The Indian Journal of Social Work, Vol. XIX, No. 3 (December 1958). A S...
The Indian Journal of Social Work, Vol. XIX, No. 3 (December 1958).
A S O K A ' S C O N C E P T O F S O C I A L W E L F A R E
SUGATA D A S G U P T A
In the following paper, the author throws light on Asoka's approach to Social Welfare
and points out that he was more concerned with Dharma than with the acquisition of material
benefits. It was he who first lit the torch of social services, and to him we turn as the pioneer
thinker who first conceived and implemented a total, all-embracing purposeful plan for social
welfare administration.
Mr. Dasgupta is Director of the Visva-Bharati Social Education Organisers' Training
Centre, Sriniketan, and Reader in Social Work.
Philosophers have estimated t h a t the life continuity over the ages. T h e tide rose and
of an average I n d i a n citizen was very widely fell according to the humours of the kings.
influenced in the earlier stage of our history
History provides unreliable data and
by the impact of ritualistic religion. Philo-
scrappy materials with whose help one can
sophy a n d religion had thus in the beginning hardly venture to write the full story of the
of our history moulded and shaped all aspects social welfare activities which generations of
of life of our people throughout this large rulers had undertaken in ancient India.
subcontinent. Religion in India h a d persist-
Asoka's, rock and pillar edicts, however,
:ently stressed on the duties of mankind provide plentiful sources of supply of data
towards each other. In the m a i n H i n d u regarding the welfare work done by an out-
scriptures one thus finds scattered all over, standing emperor of this country. Yet, by
the innumerable duties of a king towards his his own admission, Asoka was not the first
subjects and of his subjects towards their king to take to these activities. "I have also
ruler, of a father towards his children and done," said Asoka in one of his rock decla-
of the children towards their father. Religion rations, "what my predecessors had done."
specially demanded of each person, on whom
some others depended for social existence,
Asoka's Aim.—Devanam Piya Priyadarshi
heavy taxes in terms of undertaking social Raja, the beloved of the God and the prince
responsibilities.
charming king Asoka, left in his 14 rock edicts
and seven main pillar edicts, a review of the
T h e ancient I n d i a n kings h a d therefore main reforms he had initiated for the welfare
taken from time to time to religious act or of his subjects. If the aim of social work today
to work of Dharma which in effect amounted is to help others to help themselves—Asoka's
to creation of services for social good and aim was to uplift mankind with the growth
public welfare through state activities. F r o m of Dharma.
time to time great kings and compassionate
rulers had thus built roads, provided rest
Asoka followed two vital methods for orga-
houses and offered alms mainly as work of nisation of his welfare services. O n e was
dutiful charity in order to fulfil one's own offering wide instructions and proclamation
obligations of kingship. Although the subjects through direct preaching by his men as well as
were the beneficiaries, in all these social through the cold prints of edicts so that people
welfare activities the people had little or no themselves did good to each other; secondly,
role to play in leading or directing these he depended on promotion of welfare
activities. It was for this reason once again projects by public welfare activities through
t h a t social services did not maintain their the agency of the state itself. Asoka's whole

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SUGATA D A S G U P T A
administrative machinery was thus mobilised Cultivation of medicinal herbs was en-
for offering welfare to his afflicted citizens couraged and grant free award of land were
through these two methods. In his immortal m a d e to the hospitals to ensure steady supply
sermons which he wrote on the stones and of cheap medicines. Asoka also imported
rocks he annotated the principles for which medical plants from other neighbouring
his administrative system was carved out. He countries, whenever such plants were found
said, "My Purushas have been set over many beneficial for his ailing subjects. His medical
people so that they will preach and disseminate
officers who headed these hospitals were
informations, and Rajukas have been set over known as "Sthabiraputtas" and were very
many hundred thousands of people. They too possibly awarded with rent free lands for their
have been ordered to preach."
maintenance.
T h e two techniques of his organisation,
He planted Banian trees and grew Mango
edicts, sermons and direct activities by the orchards. He dug wells at every eight kroshos
state were used by this powerful emperor to on the travellers' path and built rest houses.
enlist popular participation in the way of life He built sheds with supply of drinking water
which he recommended for his people and at different places. All these comforts, the
which he felt was pledged to lead them, his shady trees, the rest houses and drinking water,
subjects, to the precious goal of Dharma. were provided for the benefit not only of
These two techniques could be successfully h u m a n beings but also for the welfare of
compared with the recent techniques of social animals.
education and rural welfare adopted by any
Human Relations.—The improvement of
progressive government.
