Skip to Content


History banner

Ashoka and the Mauryan Empire: Investigation 3Bookmark

Learning area: History
Year level: Year 7
Country: India
General capability: Intercultural understanding

The king speaks

In this teaching and learning sequence, students will learn first about Ashoka's concept of 'dhamma', through an examination of selections from the Rock Edicts. They will then deepen their understanding through looking at several other Edicts, particularly relating to the conquest of Kalinga and to the administration of the empire. Students will then undertake activities that consider the application of the concept of dhamma in the contemporary world.


Monks dressed in their red robes visit Sanchi stupaA view of the Sanchi Stupa

Introduction Investigation 1 Investigation 2 Investigation 3 Investigation 4

Activity 1: Ashoka's concept of 'dhamma'

We have decided to use the word 'dhamma' rather than attempting to translate it to English every time it is used by Ashoka. This means that you will need to discuss it with students. It is a Pali word and the Sanskrit equivalent is 'dharma'.

Although these words are often associated with Buddhism, they need not be thought of as strictly belonging to any particular religious tradition. In the India of Ashoka's time, there were a number of competing sects.

'Dhamma' is usually taken to mean the (natural) law of piety or righteousness. Indian historian Romila Thapar believes that Ashoka uses the word to mean 'a way of life which was both practical and convenient, as well as being highly moral'1. Seen in that way, it perhaps need not even be associated with religion at all.

The word 'sect' is also used in the translations. There were a variety of sects in Ashoka's world, and some of them will be mentioned elsewhere, but at this level student can probably understand the term as referring to differences of faith or religion.

Source C1 provides a selection of texts from Ashoka's Rock Edicts. Some issues for discussion or clarification:

  • What did students think the edicts might be about when they first heard about them?
  • Why might Ashoka have communicated with his people in this way?
  • 'Piyadasi' is a kind of title rather than name. Do our leaders have titles as well as names?
  • Do our leaders give the same sorts of messagesnow? What differences are there? How do our leaders communicate them to us?
  • When leaders speak to their people, can you 'read between the lines' about what they are saying? In other words, is there more to it than just what the words say? Can you read between Ashoka's lines?
  • Can you imagine what sort of person Ashoka might have been?

Students could then:

  • Develop a list of the elements of dhamma, according to Ashoka. This could perhaps be a class list, displayed prominently.
  • Modify these and write them in a way that would be relevant today. Use them to design a billboard-type advertisement to promote them.
  • Apart from his ideas about dhamma, work out what we can learn from the edicts about the India of Ashoka's time. (For example, Rock Edict 1 tells us that meat was eaten and slaves and servants are mentioned several times.)
  • Ask their school principal what he or she thinks about whether Ashoka's concept of dhamma could be useful in running a school.

Source C1: Some rock edicts

Rock edict I
Paper copy of incription of the first edict at Girnar that talks about not killing too many animals

The-Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, says:

Here, no living things should be killed or sacrificed. Some holiday feasts are proper, but many are cruel and unnecessary.

In the kitchen of The-Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, thousands of creatures used to be killed every day for food. But now only two peacocks and one deer are killed daily, and sometimes not even the deer. In the future, even these will not be killed.
Rock edict IV

Paper copy of inscription of edict four at Girnar that talks about less cruelty to animals and people and increasing dhamma

In the past, there was a lot of cruelty to people and animals, as well as disrespect towards holy people and relatives.

But now The-Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, has promoted dhamma among the people and shown them other ways to behave. And they are seeing elephant parades, fireworks and other good things instead of war and killing.

This has not happened for hundreds of years but now dhamma is growing and Piyadasi will make sure that it grows more in the future.

Rock edict VII

Paper copy of inscription of edict seven, where Ashoka asks that all religions should be accepted

The-Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, wants all sects to be able to live in the kingdom. He knows that they all aim for self-control and purity of mind.

People are not perfect and can not always perfectly follow dhamma. But they should follow as much as they can.

Rock edict VIII

Paper copy of inscription of edict eight that explains that Ashoka has given up many pleasurable past times and now visits the holy and aged

In the past, kings used to go on pleasure tours, hunting animals and having parties.

But eleven years after he became king, The-Beloved-of-the-Gods, Piyadasi started making different tours. Now he visits holy people and the aged, and gives them gifts. He visits people in the country and talks to them about dhamma.

This gives him much more pleasure.

Rock edict IX

Paper copy of inscription of edict nine that talks of living a respectful life and partaking in ceremonies of dhamma

The-Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, says:

People have many ceremonies at times of sickness, weddings, births or before going on a journey. But most of these are useless.

The 'ceremonies' that are worthwhile are the ceremonies of dhamma: respect for slaves and servants, respect for teachers, respect for living beings and generosity to holy people.

