Ashoka and His Dhamma

A brief guide to King Ashoka's Dhamma. The article covers the early life and administration of Ashoka. It also includes the Dhamma concept and its policies

The legendary Maurya dynasty’s third emperor, Ashoka, was one of the most powerful emperors of the ancient Indian subcontinent. Between 268 and 232 BCE, he effectively ruled over a vast portion of the country. His most notable achievements were his renunciation of violence, the invention of the concept of Dhamma (virtuous social behaviour), and the promotion of Buddhism. He is believed to be the only King in global history to give up conquest upon winning a war. The below article will discuss the rise to power, administration, and king Ashoka’s Dhamma in more detail.

King Ashoka’s Early Life and Rise to Power

  • Ashoka was the son of Bindusara, a Mauryan king and his wife, queen Dharma
  • He was born around 304 BC. His grandfather was Chandragupta Maurya, the first ruler of the Maurya Dynasty
  • Since childhood, he showed excellent potential in academics and weaponry. Impressed by his warfare skill, Bindusara appointed Ashoka the Governor of Avanti. Gradually, the young Ashoka grew up to be a brilliant statesman and a formidable warrior general
  • There are several stories behind the ascension of Ashoka’s Dhamma to the throne of the Mauryan Empire
  • When Bindusara was ill, Ashoka returned from Ujjain to Patliputra to seize leadership of the capital, according to the Mahavamsa
  • Ashoka assassinated his eldest brother and rose to the throne following his father’s demise
  • According to the scripture, Ashoka is said to have killed 99 of his step brothers, including Sumana.
  • He massacred hundreds of his brothers, according to the Dipavamsa, before being crowned four years later
  • An Ajivika ascetic prophesied the massacre, according to the Vamsatthapakasini, based on Ashoka’s mother’s interpretation of a dream
  • According to legend, only Ashoka’s own brother Vitashoka was spared.

The Kalinga War and The King’s Renunciation

  • Upon securing his position as the monarch of Magadha, King Ashoka set about invading Kalinga (the present-day coastal Orissa)
  • The inscription of Kalinga highlights the immense scale of the manslaughter, deportation, and capture that happened in the Kalinga war
  • However, this war proved to be a pivotal event in the King’s life.
  • It is said that King Ashoka travelled across the battlefield, seeing death and ruin, and had a deep change of heart. He later documented it in his 13th Edict
  • He was moved to such guilt by the hardships caused to the defeated people by the war that he discarded armed conquests

Administration Under Buddhist Influence

  • Ashoka’s governance was only concerned with the welfare of his subjects after his spiritual transformation
  • Vithashoka, his younger brother, and a group of dependable ministers supported him in his administrative duties
  • Before instituting any new administrative measures, King Ashoka sought their advice. He followed the Arthashastra’s criteria for the Perfect King’s characters
  • King Ashoka introduced legislative changes like the Vyavahara Samahara and the Danda Samahara, which explicitly stated the way of life his citizens should live. Amatyas, or civil officials, were in charge of the Emperor’s specific judicial and administrative responsibilities
  • The Akshapataladhyaksha was in control of the overall administration’s currency and finances
  • Mining and other metallurgical activities were under the control of the Akaradhyaksha
  • Tax collection was the responsibility of the Sulkadhyaksa. The Panyadhyaksha was in charge of trade
  • Agriculture was the responsibility of the Sitadhyaksha
  • King Ashoka developed the concept of Dhamma and encouraged everyone to follow it
  • The Dhamma of Ashoka was a way of life. It was a code of conduct for all people to follow. In his edicts, he mentioned his dhamma policies

King Ashoka’s Religious Policy: Dhamma

  • King Ashoka declared Buddhism the state religion around 260 BC. He mandated the practice of Dhamma, which became the foundation of his generous and tolerant administration. Ashoka’s Dhamma was based on the ten principles espoused by Lord Buddha.
  • These ten principles are:
  1. To be liberal while avoiding egoism.
  2. To uphold a high moral standard.
  3. To be willing to put one’s own pleasure aside for the sake of the subjects’ well-being.
  4. To be truthful and uphold total integrity.
  5. To be gentle and kind.
  6. To live a humble life to inspire the subjects.
  7. To be free of all forms of hatred.
  8. To practise non-violence.
  9. To develop patience.
  10.  Respect for the public’s viewpoint to create peace and concord.

Ashoka’s Dhamma was not a new religion. It was not a new form of political philosophy either. Dharma is the Sanskrit word for “dhamma.” Dhamma was a way of life enshrined in a code of behaviour and a set of ideals that he advised his subjects to follow to live in peace and prosperity. Dhamma policies included the following:

  • Ahimsa (non-violence) and truthfulness should be practised
  • The masters’ treatment of slaves and servants should be humane
  • All religious sects must be tolerated
  • Instead of conflict, dharma conquest is preferred
  • Parents must be obeyed and respected, and teachers must be revered
  • Brahmanas and Buddhist monks should be respected
  • Abolition of death sentences
  • Animal sacrifices and the killing of birds are prohibited
  • Inappropriate rituals and superstitious practices are discouraged
  • Building wells and rest houses, as well as planting trees
  • Human and animal health care to be provided
  • Provisions to help the poor and the elderly

He propagated these Ashoka’s Dhamma ideals through the issuance of 14 edicts. He disseminated all of these edicts throughout his realm during his reign. Ashoka entrusted Dhamma Mahamatras with the task of teaching the Dhamma to the masses. They were even deployed to spread it in other countries.


Ashoka is regarded as one of ancient India’s finest kings for his public welfare programmes. He formulated the Dhamma and motivated everyone, including his subjects, to follow it. Ashoka’s Dhamma was not a specific religious belief or practice, nor was it an arbitrarily devised royal policy. Dharma is concerned with generalised social norms and practices. Ashoka Dhamma UPSC is an important topic included in the UPSC syllabus. Therefore, students preparing for competitive examinations must know the Dhamma policies developed by King Ashoka.

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