Special Articles / Shankar Pathak / Social Work and Social Welfare
In Indian literature on social reform and social work it is customary to trace the heritage of modern social welfare to the beginning of the nineteenth century, especially to the time of Rammohun Roy. If at all any reference is made to an earlier period, it is by way of stray remarks in passing about the social reform activities of some Muslim or Maratha ruler.1 Occasionally one comes across, however, vague, global reference to social welfare in ancient India-mostly as a glorification of the past.
Periodisation of Indian history is a complicated and controversial issue. The popular classification is based on the religion of the rulers. Accordingly, 2500 B.C. to A.D. 1000 is treated as the ancient period, A.D. 1100 or 1200 to A.D. 1800 as the medieval period and the period from A.D. 1800 onwards as the modern period. Thapar is of the view that the end of the ancient period should be roughly eighth century A.D. or possibly a little earlier.3 There is however, a rather more specific problem in studying ancient Indian history. It covers a vast period of more than three thousand years for most of which there is little historical evidence, especially about the social structure. Precisely for this reason, the approach here is chronological only in a very broad sense and rather like a frog-leap through history, skipping periods and details either because of the absence of adequate material or their relative unimportance for our purpose.
INDUS VALLEY-THE FIRST URBANISATION
The earliest of the Indian civilisations is the Indus valley culture of Harappa and Mohen-jo-daro (now in Pakistan) which was in existence roughly about 3000 to 2000 B.C. It ended about 1750 B.C. The Indus civilisation is characterised by a high level of urbanisation and affluence. Kosambi writes:
The Indus cities show town planning of a truly amazing nature. Besides the straight streets meeting at right-angles, there was a superb drainage system for carrying away rainwater and cesspools for clearing the sewage. No Indian city possessed anything of the sort till modern times, far too many still lack these amenities. There were enormous granaries far too large to be in private possession. They were accompanied by small tenement houses in regular blocks which must have accommodated the special class of workers or slaves who pounded and stored the grain. There was evidence of considerable trade, some of it across the ocean.4
This indicates a well-developed agricultural system which could support the population of large cities with surplus food, the presence of a state, a system of government and the existence of a class-based society where there was the rule of a few over many. Some kind of slavery seems to have been practised. When we consider that the Indus people were essentially peaceful and not violent, we can assume that some type of social welfare was in existence which took care of the minimum needs of the slaves and other lower classes. Unfortunately, we know very little of their social structure, so that any more conjecture will be historical fiction of little relevance.
THE VEDIC PERIOD (1700 TO 600 B.C.)
Sometime toward the end of the second millenium came from the north-west, perhaps from Persia, a hymn-singing, pastoral nomadic tribe, speaking an Indo-European language, and known in history as the Aryans. From the first wave of the Aryans to the Buddhist period-approximately one thousand years-we can observe the progress of the ancient Indian civilisation from nomadic, tribal groups to the tribal settlements (Janapadas) and then to the beginnings of an agricultural society along the Gangetic basin. This is also the period during which the caste system evolved gradually.
It is more helpful for our purpose to adopt Dumizel's concept of 'tripartite division of social functions', and then see the changes in these functions.5 The early Aryans were familiar with the division of social functions into those of the sovereign, the warriors and the people. The function of the sovereign was originally performed by an elected chief and gradually this evolved into a hereditary kinship as the tribes grew in size and began to live in one or more settlements. So also the functions of the warriors which originally might have been performed by all those members of the tribe who could fight a war, gradually became more or less a professional hereditary occupation. Thus emerged the group of Kshatriyas who were to become a caste in the Varna system. With the clearing of the forests, made possible by the discovery of the iron, and the development of tribal agricultural settlements, there emerged the communal ownership of land by the Kshatriyas. At about the same time came into existence the other major professional class, the priests, who came to be known as Brahmins. Those who did not own the land, but did manual work on it as producers of food (and later also traders) constituted the social function of 'the people'.
