King Asoka, the third monarch of the Indian Mauryan dynasty, has come to be regarded as one of the most exemplary rulers in world history. The British historian H.G. Wells has written: “Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history … the name of Asoka shines, and shines almost alone, a star.” Although Buddhist literature preserved the legend of this ruler — the story of a cruel and ruthless king who converted to Buddhism and thereafter established a reign of virtue — definitive historical records of his reign were lacking.
Then in the nineteenth century there came to light a large number of edicts, in India, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan. These edicts, inscribed on rocks and pillars, proclaim Asoka’s reforms and policies and promulgate his advice to his subjects. The present rendering of these edicts, based on earlier translations, offers us insights into a powerful and capable ruler’s attempt to establish an empire on the foundation of righteousness, a reign which makes the moral and spiritual welfare of his subjects its primary concern.
Asoka’s edicts are mainly concerned with the reforms he instituted and the moral principles he recommended in his attempt to create a just and humane society. As such, they give us little information about his life, the details of which have to be culled from other sources. Although the exact dates of Asoka’s life are a matter of dispute among scholars, he was born in about 304 B.C. and became the third king of the Mauryan dynasty after the death of his father, Bindusara. His given name was Asoka but he assumed the title Devanampiya Piyadasi which means “Beloved-of-the-Gods, He Who Looks On With Affection.”
These Fourteen Edicts possess such surpassing interest for every student of Indian history, that we consider it necessary to transcribe them in full. They were first translated by James Prinsep, and have since been revised by Wilson and Burnouf, Lassen, Kern, and Senart. The following rendering is based on M. Senart’s interpretation of the Edicts:
This Edict has been engraved by the order of King Piyadasi, beloved of the gods. One must not, here below, kill any living animal by immolating it, not for the purpose of feasts. The King Piyadasi sees much that is sinful in such feasts. Formerly such feasts were allowed ; and in the cuisine of King Piyadasi, beloved of the gods, and for the table of King Piyadasi, beloved of the gods, hundreds of thousands of living beings were killed every day. At the time when this Edict is engraved three animals only are killed for the table, two pea-fowls and a gazelle, and the gazelle not regularly. Even these three animals will not be killed in future.
Everywhere in the kingdom of the King Piyadasi, beloved of the gods, and also of the nations who live in the frontiers, such as the Cholas, the Pandyas, the realms of Satyaputra and Keralaputra, as far as Tambapanni, (and in the kingdom of) Antiochus, king of the Greeks, and of the kings who are his neighbours, — everywhere the King Piyadasi, beloved of the gods, has provided medicines of two sorts, medicines for men and medicines for animals. Wherever plants useful either for men or for animals were wanting, they have been imported and planted. Wherever roots and fruits were wanting, they have been imported and planted. And along public roads, wells have been dug for the use of animals and men.
Thus spake King Piyadasi, beloved of the gods. In the twelfth year after my anointment, I ordered as follows. Everywhere in my empire, the faithful, the Rajuka, and the governor of the district, shall meet in a gathering (Anusamyana), once every five years, as a part of their duty, in order to proclaim religious instructions as follows:
” It is good and proper to render dutiful service to one’s father and mother, to friends, to acquaintances and relations; it is good and proper to bestow alms on Brahmans and Sramans, to respect the life of living beings, to avoid prodigality and violent language.” The clergy shall then instruct the faithful in detail in the spirit and in the word.
In past times, during many hundred years, have prevailed the slaughter of living beings, violence towards creatures, want of regard for relations, and want of respect for Brahmans and Sramans. But this day the King Piyadasi, beloved of the gods, and faithful to the practice of religion, has made a religious proclamation by beat of drum, and has made a display of equipages, elephants, torches, and celestial objects to his people.
