Short Teaching Module: Emperor Ashoka and Buddhism

Merry Wiesner-Hanks


Buddhism is based on the ideas of a north Indian prince, Siddhartha Gautama (fl. ca. 500 B.C.E.), called the Buddha (“enlightened one”), who through meditation gained insight into what he understood were cosmic truths. Prime among these is that life is suffering arising from desire and attachments, but people can overcome their desires and weaknesses by deciding to liberate themselves from them, living morally, being compassionate, and searching for enlightenment through contemplation. The Buddha taught that a life of withdrawal from the world was the best way to lessen desire, but political leaders adopted Buddhism, which allowed it to grow and spread. Among the earliest of these leaders was Ashoka (ruled c. 270-232 BC), who ruled the Mauryan Empire that controlled a large part of Indian subcontinent. Ashoka became a Buddhist at some point in his life, and engaged in a number of actions that promoted the growth of his chosen religious community, for which the sources in this module provide evidence. The primary sources referenced in this module can be viewed in the Primary Sources folder below. Click on the image or texts for more information about the source.

This short teaching module includes guidance on introducing and discussing the three primary sources.


Buddhism in world history surveys is often taught primarily with reference to the life and teachings of the Buddha: As related in later Buddhist texts, Prince Gautama had a pampered and sheltered early life, but gradually learned about the reality of pain, suffering, and death. He left his wife and family to go off as a wandering ascetic, but while meditating had a revelation in which he achieved enlightenment, that is, insight into the cosmic truths that underlay the universe. He began to teach his central insights, laid out as the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path: life is suffering arising from desire and attachments, but people can overcome their desires and weaknesses by deciding to liberate themselves from them, living morally, being compassionate, and searching for enlightenment through contemplation. Those who gain enlightenment are freed from the cycle of birth and death, and enter into a state called nirvana, a blissful nothingness akin to the Hindu concept moksha. In theory, the Buddhist path to enlightenment was (and is) an individual journey open to all regardless of caste or gender, although other early texts present women as dangerous threats to men's achieving enlightenment. The Buddha taught that a life of monasticism—renouncing the world in favor of a life of prayer and meditation in a community—could make one spiritually superior, but that lay believers gained spiritual merit by supporting the monastic community (sangha). He allowed women to become nuns--and many did—but placed them in a subordinate status to monks.

But understanding how Buddhism was transformed from a small group of followers
around a single individual into a global religious community requires examining the ideas and actions of political leaders as well as those of the Buddha and monastic leaders. The Mauryan emperor Ashoka (ruled c. 270-232 BCE) provides an important example of this. He was the grandson of the founder of the Mauryan Empire, Chandragupta, who had defeated one of the generals of Alexander the Great in 304 BCE and expanded his holdings to include most of the Indian subcontinent. Ashoka grew up at the royal court at Pataliputra in the Ganges River valley, where many religious traditions mingled—Brahmanism, Jainism, Buddhism—and where ideas about the role of the ruler were openly debated and discussed. The most extensive consideration of these was a treatise on government traditionally attributed to one of Chandragupta’s ministers, the Brahmanical teacher Kautilya, titled Arthashastra, in which power and benevolence were described as the two main objectives of kingship.

At some point in his life, Ashoka accepted Buddhism; by tradition this was after being revolted by the slaughter and suffering involved in one of his military campaigns, although traditions vary about exactly who converted him. They also vary about the timing of some events within Buddhism that probably occurred during or shortly before or after Ashoka’s reign, such as formal splits because of disagreements about various interpretations of the Buddha’s teaching. Certain aspects of the practice and prevalence of Buddhism at that time are very clear, however. We know, for example, that people often went on pilgrimages to the holy places associated with the Buddha’s life, built mounds called stupas to house Buddhist relics, and supported the sangha. Buddhism was well established in central India, and had begun to spread north to Kashmir and south to the Deccan plateau. A canon of sacred texts, attributed to the Buddha, had begun to appear.

Ashoka’s actions dramatically expanded Buddhism both within and beyond India. He built monasteries and stupas to house Buddhist relics and sent missionaries beyond the borders of his territory. He erected large pillars proclaiming his devotion to what was known as dharma, a Sanskrit word with many shades of meaning, involving piety, moral law, ethics, order, duty, mutual understanding, justice and peace. These pillars also instructed his officials and subjects on how to act according to its principles of justice and ethics, which included toleration of other traditions.