Shastri has depicted the communitarian republics of the early Vedic period in idyllic terms.6 Whether or not one agrees with all the detailed descriptions of the communal life of these tribal republics, where the social resources were shared by the members of the tribe through daily or periodical ritual distribution, we may agree with Shastri's main conclusions:
In this communitarian society which functioned like an extended family, everybody's needs were catered to by everybody. There was a life of complete mutuality and reciprocal assistance whether the needs were basic or special, generic or arising out of vulnerable situations like disease and external danger. In knowledge and skill people differed only in quantity and everybody did for others in need what others did for him in similar circumstances. The whole business of helping people in need was everybody's business mainly handled in a collective way. Thus everybody was client and agent both on different occasions or for different purposes.7
As the tribal territories progressed and grew in size, they coalesced to form the kingdom, which was increasingly headed by hereditary chieftain-kings. The growing population and the prosperity of agriculture also led to the emergence of cities in the Gangetic basin. This is known as the second urbanisation, a consequence of which is the crystallisation of a new Varna group of traders (Vaisya). The social function of 'people' included the trader and the agricultural producer who did not own the land, the Sudra. By then the four-fold division of social functions had emerged though it was still fluid and had not solidified into the rigid caste system it was later to become.
‘Technologically the new urbanisation was based on iron, the widespread domestication of the horse, the extension of plough agriculture and a far more sophisticated market economy than that of the earlier period.’8 The agricultural land which was collectively owned by the Kshatriyas, was mostly tilled by the slaves (Dasas) and hired labourers (Bhritakas). The political control remained with the Kshatriyas, one of them becoming the king through lineage. Lineage, speech and customary law were the three criteria which defined social status in the earlier tribal society. Now with the gradual emergence of caste (Jati) originally based on a fourfold theoretical classification of the Varna system, society was stratified into five social groups of the classical framework of the later caste system. Caste (Jati) became a more dominant indicator of social status than the ritual status (Varna).
Urban life in the cities, which were mostly capitals of Janapadas, was dominated by the wealthy mercantile class (Shrestin) and the guilds (Srenis). The stratifications of urban society included the traders (Vaisya) who were on a lower status than the Brahmins, the landowning Kshatriyas mostly remaining in the countryside. The traders were wealthy and might have contributed considerably toward the governmental expenditure. Next to them, on a lower status, were the weavers (Karmakaras) who were considered as Sudras and thus lumped together with the hired labourers and slaves. It was into this emerging pattern of society that Buddha was born.
Buddha's teachings and the subsequent evolution of Buddhism during the Magadhan empires have to be viewed then in the particular context of a society which was changing from a tribal- agricultural settlement to a class-based prospering agrarian economy with its affluent urban centres and the emerging new classes. The polity was also changing from tribal territory to a centralised kingdom or empire. Buddhism was essentially a movement of social protest against a society characterised by the dominance and excessive ritualism of the Brahmins. The supremacy of the priests also meant the dethroning of the warrior class to which Buddha belonged. Thus, Buddha's teachings might be viewed as both a reaction against rigid, ritualistic Brahmanism and a reaction of a Kshatriya to the loss of his status.9 What is most significant in Buddha's religious teachings is the enunciation of a moderate Middle Path between the two extremes of Brahmin ritualism and Lokayata materialism. This Middle Path was easier for the common people to understand and practice. Buddhism also did away with the mediating presence of a Brahmin in spiritual and religious matters, and stressed the religious experience of a person, thus introducing an element of freedom and individuality, although of a limited nature. It is of significance that the new class of merchants and the lowest class of Sudras embraced Buddhism in large numbers.
As in the Vedic period, social harmony and social order remained ultimate values which could not be questioned. But in its life-affirming aspects, in its perception of change, in respect of the relation of man to fellow human beings, Buddhism introduced a major shift in the ethico-religious philosophy of the time. Buddhism accepted the Karma theory which stressed the law of causality based on individual's actions. This had certain positive implications. Firstly, it held out hope of a better future by its cyclical view of time, the observance of Dharma and the eightfold path. Thus, change was seen as within human control. It was not perceived as a sudden break with the past but as a gradual slow movement.
