Competitive Exams: Asoka's Dhamma

Need Of Dharma

  1. There was considered intellectual ferment around 600 B. C. Healthy rivalry was apparent among the number of sects such as the Charvaks, Jains and Ajivikas, whose doctrines ranged from bare materialism to determinism. This intellectual liveliness was reflected in the elected interests of the Mauryan rulers. It was claimed by the Jainas that Chandragupta was supporter and there is evidence that Bindusara favoured the Ajivikas. Thus, the Empire of Asoka was inhabited by peoples of many cultures who were at many levels of development. The range of customs, beliefs, affinities, antagonisms, tensions and harmonies were galore. True, Magadha and the fringes of these areas. The north was in close contact with the Hellenized culture of Afganisthan and Iran. The far south was on the threshold of a creative efflorescence of Tamil culture. The ruler of such as Empire required the perceptions were addressed to the public at large. It is in these inscriptions that the king expounds his ideas on dhamma. It appears, Asoka aimed at creating an attitude of mind among his subjects in which social behavior was accorded the highest place. The ideology of dhamma can be viewed as a focus of loyalty and as a point of convergence for the then bewildering diversities of the Empire. In a way, Asoka's dhamma was akin to the preamble in the constitution of India.

  2. A centralized monarchy demands oneness of feeling on the part of its people. The ethics of the dhamma was intended to generate such a feeling, comparable to the preamble of the Indian Constitution.

  3. The Mauryan Society with its heterogeneous elements and with economic, social and religious forces working against each other posed the threat of disruption. Asoka, therefore, needed some binding factor to allow the economic activity to proceed on an even keel and thereby ensure the security of his state.

  4. Also as the commercial classes gained economic importance and resented the inferior social status as per the sanctions of the Brahmins, they want over to Buddhism, which preached social equality. Their support to the Mauryan king was very vital for the peace and prosperity of the Empire. Asoka thought that he could attract them by the propagation of this dhamma by weaning them away from too closely identifying themselves with Buddhism.

  5. Asoka felt that the aforesaid forces of contrary pulls would threaten the peace of the realm not in the general interest of his Empire. Asoka's dhamma therefore, was intended to serve a practical purpose.

The dhamma was not meant to be a religion but what behooves a man of right feeling to do, or what man of sense would do. Such being the nature of his dhamma, it is primarily an ethic of social conduct.

Ashoka's Code

Asoka's Moral code is most concisely formulated in the second Minor Rock Edict.

Thus saith His Majesty:

Father and mother must be obeyed; similarly respect for living creatures must be enforced, truth must be spoken. These are the virtues of the law of Duty (or “Peity” Dhamma) which must be practisd. Similarly, the teacher must be reverenced by the pupil, and proper courtesy must be shown to relations.

This is the ancient standard of duty (or “Piety” ) -leads to length of days and according to this men must act.

The three obligations-of showing reverence, respecting animal life, and telling the truth-are inculcated over and over again in the edicts.

Besides, it was meant for all-Buddhists, brahmins, Jains and Ajivikas, In the way, it was the sara or the essence of the good principles of all religions. Also, while pleading on behalf of his dhamma, Asoka passionately appealed for toleration towards all religions and a reverence for each other.

Had this dhamma got anything to do with Buddhist principles, Asoka would have openly stated so in his edicts since he never southt to hid/his support for Buddhism. For that matter, Asoka did not incorporate any of the fundamental tenets of Buddhist faith such as the Four Noble Truths, the chain of casualty the sacred eight-fold path, and the Nirvana. The omissions, also with repeated reference to the concept of svarga or heaven (a Hindu belief) show that his dhamma cannot be identified with Buddhism.

Since Asoka's dhamma was not intended for the cause of Buddhims during his dharama-yatras, he not only visited various places of Buddhist importance, but also gave gifts to sramanas and Brahmins. Most of all, even after entrusting the propagation of dhamma to the Dharma Mahamatras, Asoka continued to style himself as the beloved of the devas, a Hindu concept, since there were no Gods in Buddhism at that time.

