Selections from Ashoka, Rock and Pillar Edicts
The “rock and pillar edicts,” inscriptions that King Ashoka ordered carved in stone on large rocks in prominent places or on tall pillars that he had erected for this purpose, are the best record we have of Ashoka’s reign. The edicts are found in a number of different locations
throughout Ashoka’s large empire, particularly along the borders. They were written in Prakrit, the language spoken at Ashoka’s time, and are the oldest surviving written documents of historical importance in India.
We have no way of knowing what impact Ashoka’s edicts had on his actual reign. The language in which Ashoka’s edicts were written ceased to be spoken shortly after his reign, so subsequent generations could not read them; in fact, the script in which they were written was deciphered for the first time only in 1837.
Questions I pose to students as they read this: What convinced Ashoka that he should change the way he was ruling and acting? What does he now see as the main aim of his reign? What actions has he done to promote this aim? How does he relate to the sangha, the community of Buddhist monks and nuns? How does he say he treats those who follow religions other than Buddhism, and how does he advise his subjects to treat people with different religious ideas?
This source is a part of the Emperor Ashoka and Buddhism teaching module.
The Kalinga country was conquered by King Priyadarsi [Ashoka’s name for himself], Beloved of the Gods, in the eighth year of his reign. One hundred and fifty thousand persons were carried away captive, one hundred thousand were slain, and many times that number died.
Immediately after the Kalin˙ gas had been conquered, King Priyadars´i became intensely devoted to the study of Dharma, to the love of Dharma, and to the inculcation
The Beloved of the Gods, conqueror of the Kalingas, is moved to remorse now. For he has felt profound sorrow and regret because the conquest of a people previously unconquered involves slaughter, death, and deportation.
But there is a more important reason for the King’s remorse. The Brahmanas and Sramanas [the priestly and ascetic orders] as well as the followers of other religions and the householders—who all practiced obedience to superiors, parents, and teachers, and proper courtesy and firm devotion to friends, acquaintances, companions, relatives, slaves, and servants—all suffer from the injury, slaughter, and deportation inflicted on their loved ones. Even those who escaped calamity themselves are deeply afflicted by the misfortunes suffered by those friends, acquaintances, companions, and relatives for whom they feel an undiminished affection. Thus all men share in the misfortune, and this weighs on King Priyadarsi’s mind.
[Moreover, there is no country except that of the Yonas (that is, the Greeks) where Brahmin and Buddhist ascetics do not exist] and there is no place where men are not attached to one faith or another.
Therefore, even if the number of people who were killed or who died or who were carried away in the Kalinga war had been only one one-hundredth or one one-thousandth of what it actually was, this would still have weighed on the King’s mind.
King Priyadarsi now thinks that even a person who wrongs him must be forgiven for wrongs that can be forgiven.
King Priyadarsi seeks to induce even the forest peoples who have come under his dominion [that is, primitive peoples in the remote sections of the conquered territory] to adopt this way of life and this ideal. He reminds them, however, that he exercises the power to punish, despite his repentance, in order to induce them to desist from their crimes and escape execution.
For King Priyadarsi desires security, self-control, impartiality, and cheerfulness for all living creatures.
King Priyadarsi considers moral conquest [that is, conquest by Dharma, Dharma-vijaya] the most important conquest. He has achieved this moral conquest repeatedly both here and among the peoples living beyond the borders of his kingdom. . . .
Wherever conquest is achieved by Dharma, it produces satisfaction. Satisfaction is firmly established by conquest by Dharma [since it generates no opposition of conquered and conqueror]. Even satisfaction, however, is of little importance. King Priyadarsi attaches value ultimately only to consequences of action in the other world.
This edict on Dharma has been inscribed so that my sons and great-grandsons who may come after me should not think new conquests worth achieving. If they do conquer, let them take pleasure in moderation and mild punishments. Let them consider moral conquest the only true conquest. This is good, here and hereafter. Let their pleasure be pleasure in morality. For this alone is good, here and hereafter. . . .
My highest officials, who have authority over large numbers of people, will expound and spread the precepts of Dharma. I have instructed the provincial governors, too, who are in charge of many hundred thousand people, concerning how to guide people devoted to Dharma.
King Priyadarsi says:
Having come to this conclusion, therefore, I have erected pillars proclaiming Dharma. I have appointed officers charged with the spread of Dharma, called Dharma-mahamatras. I have issued proclamations on Dharma. . . .
King Priyadarsi says:
My officers charged with the spread of Dharma are occupied with various kinds of services beneficial to ascetics and householders, and they are empowered to concern themselves with all sects. I have ordered some of them to look after the affairs of the Sangha [the Buddhist religious orders], some to take care of the Brahmin and Ajivika ascetics, some to work among the Nirgranthas [the Jaina monks], and some among the various other religious sects.
King Priyadarsi honors men of all faiths, members of religious orders and laymen alike, with gifts and various marks of esteem. Yet he does not value either gifts or honors as much as growth in the qualities essential to religion in men of all faiths.
This growth may take many forms, but its root is in guarding one’s speech to avoid extolling one’s own faith and disparaging the faith of others improperly or, when the occasion is appropriate, immoderately.
The faiths of others all deserve to be honored for one reason or another. By honoring them, one exalts one’s own faith and at the same time performs a service to the faith of others. By acting otherwise, one injures one’s own faith and also does disservice to that of others. For if a man extols his own faith and disparages another because of devotion to his own and because he wants to glorify it, he seriously injures his own faith.
Therefore concord alone is commendable, for through concord men may learn and respect the conception of Dharma accepted by others. King Priyadarsi desires men of all faiths to know each other’s doctrines and to acquire sound doctrines. Those who are attached to their particular faiths should be told that King Priyadarsi does not value gifts or honors as much as
growth in the qualities essential to religion in men of all faiths. . . .
A´soka [Ashoka], Beloved of the Gods, issues the following proclamation:
For more than two and a half years, I have been a lay disciple of the Buddha. More than a year ago, I visited the Sangha [the Buddhist religious orders], and since then I have been energetic in my efforts. . . .
The Sangha of the monks and the Sangha of the nuns have each been united to continue united as long as my sons and great-grandsons rule and as long as the sun and moon shine.
The monk or nun who disrupts the Sangha shall be required to put on white robes [instead of the customary yellow] and to live in non-residence. It is my desire that the Sam˙ gha be united and endure forever.
Everywhere in my dominions local, provincial, and state officials shall make a tour of their districts every five years to proclaim the following precepts of Dharma as well as to transact other business:
Obedience to mother and father; liberality to friends, acquaintances, relatives, priests, and ascetics; abstention from killing living creatures; and moderation in spending money and acquiring possessions are all meritorious.
The Edicts of As´oka, ed. and trans. N. A. Nikam and Richard McKeon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959), pp. 27–29, 30, 34, 51–52, 58, 66, 67–68.