Another important change in the direction of individuality is what is described by Dumont as the 'outwardly individual'.10 This is the appearance of a renouncer or an ascetic, usually of noble birth who does not accept any of the social customs and rules, and retires to the forest for meditation. After some time he returns to society to influence it with his immense moral and at times, political authority, usually in the direction of change. The renouncer is a non-conformist par excellence. He is an individual freed from social constraints. But his interests and orientation are to the other world and so he is an 'outwardly individual'. Where renunciation was not possible, the person could become a lay disciple and follow the Middle Path.
The acceptance of Karma, according to Thapar, also served the purpose of explaining the origin of social inequality and the creation of the caste society.
Not only was a man's social condition a reference point in social justice, but disease, physical pain, and even death were seen as aspects of social justice, although the moral responsibility for this condition rested with the individual. Thus the sting of social protest was numbed by insisting that there was no tangible agency responsible for social injustice, or even an abstract deity against whom man could complain, but that responsibility belonged with man himself. This in turn tended to curb non-conformity in behaviour for fear of the consequences in the next life.11
Ahimsa or non-killing was one of the major ethico-religious doctrines of Buddha as well as Mahavira. It is of significance because of its life-affirming quality, even though carried to the extreme to include non-killing of animals by Mahavira. Apart from this ethical aspect, it also reflects the need for an agricultural society to preserve animal wealth. Politically it could be an attempt to make the state more humane by discouraging cruel punishment of the subjects. At the same time it also discouraged violent actions by the people against the ruler even when there may have been cause for it.
According to Buddhism, at the individual level, elimination of suffering is possible by the elimination of desire and by following a path of dhamma (right conduct). Buddhism laid great emphasis on good deeds or merit (punya) and charity (dana). The purpose of these doctrines seems to be to promote social good by altruistic actions of people at all levels, especially those who were better placed in society such as the ruling class and the wealthy agriculturist and merchant class. 'Charity was seen not only as a means of alleviating the suffering of the materially poor, but also as the giving of gifts, (Dana) especially to the sangha (the order of monks).'12
The sangha was not an exclusive group outside the society. It was closely linked to the lay community on whose support it existed and thrived. People from all castes could join the sangha, where there was no distinction of status based on caste. Sanghas were also centres of learning, and they were responsible for the spread of literacy, thus breaking the exclusive privilege of learning from the ritually superior Brahmins. They contributed toward the equality of the sexes, for even women could join as nuns and take to learning. But all these egalitarian measures were limited to the sanghas and the society outside remained stratified as before. 'It was almost as if the creation of a radical, egalitarian society within the monastery exhausted the drive toward such a society in the world outside.’13 This is the most charitable interpretation one could make for the failure of Buddhism to bring about equality in the society at large.
Buddhism introduced a new perception of cyclical change as dependent upon human actions. However, says Thapar, this
'perception of change and the need to come to terms with it were not seen as synonymous with a radical ideology in favour of total change ... [involving] a complete reorganisation of the social structure. To that degree, Buddhism in its historical role touched the chords of protest but went no further. This was perhaps, because the groups for which it was projecting a new ideology ceased to be the protesters at a certain historical point and became the heirs.14
Buddhism in essence remained a conservative ideology with emphasis on the ethics of reconciliation.