Success Of His Dharma

Asoka specifically states that his missions were sent to various places (Ceylon and various Western countries) and maintains that they were all successful. It is difficult to accept this claim because historical evidence shows that his officials overshot the mark. Definitely, there was resentment against their way of doing things. It is known from evidence that Asoka presumed that not only he was a seeker of truth but also he did reach the truth. Such convictions are always harmful. Most of all, it is important to note that there is no authentic proof that his missions were a success. Significantly, none of Asoka's successors continued the propagation of dhamma. Far worse is the fact that in the later ages, his pillar inscriptions came to be misunderstood as symbols of phallus.

The splendour of the ‘Dark Centuries’

The five centuries which passed between the decline of the first great Indian empire of the Mauryas and the emergence of the great classical empire of the Guptas has often been described as a dark period in Indian history when foreign dynasties fought each other for short-lived and ephemeral supremacy over Northern India. Apart from Kanishka's Indo-Central Asian empire which could claim to be similar in size and importance to has china, the parthians of Persia and to the contemporary Roman empire this period did lack the glamour of large empires. But this ‘dark period’ particularly the first two centuries AD was a period of intensive economic and cultural contact among the various parts of the Eurasian continent. Indian played a very active role in stimulating these contacts. Buddhism which has been fostered by Indian rulers since the days of Ashoka was greatly aided by the international connections of the Indo-Greeks and the Kushanas and thus rose to prominence in Central Asia. South India was establishing its important links with the West and with Southeast Asia in this period. These links especially those with southeast Asia, proved to be very important for the future course of Asian history.

But India it self experienced important social and cultural changes in this period. For centuries Buddhism had enjoyed royal patronage. This was partly due to the fact that the foreign rulers of India found Buddhism more accessible than orthodox Hinduism. The Vedic Brahmins had been pushed into the background by the course of historical development all though Hinduism as such did not experience a decline. On the contrary new popular cults arose around gods like Shiva, Krishna and Vishnu-Vasudeva who had played only a marginal role in an earlier age. The competition between Buddhism which dominated the royal courts and cities and orthodox Brahminism which was still represented by numerous Brahmin families every where left enough scope for these new cults to gain footholds of their own, of great importance for the further development of Hinduism and particularly for the Hindu idea of kingship was the Kushana rulers identification with certain Hindu gods-they were actually believed to attain a complete identity with the respective god after their death.

Religious legitimation was of greater importance to these foreign rulers than to other Indian kings. Menander's ashes had been distributed according to the Buddhist fashion and Kanishka was identified with Mithras but wima kadphises and Huvishka were closer to shiva as shown by the images on their coins. Huvishka's coins provide a regular almanac of the iconography of the early Shiva cult. The deification of the ruler which was so prevalent in the Roman and Hellenistic world as well as among the Iranians was thus introduced into India and left a mark on the future development of Hindu Kingship.

Another future of crucial importance for the future political development of India was the organization of the Shaka and Kushana Empires had been, but were based on the large-scale incorporation of local rulers. In subsequent centuries many regional Empires of India were organized on this pattern.

The most well-known contribution of the ‘dark-period’ was a course, to Indian art. After the early sculptures of the Mauryas which were greatly influenced by the Iranian style, a new Indian style, a new Indian style has fist emerged under Shungas and their successors in the Buddhist monuments of Bharhut and Sanchi which particularly showed a new style of relief sculpture. The merger of the Gandhara school of art, with its Graeco-Roman style and the Mathura school of art which included ‘archaic’ Indian elements and became the center of Indo-Kushana art, finally led to the rise of the Sarnath school of art. This school then set the pattern of the classical Gupta style.

Less-well-known, but much more important for the future development of Hindu society, was the compilation of the authoritative Hindu law books (dharmasastra), the foremost of them being the code of Manu which probably originated in the second or third century AD. After the breakdown of the Maurya and Shunga Empires, there must have been a period of uncertainty, which led to renewed interest in traditional social norms. These were then codified so as to remain inviolate for all times to come. If we add to this the resurgence of Sanskrit, as testified by Rudradaman's famous rock inscription of the second century AD. We see that this ‘dark-period’ actually contained all the element of the classical culture of the Gupta age, Thus the many splendoured and much maligned ‘dark-period’ was actually the harbinger of the classical age.

