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: India's lost Emperor

Download a pdf of this lesson here

KeywordsAshoka, Asoka, Aesopís 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?


With the rediscovery and translation of Indian literature by European scholars in the 19th century, it was not just the religion and philosophy of Buddhism that came to light, but also its many legendary histories and biographies. Amongst this class of literature, one name that came to be noticed was that of Ashoka, a good king who was supposed to have ruled India in the distant past. Stories about this king, similar in outline but differing greatly in details, were found in the Divyavadana, the Ashokavadana, the Mahavamsa and several other works. They told of an exceptionally cruel and ruthless prince who had many of his brothers killed in order to seize the throne, who was dramatically converted to Buddhism and who ruled wisely and justly for the rest of his life. None of these stories were taken seriously -- after all many pre-modern cultures had legends about "too good to be true" kings who had ruled righteously in the past and who, people hoped, would rule again soon. Most of these legends had their origins more in popular longing to be rid of the despotic and uncaring kings than in any historical fact. And the numerous stories about Ashoka were assumed to be the same.

But in 1837, James Prinsep succeeded in deciphering an ancient inscription on a large stone pillar in Delhi. Several other pillars and rocks with similar inscriptions had been known for some time and had attracted the curiosity of scholars. Prinsep's inscription proved to be a series of edicts issued by a king calling himself "Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi." In the following decades, more and more edicts by this same king were discovered and with increasingly accurate decipherment of their language, a more complete picture of this man and his deeds began to emerge. Gradually, it dawned on scholars that the King Piyadasi of the edicts might be the King Ashoka so often praised in Buddhist legends. However, it was not until 1915, when another edict actually mentioning the name Ashoka was discovered, that the identification was confirmed. Having been forgotten for nearly 700 years, one of the greatest men in history became known to the world once again.

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Emperor Ashoka, third emperor of the Mauryan dynasty ruled from 269 to 232 BCE

King Ashoka, the third monarch of the Indian Mauryan dynasty, has come to be regarded as one of the most exemplary rulers in world history. The British historian H.G. Wells has written: "Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history ... the name of Ashoka shines, and shines almost alone, a star." Although Buddhist literature preserved the legend of this ruler -- the story of a cruel and ruthless king who converted to Buddhism and thereafter established a reign of virtue -- definitive historical records of his reign were lacking.

Then in the nineteenth century there came to light a large number of edicts, in India, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan. These edicts, inscribed on rocks and pillars, proclaim Asoka's reforms and policies and promulgate his advice to his subjects. The present rendering of these edicts, based on earlier translations, offers us insights into a powerful and capable ruler's attempt to establish an empire on the foundation of righteousness, a reign which makes the moral and spiritual welfare of his subjects its primary concern.

Although the exact dates of Ashoka's life are a matter of dispute among scholars, he was born in about 304 BCE and became the third king of the Mauryan dynasty after the death of his father, Bindusara. His given name was Ashoka, but he assumed the title Devanampiya Piyadasi which means "Beloved-of-the-Gods, He Who Looks On With Affection." There seems to have been a two-year war of succession during which at least one of Ashoka's brothers was killed.

In 262 BCE, eight years after his coronation, Ashoka's armies attacked and conquered Kalinga, a country that roughly corresponds to the modern state of Orissa. The loss of life caused by battle, reprisals, deportations and the turmoil that always exists in the aftermath of war so horrified Ashoka that it brought about a complete change in his personality. It seems that Ashoka had been calling himself a Buddhist for at least two years prior to the Kalinga war, but his commitment to Buddhism was only lukewarm and perhaps had a political motive behind it.


Ashoka: The Search for India's Lost Emperor 1st Edition, 2012

by Charles L. Allen (Author) Review:


Can you show me some pictures?

The Story of India from PBS

And from the timeline



Updated April 2019