Even if these things don’t seem to make much difference in this world, they will certainly make a difference in the next world. So this is how things should be done.
Rock edict X

Paper copy of inscription of edict ten that explains that Ashoka would prefer to be famous for encouraging people to practise dhamma

The-Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, does not believe that glory and fame are the most important things.

He believes that following dhamma is the most important thing and he would only like to be famous for encouraging people to do that.

He knows that it is difficult for kings or ordinary people to avoid doing evil.

Rock edict XI

Paper copy of inscription of edict eleven where Ashoka says that killing shouldn't occur

The-Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, says:

There is no gift like the gift of dhamma and that means treating slaves and servants well, respecting parents, being generous to friends, relatives and holy people of all sects and not killing.

Everyone should agree that this is good behaviour. In this way people will be better off in this world and the next world.


Images: Ashoka Edict Girnaar1.png by Mhss (Public domain)
Text: 1 Thapar, Romila (1997) Asoka and the decline of the Mauryas 2nd ed. OUP, Oxford. p. 1467

Activity 2: The conquest of Kalinga

This activity is based on Source C2, an edict at Khalsi that students have heard about before in Investigation 1: Mysterious messages from the past. The conquest of Kalinga seems to have had a profound effect on Ashoka.

Unfamiliar vocabulary includes the word 'yojana' (a unit of distance), which is explained in the Source C2 and there is also a reference to 'dhamma officers'. This term will also appear in Source C4, and is explained there (by Ashoka). You will need to explain it to students.

The kings mentioned in the edict have been identified as Antiochus II Theos of Syria (261-246 BC), Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt (285-247 BC), Antigonus Gonatas of Macedonia (276-239 BC) and Magas of Cyrene (died c. 252 BC).

The last of the four mentioned may have been Alexander of Epirus (272-255 BC). It is not necessary for students to come to grips with the details of these kings, but it is important that they see approximately where the kingdoms were, and think about the relationships between them and Ashoka's kingdom.

Discussion points:

  • What new things do we find out about Ashoka from this edict?
  • What are the implications of the fact that Dhauli is a long way from Kalinga?
  • Do students know about other rulers who have reacted in a similar way after winning a war?
  • What do students think about Ashoka's ideas about how 'conquest' should happen?
  • How can we understand the mention of 'forest tribes'?
  • What does the edict tell us about the relationships between kingdoms at this time?
  • What should we understand by Ashoka's assertion that neighbouring kingdoms have adopted his idea of dhamma?
  • How could the other kings mentioned help us to 'place' Ashoka in history?

Students could then:

  • Add to their version of the elements of dhamma, according to Ashoka.
  • Dramatise or role play the encounter between a conquered person in Kalinga and one of Ashoka's dhamma officials.
  • Write a letter from Ashoka to one of the neighbouring kings, asking permission to send a dhamma official to discuss how dhamma can be used in the relationship between the two kingdoms.
  • Develop an opinion about whether Ashoka's ideas about dhamma could be useful in world conflict today.
About the conquest of Kalinga

The-Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, conquered the people of Kalinga after he had been king for eight years.

One hundred and fifty thousand people were taken prisoner, one hundred thousand were killed in battle and many others died from other causes.

Since then, the king has been devoted to the dhamma, and he feels sorry about all this. He is especially sorry that people in Kalinga who were following the dhamma were killed or taken away from their families and friends. He knows that there are good people in all countries.

So now he would be very unhappy if even a thousandth of the number of people killed in Kalinga had to suffer. He believes that it is best to forgive people who have done wrong, as far as possible.

He asks even the tribes living in the forests to behave well. He warns them that if they do wrong he can punish them, but he would rather they were calm and peaceful.

The-Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, thinks that conquest by dhamma is the best conquest. This is the victory he has achieved on all his frontiers, even as far as six hundred yojanas1 away where the Greek king Antiochus rules, and beyond that where the four kings Ptolemy, Antigonus, Magas, and Alexander rule. And with the kings of the Cholas and Pandyas in the south of India and in Sri Lanka as well.

Here in the King's territories, everyone follows his example in dhamma. Even where his dhamma officers have not been, people follow the dhamma and will continue to follow it. The-Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, is pleased with this victory of dhamma, but he thinks this is not as important as what happens in the next world.

This edict was written so that if the King's sons and grandsons make new conquests they do it with gentleness and understand that the only true conquest is by dhamma.

The-Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, says:

In the past, kings have wanted the people to behave well and follow dhamma, but usually this did not happen. I asked why, and what would make a difference. And I thought I should tell them about dhamma and they would listen, follow dhamma and be raised up because of it.

