mauryan empire

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The Mauryan Emperor, Ashoka, is famous for his Rock and Pillar edicts. But how much can we really know about Ashoka and his empire from these edicts, particularly as almost no other evidence exists for Ashoka’s reign?

It is a fair assessment that up until the early part of the twentieth century, when the definitive link between Ashoka and that of the “Devanampiya Piyadassi (Beloved of the Gods Piyadassi)” character inscribed on the edicts was established, very little was either known about Ashoka or cared for by historians. However, it must be said that the Mauryan Empire itself was an era of significant historical value not without a good deal of historical and archaeological evidence to substantiate its importance. In addressing the issue of what the edicts in particular reveal to us about Ashoka and the period of his reign one needs to acknowledge undoubtedly what is being stated, but perhaps moreover one needs to pay attention to the inherent meanings, the intended meanings and the contextual meanings of the inscriptions themselves.

The ultimate thematic concern of the edicts in general is that of the principle of Dhamma. A definition of Dhamma itself is given in the 2nd Pillar Edict as: “having few faults and many good deeds, mercy, charity, truthfulness and purity”. In this context one may deduce that the notion of Dhamma is a type of ethos for social morality or ethical behaviour. Furthermore, the term is said to be a fundamental philosophy of Buddhist doctrine, the practice of which leads to one’s advancement in both a spiritual and material sense.

That Ashoka was a proclaimed Buddhist is evident from the edicts, “I have been a Buddhist layman for more than two and a half years, but for a year I did not make much progress. Now for more than a year I have drawn closer to the Order and become more ardent.” There are fewer examples of a more personal self-proclamation to be found and yet one cannot help but consider the motive behind it. Surely Ashoka, had taken seriously to Buddhism, he at least says so. However, he says so, publicly. This implies that he either was a firm believer who had a need to use his position as a platform to preach a doctrine which he had come to accept as the ultimate truth and as such, to share with and enlighten his people or he was a very sensible and intuitive leader who had a tremendous amount of foresight in adopting the principles of a profound philosophy that he saw could be used to strategically unify and mould his empire both socially and politically.
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