Edicts of King Ashoka

Instructor: Joshua Riddle

Joshua teaches pre-modern World History and has a Master of Arts degree in History.

The phrase 'set-in-stone' refers to anything really important. Well, in the ancient world, stone was often the only way to get your message across! Learn about the Rock Edicts of King Ashoka in this lesson.

Edicts in Stone

Think having to post a message to Twitter is difficult? Imagine having to communicate via carved messages on large rocks! It happened many times in the ancient world, including in India during the Mauryan Dynasty (c. 322 BCE-187 BCE).

Perhaps the most important ruler of this Indian empire was King Ashoka (r. 268-232 BCE), who placed his historic Rock Edicts in several places under his rule.

The fourteen major Rock Edicts showed King Ashoka's adoption of Buddhist and Hindu principles. Included among them are edicts concerning non-violence, religious tolerance, and the spread of his moral code, known as the Dhamma.

King Ashoka going to the Ramagrama Stupa, Sanchi Town, India
King Ashoka_Ramagrama Stupa

King Ashoka and the Dhamma

Like many rulers, King Ashoka was involved in military campaigns, including the killing of thousands in the conquest of Kalinga (located in what is now eastern India) in 260 BCE. Afterward, Ashoka seems to have experienced a deep acceptance of Buddhist principles (like compassion and nonviolence), and therefore an acute remorse for his involvement in Kalinga. Using Buddhist and Hindu principles, he created a moral code he called the Dhamma.

Scholars mention that while the basis of this Dhamma was religious - the word itself also means dharma, an idea found in Hinduism and Buddhism - Ashoka appears to have focused on using this concept for larger political purposes to rule over all the many different peoples in his empire, cutting across religious and cultural divisions.

While Ashoka made sure people across his empire knew of his laws based on Dhamma, they did not stick, especially after Ashoka died in 232 BCE.

Rock Edict of Ashoka in Greek and Aramaic, 3rd century BCE
Ashoka Edict_Kandahar

The Major Rock Edicts Content

While his edicts may not have lasted in his subjects' hearts, they remained literally set in stone for subsequent generations to view. Let's look at some of the themes covered in the Major Edicts, including non-violence and respect for life, religious tolerance, and spreading the Dhamma to others.

Non-Violence and Respect for Life

A first theme is found in Edicts 1, 2, 4, and 13, which deal in different ways with issues of respecting life and not engaging in violence.

In Edict 1, Ashoka forbade any living thing from being killed, including animals: ''Here [in my domain] no living beings are to be slaughtered or offered in sacrifice.'' He later claims that he will stop slaughtering peacocks and deer in his kitchen.

In Edict 2, he even writes that he wants to provide medical care not just for humans, but animals as well, by making sure medicinal plants are more readily available in his Empire. In Edict 4, he mentions how under the instruction of the Dhamma, killing has diminished.

While Ashoka came off as something of a humanitarian, it should be noted that he still physically enforced his rule as a political and military leader. Later on in Edict 13, we see that while he writes against war and promotes forgiveness, he warns groups who live in the forests, and who were considered threatening, that they will be killed if they do not repent.

Religious Tolerance

A second theme is Ashoka's religious tolerance, which was a smart idea for a diverse state. He was not the only leader in the ancient world to allow for religious autonomy, and he shows this in Edicts 4, 7, and 12.

In Edict 4, among promoting respect for relatives and one's parents, Ashoka also mentions that respect should be given to brahmans, the priestly caste in Indian society, as well as ascetics. His scope was still broad, however, and in Edict 7 he mentions that '' all religions should reside everywhere.''

He then goes on in Edict 12 to state all religions are not just allowed in his empire, but ''contact [between religions] is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others.'' This probably benefited the community at large, considering India was made up of a variety of different peoples practicing different beliefs.

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