Ashoka - Dhamma, Edicts and Administration




Ancient History Notes for UPSC

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Prelims: History of India

Mains: Indian Culture-Salient aspects of Art Forms, Literature, and Architecture from Ancient to modern times.


Ashoka, the third king of the Mauryan dynasty and one of the greatest kings of the ancient world, succeeded to the throne around 269 B.C. Ashoka usurped the throne after emerging victorious in succession wars. The region under the reign of Ashoka stretched from Afghanistan in the west to Bangladesh in the east.

Ashoka’s period is marked by his policy of Dhamma, a topic of discussion even today, and his efforts to spread Buddhism, which he arguably adopted after the Kalinga War. He assumed the titles of Priyadasi (He who regards amiably) and Devanampiya (Beloved of the Gods), which can be observed in almost all the Rocks and Pillar edicts.

The Kalinga War

The war was fought in 261 B.C. between the Mauryan Empire and the Kalinga state, an independent kingdom encompassing present-day Odisha and northern Andhra Pradesh. The only major battle that Ashoka fought after acceding to the throne was fought presumably on the Dhauli hills (on the bank of Daya River), which is of great significance.

  • Outcome and significance of the Kalinga War:
  • In the Rock Edict XIII, Ashoka himself describes, “A hundred and fifty thousand were killed, and many times that number perished”.
  • The War brought great suffering to the Brahmana priests and Buddhist monks.
  • Ashoka abandoned the policy of physical occupation in favour of a policy of cultural conquest. That is, Bherighosha (war drum) was replaced with Dhammaghosha (sound of Dhamma).
  • Under the influence of the Buddhist monk Upagupta, he embraced Buddhism.
  • The teachings and Policy of Dhamma were propagated.
  • Ambassadors of peace were sent to the Greek kingdoms in West Asia and Greece.

Ashoka’s Policy of Dhamma

Dhamma was not any particular religious faith nor a royal policy that was developed at random. 

It was an earnest attempt of Ashoka to solve the problems of society and to create harmony and tolerance amongst the people using minimal force. He devised this policy on his own, though the catalysing factor was the remorse that he felt due to the outcomes of the bloody Kalinga War.

  • Need:
    • Continuing the tradition of his preceders, Chandragupta (follower of Jainism) and Bindusara (favoured Ajivikas), Ashoka too adopted an eclectic outlook. He adopted Buddhism.
    • The society in his time encompassed various beliefs, cultures, and social and political practices. Ashoka, rather than using force, used the policy of Dhamma to set social norms that would be acceptable to all.
    • With the rise of heterodox sects like Ajivikas, Buddhism, and Jainism and the potential conflicts with the orthodox Brahmanism, so a climate of mutual trust and harmony was needed.
  • Content:
    • It focused on the general behaviour of people.
    • Dhamma stressed tolerance of people themselves and of their beliefs and ideas. 
    • It emphasised the moral behaviour towards elders, slaves and servants, Brahmanas and sramanas, animals, etc.
    • The policy of Dhamma laid stress on non-violence and welfare measures. 
    • Rock Edict 13, which mentions the Kalinga War, is a testament against war.
    • Ashoka’s appointment of the Dhamma mahamattas, rather than using Samgha, proves that his Dhamma did not discriminate against any religious doctrine.
    • He wanted to promote respect for all religious sects and tolerance in society.
  • Propagation:
    • To propagate the policy of dhamma, Ashoka used the medium of edicts.
    • These edicts were used to communicate between the King (Ashoka) and his subjects.
    • Few inscriptions were addressed to the Buddhist Samgha.
    • In these, there is a declaration of Ashoka’s own relationship with the Buddhist order.
    • In one kind of inscription, he mentions by their title some of the scriptures with which all Buddhists should be familiar.
    • Other Inscriptions, known as the Major and Minor Rock and Pillar Edicts, talk about dhamma and were chosen carefully to address a large number of people.

