Emperor Ashoka lived from 304 to 232 BCE and was the third ruler of the Indian Mauryan Empire. He ruled form 268 BCE to 232 BCE and became a model of kingship in the Buddhist tradition.
Under Ashoka India had an estimated population of 30 million, much higher than any of the contemporary Hellenistic kingdoms. After Ashoka’s death, however, the Mauryan dynasty came to an end and eventually dissolved.
In the beginning, Ashoka ruled the empire like his grandfather did, in an efficient but cruel way. He used military strength in order to expand the empire and created sadistic rules against criminals. Ashoka ordered that prisoners should be subject to all imagined and unimagined tortures and nobody should ever leave his prision alive.
During the expansion of the Mauryan Empire, Ashoka led a war against Kalinga, with the goal of annexing its territory, something that his grandfather had already attempted to do. The conflict took place around 261 BCE and it is considered one of the most brutal and bloodiest wars in world history. The people from Kalinga defended themselves stubbornly, keeping their honour but losing the war. Ashoka’s military strength was far beyond Kalinga’s. The disaster in Kalinga was supreme: with around 300,000 casualties, the city devastated and thousands of surviving men, women and children deported.
What happened after this war has been subject to numerous stories and it is not easy to make a sharp distinction between facts and fiction. What is actually supported by historical evidence is that Ashoka issued an edict expressing his regret for the suffering inflicted in Kalinga and assuring that he would renounce war and embrace the propagation of dharma. What Ashoka meant by dharma is not entirely clear: some believe that he was referring to the teachings of the Buddha and, therefore, he was expressing his conversion to Buddhism. But the word dharma, in the context of Ashoka, had also other meanings not necessarily linked to Buddhism. It is true, however, that in subsequent inscriptions Ashoka specifically mentions Buddhist sites and Buddhist texts, but what he meant by the word dharma seems to be more related to morals, social concerns and religious tolerance rather than Buddhism.
After the war of Kalinga, Ashoka controlled the entire Indian subcontinent except for its extreme southern part, and he could have easily controlled that remaining part as well, but he decided not to. Some versions say that Ashoka was sickened by the slaughter of the war and refused to keep on fighting.
Whatever his reasons were, Ashoka stopped his expansion policy and India turned into a prosperous and peaceful place for the years to come.
Edicts of Ashoka
Ashoka began to issue one of the most famous edicts in the history of governance, and instructed his officials to carve them on rocks and pillars, in line with the local dialects and in a very simple fashion.
In the rock edicts, Ashoka talks about religious freedom and religious tolerance, he instructs his officials to help the poor and the elderly, establishes medical facilities for humans and animals, commands obedience to parents, respect for elders, generosity for all priests and ascetic orders no matter their creed, orders fruit and shade trees to be planted and also wells to be dug along the roads so travellers can benefit from them.
No living beings are to be slaughtered or offered in sacrifice. Nor should festivals be held, for Ashoka objected to festivals, although there were some festivals that Ashoka did approve of.
Everywhere within Ashoka’s domain, and among the people beyond the borders, the Cholas, the Pandyas, etc., he made provision for two medical treatment of humans and animals.
Wherever medical herbs suitable for humans or animals were not available, he had them imported and grown. Along roads, he had wells dug and trees planted for the benefit of humans and animals.
Ashoka says that twelve years after his coronation, he ordered that everywhere in his domain the officials shall go on inspection tours every five years for the purpose of Dhamma instruction and also to conduct other business.
He said that 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.
In the past, for many hundreds of years, killing or harming living beings and improper behavior had increased. But now due to Ashoka’s Dhamma practice restraint in the killing and harming of living beings have increased. These and many other kinds of Dhamma practice have been encouraged by Ashoka, and he will continue to promote Dhamma. And the sons, grandsons and great-grandsons of Ashoka too will continue to promote Dhamm.
This edict was written so that it may please Asoka’s successors to devote themselves to promoting these things and not allow them to decline.
Ashoka says that to do good is difficult. One who does good first does something hard to do. He says that he has done many good deeds, and, if his sons, grandsons and their descendants act in such a manner, they too will do much good. But whoever amongst them neglects this, they will do evil.
Ashoka said that in the past, state business was not transacted, nor were reports delivered to the king at all hours. But now he had have given the order, that at any time, or wherever he is, reporters are to be posted with instructions to report to him the affairs of the people so that he might attend to these affairs wherever he is.
