How are the religious policies of King Asoka and Akbar relevant to today’s Secular India?

Posted by Praagya Singh
May 31, 2017



“There have been many empires of Swords in this world but India is the only country which created an empire of spirits”    — BBC



When James Princep, an East India Officer successfully decoded the Brahmi Script in 1837 and eventually discovered the Asoka Inscriptions, the wider world came to know about one of the most prominent rulers of the Mauryan Dynasty which ruled northern India in the 3rd century BCE. Asoka, the grandson of the legendary Chandra Gupta Mauryan, has a credible claim to being one of the greatest emperors in Antiquity. His empire extended from Afghanistan to east Bangladesh, covering most of the Indian subcontinent except for the most southern parts. Perhaps even more significantly, Asoka ushered in new forms of governance and administration that made the Mauryan Empire a model of social and religious tolerance.

Over 1500 years later, another ruler of the Indian subcontinent also sought to anchor his empire around the principle of religious tolerance.  The Mughal emperor Abu’l Fath ud-din Muhammad Akbar governed his religiously and culturally diverse empire in an enlightened way, banning some religious practices and encouraging others, but always with an eye towards ensuring that all citizens felt their rights were being respected.

India today could greatly benefit from a return to the principle of religious tolerance that both

Asoka and Akbar in their different ways emphasized. India needs a Religiously tolerant society for living in peace and harmony but the growing tensions among different ethnic societies is becoming another challenge for India’s unity.


Asoka: The First Ruler to Promote Religious Tolerance in India

Some of the best archeological evidence about the history of Mauryan Empire can be found in the Asokan inscriptions. These consist of public pronouncements and edicts etched into large rocks and manmade pillars.  All told, 14 major rock edicts and 6 pillar edicts remain, providing lasting evidence not only about the socio-economic conditions prevalent in Asokan times, but also of Asoka’s dhamma—his philosophic and moral view of the world.  It is from these inscriptions that historians can get a sense of how Asoka accommodated different religions in his empire without partiality.

In the 3rd century BCE, there was no shortage of religious diversity in India. The vedic Hinduism had by that time formed into strong mores of behavior and caste, but Buddhism and Jainism had begun to spread their roots along with the atheism of the Ajivika sect. The caste system of vedic Hinduism gave a way to higher caste people to oppress lower caste people which led lower caste people to leave Hinduism and follow either Buddhism or Jainism. Religious intolerance was not uncommon, particularly if it served the interests of the ruling regime.

Asoka strenuously endeavored to establish a tolerant, rational, and humanistic social order among his subjects in a visionary spirit which had previously been unthinkable and has rarely been matched since. According to the rock edicts, the most important event or the turning point of his life was the Kalinga war and this is given out by Asoka himself in the 13th rock edict. During this battle, he lays stress on the injury of beloved ones and thousands of people died. Asoka realized that he won the war but he didn’t win people’s affection, trust and love but he was accountable for death of thousands of people. He started his journey to know himself and humankind. He devoted himself in what he understood Dhamma. Asoka explained  “What is Dhamma?”, in his 2nd Pillar edict, ‘It is having few faults and many good deeds, mercy, truthfulness and purity.” According to Asoka’s understanding, religion is not about rigid modes of behavior and rituals or unnecessary debates about comparative benefits but about observation of basic human values and fraternity and kindness among all individuals irrespective of their caste, creed or religion. In the practice of Dhamma, Asoka actually emphasizes on the observation of certain conducts. Among these code of conducts, the observation of non-violence is clearly mentioned in his pillar edicts. Asoka was attempting to reform the narrow attitude of religious teachings, to protect the weak against the strong, and to promote throughout the empire a conscious of social behavior so broad in its scope that no culture could object it. In edicts Asoka appealed to his subjects to observe Dharma or religious morality through good behavior towards each other and being generous to the poor and the dependents, care for parents, teachers, friends and colleagues and abstinence from killing living beings.

Some historians believe that Asoka had already espoused the religion of Buddhism and thus was a Buddhist and was propagating Buddhism but other sect of historians argue that in his Inscriptions there are no mentions of Buddha and his Dhamma cannot be compared to Buddhism. According to historian J.J Fleet, the purpose of Asokan edicts was not to propagate any specific religion, but it was an attempt to govern the entire kingdom in accordance with duty of pious king. Dhamma therefore appears to have consisted of proclaiming a set of virtues and avoiding number of vices. In most of edicts Asoka urged his subjects to be obedient to their parents, respect everyone irrespective of caste and creed and to be kind with everyone. Asoka urged to show equal respect to each other. It is evident that Asoka gives no prominence for male members of civil society, therefore we can interpret this purpose of Asoka as his belief in equality for everyone and to discourage the prevailing patriarchal system of the society. Asoka mentions that he is not asking for something that is new but values which are enshrined in ancient traditions and teachings of gurus(masters). Asoka further encouraged Dhamma in his empire by appointing civil servants who will encourage people to observe he essential good in all religions. By Dhamma, Asoka meant social, ethical and humane behavior by people towards each other, and welfare and development for all irrespective of personal or religious beliefs. In the entire recorded history of mankind, it is difficult to find imperial power head showing such care and concern for the material and moral upliftment of his subjects.