14 Major Rock Edicts

These are the separate 14 major rock edicts, spanning across almost India. Except for the Kandahar Greek Edict, which is on a stone plaque, all other major rock edicts were written on large rocks.

  • Location: These edicts were inscribed on the frontiers of Ashoka’s territory and not in the heartland (capital) of the Mauryan Empire.
  • Languages and script: Three languages (Prakrit, Aramaic and Greek) and two scripts (Brahmi and Kharosthi).
Major Rock EdictsDescription
Rock Edict I- Declards prohibition of animal sacrifice and holidays of festive gatherings.
Rock Edict II

- It mentions social welfare under Dhamma, like medical treatment for men and animals, construction of roads, wells, tree planting, etc.

- Mentions Pandyas, Satyaputras and Keralaputras of South India.

Rock Edict III- declares that respect for parents and for all living things, including Brahmanas and Sramanas, is a virtue.
Rock Edict IV- Consideration and non-violence to animals and courtesy to relations.
Rock Edict V

- Refers to the appointment of Dhamma mahamattas.

- These special officers were appointed to look after the interests of all sects and religions and spread the message of Dhamma in society.

Rock Edict VI

- Instruction to Dhamma-mahamattas. They were told that they could bring their reports to the king at any time, irrespective of whatever activity he may be engaged in.

- The second part deals with speedy administration and transaction of smooth business.

Rock Edict VII- It is an appeal for tolerance between all sects.
Rock Edict VIII

- States that Dhamma yatras (tours) would be undertaken by the emperor.

- The earlier practice of the emperor of going out on hunting expeditions was given up.

- It describes Ashoka’s first visit to Bodh Gaya.

Rock Edict IX

- He attacked ceremonies performed after birth, illness, marriage and before setting out for a journey.

- Ceremonies carried out by mothers and wives are condemned.

Rock Edict X- Denounced fame and glory and reasserted the merits of following the policy of Dhamma.
Rock Edict XI

- Additional clarification of the Dhamma's principles.

- Emphasis is on respect for elders, abstaining from killing animals, and liberality towards friends.

Rock Edict XII- An appeal towards toleration among sects.
Rock Edict XIII

- It is crucial for comprehending the Ashokan Dhamma policy.

- The Rock Edict pleads for conquest by Dhamma instead of War.

- It mentions Ashoka’s victory over Kalinga.

Rock Edict XIV- This Dhamma-related record has been written down in an abbreviated or enlarged manner so that people can act appropriately.

Minor Rock Edicts

  • They are the first inscriptions predating the Major Rock Edicts of Ashoka. 
    • Kandahar Bilingual rock edict, which is in Greek and Aramaic, is the first known Ashoka inscription.
  • The edicts appear in Bahapur, Gujjara, Udegolam, Maski, Nittur, Siddapur, Brahmagiri, Jatinga Rameshwara, Rajula Mandagiri, Yerragudi, Sasaram, Bairat, Ahraura etc.
  • Only four of these places use the name “Ashoka” - Maski, Brahmagiri, Nettur and Gujjara.

Major Pillar Edicts

The seven Major Pillar Edicts are the most detailed and technically sound of all the inscriptions.

  • Location: Except for the two fragments of the inscription found in Afghanistan, all the Major Pillars edicts are located in the Gangetic plains.
  • Timeline: These were inscribed towards the end of Ashoka's reign.
  • Language and script: Like Minor Pillars, only Prakrit with Brahmi script was used to inscribe on the pillars, except for a few derived inscriptions of Afghanistan in Aramaic.
Pillar EdictsDescription
Pillar Edict I- Ashoka’s principles for the protection of people.
Pillar Edict II- Defines Dhamma with compassion, truthfulness, virtue etc.
Pillar Edict III- Asks subjects to control violence, cruelty, anger and envy.
Pillar Edict IV- Duties and responsibilities of Rajukas.
Pillar Edict V- List of birds and animals to be killed on certain days and not be killed at all.
Pillar Edict VI- The policy of Dhamma.
Pillar Edict VII- Ashoka describes all sect's desire for self-control and purity of mind.

