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Craig Taylor

Analyze in detail Asoka's conception of Dhamma and its connection to his rule Asoka's view of dhamma has three aspects. Firstly there is the religious element, derived from Asoka's Buddhist faith, which led him to act piously himself, to encourage Buddhists, and to exhort his subjects, whatever their religion, to follow the basic essence which he claimed was common to all religions. The natural counterpart to this was a desire to provide for the physical comfort of and security of his people. Thus he decreed a range of measures comparable to those of a modern secular government - protections of the rights of those accused of crimes, provision of wells, and so on. Less obviously proclaimed, but still important, was Asoka’s aim of maintaining and extending his personal power, which could be achieved with the ideology of dharma - persuading people that it was a sin to disobey him, and using dhamma as a means to increase royal control. Needless to say, there is no clear division between these three elements, and many sections of the edicts fulfil more than one aspect. The principle of non-violence, for example, is simultaneously a fundamental Buddhist doctrine, a means of peaceful coexistance, and a means for the king - with the ability to exact punishment and even to maintain an army - to keep control over his state. Doing good was, as Kautilya recognised, the best way to maintain power. The three aspects of dhamma can be distinguished in the sources for Asoka’s conception of dhamma, in the decrees of the edicts, and in the king’s practical use of the edicts and the principle of dhamma in his rule. The Kandahar bilingual rock inscription portrays Asoka’s policy of dhamma as being a conscious and individual choice:‘ten years being completed king Piyadassi showed dhamma to men’. But of course there were a variety of influences behind his policy. Clearly the main source of his religious thought was Buddhism, although he was probably also influenced by other groups, both of orthodox brahmins, and of the various renouncer sects which frequented the Mauryan court and were patronised by Asoka’s predecessors. The main significance of this influence was not in the scriptures themselves. While Asoka clearly knew Buddhist writings (he mentioned specific texts in the minor rock edicts), he was probably more influenced by preachers, whose views are much harder for us to uncover than written scriptures. Like most rulers Asoka only propagated those aspects of Buddhism which seemed important or relevant to him, and this relevance would have been based on a combination of personal preference and the influence of those around him. Unlike most rulers, Asoka seems to have been concerned with social welfare, although even he gives little attention to aspects of Buddhism like the disapproval of the caste system. And since he apparantly saw religious and secular policies not as separate, but as parts of dhamma, his religious policies were probably also influenced by political considerations. By the same token much of his social policy would have been influenced by preachers. He would also have learnt methods of maintaining control from his family and their advisors. In particular it is quite possible that he had some contact with the elaborate theories of Kautilya's Arthasastra, ranging from rules for the conduct of court cases (in 4.9.13-16) to principles on the treatment of ascetics (2.2.2; 4.8.9). Many of these seem to be reflected in Asoka’s edicts – a fact which does not necessarily demonstrate the influence of the Arthasastra itself, but rather suggests that many of Asoka’s edicts were statements of widely-followed policies, and are unique merely in having been preserved. Beyond this there must have been a huge and diverse range of advice on offer in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Taxila, where, for example, he probably met many visitors from India and beyond, and including Greeks like Megasthenes. But the overall effect of these numerous and probably conflicting sources of advice would probably have been to give Asoka the chance to determine his views himself, with the benefit of having heard a wide range of opinions. He himself explains the origin of his policy of dhamma in the 13 Major Rock Edict, claiming that he was shocked after the bloodshed involved in conquering Kalinga Since Asoka had been involved in other wars, such as a war of succession against his brother, it is unlikely that this one event alone caused such a dramatic change in his beliefs. The contents of the edicts reinforce this view of a personal formulation of dhamma (although this is partly a result of the lack of evidence on other rulers with which to compare Asoka). If there is one overriding theme to the proclamations, it is that of the king's claimed concern for his subjects. In the first separate edict, Asoka explains his position as that of a father: ‘All men are as my children. As, on behalf of my own children, I desire that they may be provided with complete welfare and happiness both in this world and the next, the same I desire also for (all) men’. This expands into concern for their spiritual wellbeing and for their prosperity and security. It also required that Asoka maintain his position as a father and king – although he would not have been uninterested in this anyway. Religion was the focus of many of the edicts: it is the main subject of Major Rock Edicts 6, 7, 8, 9, 12, and of many of the minor rock inscriptions. In addition, many policies which would today be seen as secular were framed by Asoka in the language of religion. This is partly a natural outgrowth of Asoka’s adoption of the term dhamma, with its religious origin, but also shows a desire to connect religious and secular policy, both for the good of his subjects and for political reasons. Asoka’s religious views of dhamma are noticeable for their emphasis on tolerance, outlined most clearly in the 12 Major Rock Edict, which states that ‘concord is to be commended, so that men may hear one another’s principles and obey them’ and orders everyone to ‘honour another man’s sect’. This tolerance was not entirely novel – the Arthasastra advised that ascetics should ‘live in harmony, make room for newcomers and not annoy each other’ (3.16.33-6), and even debates between different religions appear to have been carried out with reasoned arguments as well as blind hatred. Nor should the extent of Asoka’s religious tolerance be exaggerated, especially since it partially contradicts his claims to have ‘made men more pious’. His definition of piety was presumably based on Buddhism, and so his idea of piety was a Buddhist one, which would not have been agreed on by all those of other religions. His solution is to claim that there is an ‘essential doctrine of all sects’, the basis of which ‘is the control of one’s speech, so as not to extoll one’s own sect or disparage another’s’. Asoka’s tolerance extended only to those who basically agreed with him. Similarly he had little tolerance of the ceremonies of other rituals, claiming that ‘the one ceremony which has great value is that of dhamma’ (Major Rock Edict 9), and that if [other] ceremonies are performed they have but small results’ (Major rock edict 9). Asoka’s claims of support for all religions (he ‘honours all sects and both ascetics and laymen’) seems at least partially incompatible with the particular support he gave to the Buddhist sangha, and the control he exerted over it (particularly in punishing scismatic monks so that ‘the samgha cannot be torn asunder by anyone whatsoever’ – another demonstration of the limits of his tolerance). He also equates dhamma with Buddhism (in the Bhabra inscription, for example), again showing the limitations to his claim to tolerate all sects. A good example of this equation of Buddhism with dhamma is his adoption of vegetarianism, and his attempts to convert his subjects to vegetarianism (although admittedly many sects apart from the Buddhists forbade the eating of meat.). Another important religious element is Asoka’s use of himself as an example, as a vegetarian (Major rock edict I), as somebody constantly working for the benefit of others (‘I work for their [all beings’] happiness in this life, that in the next they may gain heaven’ – Major rock edict 6), as a supporter of the religious (the king ‘went to the tree of Enlightenment’ – Major rock edict 7) and ‘honours all sects and both ascetics and laymen’) Many of the edicts concerning dhamma also mention secular actions of the king. Often he seems to mix the two, either as a deliberate at
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