h u m a n relations in family groups and among
There were, however, several vital diffe-
neighbourhood communities attracted the
rences in Asoka's approach to Social Welfare emperor's special attention. Asoka showered
from that of the ours followed by a modern direct praise and royal patronage on those who
state which seeks to develop into a welfare took to such actions as he recommended for
society. First whatever little factual record we this specific purpose. "Meritorious is harkening
might have regarding the character of this to mother and father, meritorious is liberality
development work, one thing is evident that as
to friends and acquaintances to relatives and
the modern social scientists demand there was slaves, Brahamans and Sramans, meritorious
no conscious attempt to link social work with is good behaviour with servants." This way
productive venture or to throw the onus of its Asoka pleaded with his subjects for offering
organisation on the people themselves. There personal respect to each other so that neither
was yet another important difference. Asoka's the family nor the unit of life in a neighbour-
edicts and sermons called upon men to take to hood could disintegrate through disharmony
good work, that is the creation of welfare and maladjustment. To ensure emotional and
services for each other, solely for the attain-
social security for the old, Asoka particularly
ment of Dharma, rather than for the stressed the importance of giving due re-
acquisition of material benefits. His adminis-
cognition to the old parents. In order to
trative system, however, m a d e significant maintain sound relations on the farm, Asoka
contribution towards the promotion of called for good behaviour to servants and
material welfare as well by the introduction of
slaves.
a series of state managed welfare projects.
Asoka took great care to ensure that his
Asoka similarly built hospitals, with each individual subject could lead a pros-
qualified doctors, for both men and cattle. perous life through frugal living. He

A S O K A ' S C O N C E P T O F SOCIAL W E L F A R E
1 9 9
encouraged the householders to plan family
Message of Duty and Service.—Asoka
budgets by making an elaborate campaign for desired that his message of duty and service
promotion of thrift. "Meritorious," he said, should reach all parts of his large empire and
"is abstention from slaughter, meritorious is be well implemented. He consequently set up a
small expenditure and small savings." Small large parapharnalia of administration dipped
savings do not lead to inequity, yet help to in religious flavour for the purpose of social
build a reserve for every village home. Aimless service administration. His Dharmamaha-
expenditure in reckless abandon, has for the matras, appointed on the thirteenth year of his
last two hundred years disorganised our rural reign, toured the various parts of his kingdom
homes and Asoka as the leader of the men of
in order to detect cases of arbitrary imprison-
his realm called upon all the Grihapatis or ment and unnecessary harassment in the
family heads to economise their expenditure districts. This they did over and above their
and build for a sound and adjusted family life normal duty which was to help the king in his
in each home.
task of securing both—material and spiritual
happiness for all his subjects who were no less
He also pleaded for a prohibition of cattle than his own children. His Dharmamaha-
slaughter, particularly that of the milch cattle matras were to look to the welfare and
and warned that animal health could not be happiness of the Grihapatis (householders) if
improved by merely providing hospitals for they have been reduced to abject poverty.
the cattle. Consequently, the emperor They were to give special attention to the
instructed his officers to import wholesome helpless and the aged, to the infirm, the
breed of animals even from beyond the high afflicted and the orphans. Rajukas, another
seas and encouraged castration of cattle class of officers who were appointed in the
for ensuring development of animal wealth 20th year of his reign were charged to offer
which was then and which still remains to be reward a n d punishment to his officers and
the chief wealth of rural India..
others so that all could perform their duties
with confidence a n d without fear. Rajukas
In order to ensure that all religious were directed to make themselves acquainted
communities in India would live in peace, with what gave happiness or pain to the
Asoka pleaded for good behaviour and show people of the provinces so that Asoka's
of respect towards the Brahman although the administration could offer them the required
emperor's first love was Buddhism. Asoka service. Asoka's officers were charged not with
always believed in setting up personal the rigors of a heartless administration but for
examples before he wanted his subjects to ensuring justice where it was at naught, and
follow a particular path. While he pleaded to soften it with piety were it hit the subjects
with his subjects that they should have happy severely. Asoka's emphasis on offering material
personal relation with each other he thus comforts to commoners by the organisation of
himself endeavoured to have the best personal
such highly developed social services u n d e r
relation with his men. In his administrative the aegis of the state, which ensured care of
system he made room for direct and immediate
the handicapped section of the population
contact with all his subjects. "Whether I am made him easily the first monarch to have
in dining room, or in a female chamber, found an empire based on principles of social
whether I am, in the inner appartment or on welfare.
horse back, reporters could bring to my notice
at any hour dispute or any inconvenience of
Asoka's officers not only cared after the
people."
handicapped but the king also directed the

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SUGATA D A S G U P T A
women folk for not wasting their energy on His design for curative services for men and
m u c h useless religious rites but prescribed animals, his programme of planting of useful
certain forms of religious ceremony which trees w e r e followed by many other neighbour-
combined material welfare with spiritual. ing states and historians claim that the same
well-being as their product.
were followed even in Greece.
