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Ashoka's Dharma: Social & Religious Inclusivity



  Apr 17, 2024

Ashoka's Dharma: Social & Religious Inclusivity



Summarised from ‘Ashoka’ by Patrick Olivelle

1. What insights does Ashoka’s Rock Edict XIII provide about the presence of religious groups within and outside his empire?

Ashoka’s Rock Edict XIII discusses the widespread presence of Brahmins and Sramanas throughout his empire, indicating their integral role in the religious landscape. Interestingly, he notes that these religious groups are absent in the Greek territories beyond his northwestern border, which suggests a distinct religious composition in those areas compared to his dominion. Despite this, Ashoka observes that in regions where Brahmins and Sramanas are absent, people are still devoted to some form of religious or philosophical doctrine, highlighting a universal propensity towards religious beliefs.

2. How does Ashoka define social groups under his notion of dharma?

Ashoka’s notion of dharma is inclusive, encompassing various social groups that range from familial relationships to broader social interactions. His edicts describe obligations towards superiors like parents and elders, peers such as friends and relatives, and subordinates including slaves and servants. This delineation underscores a societal framework where dharma acts as a guiding principle for ethical conduct across different levels of social interaction.

3. What is the significance of the differentiation between slaves and servants in Ashoka’s edicts?

In his administration, Ashoka differentiates clearly between 'dasa' (slaves) and 'bh?taka' (servants), indicating different social and economic roles. Slaves were legally owned by their masters and lacked personal freedom, reflecting a social sanction of slavery in Ashokan society. Servants, while technically free and compensated for their work, might still have limited autonomy depending on their specific work agreements. This distinction is crucial for understanding the social stratification and labor dynamics within Ashokan society.

4. What does the absence of mention of the varna system in Ashoka’s edicts suggest about its relevance during his reign?

The notable absence of any mention of the varna system in Ashoka’s edicts suggests that this system might not have been a dominant social structure during his reign, or it was perceived differently from later historical periods. Ashoka’s emphasis on dharma, with its focus on moral and ethical behavior over rigid social stratification, might indicate that social roles and hierarchies were more fluid than the structured varna system described in later texts. This absence is particularly telling given the comprehensive nature of his edicts, which address a wide range of social, ethical, and administrative issues.

5. How does Ashoka address the ethnic diversity within his empire, and what does this indicate about his governance?

Ashoka mentions several ethnic groups within his empire, such as the Kambojas, Gandharas, Bhojas, and others, reflecting the ethnically diverse nature of his realm. By acknowledging these groups, Ashoka demonstrates an awareness of the empire's diversity and hints at a governance approach that recognizes and potentially accommodates diverse cultural identities. However, his edicts primarily focus on promoting dharma as a universal set of ethical principles rather than detailing cultural or linguistic differences. This approach suggests that Ashoka valued a unified ethical framework as a means of governance, which could integrate diverse groups under a common moral and ethical umbrella.

Ashoka's edicts and his approach to governance through the promotion of dharma reveal a complex understanding of the social and religious fabric of his empire, characterized by inclusivity and a broad ethical framework aimed at fostering harmony and ethical conduct across diverse groups.


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