Akbar: Quester after the Divine, Emperor for All

In the 14th century, the Mughal emperor Abu’l Fath ud-din Muhammad Akbar also presided over a vast empire across the Indian subcontinent and also made religious tolerance a cornerstone of his state policies.  Akbar’s empire stretched from Afghanistan to present-day Madhya Pradesh (with the exception of southern India). The most reliable historical sources for reconstructing Mughal history are the Mughal chronicles written at the time.  In particular, the Akbarnama, a Mughal chronicle written by Akbar court minister Abul Fazl, provides detailed information about Akbar’s world, his philosophy, his policies, and his lifestyle.

By the 14th century, the cultural and religious diversity of India had increased even beyond what existed in Asoka’s day.  While the various branches of Hinduism still existed, and Jainism and Buddhism continued to have some adherents, a new religion had swept onto the scene: Islam which came into Indian subcontinent around by 7th Century when Arab traders came along the Malabar coast of western-southern India.

Akbar as a young ruler made moves to improve the lives of his Hindu subjects, most notably by abolishing pilgrimage taxes and Mughal citizenship taxes. Later on in life, however, Akbar developed a seemingly genuine passion for philosophical discussions and saw himself as on a spiritual quest.  This led to the foundation of the Ibadatkhana (the hall of worship) at Fatehpur Sikri, his capital. Here he initiated the practice of holding religious discourses with the learned and saints of his age. At first he only called in Muslim theologians, including the ulama, and sheikhs (Ulama belongs to the  Sunni sect of scholars and Sheikhs are the Saints who interpret Quran)  Akbar later opened the gates of Ibadatkhana to priests and scholars of all other religions, including Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Christians. By the end of his life, Akbar believed that every religion leads to the ultimate truth. Akbar was a religiously minded and god-fearing person, but he was also a man of action, with a real attachment to improving the lives of his subjects in the here and now.

He established himself as the impartial ruler of his subjects and had adopted secularism as his state policy. He was eager to bond every individual, irrespective of their caste, creed and religion into a homogenous society. To unify the vast Mughal state, Akbar established a centralized system of administration throughout his empire and adopted a policy of conciliating conquered rulers through marriage and diplomacy. To preserve peace and order in a religiously and culturally diverse empire, he adopted policies that won him the support of his non-Muslim subjects. To unite the entire Mughal empire, Akbar adopted policy of diplomacy and marriage relations with other dynasties. In order to preserve peace and order in a religiously and culturally diverse empire, he adopted policies that won him support of his non-Muslim subjects. Akbar didn’t impose Islamic state identity. He strived to unite far-flung lands of his realm through loyalty and respect for other religions. Akbar’s empire was chronicled by his court historian in Akbarnama and Ain-I-Akbari. The exposition of Akbar’s religious policy was not the sudden outburst of an idea nor a calculated political move. Its growth and development was spread over the years. His Rajput wives, his Hindu officials like Todermal, Birbal and Man Singh, scholars like Faizi and Abul Fazl and the Bhakti Movement helped in molding his religious views. Akbar’s first step towards his religious reforms was to stop forceful conversations of war prisoners to Islam. This step was taken purely on humanitarian considerations by a Muslim ruler of India. Another revolutionary step taken by Akbar on 15th March 1564, to abolish the pilgrim taxes taken from Hindus and Jaziya which was a tax taken from non-Muslims subjects to grant them citizenship of the Mughal empire. This act was largely opposed by the orthodox ulama but Akbar didn’t discriminate between his subjects on the basis of religion and his policies reflected his impartiality towards his empire. It can be said that national integration was the ultimate goal of Akbar’s actions. Akbar’s ruminations led to origination of Din-I-Ilahi in the beginning of 1582. Through this he desired to unite the people of his empire into an integrated national community by providing a common religious-cum-spiritual platform for the meeting ground. His idea focused on the ideas of peace, unity and tolerance. Akbar, extricated India from stereotypes of different religions and brought his subjects together by bonds of common citizenship and established a secular state. Historians believe Akbar wrote a Constitution for the empire which was largely followed even after Aurangzeb.


