Reflection of Aśoka: His Idea of Dhamma in Pillar Edict Seven
Junior Project Fellow, Department of Education in Arts and Aesthetics,
NCERT, Sri Aurbindo Marg, New Delhi – 110016
This article emphasis on evaluating the idea of Emperor Aśoka especially from Pillar Edict Seven. The comparison is made on the basis of the context, ideas and emotions that are depicted on the pillar. An emphasis is also made on comparing the edict line by line in order to understand different dimensions plotted by the Emperor depending on situation, place and society. It is very clear that inscriptions of Aśoka play a vital role in illuminating ancient history. This paper is primary aimed to provide a concise but comprehensive manner of understanding about the ideas of Emperor Aśoka in erecting pillar edict seven. Nevertheless, this paper is supposed to be a descriptive analysis and also my own understanding of pillar edict seven.
Aśoka (c. 304 BCE – 232 BCE) the great Mauryan emperor ruled over the Indian subcontinent for about forty years. Aśokan history can be easily accessed from various literary and archaeological sources. However, the most important source is considered to be his own edicts erected by him during his reign. Nevertheless, Aśokan edicts serves as an important source of information for reconstructing the ancient past with respect to Aśokan administration inclusive of political, economic, religious and social life from 3rd c. BCE to 600 c. AD of the Indian subcontinent. 1
This particular pillar edict is famous for ‘a single shaft of pale pinkish sandstone, 42 feet 7 inches in length, of which the upper portion, 35 feet in length, has received a very high polish, while the remainder is left quite rough.’ 2 Interestingly, it is also known to be as ‘Bhīmasēna’s pillar’, ‘Golden pillar’, ‘Firōz Shāh’s pillar’, and ‘Delhi-Siwālik pillar’. Shams-i Sirāj, a historian of Firōz Shāh, gives us insight into the original location of this monument, which was in the village of Tobra, in the district of Sālaura and Khizrābād, in the hills. However, the Sultan Firōz had it carried to Delhi: and that he erected it again on the top of his palace at Firōzābād. From Tobra near Khizrābād, which was ninety kōs3 from Delhi, this column was carried on a truck with forty-two wheels to the bank of the Jamnā, whence it was floated down the river to Firōzābād (Delhi) on a number of large boats.
The Delhi-Tōprā pillar bears seven edicts of Aśoka, of which the last and longest is unique, while other specimens of the first six edicts have been discovered from various places. However, the first six edicts and the eleven firsts lines of the seventh edict are arranged in four columns representing north, west, south and east faces of the pillar. Nevertheless, eleven remaining lines of the seventh edict run all around the pillar. Beside the Aśokan edicts there are several minor records of pilgrims and travellers are inscribed within the pillar and the pillar also bears three short inscriptions of the Chāhamāna Vīsaladēva of Śākambarī, son of Annalladēva, dated c. 1164 AD and this has been edited last by Kielhorn from Fleet’s impressions. The Delhi-Tōprā pillar inscription is the first record of Aśoka that was read and translated in 1837 by James Prinsep.
Translation of Delhi – Topra Pillar4
(A) King Dēvānāmipriya Priyadarsin speaks thus.
(B) The kings who were in times past, had this desire, that men might (be made to) progress by the promotion of morality, but men were not made to progress by an adequate promotion of morality.
(C) Concerning this, king Dēvānāmipriya Priyadarsin speaks thus.
(D) The following occurred to me.
(E) On one hand, in times past kings had this desire, that men might (be made to) progress by an adequate promotion of morality, (but) on the other hand, men were not made to progress by an adequate promotion of morality.
(F) How then might men (he made to) conform to (morality)?
(G) How might men (be made to) progress by an adequate promotion of morality?
(H) How could I elevate them by the promotion of morality?
(I) Concerning this, king Dēvānāmipriya Priyadarsin speaks thus.
(J) The following occurred to me.
(K) I shall issue proclamations on morality, (and) shall order instruction in morality (to be given).
(L) Hearing this, men will conform to (it), will be elevated, and will (be made to) progress considerably by the promotion of morality.
