Group of pictures showing symbols of India    

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In this lesson
-Explore national symbols and their meanings
-Understand the significance of Emperor's Ashoka's reign
-Learn about Buddhism and non-violence
-Prompt discussion about religion and government

Video Resources
Edicts Of Ashoka from the PBS series 'Story of India'
Buddhist Monuments at Sanchi from UNESCO
More Extension Activities
-What was happening in other parts of the world such as Greece and China when the Mauryan Empire was at its peak under Emperor Ashoka is the 3rd century BCE?
-Create your own edicts.  Where would you place them and what would they say?

Emperor Ashoka and Buddhism

Learn about Buddhism and non-violence.  Prompt discussion about religion and government.

Keywords:  Emperor Ashoka, national symbols, Buddhism, edicts, Maurya, Mauryan Empire, Brahmi Script, dhamma, dharma, Jataka tales, world history, giant empires, religion, non-violence, religion and government, social justice, human rights

Emperor Ashoka (304-232 BCE) was the third king of the Maurya Dynasty.  He ruled a truly massive kingdom that stretched from the Hindu Kush to the Bay of Bengal.  It was India's first great empire.  It is not just that Ashoka ably ruled this huge empire but the quality of social justice that he brought to his already strong administration.
Remorseful after his bloody campaign and conquest of Kalinga, Ashoka embraced Buddhism.  Thereafter reverence for life, tolerance, compassion and peaceful co-existence were the cornerstones of his administration. Under him the earliest know bans on slavery and capital punishment as well as environmental regulations came into place. 

Extract from the NCERT Text Book “Our Pasts – I”, Chapter 8: Ashoka, The Emperor Who Gave Up War      

The most famous Mauryan ruler was Ashoka. He was the first ruler who tried to take his message to the people through inscriptions. Most of Ashoka’s inscriptions were in Prakrit and were written in the Brahmi script.  They were carved on massive stone pillars and tablets.

The Brahmi script.

Most modern Indian scripts have developed from the Brahmi script over hundreds of years. Here you can see the letter ‘a’ written in different scripts. 

Brahmi Script 

Kalinga is the ancient name of coastal Orissa (see Map 5, page 76). Ashoka fought a war to conquer Kalinga. However, he was so horrified when he saw the violence and bloodshed that he decided not to fight any more wars. He is the only king in the history of the world who gave up conquest after winning a war. 

Ashoka’s inscription describing the Kalinga war

This is what Ashoka declared in one of his inscriptions:

“Eight years after becoming king I conquered Kalinga.

About a lakh and a half people were captured. And more than a lakh of people were killed.

This filled me with sorrow. Why?

Whenever an independent land is conquered, lakhs of people die, and many are taken prisoner. Brahmins and monks also die.

People who are kind to their relatives and friends, to their slaves and servants die, or lose their loved ones.

That is why I am sad, and have decided to observe dhamma, and to teach others about it as well.

I believe that winning people over through dhamma is much better than conquering them through force.

I am inscribing this message for the future, so that my son and grandson after me should not think about war.

Instead, they should try to think about how to spread dhamma.”

(‘Dhamma’ is the Prakrit word for the Sanskrit term ‘Dharma’).

What was Ashoka’s dhamma? 

Ashoka’s dhamma did not involve worship of a god, or performance of a sacrifice. He felt that just as a father tries to teach his children, he had a duty to instruct his subjects.

He was inspired by the teachings of the Buddha

There were a number of problems that troubled him. People in the empire followed different religions, and this sometimes led to conflict. Animals were sacrificed. Slaves and servants were ill treated. Besides, there were quarrels in families and amongst neighbors. Ashoka felt it was his duty to solve these problems. So, he appointed officials, known as the dhamma mahamatta who went from place to place teaching people about dhamma. Besides, Ashoka got his messages inscribed on rocks and pillars, instructing his officials to read his message to those who could not read it themselves.  Ashoka also sent messengers to spread ideas about dhamma to other lands, such as Syria, Egypt, Greece and Sri Lanka. He built roads, dug wells, and built rest houses. Besides, he arranged for medical treatment for both human beings and animals.

Complete texts of the 14 rock edicts that have been found:

World Heritage Sites connected to Buddhism Buddhist Monuments at Sanchi – Video is especially nice!  Interactive maps and immersive 360degree images.


Updated March 2011