The Edicts of Ashoka are 33 inscriptions engraved on pillars, large stones, and cave walls by Ashoka the Great (r. 268-232 BCE), the third king of the Mauryan Empire (322-185 BCE) of India. One set, the so-called Major Rock Edicts, are consistent in their message that the people should adhere to the concept of Dhamma, defined as “right behavior”, “good conduct” and “decency toward others”. The edicts were inscribed throughout Ashoka’s realm which included the areas of modern-day Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan and most were written in Brahmi Script (though one, in Afghanistan, is also given in Aramaic and Greek). The edicts are comprised of:
- Minor Rock Edicts
- Minor Pillar Edicts
- Major Rock Edicts
- Major Pillar Edicts
It is thought there were originally many Pillar Edicts (each between 40 and 50 feet high and weighing up to 50 tons each) but only ten have survived. These were topped with capitals of lions (facing in four directions), bulls, and horses. The four-facing lion capital was adopted as the national emblem of India following its independence in 1947 CE.
The Minor Rock Edicts and Minor Pillar Edicts deal with Ashoka’s early reign, the Major Pillar Edicts treat the end of his reign, while the Major Rock Edicts address Ashoka’s vision of peaceful existence through Dhamma. The Major Rock Edicts are the most famous of them all and include Edict 13 which describes the dramatic turning point in Ashoka’s life following the Kalinga War. Around 260 BCE, Ashoka launched a brutal military campaign of conquest against the peaceful coastal kingdom of Kalinga which resulted in 100,000 Kalingas killed, 150,000 deported, and thousands of others left to die of disease and famine. Ashoka was so horrified by what he had done that he renounced violence and dedicated himself to the path of peace, embracing Buddhism, and developing his concept of Dhamma.
The purpose of the edicts was not only to instruct the people in Dhamma but to show Ashoka’s contrition over his earlier behavior and his commitment to peace through Buddhist principles. After his conversion to Buddhism, Ashoka lived his faith, encouraged others to live theirs – whatever form their belief took – and sent missionaries to other countries (such as China, Greece, Sri Lanka, and Thailand) to peacefully introduce people to Buddhist concepts. In doing so, Ashoka transformed the minor philosophical-religious sect of Buddhism into a world religion.
Ashoka’s empire fell not even 50 years after his death, and his edicts were forgotten afterwards. The pillars fell and were buried, and the Brahmi Script of the rock edicts had been neglected so that, finally, they could no longer be read. It was not until the 19th century CE that the British scholar and orientalist James Prinsep (l. 1799-1840 CE) deciphered the script, identified Ashoka as the king referenced as Devanampiya Piyadassi (“Beloved of the Gods” and “Gracious of Mien”) in the edicts, and brought the king’s remarkable story to light.
Ashoka’s Early Reign & Conversion
Ashoka the Great was the grandson of Chandragupta (r. c. 321 - c. 297 BCE), founder of the Mauryan Empire, and son of King Bindusara (r. 297 - c. 273 BCE) who did not like him and favored his older brother, Susima, as heir apparent. Upon Bindusara’s death, Ashoka seized power, executed Susima and another brother, and embarked on a reign characterized by ruthlessness and unnecessary cruelty. He is even said to have created a prison known as Ashoka’s Hell in which he delighted in personally torturing prisoners.
The Kingdom of Kalinga was a small polity on the Indian coast, surrounded by Ashoka’s vast empire, which seems to have been a long-time partner in trade. It is unclear what motivated Ashoka’s campaign but, c. 260 BCE, he invaded Kalinga, slaughtered 100,000, deported 150,000 others, and left the rest to die of other causes. It is said that, as he walked across the battlefield, viewing the carnage, he was struck by the senselessness of warfare and seized with deep regret for what he had done.