Ashoka desired that all religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart.
Asoka says that in the past, kings used to go out on pleasure tours during which there was hunting and other entertainment. But ten years after he had been coronated, he went on a tour to Sambodhi and instituted Dhamma tours. During these tours, there were visits and gifts given to Brahmans and ascetics, visits and gifts of gold to the aged, visits to people in the countryside, instructing them in Dhamma, and discussing Dhamma with them as is suitable.
Ashoka said that people perform various ceremonies. These types of ceremonies can be performed by all means, but they bear little fruit. What does bear great fruit, however, is the ceremony of the Dhamma.
This involves proper behavior towards servants and employees, respect for teachers, restraint towards living beings, and generosity towards ascetics and Brahmans. Other ceremonies are of doubtful fruit, for they may achieve their purpose, or they may not, and even if they do, it is only in this world.
Ashoka did not consider glory and fame to be of great account unless they are achieved through having my subjects respect and practice Dhamma, both now and in the future. For this alone he desire glory and fame.
Ashoka said that there is no gift like the gift of the Dhamma, no acquaintance like acquaintance with Dhamma, no distribution like distribution of Dhamma, and no kinship like kinship through Dhamma.
Ashoka honored both ascetics and the householders with gifts and honors of various kinds. But he did not value gifts and honors as much as he valued that there should be growth in the essentials of all religions.
Ashoka conquered the Kalingas, which resulted in one hundred and fifty thousand people being deported, one hundred thousand killed and many more died from other causes. After the Kalingas had been conquered, Ashoka came to feel a strong inclination towards the Dhamma, a love for the Dhamma and for instruction in Dhamma. And he felt deep remorse for having conquered the Kalingas.
Ashoks had the Dhamma edicts written in brief, in medium length, and in extended form. Not all of them occur everywhere, for his domain was vast, but much has been written, and he will have still more written. And also there are some subjects here that have been spoken of again and again because of their sweetness, and so that the people may act in accordance with them. If some things written are incomplete, this is because of the locality, or in consideration of the object, or due to the fault of the scribe.
Dhauli and Jaugada
The officers and city magistrates at Tosali / Sarnapa are to be instructed that whatever Asoka approves of, that he desires either to achieve by taking action or to obtain by effective means. The officials should gain the affection of men. They should should strive to practice impartiality.
Second Separate Edict
At Tosali the Prince and the officers are to be ordered that whatever Asoka approves of, that he desires either to achieve by taking action or to obtain by some effective means. If the unconquered peoples on the borders ask what is Asoka’s will, they should be made to understand that this is his will with regard to them –the king desires that they should have no trouble on his account, should trust in him, and should have in their dealings with him only happiness and no sorrow.
Minor Rock Edict (a conflation of the various versions)
Asoka says that both humble and great should make progress and that the neighbouring peoples also should know that the progress is lasting. And this investment will increase and increase abundantly, and increase to half as much again.
The Queen’s Edict
On the order of Asoka, the officers everywhere are to be instructed that whatever may be the gift of the second queen, whether a mango-grove, a monastery, an institution for dispensing charity or any other donation, it is to be counted to the credit of that queen.
Barabar Cave Inscription
Asoka gave the Banyan Cave to the Ajivikas. He gave the cave on the Khalatika mountain to the Ajivikas, when he was consecrated since nineteen years.
Kandahar Bilingual Rock Inscription
Ten years being completed, King Asoka showed piety to men. And he refrains from eating living beings, and indeed other men and whosoever the king’s huntsmen and fishermen have ceased from hunting, and those who were without control have ceased as far as possible from their lack of self- control, and became obedient to elders. And in future, doing all these things, they will live more agreeably and better than before.
Minor Rock Inscriptions
(Concerned specifically with Asoka’s interest in Buddhism.)
The king of Magadha, Asoka, greets the Order and wishes it prosperity and freedom from care. Asoka says that whatever was spoken by the Buddha was well spoken. Asoka says that he desires that many monks and nuns should hear frequently and meditate upon, and likewise laymen and laywomen.
Rummindei Pillar InscriptionK
King Asoka, when he had been consecrated twenty years, came in person find referenced the place where Buddha Sakyamuni was born. He caused a stone enclosure to be made and a stone pillar to be erected. As the Buddha was born in the village of Lumbini, he has exempted it from tax, and fixed its contribution [i.e. of grain] at one-eigth.