Post-Mauryan Period (20BC-300AD): Economy And Society

In the post-Mauryan era (200 BC. To 300 A. D.) the economy moved at an accelerated tempo. Society witnessed structural reorientation as significant groups of foreigners penetrated into India and chose to be identified with the rest of the community.

The occupation of craftsmen was an important segement of the day's socio-economic milieu. The craftsment were not only associated with the towns but also villages like Karimnagar in the Telengana region of Andhra Pradesh. The categories of craftsmen who were known in this period bear out the truth that there was considerable specialization in mining and metallurgy. A large number of iron artifacts have been discovered at various excavated sites relating to the Kushan and Satavahans Periods. It is surprising to notice that the Telengana region appears to have made special progress in iron artifacts-not only weapons but also balance rods, sickles, ploughshares, razors and ladels have been found in the Karimnagar and Nalgonda districts. Also, cutlery made out of iron and steel was exported to the Abyssinian ports.

Equally significant was the progress made in cloth-making and silk-weaving. Dyeing was a craft of repute in some south Indian towns like Uraiyur, a shurb of Tiruchirapalli, and Arikamedu. The use of oil was also high because of the invention of oil wheel. The inscriptions of the day mention weavers, goldsmiths, dyers, workers in metal and ivory, jewelers, sculptors, fishermen, perfumers and smiths as the donors of caves, pillars, tablets, cisterns etc. Among the luxury items the important ones were ivory and glass articles and beed cutting. At the beginning of the coristian era the knowledge of glass-blowing reached India and attained its peak. Coin minting also reached a high level of excellence made out of gold, silver, copper, bronze, lead and potin. A coint mould of the Satavahans period shows that through it half a dozen coins could be turned out a time.

In urban handicrafts the pride of place goes to the beautiful pieces of terracotta produced in profuse quantities. They have been found in most of the sites belonging to the Kushan and Satavahans periods. In particular, terracotta figures of great beauty have been found in the Nalgonda district of Telengana. The terracotta figures were mostly meant for the use of upper classes in towns.

This immense manufacturing activity was maintained by guilds. At least to dozen kinds of guilds were there. Most of the artisans known from inscriptions hailed from the Mathura region and the western Deccan which lay on the trade routes leading to the ports on the western coast.

The guilds, coming from the days of the Mauryan period, became a more important factor in the urban life both in being instrumental to increase in production and moulding public opinion. The primary guilds of the day were those of the potters, metal workers and carpenters. Some guilds organized their own distribution system while owning a large number of boats to transport goods from various ports on the Ganges.

The guilds of the day fixed their own rules of work and the standards of the finished products. They exercised care regarding price also to safeguard the interest of both the artisan and the customer. They controlled the price of the manufactured articles. He conduct of the guild members was regulated through a guild court. The customary uses of the guilds had the same force as those of laws.

The extensive activity of the guilds can be known from their seals and emblems. The banners and insignia of each guild were carried in procession of festive occasions. These prosperous guilds in addition, donated large sums of money to religious institutions and charitable causes.

Since the activity of the guilds was so buoyant, it appears that they attracted the attention of kings too. It is said that kings had financial interests in guilds. Royalty invested its money in commercial activities. This naturally led to protection being provided by State to the guilds. Regarding the activities of guilds, it appears from inscriptions that they acted asbankers, financiers and trustees although these activities were carried out by a separate class of people known as sresthins. Usury was a part of banking and the general rate of interest was around 15% loans extended to sea-trade carried higher interest rate. An authority of the day states that the rate of interest should vary according to the caste of the man to whom money is lent.

Interestingly, apart from the guilds, there were workers bodies also. The workers co-operative included artisans and various crafts associated with a particular enterprise. The classic example of this activity was the co-operative of builders, which has its members drawn from specialized workers such as architects. Engineers, bricklayers etc.

