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Unit 2 Discussion: Kingship in Ancient India – Clues from the Edicts of King Ashoka


The first major empire in the history of the Indian subcontinent is the Mauryan Empire (321-184 BCE). But our sources for studying it are few in number or were written by outside observers. For that reason, historians have greatly benefited from the discovery and compilation of the rock and pillar edicts of this empire’s third king, King Ashoka (r. 268-232 BCE). Ashoka had these inscribed on rocks and sand-stone pillars in populous areas where people gathered, so that they could read them or, if they were illiterate, hear his officials read them out loud.


To prepare for this discussion, you will want to reread the relevant sections in our textbook, review a film and, most importantly, carefully read Ashoka’s edicts. After that, for your discussion, answer the following questions, being sure to provide specific evidence from the edicts. Here are the questions:

  • In ancient times, Dharma meant universal law and duty. For Brahmin priests, it meant a society and religious order founded on

    Vedic principles
    and the caste system. For Buddhists, it meant the truths taught by the Buddha, and for kings, it was enlightened governing and just rule. Scholars believe that Ashoka was deeply influenced by Buddhist teachings, but also that he combined those with his own ideas about morality and what a king’s

    should be.
  • Please explain the essential elements of the

    King Ashoka sought to promote throughout his land, and whether or not Buddhist teachings were a part of it.

  • Discuss how King Ashoka presented himself to his subjects.
  • Try to explain why King Ashoka chose to issue these edicts.




NOTE: Your discussion should be based upon the materials given here. Outside sources will not be permitted.

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