Can Asoka’s policy of Dhamma be equated with Buddhism? There are differing views. Some scholars are staunchly of the view that the Asokan policy of Dhamma was ‘not’ Buddhism, it was a product of Asoka’s original thinking much influenced by Buddhist thought, a result of the king’s conversion to Buddhism.
Romila Thapar points out that the appointment of Dhamma mahamattas itself “is one of the strongest arguments in support of the view that Asoka’s Dhamma did not conform to the religious policy of any one of the existing religions of his time”.
If it had been purely religious, such officers would have been superfluous because “each religion had either its group of devoted believers or its order of monks” who, as ardent believers, could have been efficiently “organised into active propagandists”.
Scholars further say that Asoka was in favour of tolerance and even asked his Dhamma mahamattas to associate themselves with the various religious sects and their followers.
The suggestion that what Asoka preached as Dhamma was of Buddhist origin (based on Buddhist chronicles) cannot be accepted completely.
The Dhamma of Asoka does not mention the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path, which are intimately connected with the Buddhist Dhamma concept.
However, the Buddhist influence on Asoka’s Dhamma principle is quite strong. As D.R. Bhandarkar has pointed out in the second volume of A Comprehensive History of India.
“It is however forgotten that that Buddhism has always been of a twofold character: (1) Dhamma for the monks and nuns for whom alone the Four Grand Truths, the Eightfold Path, and Nirvana exist, and (2) Dhamma for the householders which alone Asoka, as a lay-follower of Buddhism, preached.
The qualities in his principle of Dhamma have been taken to some extent from the Lakkhanasuttana of the Dighanikaya.
The courses of conduct laid out in Asoka’s Dhamma are those prescribed for the lay Buddhists in the Sigalovada sutta of the Dighanikaya which has been designated gihi-vinaya-institutc for the house-men.
The Buddha also holds up the reward of svarga in the next life in return for adherence to Dhamma as far as the laity is concerned (Asoka does the same with respect to his Dhamma-followers in his edicts).
We thus see that Asoka was a Buddhist and also that the Dhamma he preached was not that simple piety which is common to all religions, but the specific code of moral duties laid down for a lay-follower of Buddhism.”
Also, aspects like non-violence are common to Buddhist thought as well as the Asokan policy of Dhamma. Romila Thapar herself states in Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, “The concept of dharma used in the sense of Law and Social Order was by no means new to Mauryan India. Asoka, with the propagation of his Dhamma, made an attempt to humanise it.”
It is to be noted that Asoka was a lay-follower of Buddhism. Although he was greatly influenced by Buddhism, there is no indication at all that he intended to fully immerse himself in Buddhism (by becoming a monk, for instance).
He remained a king and thus, as a king, would have been required to cater to all sections of people and socio-cultural elements that comprised his empire. Propagation of Buddhism alone would have left other sects aggrieved.
Asoka’s Dhamma countered this with aspects such as respect among people for one another’s sect and respect for brahmans and sramanas.