(M) For this purpose proclamations on morality were issued by me, (and) manifold instruction in morality was ordered (to be given), [in order that those agents] (of mine) too, who are occupied with many people, will exhort (them) and will explain (morality to them) in detail.
(N) The Lajūkas also, who are occupied with many hundred thousands of men, —these too were ordered by me: 'In such and such a manner exhort ye the people who are devoted to morality'.
(O) Dēvānāmipriya Priyadarsin speaks thus.
(P) Having in view this very (matter), I have set up pillars of morality, appointed Mahāmātras of morality, (and) issued [proclamations] on morality
(Q) King Dēvānāmipriya Priyadarsin speaks thus.
(R) On the roads banyan-trees were caused to be planted by me, (in order that) they might afford shade to cattle and men, (and) mango-groves were caused to he planted.
(S) And (at intervals) of eight kōs wells were caused to be dug by me, and flights of steps (for descending into the water) were caused to be built.
(T) Numerous drinking-places were caused to be established by me, here and there, for the enjoyment of cattle and men.
(U) [But] this so-called enjoyment (is) [of little consequence]
(V) For with various comforts have the people been blessed both by former kings and by myself.
(W) But by me this has been done for the following purpose : that they might conform to that practice of morality.
(X) Devanampriya Priyadarsin speaks thus.
(Y) Those my Mahāmātras of morality too are occupied with affairs of many kinds which are beneficial to ascetics as well as to householders, and they are occupied also with all sects.
(Z) Some (Mahāmātras) were ordered by me to busy themselves with the affairs of the Samgha, likewise others were ordered by me to busy themselves also with the Brāhmaņas (and) Ajīvikas, others were ordered by me to busy themselves also with the Nirgranthas; others were ordered by me to busy themselves also with various (other) sects; (thus) different Mahāmātras (are busying themselves) specially with different (congregations).
(AA) But my Mahāmātras of morality are occupied with these (congregations) as well as with all other sects.
(BB) King Dēvānāmipriya Priyadarsin speaks thus.
(CC) Both these and many other chief (officers) are occupied with the delivery of the gifts of myself as well as of the queens, and among my whole harem [they are reporting] in divers ways different worthy recipients of charity both here and in the provinces
(DD) And others were ordered by me to busy themselves also with the delivery of the gifts of (my) sons and of other queens' sons, in order (to promote) noble deeds of morality (and) the practice of morality.
(EE) For noble deeds of morality and the practice of morality (consist in) this, that (morality), viz. compassion, liberality, truthfulness, purity, gentleness, and goodness, will thus be promoted among men.
(FF) King Dēvānāmipriya Priyadarsin speaks thus.
(GG) Whatsoever good deeds have been performed by me, those the people have imitated, and to those they arc conforming.
(HH) Thereby they have been made to progress and will (be made to) progress in obedience to mother and father, in obedience to elders, in courtesy to the aged, in courtesy to Brāhmaņas and Śramanas, to the poor and distressed, (and) even to slaves and servants.
(II) King Dēvānāmipriya Priyadarsin speaks thus.
(JJ) Now this progress of morality among men has been promoted (by me) only in two ways, (viz.) by moral restrictions and by conversion.
(KK) But among these (two), those moral restrictions are of little consequence; by conversion, however, (morality is promoted) more considerably.
(LL) Now moral restrictions indeed are these, that I have ordered this, (that) certain animals are inviolable.
(MM) But there are also many other moral restrictions which have been imposed by me.
(NN) By conversion, however, the progress of morality among men has been promoted more considerably, (because it leads) to abstention from hurting living beings (and) to abstention from killing animals.
(OO) Now for the following purpose has this been ordered, that it may last as long as (my) sons and great-grandsons (shall reign and) as long as the moon and the sun (shall shine), and in order that (men) may conform to it.
(PP) For if one conforms to this, (happiness) in this (world) and in the other (world) will be attained.
(QQ) This rescript on morality was caused to be written by me (when I had been) anointed twenty-seven years.