The social change resulting from the new economic system based on agrarian society with private group ownership of land and growing urban centres to meet the needs of commerce, inevitably led to hierarchical social stratification. This in turn gave rise to the concept of charity. Shastri states:
Earlier when there was common ownership of property by the tribe, dana was a protection as of right, against starvation, for the sick, the aged, the maimed and the weak, who had the first claim on social property. But when private property and class rule came across (during the late Vedic period and after), Dana was converted from an instrument of social insurance to a privilege of the ruling class ... dana became now a voluntary virtue and charity of the kings and kshatriyas. It also lost the character of an equal and general distribution.15
Thapar states that giving gifts in the form of dana and daksina seems to have been limited to priests and Brahmins. It was initially arbitrary, as it was given by the tribal chief/king or hero to celebrate an event, 'generally a successful battle or cattle raid or victory over the enemy. The gift [was] made therefore not so much in the spirit of charity but as symbolic of success and as an investment towards further success on future occasions.'16 The items given as part of dana were initially (i.e. early Vedic period) cattle, female slaves, and infrequently male slaves and also grain. In the later Vedic period, in addition to these items, land and gold coins also became items of gift. The purpose of gift-giving was said to be threefold: as a magico-religious function of propitiating the supernatural; a mutual conferring of status; and as a means of exchanging and redistributing economic wealth.17
Thapar believes that in the earlier periods when the whole tribe participated in the yajna, 'some of the wealth may have been redistributed among a wider group'.18 In the later Vedic period, gift-giving became less arbitrary and it was increasingly institutionalised. Gifts were given by the king on specific occasions such as the aswamedha yajna. During the Buddhist period, the donors included not only the king but also the grhastha (the householder) or the gahapati who could be a trader or a landowning khattiya. The occasions for gifting were also more in number because the life-cycle ceremonies such as the thread-ceremony, and marriage and death ceremonies were added to the religious ceremonies by the king. The king as well as householders of the other two dwija (twice-born) castes performed these ceremonies. Dana was also stressed as the duty of the householder.
Gradually, by the time of the later Vedic period, dana not only became institutionalised but it also acquired the characteristics of charity with religious ideology as a sanction behind it. By giving dana, one acquired punya (merit). 'It was no longer given merely in celebration of an event or a heroic personality or in connection with a ceremony.'19 It became part of 'the ethical aspect of performing an action such as giving a gift'. The notion of exchange remained central, but in return for tangible wealth the donor acquired merit.20 The institutionalisation of charity and its ideological basis in the acquisition of merit, whether in this life or in the next, became firmly established during the Buddhist period. The gift-exchange in an earlier, tribal context might have met the needs of the lower castes whose share in the production of wealth would have been meagre. Later, as dana got converted into charity, it ceased to play any significant role as a social mechanism for redistribution of wealth, because, both dana and daksina became increasingly a process of exchange between the better-off sections of society.
Guilds were important corporate organisations which per- formed a variety of economic and welfare functions in ancient India. The dim beginnings of the guilds can be traced to the Rgvedic period. By the time of the seventh century B.C., and especialIy during the Buddhist period and after, they played a dominant role in the economic sphere of society. Sreni dharma (usages of the guilds) gradually acquired the force of law and a guild was recognised 'as a definite part of state fabric'. The guilds derived their income from a variety of sources. The main sources of their income, however, were the contributions of individual members, the gifts of the king, the profits earned by the corporate undertakings of the individual members and the income by the levying of octroi and other duties. In South India, guilds owned lands. The income from these, and the taxes levied on professional groups were important sources of revenue for them.
Apart from performing a variety of political and economic functions for the benefit of their members, the guilds seemed to have provided them some form of social security. According to Tirumalachar, 'some part of the funds was utilised for the relief of deserving persons such as the distressed, the diseased, the blind, the idiotic, the infirm, the orphans and helpless women'.21
The transition of the scattered population of ancient India from small tribal peasant communities to an agrarian society was followed by two parallel developments. One was the emergence of heterodox sects with their new moral religious ideologies. The more prominent of these were led by Buddha and Mahavira. The other development was the evolution of a new type of large polity in the form of the early Kosala and Magadha states. More important of the two was the Magadha empire under the Mauryas.
A major work of this period is Kautilya's arthasastra, which is a compilation of the strategies and practices of statecraft followed by the kings. It also provides some glimpses of the social conditions of the period. Among the duties of the king is mentioned the objective of the welfare of his subjects: 'In the happiness of his subjects lies his happiness; in their welfare his welfare; whatever pleases himself he shall not consider as good, but whatever pleases his subjects he shall consider as good'.22 At the same time, it is also stated that the king should personally attend to those waiting with petitions at his door in a specific order of priority. The last group mentioned includes, minors, the aged, the afflicted, the helpless and women.23 It was the duty of the king to provide them with maintenance.24 He was also to provide subsistence to helpless women when they were expecting and later, to the children they gave birth to.25 These statements of the duties and responsibilities of the king have been interpreted by some writers to mean that the Mauryan state was an ideal welfare state.26 But a careful reading of the entire arthasastra, and the context in which the welfare duties of the king are mentioned would not support such an interpretation. The emphasis throughout is on the security and the strength of the king. Elsewhere, for example, it is stated that among the various possible distresses which could occur, the distress of the king is the most serious because 'the king is, as it were, the aggregate of the people'.27 Since poverty and misery could lead to disaffection among the people and so undermine the security of the kingdom, the king was strongly advised to take preventive measures against these.28 It is in this perspective that the various welfare duties of the king should be seen.
