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?

Ashoka's words from the 3rd Century BCE

Download a pdf of this lesson here

KeywordsAshoka, Asoka, Aesop’s fables, Arthashastra, Ashoka Pillar, Brahmi Script, Buddhism, Edicts, Buddhist literature, Chanakya, Chandragupta Maurya, civic ideals and practices; culture; dhamma, Dharma Chakra, dharma, edicts, Emperor Ashoka, fables, parables, giant empires, global connections; human rights, Jataka tales, Kautilya, Lion Capital, Lost emperor, Maurya, Mauryan Empire, Megasthenes, National emblem, National Flag, national symbols, non-violence, Panchatantra, past, present, future; Pataliputra, people, places and environments; power, authority and governance; primary sources, religion and government, religion, Sarnath Lion Capital, Satyamev Jayate, social justice, thangka painting, Thangka, The Dalai Lama, The Tibetan Government in Exile, time, continuity and change; world history timeline, world history, world literature

Essential Questions:

- Why do countries have National symbols?

- What do stories behind National Symbols tell us about what people of a country value?

- What would you pick to be your personal symbol?  What symbol or symbols could connect your past, present and future?

- Historians, geographers, economists and other social scientists work together to discover the past by using different sources of information such as primary sources, religious texts as well as carved edicts and proclamations: can our current view of history be biased by the source of information used to decode it?

- How are religious beliefs diffused across borders and across vast distances.

- Illustrate your life as a thangka painting from the Buddhist tradition.

- If you were told a story about a great emperor who lived in ancient India, how would you find out if the story was true?

Ashoka's words (edicts) carved on pillars and other surfaces

"Asoka's edicts, which comprise the earliest decipherable corpus of written documents from India, have survived throughout the centuries because they are written on rocks and stone pillars."  


Asoka's edicts are to be found scattered in more than thirty places throughout India, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Most of them are written in Brahmi script from which all Indian scripts and many of those used in Southeast Asia later developed. The language used in the edicts found in the eastern part of the sub-continent is a type of Magadhi, probably the official language of Asoka's court. The language used in the edicts found in the western part of India is closer to Sanskrit although one bilingual edict in Afghanistan is written in Aramaic and Greek. Asoka's edicts, which comprise the earliest decipherable corpus of written documents from India, have survived throughout the centuries because they are written on rocks and stone pillars. These pillars in particular are testimony to the technological and artistic genius of ancient Indian civilization. Originally, there must have been many of them, although only ten with inscriptions still survive. Averaging between forty and fifty feet in height, and weighing up to fifty tons each, all the pillars were quarried at Chunar, just south of Varanasi and dragged, sometimes hundreds of miles, to where they were erected. Each pillar was originally capped by a capital, sometimes a roaring lion, a noble bull or a spirited horse, and the few capitals that survive are widely recognized as masterpieces of Indian art. Both the pillars and the capitals exhibit a remarkable mirror-like polish that has survived despite centuries of exposure to the elements. The location of the rock edicts is governed by the availability of suitable rocks, but the edicts on pillars are all to be found in very specific places. Some, like the Lumbini pillar, mark the Buddha's birthplace, while its inscriptions commemorate Asoka's pilgrimage to that place. Others are to be found in or near important population centres so that their edicts could be read by as many people as possible.

There is little doubt that Asoka's edicts were written in his own words rather than in the stylistic language in which royal edicts or proclamations in the ancient world were usually written in. Their distinctly personal tone gives us a unique glimpse into the personality of this complex and remarkable man. Asoka's style tends to be somewhat repetitious and plodding as if explaining something to one who has difficulty in understanding. Asoka frequently refers to the good works he has done, although not in a boastful way, but more, it seems, to convince the reader of his sincerity. In fact, an anxiousness to be thought of as a sincere person and a good administrator is present in nearly every edict. Asoka tells his subjects that he looked upon them as his children, that their welfare is his main concern; he apologizes for the Kalinga war and reassures the people beyond the borders of his empire that he has no expansionist intentions towards them. Mixed with this sincerity, there is a definite puritanical streak in Asoka's character suggested by his disapproval of festivals and of religious rituals many of which while being of little value were nonetheless harmless. p> It is also very clear that Buddhism was the most influential force in Asoka's life and that he hoped his subjects likewise would adopt his religion. He went on pilgrimages to Lumbini and Bodh Gaya, sent teaching monks to various regions in India and beyond its borders, and he was familiar enough with the sacred texts to recommend some of them to the monastic community. It is also very clear that Asoka saw the reforms he instituted as being a part of his duties as a Buddhist. But, while he was an enthusiastic Buddhist, he was not partisan towards his own religion or intolerant of other religions. He seems to have genuinely hoped to be able to encourage everyone to practice his or her own religion with the same conviction that he practiced his.

Scholars have suggested that because the edicts say nothing about the philosophical aspects of Buddhism, Asoka had a simplistic and naive understanding of the Dhamma. This view does not take into account the fact that the purpose of the edicts was not to expound the truths of Buddhism, but to inform the people of Asoka's reforms and to encourage them to be more generous, kind and moral. This being the case, there was no reason for Asoka to discuss Buddhist philosophy. Asoka emerges from his edicts as an able administrator, an intelligent human being and as a devoted Buddhist, and we could expect him to take as keen an interest in Buddhist philosophy as he did in Buddhist practice.

The contents of Asoka's edicts make it clear that all the legends about his wise and humane rule are more than justified and qualify him to be ranked as one of the greatest rulers. In his edicts, he spoke of what might be called state morality, and private or individual morality. The first was what he based his administration upon and what he hoped would lead to a more just, more spiritually inclined society, while the second was what he recommended and encouraged individuals to practice. Both these types of morality were imbued with the Buddhist values of compassion, moderation, tolerance and respect for all life. The Asokan state gave up the predatory foreign policy that had characterized the Mauryan empire up till then and replaced it with a policy of peaceful co-existence. The judicial system was reformed in order to make it more fair, less harsh and less open to abuse, while those sentenced to death were given a stay of execution to prepare appeals and regular amnesties were given to prisoners. State resources were used for useful public works like the importation and cultivation of medical herbs, the building of rest houses, the digging of wells at regular intervals along main roads and the planting of fruit and shade trees. To ensue that these reforms and projects were carried out, Asoka made himself more accessible to his subjects by going on frequent inspection tours and he expected his district officers to follow his example. To the same end, he gave orders that important state business or petitions were never to be kept from him no matter what he was doing at the time. The state had a responsibility not just to protect and promote the welfare of its people but also its wildlife. Hunting certain species of wild animals was banned, forest and wildlife reserves were established and cruelty to domestic and wild animals was prohibited. The protection of all religions, their promotion and the fostering of harmony between them, was also seen as one of the duties of the state. It even seems that something like a Department of Religious Affairs was established with officers called Dhamma Mahamatras whose job it was to look after the affairs of various religious bodies and to encourage the practice of religion.

Sites of Ashoka rock and pillar edicts 


Sites of Emperor Ashoka's rock and pillar edicts 


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’).

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 April 2019