The immense commercial activity was bolstered by the thriving trade between India and the Easter Roman Empire. With the movement of Central Asian people like Sakas, Parthians and Kushans, trade came to be carried across the sea. Among the ports, the important ones were Broach and Sopara on the western coast, and Arikamedu and Tamralipti on the eastern coast. Out of these ports Broach was the most important as not only goods were exported from here but a also goods were received. Across land, the converging point of trade routes was Taxila, which was connected with the Silk Route passing through Central Asia. Ujjain was the meeting point of good number of trade routes.

The trade between India and Rome mostly consisted of luxury goods. To begin with Rome got her imports from the southern most portions of the country. The Roman imports were Muslims, pearls, jewels and precious stones from Central and South India. Iron articles formed an important item of export to the Roman Empire. For certain articles India became the clearing house, as for example, silk from China because of impediments posed by the Parthian rule in Iran and the neighboring areas.

The Romans, in return, exported to India various types of potters found in excavations at places like Tamluk in West Bengal, Arikamedu nevar Pondicherry and a few other places. Probably lead was important from Rome. It is also presumed that the Kushans had brisk trade with the Romans as they conquered Mesopotamia in 115 A. D. At a place close to Kabul, glass jars made in Italy, Egypt and Syria have come to light, apart from small bronze statues of Greko-Roman style, And the most significant Roman export to India was the gold and silver coins-nearly 85 finds of Roman coins have been found. There is nothing surprising in the lamentation of the Roman writer Pliny in the 1st century A. D. That Roman was being drained of gold on account of trade with India.

Indian kingdoms sent embassies to Rome the best known being the one sent about 25 B. C. Which included strange collection of men and animals-tigers, snakes, tortoises a monk and an armless boy who could shoot arrows with his toes. This mission reached Rome during the days of Emperor Augustus in 21 B. C.

In the southern kingdoms maritime trade occupied the pride of place. The literature of the day refers to harbours, docks, light houses and custom offices. Large variety of ships were built, both for short distance as well as long distance voyages. According to pliny the largest Indian ship was 75 tons. Other sources mention higher figures.

In the self-same period there was a boom in trade with south-East Asia. This was first occasioned by the Roman demand for spices. Gradually this trade grew in dimensions.

The growing number of strangers in the port towns and trade centers led to their absorbing Indian habits as their numbers grew, social laws of the day became rigid as to be seen from the law code of Manu. Further as conversions to Hinduism was technically impossible the non-Indian groups gradually grew into separate sub-castes. After all the conversion of a single individual was a problem but the device of caste made such absorption easier. Moreover the foreigners found it easier to become Buddhists instead of Aryans. Faced one theoretical knowledge confined to brahmins and the other practical and technical knowledge which became the preserve of the professionals.

It was during this period Dharmashastras came to be written. These Shastras made the social structure to be rigid. Apart from these writings poetry and drama were also popular. The outstanding poem in Tamil was Shilappadigaram. Another poem in Tamil was Manimegalai. In Sanskrit, Asvaghosa and Bhasa were the two great dramatists. The manuscripts of Asvaghosa were found in a monastry in Turdan in Central Asia. Both of his plays deal with Buddhist themes. Bhasa appeared a couple of centuries later. His plays are based on the incident from the spics or historical romances around the exploits of king udayan in Avanti.

In the field of plastic art. Great were the achievement of this period like the stupas at Sanchi and Bar hut the caves at Karlellora and Ajanta. At Amravati the great age of painting began. Also the sculptures at Amravati show a mastery of stone sculpture and with the mathura school of sculpture the Indian tradition of sculpture began.

The booming trade and commerce of the period was at the base of the urban settlements that came into existence. The important towns of northern India were Vaishali, Pataliputra, Varanasi, Kausambi, Sravasti, Hastinapur, Mathura and Indraprastha. Most of the towns flourished in the Kushan period as revealed by excavations. The excavations at Sonkh in Mathura show as many as seven levels of the Kushan are but only one of the Gupta period. Again in Jalandhar, Ludhiana and Ropar also several sites show good Kushan structures. The Satayahans kingdown also witnessed thriving towns like Tagar, Paithan, Dhanyakataka, Amravati, Nagarjunakonda, Broach, Sopara, Arikamedu and Kaveripattanam.