Thanks to the instructions of the religion spread by the King Piyadasi, beloved of the gods, there exist to-day a respect for living creatures, a tenderness towards them, a regard for relations and for Brahmans and Sramans, a dutiful obedience to father and mother, and obeisance to aged men, such as have not existed for centuries. In this respect as in others, the practice of religion prevails, and the King Piyadasi, beloved of the gods, will continue to cause it to prevail. The sons, the grandsons, and the greatgrandsons of King Piyadasi, beloved of the gods, will cause this practice of religion to prevail to the end of this world. Finn in religion and in virtue, they will inculcate religion. For the teaching of religion is the most meritorious of acts, and there is no practice of religion without virtue. The development, the prosperity of the religious interest, is desirable. With this object has this been engraved, in order that they may apply themselves to the highest good of this interest, and they may not allow it to decline. The King Piyadasi, beloved of the gods, has caused this to be engraved twelve years after his anointment.
Thus spake King Piyadasi, beloved of the gods. The practice of virtue is difficult, and those who practice virtue perform what is difficult. I have myself accomplished many virtuous acts. And so shall my sons and grandsons, and my latest posterity to the end of the Kalpa pursue the same conduct, and shall perform what is good. And he who shall neglect such conduct shall do what is evil. To do evil is easy.
Thus in the past there were no ministers of religion (Dharmamahamatra). But I, thirteen years after my anointment, have created ministers of religion. They mix with all sects for the establishment and the progress of religion, and for the wellbeing of the faithful. They mix with the Yavanas, the Kambojas, the Gandharas, the Saurashtras, and the Petenikas, and with other frontier (Aparanta) nations. They mix with warriors and with Brahmans, with the rich and the poor and the aged, for their wellbeing and happiness, and in order to remove all the obstacles in the path of the followers of the true religion. They bring comfort to him who is in fetters, to remove his obstacles, and to deliver him,—because he has a family to support, because he has been the victim of deceit, and because he is bent with age.
At Pataliputra and in other towns they exert themselves in the houses of my brothers and sisters and other relations. Everywhere the ministers of religion mix with the followers of the true religion, with those who apply themselves to religion and are firm in religion, and with those who bestow alms. It is with this object that this Edict is engraved.
Thus spake King Piyadasi, beloved of the gods. There never was in past times a system of despatch of work and of hearing of reports at all moments. This is what I have done. At all moments, during meals, during repose, in the inner apartments, in the secret chamber, in my retreat, in the garden,— everywhere, officers entrusted with information about the affairs of my people come to me, and I despatch the concerns relating to my people. I myself with my own mouth issue instructions which the ministers of religion impart to the people.
Thus I have directed that wherever there is a division, a quarrel, in the assembly of the clergy, it should always be immediately reported to me. For there cannot be too much activity employed in the administration of justice. It is my duty to procure by my instructions the good of the public ; and in incessant activity and the proper administration of justice lies the root of public good, and nothing is more efficacious than this. All my endeavours have but thus one object,—to pay this debt due to my people ! I render them as happy as possible here below ; may they obtain happiness hereafter in heaven! It is with this object that I have caused this Edict to be engraved; may it endure long ! And may my sons and my grandsons and my great-grandsons follow my example for the public good. This great object requires the utmost endeavour.
The King Piyadasi, beloved of the gods, ardently desires that all sects may live (unmolested) in all places. All of them equally propose the subjection of the senses and the purification of the soul ; but man is fickle in his attachments. They thus practice but imperfectly what they profess ; and those who do not bestow ample gifts may yet possess a control over their senses, purity of soul, and gratitude and fidelity in their affections ; and this is commendable.
In past times kings went out for pastimes. Hunting and other amusements of the kind were their pastimes here below. I, King Piyadasi, beloved of the gods, obtained true intelligence ten years after my anointment. These, then, are my pastimes ;—visits and gifts to Brahmans and Sramans, visits to aged men, the distribution of money, visits to the people of the empire, their religious instruction, and consultations on religious subjects. It is thus that the King Piyadasi, beloved of the gods, enjoys the pleasure derived from his virtuous acts.