Nigalisagar Pillar Inscription
Asoka, when he had been consecrated fourteen years, increased the stupa of Buddha Konakamana to double [its former size].
Schism Edict (a conflation of the various versions)
Asoka ordered the officers of Kausambi/Pataliputra thus:
No one is to cause dissension in the Order. The Order of monks and nuns has been united, and this unity should last for as long as my sons and great grandsons. For it is my wish that the Order should remain united and endure for long. You must keep one copy of this document and place it in your meeting hall, and give one copy to the laity. The layman must come on every uposatha day to endorse this order. The same applies to special officers. Throughout your district you must circulate it exactly according to this text. You must also have this precise text circulated in all the fortress districts.
The Pillar Edicts
1st Pillar Edict
Asoka said that it is hard to obtain happiness in this world and the next without extreme love of Dhamma, much vigilance, much obedience, much fear of sin, and extreme energy. But, through his instructions, care for Dhamma and love of Dhamma have grown from day to day, and will continue to grow. His principle is to protect through Dhamma, to administer affairs according to Dhamma, to please the people with Dhamma, to guard the empire with Dhamma.
2nd Pillar Edict
King Asoka says that Dhamma is good. It is having few faults and many good deeds, mercy, charity, truthfulness, and purity. He has given the gift of insight in various forms. He has conferred many benefits on man, animals, birds, and fish, even to saving their lives, and has done many other commendable deeds.
3rd Pillar Edict
Asoka says that one only notices one’s good deeds, thinking, ‘I have done good’, but on the other hand one does not notice one’s wicked deeds, thinking, ‘I have done evil’, or ‘this is indeed a sin’. Now, to be aware of this is something really difficult. But nevertheless one should notice this and think, ‘Cruelty, harshness, anger, pride, and envy, these are indeed productive of sin.’ let them not be the cause of my fall. And this one should especially notice, thinking, ‘This is important to my happiness in this world; that, on the other hand, for the next.’
4th Pillar Edict
Asoka says that rural officers are appointed over many hundred thousands of people. In judgment and punishment he has given them independent authority, so that they may fulfill their functions calmly and fearlessly and may promote the welfare and happiness of the country people and benefit them.
Men who are imprisoned or sentenced to death are to be given three days respite. Thus their relations may plead for their lives, or, if there is no one to plead for them, they may make donations or undertake a fast for a better rebirth in the next life. For it is his wish that they should gain the next world. And among the people various practices of Dhamma are increasing, such as self-control and the distribution of charity.
5th Pillar Edict
Asoka says that when he had been consecrated for twenty-six years he forbade the killing of the following species of animals, namely: birds, bats, ants, tortoises, boneless fish, vedaveyakas, fish of the Ganges, skate, porcupines, squirrels, deer, lizards, domesticated animals, rhinoceroses, and all quadrupeds which are of no utility and are not eaten. She goats, ewes, and sows which are with young or are giving suck are not to be killed, neither are their young up to the age of six months. Capons must not be made. Chaff which contains living things must not be set on fire. Forests must not be burned in order to kill living things or without any good reason. An animal must not be fed with another animal.
On the days of the stars Tisya and Punarvasu, on the first full moon days of the four-monthly seasons, and on the fortnights following them, cattle and horses are not to be branded.
6th Pillar Edict
Asoka says that when he had been consecrated for twelve years he had an inscription of Dhamma, engraved for the welfare and happiness of the world. Whoever follows it should obtain progress in Dhamma in various ways. Thus does he provide for the welfare and happiness of the world – in the same way as he brings happiness to his relatives, both close and distant and work for it, so do I provide for all sects.
7th Pillar Edict
Asoka says that in the past, kings searched for means whereby people’s interest in Dhamma would increase, but the people did not respond accordingly with a greater devotion to Dhamma. For this reason there have been proclamations of Dhamma and many instructions of Dhamma were ordered, and my administrators were appointed over many people; they will admonish them and explain Dhamma to them.Asoka says that he has done many things in order that my people might conform to Dhamma.
Asoka says that his officers of Dhamma are busy in many matters of public benefit, they are busy among members of all sects, both ascetics and householders. He has appointed some to concern themselves with the Buddhist Order, with brahmans and Ajivikas, with the Jainas and with various sects. There are many categories of officers with a variety of duties, but my officers of Dhamma are busy with the affairs of these and other sects.