The officers of Dhamma, or Dhamma mahamattas, appointed by Asoka in the 14th year of his reign, were directly responsible for the practical working of Dhamma. These officers directly reported to the king and they could have been a ‘privileged group’.
The Dhamma mahamattas were at first concerned with promoting general welfare while emphasising the practice of Dhamma. They were allowed entry into the homes of all classes of people including the royal relatives.
It may be assumed that gradually their power to interfere in the lives of the people increased. These officers were busy among members of various sects (edicts mention that they worked among servants and nobles, Brahmans and wealthy householders, the poor and the aged and others).
They worked not only within the empire but also in the frontier area and neighbouring regions. The institution of Dhamma mahamattas is seen by some scholars as a proof that the Dhamma did not conform to any one religion, particularly Buddhism.
To them such an institution would not have been necessary. “Each religion had either its group of devoted believers or its order of monks who could have been organised into active propagandists with greater efficiency as they would already have been ardent believers” (Romila Thapar).
Major Rock Edict I-Prohibits sacrifice of animals and festive gatherings.
Major Rock Edict II-Relates to social welfare measures like medical centres for animals as well as men, road construction, and planting of medicinal herbs.
Major Rock Edict Ill-Stresses on acts like generosity to brahmans and sramanas (seen as one of the principles of Dhamma), obedience to parents, friends and relatives, owning minimum of property and spending little.
Major Rock Edict IV-States that the practice of Dhamma has clearly helped in promoting a decline in killing living beings, increased the deference being shown to relatives, brahmans and sramanas, and enabled elders and parents to command obedience as never before. Finally, Dhamma cannot be practised without goodness.
Major Rock Edict V-It is here that the king mentions the Dhamma mahamattas first. The edict states that these officers are busy in all sects promoting interest in Dhamma and establishing it and attending to the welfare and happiness of those devoted to Dhamma-among the Greeks, the Kambojas, the Gandharas, the Risthikas, the Pitinikas and other peoples of the west, and among servants and nobles, wealthy householders, brahmans, the aged and the poor.
They are busy in promoting the welfare of these groups of people. They are also occupied in the administration of charities among those devoted to Dhamma.
Major Rock Edict Vl-Instructs the Dhamma mahamattas (regarded as “informants” in an English translation of this edict) to make their reports to the king at all times irrespective of what he may be doing at that time.
Emphasis is on promoting the welfare of the whole world, there being no better work than that. Hard work and dispatch of business are the means of promoting welfare of the whole world.
Major Rock Edict VH-Wishes that all sects may dwell in all places, for all seek self-control and a pure mind. This is seen as a plea for tolerance.
The edict states that men have varied desires, of which they give vent to all or only a part of. (This may suggest that differences of opinion were expressed in a vociferous manner by the various sects.)
Major Rock Edict VHI-States that the king undertook tours connected with Dhamma during which meetings were held with ascetics, brahmans, aged folk, and the people of the countryside, and gifts and gold were distributed.
Instructions on Dhamma were rendered and questions related to it were answered. The king found this more enjoyable than anything else. It is stated that this practice started with the king’s visit to the tree of enlightenment ten years after he had been consecrated.
Major Rock Edict IX-Ccremonies practised in illness, at the time of marriages and births, while going on a journey, and the many ceremonies performed by women are criticised.
Dhamma is declared as a matter of great value, which includes respect for teachers, regard for slaves and servants, restrained behaviour towards living beings and donations to brahmans and sramanas.
The Girnar version states that the gift of Dhamma is emphasised as one through which heaven can be gained.
Major Rock Edict X-The king desires fame and glory only to the extent that his people may obey Dhamma and follow the way prescribed in it.
The king’s efforts are to ensure that all men may escape from evil inclinations in which there is no merit. But this is difficult, especially for the highly placed, without extreme efforts and without renouncing all.