Minor Pillar Edicts

  • Location: All the Minor Pillars Edicts are located in Gangetic plains and close to the capital of the Mauryan empire.
    • These are exclusively inscribed on several of the pillars of Ashoka at Sarnath, Sanchi, Kausambi, Rummindei and Nigali Sagar.
  • Timeline: Chronologically, they were written after the Minor Rock Edicts and in parallel with the Major Rock Edicts.
  • Language and script: All minor pillar edicts are in the Prakrit language in Brahmi script.

Features of Inscriptions

  • Script variation: The script of the inscriptions on these edicts varied from region to region.
  • Magadhi Prakrit language using Brahmi script in central and eastern India.
  • Prakrit, Greek and Aramaic languages in Kharosthi script in north-western India.
  • Authorship:
    • Except on the Minor Rock edicts, all other inscriptions do not mention the name “Ashoka”; rather they mention terms like "Devanampriya” and “Priyadasi”.
    • It is only after the reconstruction based on the “Dipavamsa” it has been associated the name "Ashoka" with "Priyadasi".
  • Mention of Family: Among his queens, only Kuruwaki and his children, only Teevar, are mentioned in the inscriptions.
  • Kanganahalli Inscriptions: Located near Sannati, Karnataka, it mentions Ashoka as “Ranyo Ashoka'' (Raja Ashoka). It was the first-ever sculpture of Ashoka with his name inscribed.
  • Bhabru inscription: It is the only inscription in the Boustrophedon script (bi-directional script from right to left and left to right in an alternate line).
  • Junagadh inscription: It also includes the inscriptions of Saka ruler Rudraman and Gupta ruler Skandagupta.
  • Kausambi (Allahabad) inscription: Along with Ashoka and Kuruwaki, inscriptions of Samudragupta and Jehangir are included.

Ashokan Edicts

Administration under Ashoka

There was a centralised administration under Ashoka.Ashoka was at the helm of his administration.

  • Council of Ministers: It is evident from Rock Edicts III and IV that Ashoka consulted his ministers (mantrins) for general and emergency matters.
  • Legal reforms: Ashoka introduced legal reforms like Danda Samahara and Vyavahara Samahara.
  • Provincial division: Ashoka retained the traditional sub-division of the empire. But divided provinces into Aharas or Vishyas, which were further subdivided into villages.
  • Judicial: Granting of pardon was introduced during Ashoka’s reign.
    • Ashokan edicts mention jail and jail officials.
  • The Mahattas:
    • Dhamma Mahattas: To look after the spiritual well-being of the people and to speed up the progress of Dhamma.
    • Adhyaksha Mahattas: To look after the well-being of the women.
    • Anta Mahattas: To look after the general administration of frontier provinces.
    • Nagar Mahattas: In charge of the cities and towns.
  • Rajukas: Administrative plans and welfare reforms were implemented by them.

Society and Religion under Ashoka

Ashoka’s social and religious policy was aligned with the policy of dhamma and based on benevolence, tolerance and egalitarian principles. Ashoka gave patronage to both orthodox and heterodox religions/sects of his time. For example, he gave donations to Brahmins, and Ajivika sects and a special emphasis on Buddhism.

  • Ashoka’s efforts to propagate Buddhism:
  • Buddhism flourished under Ashoka’s patronage. He built several stupas and monasteries. For example, Sanchi and Bharhut stupa.
  • The symbols and motives for the number of administrative infrastructures that he built were related to Buddhism and Buddha’s life.
  • He visited the birthplace of Buddha in 241 B.C. and other holy places of Buddhism like Sarnath, Sravasti and Kusinagara.
  • He sent a mission to Sri Lanka under his son Mahendra and daughter Sanghamitra. Missionaries for spreading Buddhism were also sent to Burma and Central Asia.
  • He convened the Third Buddhist Council in 250 B.C. to strengthen the Sangha and to free the Buddhist order from dissidents and divergence from Hinayana. The Council was presided over by Moggaliputta Tissa.

