The word "Dhamma" is the Prakrit version of the Sanskrit word "Dharma" and Ashoka's Dhamma is a philosophical entity that highlighted on the high ideals and spiritual enlightenment as a key to successful life. When Pillar Edict II was translated, it described the "middle path", the way to enlightenment through Dharma that Buddha taught in his first sermon. Ashoka aspired for a harmonious environment where everyone could co-exist peacefully irrespective of his or her caste creed and religion. Some of his ideals were to shun war and spread peace, stop animal sacrifices, respect elders, masters treating slaves like humans, promoting vegetarianism, etc. These ideals if followed correctly led one to a higher level of living and one could finally attain "nirvana". As an able king, Ashoka took up the initiative and introduced welfare programs for the subjects, which was also one of the policies of his "Dhamma". Ashoka appointed Dhamma Mahamattas who were basically officers looking after the spread of these principles across Ashoka's empire. Ashoka propagated the principles of Dhamma not just in India but also in countries like Sri Lanka, Burma and other South East Asian nations.
Ashoka's religious policy of "Dhamma" had carved out a permanent place for him in the niche of ancient Indian history. However there is a keen controversy among the historians about the religious policy of "Dhamma" and they have put forward several queries regarding the true character of Dhamma and its association with Buddhism. Historians have defined that Ashoka's personal religion and his attachment with Dhamma was completely different from each other. They have also added that Ashoka's association with the high ideals of Buddhism was gradual and not a sudden outcome of impulse. Since the rock edicts of Ashoka do not provide any information about the association of Dhamma with Buddhism, historians are at variance regarding this point. Moreover Ashoka in his edicts do not mention the name of any Buddhist monk or any guru or teacher who showed him the path for Enlightenment.
Dhamma as reported by the historians was a policy of Ashoka in order to unify a nation so large that the people of one region could share the little in common with those of other regions. Dharma would bring harmony to India in the form of compassion. Serving as a guiding light, a voice of conscience, dharma can lead one to be a respectful, responsible human being. Edward D'cruz interprets the Ashokan dharma as a "religion to be used as a symbol of a new imperial unity and a cementing force to blend the diverse and heterogeneous elements of the empire".
However, one of the elementary questions is the chronology of Ashoka's preaching of Dhamma. According to Bhandarkar, Ashoka became a Buddhist in the 9th year of his reign, the year after the conquest of Kalinga. But other scholars confirm his attachment towards Buddhist Church in the 8th year of his reign. Bongard Levin however concluded a critical study of the evidences gathered from Rock edict XIII. According to him, Ashoka's personal attachment towards Buddhism and his propagation of the ideals of Dhamma are completely different from one another. Personally Ashoka was a benevolent king who followed the duties of an ideal king before embracing Buddhism. "Dhamma" did not influence the personal religion followed by Ashoka.