Major Rock Edict XI-Mentions that there is no gift comparable to that of Dhamma, the praise and sharing of Dhamma, and fellowship in Dhamma. Respect to elders, abstention from killing living beings, etc., are repeated. Dhamma is attaining salvation in this world and getting infinite merit in the next.
Major Rock Edict XII-Emphasises Asoka’s toleration of sects. It states that the king honours all sects and ascetics as well as laymen. Advancement of the essential beliefs of all sects is of primary importance and is the responsibility of the officers of Dhamma and such other officers.
Such advancement requires control of one’s speech so that one’s own sect is not extolled nor the sect of another disparaged on unsuitable occasions or, if criticised, done so in a mild way on certain occasions.
Honouring one another’s sect is important. All sects should be well-informed and teach what is good. The benevolent influence of one’s own sect results in a glory to Dhamma.
Major Rock Edict XHI-States that the conquest by Dhamma is the true conquest. Victory by Dhamma is the foremost victory. His (the king’s) sons, grandsons and great grandsons should not think of new conquests (by war). Delight in Dhamma should be their whole delight.
Minor Rock Inscriptions the Minor Rock Edicts stress the virtues of Dhamma, such as obeying parents and teachers, having mercy on living things, and speaking the truth. The rajuka (or rural officer) is to be instructed and he will in turn instruct the people.
The Kandahar Rock Inscription states that men have become more pious since king Piyadassi showed piety (Dhamma) to men (ten years of time having passed in the meantime).
People have learnt obedience to parents, etc., and restraint. The king kills very few animals and the other people have ceased killing animals. Practice of Dhamma is and will continue to be of use to all men.
Among the inscriptions meant only for Buddhists, the Bhabra Inscription mentions the king’s respect for the Dhamma and his endorsement of the sermons on the Dhamma. There appears to be an interval of few years between the sculpting of the major rock edicts and the pillar edicts. Both are similar in spirit but a change in approach has been discerned.
Pillar Edict I-States that through the king’s care and love of Dhamma it had grown and that it was the king’s principle to administer affairs, please the people and guard the empire through Dhamma. Here, the king’s agent’s ability to win over ‘the wavering’ has been noted.
According to Romila Thapar, “the tone of the sentence and indeed of the edict suggests that the officers have made the propagation of Dhamma, wherever and whenever possible, their sole function.
The king appears to be obsessed with the idea that everyone must practice Dhamma. The constant repetition of the word Dhamma shows that his enthusiasm is no longer that of someone propagating a new idea, but something that has become part of his very being.”
Pillar Edict II-Here, the question is asked as to ‘what is Dhammd and its answer is given as ‘having few faults and many good qualities, mercy, charity, truthfulness and purity’.
Self-adulation is evident as the king states he has conferred many benefits on men and animals and has carried out many righteous deeds.
Pillar Edicts III, IV and V-Mention the rajukas (rural officers) appointed for promoting the welfare and happiness of the country people. The king has given them independent authority and together with those devoted to Dhamma, ‘they will guide the country people so that they may obtain happiness in this world and the next.’
Such authority could have been delegated to the rajukas as the king was aging and he could not singly pursue matters with a great degree of zeal. The bureaucracy and the administration were probably functioning smoothly and hence such authority could be delegated to the rural officers. TT also shows that the king trusted his officials.
Pillar Edict VI-Through Dhamma, the king has provided for welfare and happiness of the world. The king honours ‘all sects with varying degrees of reverence’ and considers ‘visiting them in person to be most important’.
Pillar Edict VH-States that the king’s proclamations and instruction of Dhamma are to elevate people through devotion to Dhamma. The rajukas are to encourage those devoted to Dhamma.
The king’s welfare activities like planting of trees are aimed to have been done to inspire his people into conforming to Dhamma.
The officers of Dhamma, busy in matters of public benefit, are meant for the members of all sects. There are also some to look after the interests of only particular sects. Officers are also busy with charity work.
The edict states that the advancement of Dhamma has been achieved through two means, legislation and persuasion, of which the former has been less effective.