As already mentioned, Mauryan society was based on a pros- pering agricultural economy and a growing urbanisation. The king owned a very large portion of cultivable land which was directly administered by the superintendent of agriculture. A variety of positive and negative measures were taken to promote cultivation of waste land, colonise forests, establish new villages and generally ensure agricultural prosperity. The king's treasury was to always remain full. This was a matter of great priority. The state was very actively engaged in industries and trade including the manufacture and sale of liquor, and the employment of prostitutes. There was a superintendent to regulate prostitution, which was so widely practised that it was a source of revenue.29
The society was rigidly stratified both economically and according to the varnashrama dharma. The Vaisyas were the main producing class, both in agriculture and trade. They were assisted by the Sudras, the hired labourers (karmakaras), forced labourers (vishtis), and slaves (dasas). They were paid very poor wages, especially the latter two, who received only the broken grain as wages in kind. The economic condition of these people, whether they worked for the king or for private employers, was pitiable.
The general population had few rights. Their duties were not only specified in great detail for all aspects of their lives, but also strictly enforced. A close watch was kept on them through a comprehensive and efficient system of espionage. There was a huge bureaucracy running the highly centralised system of administration, which was supported by a large professional army. There was little freedom for the people. The Mauryan state was truly an Orwellian nightmare.
The status of the women was, however, somewhat better in comparison to the later periods. They enjoyed limited property rights. They could obtain a divorce in certain circumstances. Widow marriage was not only permitted, it was encouraged. It was also possible for a woman to have children without marriage. On the whole, 'the position of women in the society was not edifying. A woman was mere property of another and was a mere leather bag (for holding the seed). She was conceived as a child-bearing machine.’30 The emphasis was on procreation to serve the interests of the state.
The state strongly discouraged asceticism, which was becoming very popular following the Buddhist influence. None could be an ascetic without making provision for his dependents. Widows and crippled women, and destitutes who could no longer continue their traditional work as prostitutes or temple slaves were to be employed in the state weaving departments by the superintendent of weaving.31 Employment was also provided to the agriculturists through public works such as the building or repairing of forts and watertanks. People working in such projects were supplied with food. During natural emergencies like floods and famines, the king distributed food and grains to the needy. The king was to keep half the grain collected freely from the people as an insurance fund against famines and take permanent measures to prevent famines.32 If all these measures failed to take care of poverty, only then, the state provided maintenance to the poor and the needy, perhaps, in charitable institutions.33 Managers of these charitable institutions were accountable to the village officer (gopa) or city officials (nagaraka or sthanika). They were to make detailed reports to their superiors to ensure that there were no spies recruited from among the inmates of these institutions. It is in this total perspective that the objective, role and character of social welfare needs to be viewed. Sinha's position that it was a welfare state with positive concern for the people who were treated by the king as his children is to put a gloss on the unedifying nature of the system.34 Kosambi may be too harsh but nearer the truth when he says that 'this type of protection was nearer to the care of the master for his cattle than of a father for his children’.35
The state during this period was governed by a political philosophy which did not accept any ethical principle as a guide to the king's actions. What mattered most was the survival of the kingdom and the increasing strength of the ruler. To that end all means could be, and were, used. The welfare of subjects was not the main aim of the king, though the arthasastra stresses the duties of the king, which includes the welfare of certain categories of people.