Modern India

In the reign of the last Mughal ruler Bahudar Shah Zafar, the East India Company started ruling the Indian subcontinent, eventually leading to the formation of the British Raj. Throughout the 19th century, various Indian groups sought to unite in order to break free from the oppressive British rule. When the British came to understand that Indian unity could threaten their rule in India, they started using a “divide-and-rule” policy, whereby they played up the ethnic, social, and religious divides between two of the largest communities in India, the Hindus and the Muslims.  Even though this British strategy for staying in power was not successful in the end, the consequences of fostering communal tensions between Muslims and Hindus persist through the present-day.  Most notably via the 1947 Partition, which saw the formation of Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India.

As part of the aftermath of so much religious conflict, the Constitution framers decided to make India a secular state, with free exercise of religion for all. After its division, leaders of India wanted the Indian state to have no concern with any religion, creed or profession of faith. In 1976, India included the word ‘secular’ into its Constitution, and thus became a secular state officially. Secularism in India means equal treatment of all religions by the state. According to Rajeev Bhargava, Director, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Indian secularism is radically different from the conception of secularism in Western Europe which does not even pretend to have equality or impartiality in the domain of religion.[1] Indian Constitution gives freedom to every individual to follow their own religion. The Indian Constitution specifies there is no partiality towards citizens on the basis of gender, race, religion, caste, place of birth, or anything else. In the Indian Constitution, the distinction between state and religion is clearly mentioned. In some cases, Constitution permits state interference like in the financial administration of temples and maths, the practice of excommunication from religious communities, the admission of harijans into Hindu temples, polygamy, modification of religious laws, etc. On the other hand, the Constitution does insist on the principle of separation of state and religion. There is no provision regarding an official state religion, there can be no taxes to support any particular religion and there can be no religious instruction in state schools.  The growing religious intolerance in India, like instances of RSS and VHP violent acts, people killed  for consumption of beef and the state ban on slaughter of cows on the consideration that cow is a sacred animal for Hindus shows that India is becoming a religious intolerant country. Such bans on beef hurt not only religious minorities like Muslims and Christians, but also lower-caste Hindus, who eat beef and work in industries related to cattle slaughter. More worrying than exercising legal muscle or illegal vigilantism over what people eat, is the violent manifestation of intolerance.



Asoka and Akbar are regarded as the only emperors who placed more emphasis on peace and humanity than on increasing their power and strengthening the state. Asoka, with regards to the religious slaughter or of animals, issued stern instructions not to continue the practice and urged his subjects to only kill animals or food. It was significant this step as taken out of kindness and pity for all living beings. But at the same time he did not want to impose royal orders on his subjects. He believed that persuasion is a better step than imposition. Very little is given to Asoka to his deep commitments to secular and humane administrative policies and his untiring efforts and concern for welfare of his people. Akbar did not cease being Muslim, but he respected all religions. He banned cow slaughter as cow is believed to be a holy animal for Hindus. Akbar celebrated all other religions festivals, dussehra, parsi festivals and many more. Today our Constitution guarantees freedom of religion but did not inspire its citizens to rise above narrow religious boundaries. We still find people been killed for eating beef in the name of religion. The state order of   beef ban is the most heated topic which puts a question mark of India’s secularism. People argue that in a secular state how can the state ban and put imposition in the name of one religion, the other group defends the order and shows the figures of large number of cow slaughter in the country and also adds to the point to respect each other religions. Akbar also banned cow slaughter for respect of Hinduism whereas Asoka only used persuasion to stop killing animals. Akbar even before the Britishers banned sati system of Hindus believing it to be inhumane and stopped the practice of polygamy, he even supported widow remarriage. Akbar religious curiosity led him to get the holy books of different religions translated into Persian language. Akbar banning religious taxes and forcible conversions led him to establish secular empire so was Asoka’s. Both never implemented a state religion, gave freedom to their subjects to profess their religion which is relevant in today’s India. Akbar and Asoka, both are appreciated for their farsightedness. India adopted Asoka Chakra as India’s state emblem and made India a secular state. Asoka ensured equality among everyone. He challenged the prevalent patriarchal system of India and to a certain limit was successful in limiting patriarchy, and in Todays’ India the situation is no different. Women still suffers from the patriarchal society but Indian government has taken initiative to give equality to women. Akbar had a concept for united Bharat (United India) which aimed to unite people. Likewise, Asoka wanted peace and harmony in his people. According to Rajeev Bhargava, In India “religious toleration” was associated with King Asoka’s regime, but probably no attention was paid to “what this means and how significant his achievement was.”. India has to learn from its rich ancient culture and has to grow, become more culturally vibrant and united.



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