Thus spake King Piyadasi, beloved of the gods. Men perform various observances in illness, at the marriage of a son or a daughter, at the birth of a child, and at the time of proceeding on a journey. On these and similar occasions men follow various practices. But these numerous and diverse practices observed by most people are valueless and vain. It is customary, however, to observe such practices, although they produce no fruit. But the practice of religion, on the contrary, is meritorious in the highest
Regard for slaves and servants, and respect for relations and teachers are meritorious; tenderness towards living beings, and alms to Brahmans and Sramans are meritorious. I call these and similar virtuous acts the practice of religion. A father or a son, a brother or a teacher should say,—this is what is meritorious, this is the practice which must be observed till the end is attained. It has been said that alms are meritorious, but there is no gift and no charity so meritorious as the gift of religion, the imparting of religion. Hence a friend, a relation, a companion should give such counsel,—in such and such circumstances this should be done, —this is meritorious. Convinced that such conduct leads to heaven, one should follow it with zeal as the way which leads to heaven.
The King Piyadasi, beloved of the gods, does not deem any kind of glory and renown to be perfect except this, viz., that in the present and in the future my people practice obedience to my religion and perform the duties of my religion ! That is the glory and the renown which the King Piyadasi, beloved of the gods, seeks. All the efforts of the King Piyadasi, beloved of the gods, are for the fruits obtainable in the future life, and for escaping mortal life. For mortal life is evil. But it is difficult to attain this end both for the small and the great, except by a determined effort to detach themselves from all objects. It is assuredly a difficult task, specially for the great, to perform this.
Thus spake King Piyadasi, beloved of the gods. There is no gift comparable with the gift of religion, the intimacy of religion, the charity of religion, the relationship of religion. This should be observed,—regard towards slaves and servants, obedience to father and mother, charity towards friends, companions, relations, Sramans, and Brahmans, and respect for the life of living creatures.
A father or a son or a brother, a friend, a companion, or even a neighbour, should say,—this is meritorious, this should be done. In striving thus, he derives a gain in this world and in the life to come ; infinite merit results from the gift of religion.
The King Piyadasi, beloved of the gods, honours all sects, both ascetics and householders; he propitiates them by alms and by other gifts. But the beloved of the gods attaches less importance to such gifts and honours than to the endeavour to promote their essential moral virtues. It is true, the prevalence of essential virtues differs in different sects. But there is a common basis, and that is gentleness and moderation in language. Thus one should not exalt one’s own sect and decry the others ; one should not depreciate them without cause, but should render them on every occasion the honour which they deserve.
Striving thus, one promotes the welfare of his own sect while serving the others. Striving otherwise, one does not serve his own sect, and does disservice to others. And whoever from attachment to his own sect, and with a view to promote it, exalts it and decries others, only deals rude blows to his own sect ! Hence concord alone is meritorious, so that all bear and love to bear the beliefs of each other. It is the desire of the beloved of the gods that all sects should be instructed, and should profess pure doctrines. All people, whatever their faith may be, should say that the beloved of the gods attaches less importance to gifts and to external observances, than to the desire to promote essential moral doctrines and mutual respect for all sects. It is with this object that the ministers of religion, the officers in charge of females, the inspectors, and other bodies of officers, all work. The result of this is the promotion of my own faith, and its advancement in the light of religion.
Vast is the kingdom of Kalinga conquered by King Piyadasi, beloved of the gods. Hundreds of thousands of creatures have been reduced to slavery, a hundred thousand have been killed. Since the conquest of Kalinga, the king, beloved of the gods, has turned towards religion, has been devoted to religion, has conceived a zeal for religion, and has applied himself to the diffusion of religion,—so great was the regret which the beloved of the gods felt at the conquest of Kalinga. In conquering the country which was not subject to me, I, beloved of the gods, have deeply felt and sorrowed for the murders, the deaths, and the reducing of the native inhabitants to slavery. But this is what the beloved of the gods has felt and sorrowed for more keenly. Everywhere dwell Brahmans or Sramans, ascetics or householders ; and among such men are witnessed respect to authorities, obedience to fathers and mothers, affection towards friends, companions, and relations, regard for servants, and fidelity in affections. Such men are exposed to violence and to death, and to separation from those who are dear to them. And even when by special protection they themselves escape personal harm, their friends, acquaintances, companions, and relations are ruined ; and thus they too have to suffer.
