Emperor Ashoka and His Humanitarian Approach to Religion

From the book Secularism in India: A Historical Outline (2005)

Samrat Chakravartin Ashoka
As far as secularism is concerned, Buddhism is best remembered in India for its dearest adherent, the Emperor Ashoka, whose religious policies are some of the closest to the modern principles of humanism. Chandragupta Maurya died in 300 B.C. Bindusara succeeded him and, after his death in between 273-272 B.C, Ashoka ascended the throne in 269-268 B.C.[1] After his painful experience in the Kalinga war, he converted to Buddhism and, having united the whole of the sub-continent under his rule, gave India one of its rarest times of peaceful governance. Ashoka gave great importance to the ideal of tolerance towards different ideologies and religions. According to Romila Thapar, Ashoka’s definition of social ethics is based on a respect for all religious teachers, and on a harmonious relationship between parents and children, teachers and pupils, and employers and employees.[2]

The religious policies of Ashoka grew out of his concept of religion and its role in human society. Ashoka’s practice of the principle of non-violence, after becoming a Buddhist, led him to ban animal sacrifices to the great chagrin of the Brahmins. The principle of universality and inclusivism kept Ashoka from all forms of communalism that the caste-Hindus were so fond of. Ashoka’s religion contained gleanings from all religions.[3] Ashoka followed the policy of religious tolerance and made a law that prohibited anyone from any act or word against any religion.

According to Jawaid Quddus, during the reign of Ashoka, diverse religious sects, such as the Brahamas, Sramanas, Nirganthas, Ajivakas, etc., bore great hostility and sectarian rancor against one another. Quddus quotes from the ' Studies in Ancient India' by Provatansu Maiti, (1969 edition) following of the directives of Ashoka that aimed at religious tolerance and mutual respect among the various sects:
1.All sects must dwell at all places so that they could know one another and develop tolerance for each other.
2.All sects must observe restraint of speech and purification of heart when they deal with each other.
3.The exaltation of one's own religion and condemnation of others' creed is not permitted.
4.Different sects should study of the scripture of other sects and develop concord among themselves.
5.All people must practice Ahimsa (non- violence) towards each other and towards animals.
6.Ashoka renounced the policy of conquest by sword and urged people to adopt the policy of conquest by law.[4]
Although Ashoka’s policy of religious tolerance seems quite conforming to the principles of secularism, his declaration of Buddhism as the state-religion doesn’t apparently do so. Ashoka considered religion as the foundation of a stable state. By religion, Ashoka meant Dhamma, the principle of right duty and obligation. Though this Dhamma was much influence by Buddhism, it was not separated from reason but based on reason.[5]

Ashoka sent Buddhist missionaries to foreign kingdoms and he also undertook religious journeys to inspire his people towards religiosity. He established a department of religion that was responsible for measuring the religious level of the people and also teaching them the principles of Dhamma. He used to organize religious discourses and shows for the education of the masses.[6] The various pillars and inscriptions dating from the time of Ashoka point to the seriousness with which he understood the inter-relationship between religion and the state. The goal was to instil in the people the knowledge of what is right and what is wrong and awake and motivate them towards right thinking and right action. No doubt, Ashoka succeeded in doing so.
Thus, though Ashoka’s religious policies cannot be called as purely secular-oriented, they do resemble secularism in practice in their laws of religious freedom, religious tolerance, and respect for all religions. To be sure, Ashoka’s religious policies were oriented to the well being of all people in the present, despite race, colour, language, creed, or gender.

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[1] As cited by Ratibhanu Singh Nahar, Prachin Bharat Ka Rajnitik Aur Sanskritik Itihaas (Allahabad: Kitab Mahal, 1956), p. 238.
[2] Romila Thapar, ‘Ashoka’, Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia (Microsoft Corporation: 2001).
[3] Ratibhanu Singh Nahar, Prachin Bharat Ka Rajnitik Aur Sanskritik Itihaas (Allahabad: Kitab Mahal, 1956), p.245.
[4] http://www.truthindia.com
[5] Ibid, pp. 244-246.
[6] Ibid, p. 247.

© Domenic Marbaniang, 2005, 2010

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