Economy under Ashoka

Economic activities under the Mauryan Empire and specifically under Ashoka flourished to the extent that the Empire itself accounted for 1/3rd of the world’s GDP at the time. During this time, agriculture was developed, population and settlement sizes increased, crafts became more specialised, and both domestic and international trade grew during this time.

  • Land Tax: Mauryans, and especially Ashoka, attached great importance to land revenue.
    • Samaharta was in charge of land revenue.
  • Trade and Commerce: At the crossroads of the Northern trade route (Uttarapatha) and the Southern trade route, trade and commerce under Ashoka flourished. 
    • His contribution to the construction of the Northern trade route was utilised by Sher Shah Suri, which came to be known as the Grand Trunk Road.
    • State administration under Ashoka took up the organisation of trade. This administrative control on production and distribution made it more efficient.
    • Samsthadhyaksha was appointed to look after the market to check the unfair practices by traders.
  • Guilds (sreni): Merchants and artisans were organised along guild lines.
  • Urban Economy: With rising trade, urban economic centres flourished.
Other Important topics from GS Paper 1
Revolt of 1857World Heritage Sites in India
Advent of Europeans in IndiaAdministration of Mauryan Empire
Slave DynastySwadeshi Movement
Princely StatesSecularism
MahajanapadasRole of Women in Indian Freedom Struggle
Cripps MissionJainism

PYQs on Ashoka

Question 1: In which of the following relief sculpture inscriptions is ‘Ranyo Ashoka’ (King Ashoka) mentioned along with the stone portrait of Ashoka? (UPSC Prelims 2019)

  1. Kanganahalli
  2. Sanchi I
  3. Shahbazgarhi
  4. Sohgaura

Answer: (a)

Question 2: Who among the following rulers advised his subjects through this inscription?

“Whosoever praises his religious sect or blames other sects out of excessive devotion to his own sect, with the view of glorifying his own sect, he rather injures his own sect very severely.” (UPSC Prelims 2020)

  1. Ashoka
  2. Samudragupta
  3. Harshavardhana
  4. Krishnadeva Raya

Answer: (a)

Question 3: With reference to the guilds (Shreni) of ancient India that played a very important role in the country’s economy, which of the following statements is/are correct? (UPSC Prelims 2012)

  1. Every guild was registered with the central authority of the State and the king was the chief administrative authority on them.
  2. The wages, rules of work, standards and prices were fixed by the guild.
  3. The guild had judicial powers over its own members.

Select the correct answer using the codes given below:

  1. 1 and 2 only
  2. 3 only
  3. 2 and 3 only
  4. 1, 2 and 3

Answer: (c)

FAQs on Ashoka

Why is Ashoka referred to as the Great?

He earned the title of "great" by leading a culturally varied empire with a model of compassion and peace under centralised control.

Who were the Hellenistic contemporaries of Ashoka?

Some of the Hellenistic contemporaries of Ashoka include Antiochius II of Syria, Ptolemy II of Egypt, Antigonus of Macedonia, Magas of Cyrenaica (Libya), and Alexander of Epirus. All of these are mentioned in the edicts of Emperor Ashoka.

In which inscription did Ashoka make his famous declaration, “All men are my children”?

In the separate Kalinga Rock Edict I, Ashoka declares his paternalistic Kingdomship by phrasing that all men are his children.

How did Ashoka alter the course of history?

The historical transformation of the Mauryan Dynasty from a military machine to a society founded on Buddhism and tolerance is attributed to Emperor Ashoka.

What was the reason for Ashoka’s introduction of Dhamma?

The only way for the kingdom to be peaceful is for the many groups of people to live side by side in harmony. Ashoka adopted the Dhamma strategy to guarantee this throughout his realm.