(RR) Concerning this, Devanampriya says.
(SS) This rescript on morality must be engraved there, where either stone pillars or stone slabs are (available), in order that this may be of long duration.
Before looking into the verses, it is very essential to understanding the meaning of Dhamma. What is Dhamma? This question is not simply answerable. However there is a debate on the nature of Aśokan dhamma. There are group of scholars postulating different theories, for instance Fleet and other believe that Aśoka's dhamma is Rajadharma, while Smith, Rhys Davids and other believe that it represented Universal Religion. On the other hand scholars like Senart, Hultzsch presumes Aśoka's dhamma as Upasaka Dharma. Finally scholar, B.M. Barua believes that Aśoka's dhamma was particularly the all of the above that had been postulated by other scholars. Nevertheless, it is very fascinating to see Thapar defining dhamma as an integrative ideology. It can be a philosophical dealing with the governance of the state and the self, rooted in Buddhist but non – sectarian and connected with ideas about goodness, happiness, merit, demerit and heaven.
Dhamma to a greater extend is still considered mysterious and there are a wide range of hypothesis to explain dhamma. For instance Aśokan dhamma constituted virtues including generosity (dama), inner and outer purity (sochaye) saintliness (sadhuta), kindness (daya), self control (sanyama), purity of heart (bhava suddhi), truthfulness (sace), moderation in spending and saving (apa-vyayatii, apa bhandatii), firm devotion (dadha bhatika) attachment to morality (katamnata), high energy (usahena), careful examination (paikhiiya), gentleness (madavam), conduct (sila), obedience (susaya), well known in doctrine (bahusuta kalunagane), harmlessness toward all of life (avihisa bhutiim), fear to sin (bhayena), liberality (diinam), gratitude (katajiiutii), purity of heart (bhiivasuddhi), gift of Dhamma (damadiina), firm devotion (drdhabaktita), attachment to morality (dammarati), non injury (aksati) and equal treatment (samiicaranam) and much more. Briefly Aśokan dhamma was essentially abstention from sin, set of virtues, a moral-social code and the state ideology. 5 Nevertheless, it is difficult to define dhamma. However, according to my analysis dhamma was a sort of boundness toward Buddhism and Buddhist ideology. Further, this boundness was in fact is seen throughout his edicts. Apart from that dhamma included a kind of guile because emperor himself questioned 'what exactly constituted dhamma'. Another interesting attribute in these inscriptions were furtherance of religious ideology especially Buddhism. In fact edicts were largely confined in projecting morality, dhamma, religion and much more. Does emperor followed dhamma? In my conjecture, emperor doesn’t followed dhamma.
Verse A to M:
From my point of view throughout the pillar edict, Emperor Aśoka focuses on promotion of morality. This morality can be treated as respecting animals and human beings and obedience towards elders, parents, teachers, relatives, friends and religious sects. Emperor inscribed that the propagation of this morality was his duty as a king but at the same contradicting to what he has mentioned by highlighting that men are not made to promote morality. The whole inscription also interrogate about how men are made to progress and promote morality. There is a state of confusing that is reflected throughout Aśokan inscription with respect to his own ideas on morality. In my opinion Aśoka was a firm acolyte of Buddhism and he was bounded to posses all religious sects in his idea of morality else it might have generated any tension. Therefore he never discussed of any complex philosophies of Buddhism. That is why Aśoka is keen to issue proclamation on morality and order instructions on morality. So, that hearing these instructions men will confine themselves to morality, which will further results in promotion of morality. This can be seen as a clear indication of promotion of his dhamma.
While looking into versus, Aśoka was simply ordering his subject to follow morality otherwise they will be in trouble of not making any sort of progress in their life, to a greater extend this is completely an exaggeration. Emperor also order people to serve as agents of him to explain and promote morality in detail to the general public. This is how Aśoka is intended to promoting morality among people. It is very perplexing that why an emperor with a vast number of territory and wealth was encircled with the philosophy of dhamma, moreover Aśoka was the only king who was busy in promoting Dhamma instead of protecting his kingdom and subjects or expanding territory. Appointment of agents on the other hand shows how deliberately his intension was to promote Dhamma.