Asoka arranged for offering irrigational
T h e total emphasis of Asoka's reign was to
facilities and comforts for cattle and men in relieve his subjects of the strains and stresses
the rural areas. He set up a royal dairy and of day to day life with which we find ourselves
appointed a class of officers for cattle rearing. handicapped today. T h e ryot is rack rented in
Different castes were assigned different flocks modern India. There are no medical services
of cattle who h a d settled on various grades of
worth the n a m e to attend to him, his cattle are
graze land called praja bhumis. Asoka made rickety, lifeless and of poor stock, his children
attempts to reform the Penal Code in favour are uncared for. T h e farmer's family budget is
of his subjects.
tragically upset today by wasteful extra-
vagance of non-productive items. There is
Hoarding of Wealth.—Asoka stigmatised woeful absence of any savings for a rainy
hoarding of wealth and deplored inequality of
day. His old parents are lingering on like
possessions in as much as he used to exhaust unwanted drags on the society! Continuous
his royal treasury every year by giving away strifes and litigations resulting from dis-
all his wealth to the poor, the needy and the harmony, distrust and disrespect for each
meritorious. He set personal example in other are eating into the vitals of our
order to impress upon his rich subjects to give
nation. T h e beloved of the God and of the
away their excess wealth to the poorer men, the prince charming, K i n g Asoka cared
members of the society. Asoka observed strict for each one of these discomforts and had
austerity in his own home and kitchen before offered substantial redress.
demanding that such austerity should be the
In his reign the tenant paid only one-sixth
order of the day for every home in the country.
of his produce as rent to the state, and in cases
This austerity at royal household, this removal where special considerations were necessary
of all his surplus wealth every year created an Asoka reduced the rent to one-eighth only.
atmosphere in the whole kingdom where the
central mode of life would become service a n d
Asoka's social services did not desert even
not exploitation. Asoka took special care in a criminal who had transgressed the rule of
selecting his officers who would supervise the law. He allowed leave to prisoners on parole
working of the various laws and agencies if their distressing family conditions required
spread in far-flung villages to generate services their presence at home, from time to time.
for the good of the people. He ensured that His Dharmamahamatras inspected prisons in
his officers were beyond corruption and petty order to make money grants to the prisoners
jealousies and had set up high standards of if some of them were encumbered with large
their conduct and life. Asoka set out such families or even to release them if they were
officers and spread the softening influence of too poor. Asoka provided for three days of
his administration of Dharma, by which he relief to the prisoners, on whom death
meant organisation of services for material sentences were passed, not as clemency or
welfare and spiritual well-being, not only in mercy but as something which was "rightful
all parts of his state but also outside his and extremely their own." These were the
frontiers and into the realms of other kings. days when the convicts could lead a better

A S O K A ' S C O N C E P T O F SOCIAL W E L F A R E
2 0 1
material and spiritual life by fasting, meeting may endure for a long time and that " M y
their relations, meditating and giving away sons, grandsons and great grandsons may
alms in order that they could leave this world similarly follow me for the welfare of the
with understanding and enter the new one whole world."
with confidence.
In our estimate of Asoka as a social worker
we shall therefore make a major historical
His Achievements.—These two cardinal blunder if we merely look upon him as a
principles of recognition of the rights of the social worker-king who reorganised the rural
individual to the services of the state and of community life in India in his reign. Truly
equality of treatment in the eyes of law and an international humanitarian and social
specially the latter which the caste system of philosopher of outstanding calibre, Asoka had
H i n d u I n d i a had previously and the Muslim lit the torch of social services in a world which
rulers had succeedingly denied to the average he had just restored and which immediately
citizen of this country are the two greatest, after him lapsed into the maddening orgies
achievements of Asoka as a paramount social of violence, savagery and early exploitation.
worker of long ago.
T h u s , although even before him the Indian
Asoka saw that piecemeal help and services kings h a d taken to welfare work among the
to a particular group of people at a particular
masses, to him shall we turn as the pioneer
time could not benefit mankind at large. He thinker in this realm and as one who was the
therefore not only wanted that his services first to conceive a n d implement a total, all
should spread beyond his dominions and into embracing purposeful plan for social welfare
the realms of others but wished that the same administration.