SOCIAL WELFARE DURING ASHOKA'S REIGN
The reign of Ashoka during the third century B.C. is frequently referred to as the golden age of ancient Indian history. By all accounts he was a great king imbued with a high sense of idealism and humanism. He initiated several humanitarian and administrative measures which contributed greatly to the welfare of the masses. 'He appears to many people in many guises, a conqueror who forsook conquest when he saw the suffering it caused, a saint, a combination of monk and monarch-and so the images can be multiplied.’36 In one of these multiplied images, he also appears as a social worker.37 In the historical social structural approach we have adopted, we should look at Ashoka's role and achievements in the context of the social conditions of his time.
The Mauryan empire, founded by Chandragupta, reached its peak during the reign of his grandson Ashoka, whether in terms of the territory it acquired, the state of the economy, or the comprehensive administrative system it developed. 'The earlier nomadic pastoral economy with occasional trade and agriculture was already transformed into an agricultural economy with increasing possibilities for commerical interests.’38 It was an expanding economy with considerable urbanisation, and a high level of production and commerce that led to great economic prosperity. There was also a wide variety of taxes including taxes on actors and prostitutes. Considering the evolution by then of a fairly solid caste system with its heirarchical arrangement, it is not far-fetched to conceive of an unequal distribution of social resources, resulting in the concentration of wealth in the mercantile class and the landowning warrior class. Expenditure on numerous public works, financed out of the tax-collected state revenue, apart from providing employment to a large number of poor people, might have resulted in social equity by its redistributive effect.
Politically, the Ashokan empire, like that of its Magadhan predecessors, was a highly centralised state where the ultimate source of all authority lay with the emperor. There was no separation of the judicial and executive functions of the government. There was a comprehensive and well-organised public administration system which reached out to all parts of the empire, including the most remote border areas as well as the rural interior. This administration was run by a huge bureaucracy whose higher officials were selected personally by the emperor and who themselves selected their subordinates. It was a highly efficient administration. But, unlike the earlier Magadhan empires, it was not ruthless and it was tempered with a pervasive philosophy of humanism propagated by the king through the doctrine of dhamma. A novel and welcome feature of Ashoka's public administration was that it reached out to wherever the people were rather than made them travel long distances to transact official business. This was achieved by the periodical tours of officials. The emperor himself set the example by his frequent tours during which he met the people to hear their grievances and visited elderly people to pay his respects.
The emperor and the administration were certainly sensitive and responsive to people's needs. But the administration remained centralised. Unlike as in the earlier tribal councils, the people had no representation. There were checks on the overbearing behaviour of officials by the emperor's instructions and guidelines which were publicised throughout the state by royal stone edicts and oral proclamations. Though himself a convert to Buddhism, Ashoka did not make it a state religion. While he encouraged the propagation of Buddhism, he also permitted other religious practices including Brahmanism.
A wide range of social welfare activities were organised and implemented by the state under Ashoka. This included women's welfare, for which he appointed a special group of mahamattas, known as ithijhaka mahamattas (Superintendents of Women). They were also to supervise the work of the ganikadhyakashas or Superintendents of Prostitutes. During the fourteenth year of his reign, he created another special cadre of officers, dhamma-mahamattas or High Commissioners of Charity. Their functions included the recording of charitable donations by the royal family and the regulation of charity.
The commissioners of equity were ordered specially to look after the welfare of prisoners. Many convicts, then having been kept in fetters after the sentence had expired, were to be released. Others in jails had helpless dependents, whom the new commissioners were charged with helping out; prisoners sentenced to death were allowed three days of grace to settle their affairs, but there was no question of abolishing capital punishment.39
The welfare activities of the king seem to have been administratively well coordinated under the overall charge of the highly placed dhamma-mahamattas. In other words, we can conceive of these social welfare officers as the counterparts of the modern state directors of welfare, women's welfare and commissioners of charity, but with one major difference. Social welfare today in India occupies a low status in the governmental administrative system. In Ashoka's administration it seemed to have received a very high recognition and status. The dhamma-mahamattas were probably the most influential among the king's officers. Referring to their status, Thapar observes: 'Originally their work was largely that of welfare, but gradually their power increased until they could interfere in the working of various religious sects and secular institutions. The king became increasingly dependent upon them'.40
Ashoka had the judiciousness and the clarity of mind to view the priorities, tasks and problems of the state in proper perspective. He recognised that agriculture was the backbone of his economy and so he gave high priority to rural development. A special cadre of officers, known as rajukas were appointed as the junior officers at the grass-roots level working under the overall supervision of pradesikas, who were perhaps like our district collectors or deputy commissioners. Work of the rajukas included revenue collection and of course, the teaching of dhamma. Towards the end of his life, during the twenty-seventh year of his rule, some decentralisation was introduced by Ashoka when he delegated some of his powers to the rajukas in certain judicial matters. They were empowered to give rewards and punishments to the people during the course of their work.