Verse N to R:
The intension of Emperor Aśoka can be clearly seen for being curious in promoting morality where he ordered Lajūkas in making people to follow his instructions. It is very significant to see that Aśoka was concert as to how and in what manner dhamma should be propagated among people; this suggests his expectations. He also explains about his devotion in propagating Dhamma and for which Aśoka especially erected this pillar and appointed Mahāmātras of morality and issued proclamation on morality. It is very stereotype that Aśoka was confined on appointing officers in order to propagate dhamma. All these indicate how Emperor Aśoka was focused on his idea without diverting his mind to anywhere else.
I found it very interesting that emperor was continuously using his own title “King Dēvānāmipriya Priyadarsin”, from my point of view this might be written repeatedly to show his power or his desire or his dedication towards Dhamma. Aśoka was one of the greatest ruler known for his constructions and architectural quality and his construction was classified as masterpiece. He was the one to construct roads for the welfare of people. He took the initiative to comfort the people on roads while travelling. Apart from that wells were digged and trees were planted by him for the benefit of humans and animals. It is quite fascinating to know that emperor directed on planting banyan-trees on the roads instead of any other trees; this ultimately focuses on Aśokan’s idea and determination towards Buddhism.
Verse S to W:
Moving around the verses, it looks like Emperor Aśoka was advertising his achievements. He was dedicated in constructing wells after every eight miles detailing that it will give enjoyment for men and cattle. This is somehow clear that for Aśoka animals and living beings are both equal. Apart from that, another reason for why he was doing so was just to compare it with former rulers. He quotes that former kings use to do all these for blessing while he did it for the practice morality in the society. Emperor Aśoka was sharp minded towards promotion of Dhamma and he want people (even animals as well) to follow morality (or dhamma) to follow at any cost. Nevertheless, he confirms that not only he but his Mahāmātras were benefiting ascetics as well as householders and they will further help Aśoka in promoting his idea of Dhamma. However, it seems has an unendurable taught, it is very difficult for us to believe that this might ever had happen in the way emperor intended to do.
Verse Y to HH:
Aśoka focused on the duties of Mahāmātras, where he talked about Mahāmātras being appointed by him to deal with affairs of Samgha (Buddhist clergy), the Brāhmaņas and Ajīvikas, Nirgranthas (Jaina monks) and of other sects. This explains that how systematically Emperor Aśoka managed his officers to propagate his agenda of dhamma. Not only Mahāmātras but also chiefs were recruited to promote dhamma and at the same time they delivered gifts which was given by emperor or his son or queen or sons (of other queens) in order to promote the practice of dhamma. This shows the curiosity of Aśoka to popularise the notion of dhamma not only to a particular sects or religion but between all the religions prevailed in the society even through donating gifts.
Emperor believed that practicing morality will result in compassion, liberality, truthfulness, purity, gentleness and goodness among his subjects which is the ultimately aim of dhamma. I feel Aśoka was totally lost in promoting the idea of dhamma that he was not looking into the matters related in his kingdom; he just wanted to promote the idea of dhamma, since we hardly find any evidence of him talking about his activities related to his kingdom in terms of politics. Emperor believed that his ultimate birth goal is promoting of this morality and this will itself protect him and this might be true to some extent. The reason for this I propound is that a king focusing only on the promotional activity of dhamma must definitely have threats to his throne, but he was not facing any consequences, so it might be true that dhammic ideology was protected him. Emperor had faith that his subjects will imitate him and they will also promote what Aśoka is intended too. But according to me this wasn’t true because people never intent to do what actually the authority ordered. Even if few of them imitated than also it is still impossible to digest that each and every section followed exactly the same what emperor was instructing. This is quite odd and un-realistic of his belief that through this his subject will try to be obeying their mother, father, distressed, slaves and servants.