Afterwards, he sought redemption and inner peace through a spiritual journey which eventually led him to Buddhism. After adopting the faith, he completely altered his behavior, revised his policies, his administration’s vision, and his relationship with his people, emphasizing Dhamma as the foundational value of his empire. Dhamma was based on the established concept of dharma (duty) but was more expansive with an emphasis on “mercy, charity, truthfulness, and purity” (Keay, 95). Ashoka’s post-Kalinga vision maintained Dhamma as the underlying value which informed the best of human behavior and guaranteed one a peaceful existence in both this life and the next; this is the vision expressed in the Major Rock Edicts.
The following are the 14 Major Rock Edicts, considered the most eloquent of the four types, as well as the most significant in explaining Ashoka’s vision in his own words. The translation below comes from The Edicts of King Ashoka: An English Rendering by the scholar Ven S. Dhammika. Most are reproduced in full, but some are paraphrased in the interests of space.
Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, has caused this Dhamma edict to be written. Here (in my domain) no living beings are to be slaughtered or offered in sacrifice. Nor should festivals be held, for Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, sees much to object to in such festivals, although there are some festivals that Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, does approve of. Formerly, in the kitchen of Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, hundreds of thousands of animals were killed every day to make curry. But now with the writing of the Dhamma edict, only three creatures, two peacocks and a deer, are killed, and the deer not always. And in time, not even these creatures will be killed.
Everywhere, within Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi’s domain, and among the people beyond the borders…everywhere has Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, made provision for two types of medical treatment: medical treatment for humans and medical treatment for animals. Wherever medical herbs suitable for humans or animals are not available, I have had them imported and grown. Wherever medical roots or fruits are not available I have had them imported and grown. Along roads I have had wells dug and trees planted for the benefit of humans and animals.
Decree concerning inspection tours by Ashoka’s officials to instruct the populace in Dhamma and policy of non-violence and benevolence toward all.
Decree concerning non-violence. Notes how heavenly signs were absent in the past when the king pursued violent means to achieve his ends but now, having adopted a policy of non-violence, heavenly signs are appearing again as celestial approval. Discusses the importance of Dhamma and right behavior toward all. Instructs his successors to adhere to Dhamma and uphold Ashoka’s vision.
Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, speaks thus: To do good is difficult. One who does good first does something hard to do. I have done many good deeds, and, if my sons, grandsons, and their descendants up to the end of the world act in like manner, they too will do much good. But whoever amongst them neglects this, they will do evil. Truly, it is easy to do evil. [The remainder of the edict addresses compassion for convicts and their families and the proper application of and instruction in Dhamma].
Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, speaks thus: In the past, state business was not transacted nor were reports delivered to the king at all hours. But now I have given this order, that at any time, whether I am eating, in the women’s quarters, the bed chamber, the chariot, the Palanquin, in the park, or wheresoever, reporters are to be posted with instructions to report to me the affairs of the people so that I might attend to these affairs wherever I am. [The remainder of this edict emphasizes Ashoka’s availability to all, how he intends to settle debates in council chambers quickly, and his commitment to the welfare of all his subjects].
Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart. But people have various desires and various passions, and they may practice all of what they should or only a part of it. But one who receives great gifts yet is lacking in self-control, purity of heart, gratitude and firm devotion, such a person is mean.
In the past, kings used to go out on pleasure tours during which there was hunting and other entertainment. But ten years after Beloved-of-the-Gods had been coronated, he went on a tour to Sambodhi [site of Buddha’s enlightenment] and thus instituted Dhamma tours. During these tours, the following things took place: visits and gifts 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. It is this that delights Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, and is, as it were, another type of revenue.
Decree concerning proper and improper ceremonies. Ashoka claims that many ceremonies – those engaged in without proper understanding of Dhamma – are “vulgar and worthless” but Dhamma ceremonies, by those fully informed, bear the greatest fruit. He describes such ceremonies as involving “proper behavior towards servants and employees, respect for teachers, restraint towards living beings, and generosity” as well as right behavior toward relatives, friends, and neighbors. He concludes by noting how, even if Dhamma may seem to have no effect on this world, it does in the next but that when Dhamma is clearly seen to achieve its purpose, it does good in both this life and the one to come.
Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, does not consider glory and fame to be of great account unless they are achieved through having my subjects respect Dhamma and practice Dhamma, both now and in the future. For this alone does Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desire glory and fame. And whatever efforts Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, is making, all of that is only for the welfare of the people in the next world, and that they will have little evil. And being without merit is evil. This is difficult for either a humble person or a great person to do except with great effort, and by giving up other interests. In fact, it may be even more difficult for a great person to do.
Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, speaks thus: 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. And it consists of this: proper behavior towards servants and employees, respect for mother and father, generosity to friends, companions, relations, Brahmans and ascetics, and not killing living beings. Therefore, a father, a son, a brother, a master, a friend, a companion or a neighbor should say: “This is good, this should be done.” One benefits in this world and gains great merit in the next by giving the gift of Dhamma.
Decree concerning religious tolerance and mutual respect among adherents of different faiths. Ashoka condemns the practice of elevating one’s own religion at the expense of someone else’s: “Growth in essentials can be done in different ways, but all of them have as their root restraint in speech, that is, not praising one’s own religion, or condemning the religion of others without good cause. And if there is cause for criticism, it should be done in a mild way. But it is better to honor other religions for this reason. By so doing, one’s own religion benefits and so do other religions, while doing otherwise harms one’s own religion and the religions of others. Whoever praises his own religion, due to excessive devotion, and condemns others with the thought 'Let me glorify my own religion', only harms his own religion…One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others.” The edict concludes with the admonition that an individual’s religion grows through Dhamma and so all faiths are improved by tolerance and understanding.
Famous decree concerning the Kalinga War in which Ashoka describes the aftermath of the campaign, repents, and describes how he now “conquers” people through Dhamma and the universal love and understanding which binds people together and leads to harmonious existence. It reads, in part: “Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, conquered the Kalingas eight years after his coronation. One hundred and fifty thousand were deported, one hundred thousand were killed and many more died (from other causes). After the Kalingas had been conquered, Beloved-of-the-Gods came to feel a strong inclination towards the Dhamma, a love for the Dhamma and for instruction in Dhamma. Now Beloved-of-the-Gods feels deep remorse for having conquered the Kalingas…Now it is conquest by Dhamma that Beloved-of-the-gods considers to be the best conquest…I have had this Dhamma edict written so that my sons and great-grandsons may not consider making new conquests, or that if military conquests are made, that they be done with forbearance and light punishment, or better still, that they consider making conquest by Dhamma only, for that bears fruit in this world and the next. May all their intense devotion be given to this which has a result in this world and the next.
Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, has had these Dhamma edicts written in brief, in medium length, and in extended form. Not all of them occur everywhere, for my domain is vast, but much has been written, and I 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.
This last of the Major Rock Edicts addresses a concern modern-day scholars have often noted: the repetition of Ashoka’s message which some claim is unnecessary. This criticism, however, seems to ignore the fact that these inscriptions were placed in various locales significantly distanced from each other, therefore necessitating said repetition. Further, Ashoka himself in Edict 14 makes clear that some concepts are repeated because “of their sweetness” which would bring joy to an audience. Since most of the population was illiterate, the edicts would have had to have been read aloud, most likely by one or more or the traveling emissaries of Ashoka’s court mentioned above, and the oral repetition may have had a more profound effect on the people than if each had read the piece individually.
As noted, within 50 years of Ashoka’s death (from natural causes), the Mauryan Empire fell, and his edicts were forgotten along with his name. In the 19th century CE, James Prinsep read an inscription on the Sanchi stupa in an unknown script (which he would eventually identify as Brahmi) referencing a king known as Devanampiya Piyadassi who was otherwise unknown. Ashoka’s name was given as a Mauryan king in the Puranas (the encyclopedic literature of India concerning kings, heroes, gods, and legends) but without any additional information.
Buddhist texts from Sri Lanka, however, as well as other pieces of evidence, eventually led Prinsep to the conclusion that Devanampiya Piyadassi was the same monarch as Ashoka. He published his findings in 1837 CE, sparking worldwide interest in the extraordinary account of the tyrant-turned-pacifist whose reputation, reflected in his epithet “the Great”, has only grown with time.