History Optional Paper- 1 Solution – 1979: Q.4

History Optional Paper- 1 Solution – 1979: Q.4

Q.4 Discuss the nature of Ashoka’s Dhamma. Was it responsible for the downfall of his empire?


”Dhamma”  corresponds to the Sanskrit word  ”Dharma” which literally means ”which is to be held fast to” or ”adhering strictly”.
Historians differ in their interpretations of  the nature of Ashoka’s ”Dhamma” :-

(1) Equating it with Buddhism

(Representative  historians – R.C.Majumdar, Harprasad Shastri and others.)
It is argued that after the Kalinga war, Ashoka became so disgusted with the massacre of people in the war that he gave up war and converted to Buddhism. Now the Buddhism was made state religion and Asoka through his rock edicts and pillar inscriptions propagated the Buddhism among the masses.

However the recent writings of scholars like Romila Thapar, B.N.Mukherji, Upinder Singh, Ranabir Chakravarti and others have provided different interpretations and come out with a more nuanced explanation of Ashoka’s policy of Dhamma. According to them, dhamma was not a religious concept and influence of Buddhism should be conceived in the light of Buddhism not just being a religion but a social movement which influenced all facet of life.

(2) The Moral and ethical principles common to all religions

(Representative historian- H. C. Raychaudhuri and others)

Dhamma was a short of universal religion, containing certain common elements in many religious traditions. It is intepreted as a form of raja-dharma (dharma of a king), consisting moral and ethical principles borrowed from both Buddhism and Brahmanism.
Dhamma was humanistic concept which focussed on human values and ideals and antithesis to violence.

(3) An ethical code of conduct

(Representative historian- Nilakantha Shastri and others)

Dhamma was an ethical code of conduct formed by Ashoka for his subjects, who were expected to follow it. It was guiding principles of social behaviour.
Dhamma was a social concept which had definite social objective of societal integration. Its larger aim was to bring about social harmony and integration among different religious sects.
Ashoka taught the virtue of toleration and non-violence through dhamma at an age when religious tension was high and violence though war was prevalent.

(4) An invention of Ashoka to consolidate the empire

(Representative historian- Romila Thapar)

Dhamma was an invention of Ashoka based on the moral ethical principles based on both Buddhism and Brahmanism.
Romila Thapar underlines the political rationale behind the propagation of Dhamma. She minimizes the Buddhist elements in Ashoka’s Dhamma. She presents the view that the Dhamma was an ideological tool used by Ashoka to weld and consolidate his far-flung empire. He saw practical advantages in adopting and propogating dhamma, which was  basically an ethical concept that focused on the relationship between the individual and the society.
Hence, according to Thapar, dhamma was a political concept which had political objective. It aimed at political integration through social harmony and integration among different sects.

In conclusion, it can said that dhamma was a secular concept, non-sectarian concept, humanistic concept, social concept and political concept. It was guiding principles of social behaviour and a way of life.

Respinsibility of dhamma in the downfall of Empire

13th major rock edict gives Asoka’s account of the war against Kalinga, and his consequent feeling of profound remorse. This is followed by a reasoned critique of war, pointing out that it led, directly or indirectly, to suffering for all. After this, Asoka embarked on a policy of Dhamma-Vijaya. It is described as the conquest through righteousness, not through violence or force. Under this, the rival kings do not resist, and happily accept his sovereignty, which is not about territorial conquest but spreading dhamma. Dhamma missionaries replacing king and his army, and spreading the message of dhamma far and wide.

H.C.Raychaudhari presented the idea that the pacifist policy of Ashoka led to the decline in the military strength which was the reason for the decline of the Mauryan empire.
But nowhere it is mentioned that Asoka disbanded his army and in following years he took control of the tribal areas and warned them of any kind of revolt. He also continued capital punishment and advised his successors to take recourse to violence in extreme situations.
Since in his long reign, he undertook only one military campaign, it may have adversely affected the preparedness of the army but it would be incorrect to say that  Ashoka’s dhamma was responsible for the downfall of Mauryan Empire.

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