So I have employed dhamma officers to discuss dhamma with my people, and I have made proclamations on pillars and rocks.

Along the roads I have had trees planted, to give shade to people and animals. I have also had mango trees planted. Every eight kos2 I have had wells dug and rest-houses built. These are benefits for people but I have done them so that they can follow the dhamma.

My dhamma officers talk to all kinds of people and all sects. They give gifts to the poor from me, the queen and my sons, and they do this to show dhamma at work: kindness, generosity, truthfulness and honesty.

I have done these things so that my people can follow my example in dhamma. Now parents, teachers and old people are respected and holy people of all sects are treated properly. And poor people, servants and slaves are looked after.

This progress in dhamma has been done by making rules and also by persuasion. I have made some rules, such as to protect animals, but persuading people is much more effective than making rules.

I want this edict about dhamma to last as long as the sun and moon, so I have had it put on pillars and rocks. Because following dhamma is how people can be happy in this world and the next.

This edict was written after I had been king for 27 years.

1Six hundred yojanas are perhaps 2000-2500 kilometres.
2Eight kos are perhaps 14 or 15 kilometres.

Activity 3: An edict at Dhauli

This activity is based on Source C3, which is in (or in the vicinity of) the conquered kingdom of Kalinga. It is thought to be from the fourteenth year of Ashoka's rule or later, which places it at least six years after the conquest of Kalinga.

Some issues:

  • Spend some time with students locating Dhauli and Kalinga on a map.
  • Why might Ashoka have felt the need to address edicts like this to his officials in Kalinga?
  • What do we guess to be Ashoka's emotions at the time of writing this edict (how did he feel)?
  • We have seen other examples of Ashoka mentioning 'the next world'. What does this tell us about him?
  • Are there parallels to this in the contemporary world? (Consider conquests or invasions that students know about.)

Students could then:

  • Add to their version of the elements of dhamma, according to Ashoka.
  • From Ashoka's point of view, explain to ordinary Kalingans what he thinks has gone wrong after the conquest, and what he is doing to improve their lives. Students can also use information from previous Sources.
  • As Ashoka, explain to his 'special officals' what he wants them to do every five years in Kalinga.
  • As an ordinary Kalingan, tell Ashoka what has happened since the conquest.


Image: Ashoka edict dhauli1.png by Mhss (Public domain)

Activity 4: Pillar edict VII

This activity is based on Source C4, which Ashoka says was written after he had been king for 27 years. This is towards the end of his reign, and about 20 years after the conquest of Kalinga. 

The unit of measurement 'kos' is introduced and explained in the text.

Some issues:

  • At this stage of his life, are there still things to add to students' version of Ashoka's dhamma?
  • What is Ashoka's tone here? Does it differ from earlier edicts
  • Why might rest houses and wells have been eight kos apart?
  • What does Ashoka claim as his actual achievements?
  • What do students think Ashoka has learned?
  • What are his hopes?

Students could then:

  • Add to their version of the elements of dhamma, according to Ashoka.
  • Re-write the edict, so that it applies to the contemporary world in Australia.
  • Place the elements of dhamma in priority order.
  • Try to reduce Ashoka's dhamma to the five most important instructions. Then try to reduce it to just one instruction. Debate and present arguments about this.


Image: Ashoka pillar delhi2.png by Aśoka, Alexander Cunningham, Eugen Hultzsch (Public domain)

This investigation relies on translations of the edicts of Ashoka and there is no accompanying slideshow.

The various bullet points outlined in the activities provide some of the main issues at each stage. You can use them for discussion, comprehension, group work or to derive other activities (debates, presentations, timelines and so on). It is not intended that they all be presented to students as lists of 'questions to be answered'.

It is important to emphasise with students the difficulties of translating from Prakrit to contemporary English. A cursory look at various translations through the years since Prinsep's first attempt will make it clear that there are many differences of emphasis and meaning. As well, the archaic English often used will not be familiar to students.

The translations here are somewhat abridged, simplified and based on a variety of sources. You might want to read them aloud expressively, and encourage students to do so as well. After all, they are the words of a great king, and would have been read aloud at the time.

Students have not yet found out when Ashoka lived, but they will do so in Investigation 4: Greeks come to India, partly through what is revealed in the edicts.

At some point in this investigation, you might want students to look at, or use parts of the PBS website Edicts of Ashoka from Michael Wood's excellent BBC series. It includes video and other resources, and much of it will be familiar to students from their previous work. It goes further though, into Ashoka's Buddhism, and not all the statements made are beyond question. You could choose to have students look at it at the end of this investigation, so that any apparent differences of interpretation can be discussed.

The full resource can not be displayed on a mobile device.

back to top