All violence of this kind is keenly felt and regretted by me, beloved of the gods. There is no country where bodies of men like the Brahmans and Sramans are not known, and there is no spot in any country where men do not profess the religion of some sect or other. It is because so many men have been drowned, ruined, killed, and reduced to slavery in Kalinga that the beloved of the gods feels this to-day a thousand times more keenly.
The beloved of the gods ardently desires security for all creatures, respect for life, peace, and kindliness in behaviour. This is what the beloved of the gods considers as the conquests of religion. It is in these conquests of religion that the beloved of the gods takes pleasure, both in his empire and in all its frontiers, with an extent of many hundred Yojanas. Among his (neighbours), Antiochus, king of the Yavanas, and beyond Antiochus, four kings, Ptolemy, Antigonas, Magas, and Alexander; to the south, among the Cholas, Pandyas, as far as Tambapanni, and also the Henaraja Vismavasi; among the Greeks and the Kambojas, the Nabhakas and the Nabhapantis, the Bhojas, and the Petenikas, the Andhras, and the Pulindas ;—everywhere they conform to the religious instructions of the beloved of the gods. There where the messengers of the beloved of the gods have been sent, there the people heard the duties of the religion preached on the part of the beloved of the gods, and conform and will conform to the religion and religious instructions. . . .
Thus the conquest is extended on all sides. I have felt an intense joy,—such is the happiness which the conquests of religion procure ! But to speak the truth, this joy is a secondary matter; the beloved of the gods attaches great value only to the fruits which are assured in a future life. It is with this object that this religious inscription has been engraved, in order that our sons and grandsons may not think that a new conquest is necessary ; that they may not think that conquest by the sword deserves the name of conquest; that they may see in it nothing but destruction and violence ; that they may consider nothing as true conquest save the conquest of religion ! Such conquests have value in this world and in the next ; may they derive pleasure only from religion, for that has its value in this world and in the next.
This Edict is engraved by King Piyadasi, beloved of the gods. It is partly brief, partly of ordinary extent, and partly amplified. All is not connected yet, for my empire is vast, and I have caused much to be engraved, and will yet cause more to be engraved. Some precepts have been repeated because I attach particular importance to their being followed by the people. There may be faults in the copy,—be it that a passage has been truncated, or that the sense has been misunderstood. All this has been engraved by the engraver.
Such are the famous Fourteen Edicts of Asoka, by which he:
- prohibited the slaughter of animals
- provided medical aid for men and animals
- enjoined a quinquennial religious celebration
- made an announcement of religious grace
- appointed ministers of religion and missionaries
- appointed moral instructors to take cognisance of the conduct of people in their social and domestic life;
- proclaimed universal religious toleration
- recommended pious enjoyment in preference to the carnal amusements of previous times
- expatiated on the merit of imparting religious instruction and moral advice
- extolled true heroism and glory founded on spreading true religion
- upheld the imparting of religious instruction as the best of all kinds of charity
- proclaimed his wish to convert all unbelievers on the principles of universal toleration and moral persuasion
- mentioned the conquest of Kalinga and the names of five Greek kings, to whose kingdoms, as well as to kingdoms in India, missionaries had been sent; and lastly,
- summed up the foregoing with some remarks on the engraving of the Edicts.
The Edict has endured unto remote ages; and within the two thousand years which have succeeded, mankind has discovered no nobler religion than to promote in this earth “mercy and charity, truth and purity, kindness and goodness.”
~ R. C. Dutt