Ashoka's approach to the welfare of his subjects was based on paternalistic humanism. To him all his subjects were his children (savve manusse paja mama). He developed a very comprehensive system of social welfare which included women's welfare, rehabilitation of prisoners, rural development, free medical care, regulation of prostitution and provision of public utilities like roads, rest houses for travellers, wells, etc. The creation of separate cadres of state officials to implement these programmes is an accomplishment that compares very favourably with the social welfare system of some of the modern social democracies of Europe. The Ashokan state was truly an early proto-type of the modern welfare state, to be found only among the most developed and affluent nations in the present century. It is very tempting, particulary to the Indian social workers today to be very nostalagic about this golden era of social welfare. But we need to look at this achievement in the context of the social structure and the problems of the state during Ashoka's rule.
The underlying ideology of the Ashokan state and especially of its social welfare, was the doctrine of dhamma. The idea of dhamma as developed and propounded by Ashoka is difficult to convey in English. It can be translated as virtue or the principle of equity.41 Both these ideas express, perhaps, an aspect of dhamma. Why did Ashoka make dhamma, to use a current phrase, the directive principle of his state policy and more importantly of social welfare? Why did he place such a great emphasis on dhamma and social welfare?
The major part of his 5th Rock edict is devoted to the theme of social welfare. Thapar is of the opinion that dhamma is an invention of Ashoka. The idea might have been present in Buddhism and Brahmanism. Perhaps he deliberately chose what was until then a relatively minor religious idea in both the religions, to make it his main ideology, and thus tried to weld together the disparate elements in his population, divided into a variety of sub-groups such as Brahmans and Buddhists, tribal, agricultural, and urban populations, the vast bureaucracy and the people, and the recently conquered subjects of border areas like the Kalingas, who were yet to consider themselves as subjects of the new state.
In a state so vast in its territory (never before in Indian history had there been a kingdom of that size) and social diversity (ranging from the tribal population of border areas to the highly urbanised population of the Magadha province) it is only to be expected that there would be considerable tensions and conflicts. Something had to be done to unify and integrate such diverse elements if the Ashokan state was to survive as a single entity. Dhamma as an ideology and social welfare as a practical instrument of social policy seemed to be the solutions to this problem.42 The other alternative was the continuation of the authoritarian oppressive rule of the previous kings, with a greater degree of ruthlessness which could have led to tragic consequences.
This is not as far-fetched an interpretation as might appear at first glance. The state and society under Ashoka were similar in many respects to modern developed nations. A prospering economy leading to the generation of surplus social wealth; a high rate of taxation to skim off some of this surplus wealth from the classes where it tended to concentrate; acceptance of a comprehensive scheme of social welfare meant for all the people (and in particular for the poorer sections of the society), and using it as a means of social integration and social control; a sprawling bureaucracy particularly for the administration of welfare; and a liberal political-social ideology; these are the major similarities between these two types of societies, separated in time by about 2000 years. But there are significant differences also. While the modern welfare states are highly developed industrial, urban societies of a relatively small size, the Ashokan state was a big territory still in the process of unification as a state, with a well developed agrarian economy, but without the advantage of the ideology of nationalism and national conciousness among the people. Ashoka was attempting the reconciliation of the classes with his philosophy of non-violence and Dhamma, as Gandhi was to do several centuries later.43 It is not without significance that independent India chose the ashoka chakra as the national emblem.
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