The word, Dhamma, is the Prakrit form of Dharma in Sanskrit. There have been attempts to find an equivalent English word: ‘morality’, ‘piety’, and ‘righteouness’ are the words used, though Romila Thapar favours ‘virtue’ in preference to the others.
However, scholars found it to be untranslatable into English as it was coined and used in a specific context. The word Dharma (or Dhamma) had not just one meaning in the literature and thought of ancient India.
Asokan Dhamma, for instance, cannot be equated with the term as it is used in other contexts. There is a lot of speculation and controversy on whether it can be equated with the Buddhist Dhamma itself.
Dhamma was not a religious faith as such, so it cannot be translated as ‘religion’. Nor was it a royal policy formulated in an arbitrary manner.
It was a general statement on social norms-“a way of life incorporating a number of ideas and practices” (Romila Thapar). In his policy of Dhamma, Asoka seems to have tried to synthesise the various norms prevalent in the society of the time.
In his policy of Dhamma, the king could have found a means of solving the existing problems. It has been suggested that the Dhamma policy was an attempt to come to grips with the tensions in which a complex society was involved.
The Mauryan society was a multicultural society where various social, religious and economic forces counteracted one another.
As it is clear from the Arthashastra, a strong ruler, a smoothly working and capable bureaucracy and good communications existed in the Mauryan times and the ruler had to maintain his control over his empire at any cost.
One way of doing this was by exerting ruthless control through armed strength, deification of the ruler and similar stern methods.
The other option was for the ruler to declare his belief in a new faith by which the prominence of the other groups could be curbed and they be directed towards propagating the new ideas. It is this option that Asoka seems to have exercised to keep his empire unified.
On the political level, there was the need for a binding factor. The Mauryan Empire was not only more extensive than that of the Nandas but it also included a greater variety of people.
Imperial control had been imposed over a vast area that had earlier, for the most part, been divided into small kingdoms. The Dhamma policy, with its focus on social responsibility irrespective of caste or status, attempted to provide the cementing factor.
Tensions obviously existed between the various religious sects. Though Buddhism, Jainism and other sects like those of the Ajivikas had become popular the brahmans still had a strong hold on society.
The heterodox sects were opposed to such domination. There could have been areas within the empire where both the brahmanical and the sramanical cultures were not popular. (A.L. Basham in A Cultural History of India mentions two categories of religious leaders, brahmans and sramanas where the latter are referred to as ‘heterodox ascetics’.
Mahavira, Buddha and Makkali Gosala are mentioned as sramana teachers.) In such diversity, there was a pressing need to generate mutual trust and harmony.
The ideas of Dhamma and the practices advocated by it were useful to bind and unite the various elements.
Asoka possibly did not have a large support from the orthodox and older elements at the court during the early part of his reign.
By giving support to the heterodox sects without opposing orthodox Brahminism, he could have been looking for a kind of support that would wean the people away from orthodoxy and make his own principles more acceptable to them.
Romila Thapar notes that “the new beliefs were not violently opposed to the old and it was therefore possible to bring about a compromise”.
Asoka issued edicts to explain and propagate his Dhamma policy. These edicts were meant to be read by various kinds of people from different walks of life. Thus the policy was directly communicated to his subjects.
Asoka also undertook public welfare measures and administrative reforms to propagate Dhamma. In his edicts, he mentions the welfare and other activities that were carried out.
He also explains the appointment of officers of Dhamma (Dhamma mahamattas) for the purpose and mentions his undertaking of royal tours (Dhamma yatras).