Edicts of Ashoka

1 January 2017

The Edicts of Ashoka are a group of writings on the pillars of Ashoka, as well as boulders and cave walls, made by the Emperor Ashoka These writings are spread throughout the areas of modern-day Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan and represent the first concrete evidence of Buddhism. The edicts describe in detail the first wide expansion of Buddhism through the support of one of the most powerful kings of Indian history.

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According to the edicts, the extent of Buddhist teachings during this period reached as far as the Mediterranean, and many Buddhist monuments were created. These writings state Ashoka’s beliefs in the Buddhist concept of dharma and his efforts to develop the dharma throughout his kingdom. Although Buddhism and the Buddha are mentioned, the edicts focus on social and moral teachings, rather than specific religious practices or the philosophical aspect of Buddhism.

The writings revolve around a few recurring themes Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism, the description of his efforts to spread Buddhism, his moral and religious precepts, and his social and animal welfare program. The Mauryan empire was the first Indian empire to unify the country and it had a clear-cut policy of exploiting as well as protecting natural resources with officials tasked with protection duty. When Ashoka embraced Buddhism in the latter part of his reign, he brought about significant changes in his style of authority, which included providing protection to wildlife, and even relinquished the royal hunt.

He was possibly the first ruler in history to support preservation of wildlife. Ashoka did not completely prohibit the killing of animals; he prohibited killings for sacrifices, he advocated restraint in the number that had to be killed for consumption, protected some of them, and in general condemned violent acts against animals, such as castration. However, the edicts of Ashoka reflect more the desire of Ashoka than what actually happened; the mention of a 100 coins fine for poaching deer in royal hunting preserves shows that rule-breakers did exist.

The legal restrictions clashed with the practices then freely exercised by the common people in hunting, felling, fishing and setting fires in forests. According to the edicts, Ashoka took great care of the welfare of his subjects, and those beyond his borders, spreading the use of medicinal treatments, improving roadside facilities for more comfortable travel, and establishing officers of the faith throughout his territories to survey the welfare of the population and the circulation of the Dharma.

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