dhamma instead by war.
  • Replacement of hunting game by Dhammayatras by the king for maintaining of constant contact with rural people

 Dhamma's negative impact

The Dhamma policy also came with a lot of negativity. These were:

Economic:

The King laid more stress on preaching the policy of Dhamma which led to drain of wealth. Special officers like Dhamma mahamattas were appointed for preaching the principles and were to be paid by the state only.

Politics:

  • Dhamma mahamattas started to interfere with the polity of the state.
  • The army was virtually rusted by such policy and created a type of anxiety among soldiers.  

Social impact:

The most negative impact that the policy had was on society. The King preached his own believes and banning and attacking certain ritual and sacrifices and stopping holiday gatherings irritated the masses. Although, the Dhamma was a way of life as forwarded by Ashoka that people should follow, but its nature was imposing and people was it as a direct attack on their religion. This is the reason that when Briharatha Maurya was assassinated in front of his army by his General Pushyamitra Sunga, people and army didn’t even pay heed and accepted Sunga as new emperor.

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