Dhamma in Brahmi Lipi from Delhi-Topra Pillar of Asoka
The virtues that Asoka desired to inculcate among his subjects were the following as referred to again and again in one or other of the Inscriptions, viz. mercifulness towards all living beings; charities and gifts to Brahmana,Sramanas, ascetics, friends, relatives and acquaintances; truthfulness, purity of thought, honesty, gentleness, gratitude, self restraint, steadfastness, non-injury to animal life and fear of sin; moderation in spending and in ownership; respectfulness towards parents, elders and teachers; proper behaviour towards Brahmans, ascetics, relatives, servants and slaves; avoidance of ferocity, cruelty, anger pride and envy, exertion in good works; relieving the sufferings of the aged, the indigent and the sick, toleration of and respectfulness towards others’ faiths, avoidance of meaningless rituals, avoidance of sectarian bigotry etc
It will be observed that the Dharma advocated by Asoka conisted in those elements that form the basic teachings of all Indian religions, with the exception that he lays emphasis on non-killing of life as was taught by Buddhism and to a much greater extent by Jainism. The Upanishads speak of it too but Vedic Brahamanism extensively practised the killing of animals in religious sacrifices and meat eating was common in society. It is further to be noted that Asoka holds up before men a happy life in heaven as the goal of Dharma. He refers to the gods but mentions none by name and never speaks of worshipping or propitiating them. He does not seem to know of any all-God. His emphasis is on the practice of morality of a social kind; promotion of the well being of all creatures, establishment of relations of harmony, tolerance, understanding and mutual respect among all communities. He also advocates the cultivation of those virtues of a personal kind that conduce to peace of mind and equanimity.
His conception of religion again is not of the sentimental, emotional, ritualistics or even of the metaphysical or meditative type but is essentially of an active, humanitarian, and benevolent character, viz. to be good and to do good to others. The road to heaven recommended by him is not renunciation although with great wisdom he advises “spending little and owning little”. The desires for spending much and owning much arise, it may be pointed out, from egoism, vanity, conceit, greed, and self-aggrandizement which in their turn lead to competitive selfishness and excessive acquisitiveness resulting in the deprivation of others- the root cause of all capitalistic evils. The quintessence of Dharma again, in Asoka’s view, consisted in sila or good conduct, and not in creed, doctrine, rituals and ceremonies or worship. Progress in Dharma was to be determined solely by the measure of one’s sincere exertion in practising it. Parakrama or Utthana that Asoka frequently speaks of as the road to religious progress is identical with apramãda of Buddha, another word for manly exertion.
It is remarkable that Asoka speaks of no creedal or doctrinal philosophy at all in connection with Dharma. Liberation, meditation, asceticism and renunciation etc. that occupy Indian religious thought so much, are never referred to by him, whereas the goal of religious aspirations that he frequently stresses in attainment of heaven. Even though an ardent Buddhist himself, he asks no one to adopt it. Nirvana, dhyana, the doctrines of sorrow, impermanence, non-soul, the Chain of Causation etc that figures so prominently in Buddhist teachings are never mentioned by him. It is obvious therefore that he regarded the choice of a philosophical system or of a religious creed at everyone’s personal concern just as the teachings of Buddha were for himself. In his message to the Buddhist Order, the sacred texts that he recommends for constant study not only by the laity but by the ascetics as well, relate not to metaphysical or philosophical topics but to the cultivation of moral and mental qualities. This was perhaps the approach of primitive Buddhism too towards the common man, before whom the ideal that was to help us was not Nirvana, but happiness in this world and in heaven, to be earned by living a good life and by doing good to others.
How pervasive Asoka’s conception of Dharma was and how attempted to ennoble many a common practice by making it subserve the higher ends of Dharma are exemplified by the following: declaration that preaching the Dharma to his subjects and to all the world by personal example of the practice thereof on the part of himself and his successors was the highest kingly duty. The various acts of a humanitarian character initiated by Asoka, mentioned in the Inscriptions, were these viz. forbidding of the killing of animals life ( RE 1; PE 2, 5,7); opening of hospitals for men and animals and supply of medicinal herbs for them in and outside his dominion (RE 2); digging of wells, planting of trees, opening of watersheds and rest houses for the convenience of the travellers and animals ( RE 2, PE 7), mitigation of hardships on prisoners, grant of privileges to them and emphasising the need of the impartial administration of justice ( RE 3 SKRE 1; PE 4,5,7); and provisions for the maintenance of Brahmans, Sramans, the aged and the destitute (RE 5,8; PE 7).
Pillar Edict 5 Excerpt
On the eighth (ãtham -pãkhiye) of every fortnight, on the fourteenth, on the fifteenth, on Tisya, on Punarvasu, on the three chãturmasis, on auspicious days, bulls are not to be castrated, he goats and other (animals) that are castrated, are not to be castrated. On Tisya, on Punarvasu, on the chãturmasis, the branding of horses and bullocks is not to be done. Till ( I had been crowned twenty-six years-during this period, prisoners were released by me twenty five times)
Pillar Edict 7 Excerpt
And my Dharma Mahãmatras are occupied with these and other religious sects.
Concerning the affairs of the Sangha, Brahmana, Ajivikãs and the Nirgranths– the Dharma Mahãmatras will be occupied and this has been ordered by me.
Now, these are the Dharma Regulations, (viz.) as it has been ordered by me- “These various (animals) are inviolable.” And may too (are the ) other Dharma regulations that have been ordered by me. But it is my persuasion indeed, that men’s progress in the Dharma has been promoted to a much greater extent in respect of non-injury to living beings and in respect of non-killing of animals.
Author Amulyachandra Sen
RE- Rock Edict, PE Pillar Edict
Excerpts from Asoka’s Edicts -Pg 33-36, 156,164,167