Verse II to SS:
In last few verse he indicate on how morality was promoted. He inscribed within the edict about two ways in which he promoted his idea of dhamma. The two ways which he describes are (a) moral restriction and (b) by conversion. He describes moral restriction as consequence while by conversion morality was more considerably. According to my hypothesis, I believe that Aśoka was not only moulding people to follow his idea but also forcing people to copy his idea as well as to join his path. For this he was restricting people, i.e. moral restriction. In actual sense he was forcing instead of restricting people. Why emperor felt conversion morality as more considerably? This is because it was very easy to convert people instead of restricting them with new rules and regulations. Further at the end he inscribed that this practice will last as long as the sun and moon shines, which shows his confidence or we can call it as trepidation that this practice will continue even after his dead and following this will result in attainment of happiness as well as there will be no misery any more in the universe for which he was writing this inscription. Hence he engraved his proclamation on this stone pillar so that it will last as long as possible.
This pillar of Aśoka depicts his intension of promoting the idea of dhamma. He wasn’t concerned with anything else that was happening in the world. He just want living beings (possible the whole universe) to be in the path of dhamma and believing in dhamma can only result in happiness. However, it is difficult to understand why emperor instructed his subject to follow morality. It might be nothing but was just for the sake of popularity. On the hand we must presume that he was aware of his powerful opponents and at the same time was frighten of their strikes, in case if he had adopted by rigorous exertion towards them. Apart from this, Aśoka can go up to any extend for promoting dhamma and morality, for this emperor personally appointed officials particularly for this purpose. This particular appointment highlights Aśoka’s intention to scrutinize social and religious activities within his territory and also to inspect on whether his policies or ethical codes written in the form of inscriptions at various places were practices accordingly. I also observe sarcasm in Aśokan edicts because of own scepticism over the content. His dedication was further reflected when he talks about engraving of his proclamation on stone pillar so that it will remain forever and ever. Although Aśoka was sincere towards what he did but the society might not be sincere towards his approach because we find hardly any evidence in the later inscriptions. Although they followed it to avoid trouble in their life. This can only be an imagination, that this practice will last until the sun and moon shines. But at the same time I am fascinated with the hankering of Aśoka.6
There are still few questions that need to be address and such questions include: Why each edict precisely gives instances concerning obedience and morality?, What was the really intention behind such acts? Does emperor's faith towards erecting edicts really profited people?, Did they literally followed these instruction written on chunks of rocks/stones? etc. must be acknowledge in subsequent period. Last but not the least, it is however unimaginable by what means Aśokan kingdom would have survived. Since, he was circumambient by his superstitious beliefs. It is hard to digest that by engraving ethical code of conduct on a chunk of rocks/stones would ever benefit. But for sure these rock/pillar edicts serve as irreplaceable and valuable source of information in reconstructing ancient past.
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. Hultzsch E. (ed) (1991). "Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum. Vol. I. Inscriptions of Aśoka". Delhi: ASI.
. J, Ashu and Sain, Somi (2017). Lineage of Aśoka: Brāhmī, Dhamma and Edicts. New Delhi: Amazon Createspace.
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. Sharma, H. Essay on Aśoka's Policy of Dhamma. Preserve Articles. Retrieved 11 August 2013.
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. Thapar, Romila (1960). Aśoka and the Decline of Mauryas. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
1. J, Ashu and Sain, Somi , Lineage of Aśoka: Brāhmī, Dhamma and Edicts, 79.
2. Hultzsch E.,Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum. Vol. I. Inscriptions of Aśoka, xv-xvi.
3. Kōs = nine miles was considered a day's march of an army
4. Hultzsch E.,Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum. Vol. I. Inscriptions of Aśoka, 309-315.
5. J, Ashu and Sain, Somi, Lineage of Aśoka: Brāhmī, Dhamma and Edicts, 81 & 82.
6. J, Ashu and Sain, Somi, Lineage of Aśoka: Brāhmī, Dhamma and Edicts, 79-87.
Received on 30.09.2017 Modified on 12.01.2018
Accepted on 22.02.2018 © A&V Publications all right reserved