Ashoka’s Edicts: The Indian Roots of Human Rights

Ashoka's Edicts & The UDHR

Ashoka the Great (304-232 BC), the 3rd emperor of the Mauryan empire ruled over a territory that stretched from the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan beyond Bangladesh as far as to the Bay of Bengal. In the early years of his reign Ashoka was very eager to expand his empire even further. In 262 BC he waged a bloody war against the kingdom of Kalinga and eventually conquered it. The aftermath of his conquest was horrifying: 100.000 dead civilians, 10.000 of his own soldiers dead and many more injured. Ashoka, having led the invasion himself, saw all that his war had destroyed and, being horrified of his own making, eventually vowed himself to the Buddhist principles of peace and non-violence. However, instead of just privately living according to these standards, he shifted the entire mindset he led his empire with. He started to focus his efforts mainly on welfare, non-violence, fair treatment and law as well as spreading Buddhism. All his rules and policies were eventually inscribed into several pillars throughout his whole empire. These are now known as Ashoka’s edicts. They were one of the first documents in history trying to the list the fundamental rights of all humans, which, throughout the years has evolved into a similar document created by the UN, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). His edicts still bear a huge influence up to today, including the display of the silhouette of one of the pillars in the center of the Indian flag.

Although Ashoka created his edicts about 2200 years before the United Nations passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the fundamental thoughts behind both documents are very similar. First of all, both promote the equality of all humans. Article 1 of the UDHR states, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Additionally, both stand for an equal treatment before the law for all citizens. Ashoka states in his edicts, “It is my desire that there should be uniformity in law and uniformity in sentencing.” His edicts also promote fair treatment of all mankind, including “proper behavior towards servants and employees.” This aligns with Article 5 of the UDHR: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Furthermore, they both support the principles of freedom, including, but not limited to, freedom of religion and thought.

Nevertheless, there are also some differences, most of them caused by a few simple but very significant, dissimilarities between the creators of both documents. First of all, Ashoka, however great of a person he might have been, was still an Emperor and therefore his prior goal was for his empire to succeed and live on. This led to several exclusions and variations of his self-declared rules. Although his edicts highly promoted other freedoms, no democracy or any other form of government that could replace his monarchy is ever mentioned in his edicts. The UDHR, however clearly favors democracy, as stated in Article 21: “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.” Additionally, since a great part of the economy of his empire was based on slavery, he wasn’t able to abandon it, while the UDHR completely forbids any kind of slavery: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” At least, as mentioned earlier, Ashoka still promoted the fair treatment of all slaves and servants. Another difference caused by his imperial nature, is the way his edicts are written and applied. Ashoka’s edicts implement specifics, such as the planting of trees, “Along roads I have had wells dug and trees planted for the benefit of humans and animals.” This occurs due to the fact that his prior goal was still to improve the welfare of his empire. The UDHR, however, was drafted by an UN committee with representatives of 56 countries. This led to a quiet general and neutral resolution without implementing specific policies. Furthermore, the UN represents several religions and ideologies, while Ashoka was a very spiritual Buddhist. This also led to some minor differences. For instance, Ashoka’s edicts include the rights of animal, while the UNDHR is solitary stating the rights of humans. Ashoka also declares, “all religions should reside everywhere.”  Although both the UNDHR and the edicts promote religious freedom, the latter clearly favours Buddhism.

Although Ashoka created his edicts about 2200 years before the United Nations passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the fundamental thoughts behind both documents are very similar. However, there are also some major differences as a result of Ashoka’s devotion to Buddhism as well as his obligations as an emperor.

Works Cited

“Ashoka (emperor of India).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2013. <;.

Dhammika, Ven. S. “KING ASHOKA: His Edicts and His Times.” KING ASHOKA: His Edicts and His Times. Buddhist Publication Society, n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2013. <;.

“Interpreting Ashoka’s Edicts.” ASFMS Social Studies, n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2013. .

Szczepanski, Kallie. “Biography of Ashoka the Great.” Asian History. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2013. <;.

“United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights Summary: Youth For Human Rights Video.” Youth for Human Rights. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2013. <;.

“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UDHR, Declaration of Human Rights, Human Rights Declaration, Human Rights Charter, The Un and Human Rights.” UN News Center. UN, n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2013. <;.

“Who Was Emperor Ashoka?” Teach India Project, n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2013. <;.


-Paul Hendrik Schmidt-Engelbertz


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