King Ashoka the Great and his memorable edicts | Daily News

King Ashoka the Great and his memorable edicts

Today we celebrate the arrival of Arahant Mahinda and the introduction of Buddha Dhamma in Sri Lanka. This event was the outcome of the dissemination programme of the Buddha Dhamma by the great Indian King Ashoka, the third monarch of the Mauryan dynasty.

He has come to be regarded as one of the most exemplary rulers in world history. The British historian H.G. Wells has written: “Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history ... the name of Ashoka shines, and shines almost alone, a star.”

Ashoka ruled over India from 273 to 232 B.C., and it was an India that comprised not only most of what we know as India today, from the Himalayas to almost as far down in the peninsula as Chennai, but also Afghanistan, Baluchistan, Kashmir and Nepal. It may even have extended across the mountains into Chinese Turkestan.

After King Ashoka embraced the teachings of the Buddha, he transformed his polity from one of military conquest to one of Dharmavijaya - victory by righteousness. By providing royal patronage for the propagation of Buddhism both within and beyond his empire, he helped promote the transfiguration of Buddhism into a world religion that spread peacefully across the face of Asia.


In his edicts, King Ashoka spoke of what might be called state morality, and private or individual morality. The first was what he based his administration upon and what he hoped would lead to a more just, more spiritually inclined society, while the second was what he recommended and encouraged individuals to practice. Both these types of morality were imbued with the Buddhist values of compassion, moderation, tolerance and respect for all life.

King Ashoka gave up the predatory foreign policy that had characterized the Mauryan Empire up till then and replaced it with a policy of peaceful co-existence. The judicial system was reformed in order to make it fairer, less harsh and less open to abuse, while those sentenced to death were given a stay of execution to prepare appeals and regular amnesties were given to prisoners.

State resources were used for useful public works like the importation and cultivation of medical herbs, the building of rest houses, the digging of wells at regular intervals along main roads and the planting of fruit and shade trees. To ensure that these reforms and projects were carried out, King Ashoka made himself more accessible to his subjects by going on frequent inspection tours and he expected his district officers to follow his example. To the same end, he gave orders that important state business or petitions were never to be kept from him no matter what he was doing at the time.

He believed that the State had a responsibility not just to protect and promote the welfare of its people but also its wildlife. Hunting certain species of wild animals was banned, forest and wildlife reserves were established and cruelty to domestic and wild animals was prohibited. The protection of all religions, their promotion and the fostering of harmony between them, was also seen as one of the duties of the state. It even seems that something like a Department of Religious Affairs was established with officers called Dhamma Mahamatras whose job it was to look after the affairs of various religious bodies and to encourage the practice of religion.

Law Maker

The great conception of the ancient Indian civilization was the King could not be and was not a law-maker. The king of the land was to act according to the laws prescribed by the ancient sages and he could not override them. His authority amounted to proclamations explaining existing laws or reviving those which had fallen into disuse. It is in this context that we should view King Ashoka’s Rock and Pillar edicts which are important from a political, economic and religious point.

The enactments issued by Ashoka were not randomly placed. Each one was set up to portray a particular message. One edict - the Bhabru Rock Edict, which was placed near in Jaipur state, is a very interesting one. Here, King Ashoka expressed his faith in the Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha and also refers seven examples of Buddhism which were dear to him and he wished that his subjects should also follow them.

The second passage of the Edict, the Traditions of the Noble Ones, emphasizes the idea of time, a recurring theme throughout Ashoka’s selections. It relies on the past to show how venerable, time-tested, and pure the traditions of the Dhamma are. In the four discussions on Future Dangers, he presents a warning -- it is imperative to practice the Dhamma as soon as one encounters it. By no means should the practice be put off because there is no guarantee that opportunities for practice will exist in the future.

These “dangers” are broken down into two categories. The first set of dangers includes death, aging, illness, famine, and social turmoil in one’s own life. The second category of dangers centres on the religion of Buddhism itself - Buddhism will degenerate as a result of improper exercise by its practitioners. The point of these passages is to give a sense of urgency to the practice of Buddhism, so that an effort will be made to take advantage of the teachings while one can.

The next passage presents the ideal of inner safety, an ideal already embodied in the lives of those who have practiced the religion in full. It stresses that true happiness comes not from relationships, but from the peace gained in living a solitary life, existing off alms and free to meditate in the wilderness.

The fifth passage analyses the ideal presented into three qualities; body, speech, and mind. While the passage best expresses the goal of training ones actions in body, speech and mind, the sixth passage contains what is considered to be the most succinct expression of the Four Noble Truths; suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the path to its cessation. The last passage shows how these goals may be realized by focusing on two main qualities -- truthfulness and constant reflection.


What a masterpiece! The inscriptions in the edict underlie every aspect of Buddhist practice. King Ashoka wanted to inspire his subjects. He wanted to tell his subjects that practice in Dhamma builds upon the qualities in everyone -- the lay follower and the monk; men, women and children. The message also emphasizes again the theme of time, or more appropriately, the timelessness of the Dhamma. Whoever in the past, future or present develops purity in thought, word or deed, will have to do it in this way, and this way only.

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