Primary Sources

Ashokan Pillar with a Single-Lion Capital at Vaishali, India

This is a photograph of one of the Ashokan pillars, topped with a single lion. (Other pillars are topped with three lions, an emblem that is now on the state seal of India and Indian coins, or lions and the Buddhist wheel of law, an emblem reproduced on India’s flag.) Each of these pillars—more than thirty have been discovered—was transported hundreds of miles from the same quarry and polished very smooth before it was inscribed. Questions I pose to students as they examine this source: Why might Ashoka have regarded this effort as important? Why would pillars such as these be an effective way to relay the information found in the rock and pillar edicts? How would the pillars complement the visits by officials and by Ashoka himself described in the rock and pillar edicts? This source is a part of the Emperor Ashoka and Buddhism teaching module.

Excerpt from the Asokavadana

The Asokavadana is a text written in Sanskrit that brings together oral traditions about Ashoka’s reign that did not die out when the Mauryan Empire collapsed, but spread throughout India and beyond its borders. This section relates an incident from Ashoka’s life after he converted to Buddhism. Oral traditions about Ashoka grew up without reference to his actual edicts; people claimed the inscriptions referred to events in the legends, but they had no way of actually reading them until the nineteenth century. When I teach this text, I remind my students that in using legends and oral traditions in historical investigations, the most important question to ask ourselves is not whether the events really happened, but why followers of an individual tell and retell them—in other words, how these oral traditions worked to support the followers’ ideas. So I ask them: Why would the Buddhist admirers of Ashoka tell this story? What does it communicate about how one is to treat individuals of modest social status but high religious or moral status? How does it portray Ashoka’s relationship with the sangha? Even though those who repeated this story later were not able to read Ashoka’s rock and pillar edicts, how does it fit with his statements about his own ideas and reign as inscribed on them? This source is a part of the Emperor Ashoka and Buddhism teaching module.

Selections from Ashoka, Rock and Pillar Edicts

The “rock and pillar edicts,” inscriptions that King Ashoka ordered carved in stone on large rocks in prominent places or on tall pillars that he had erected for this purpose, are the best record we have of Ashoka’s reign. The edicts are found in a number of different locations throughout Ashoka’s large empire, particularly along the borders. They were written in Prakrit, the language spoken at Ashoka’s time, and are the oldest surviving written documents of historical importance in India. We have no way of knowing what impact Ashoka’s edicts had on his actual reign. The language in which Ashoka’s edicts were written ceased to be spoken shortly after his reign, so subsequent generations could not read them; in fact, the script in which they were written was deciphered for the first time only in 1837. Questions I pose to students as they read this: What convinced Ashoka that he should change the way he was ruling and acting? What does he now see as the main aim of his reign? What actions has he done to promote this aim? How does he relate to the sangha, the community of Buddhist monks and nuns? How does he say he treats those who follow religions other than Buddhism, and how does he advise his subjects to treat people with different religious ideas? This source is a part of the Emperor Ashoka and Buddhism teaching module.

Teaching Strategies

Why I Teach These Sources
Religions are often taught in world history as a matter of core teachings —Buddhists believe this, Christians believe this, Muslims believe this—that disconnect them from their historical development and tend to flatten them into “timeless truths.” When I teach about religion, I try to focus on the human actors involved, and the way religious beliefs, ideas, rituals, and institutions changed and developed. This is particularly important for what are often called “universal religions” or “portable religions”—religious traditions not identified with particular locations or ethnic groups, but that appealed across cultural boundaries to spread widely and often become very diverse. Migrations, invasions, trade, and intentional missionary work carried religious ideas and practices from place to place, and they became transformed in the process. Every religious tradition began as a local one, and to help students understand how some became “universal,” they need to know about the actions of rulers such as Ashoka, as religion and politics have always been intertwined.

How I Introduce These Sources
Whenever I introduce the first written source about religion or spirituality with my students, I talk over some of the ways that studying the history of any religious movement can pose special problems for historians. We may have more trouble achieving unbiased assessments of the history of religion than of other historical topics because of our intellectual, spiritual, or emotional commitments to certain religious ideas. I try to make clear that our job as historians is to understand people’s religious ideas within their historical context and to see how religious
faith has manifested itself in historically observable phenomena; it is not to judge whether certain religious ideas are right or wrong, true or false.

I stress that difficulties in being objective when studying the history of religion can stem not only from our own personal religious commitments, but also from the nature of the sources available. Very few religious sources were written simply to describe what happened; more
often, they were written to express central doctrines or to win converts. Even those sources that do describe historical events, such as the actions of the political leaders, were often written for the added purpose of spreading the faith. Many of these were composed long after the events occurred, and so later developments colored the ways in which they were recorded. In some cases, these written records were based on extensive oral traditions, but they are now our only source for the events they describe, and we have no way to check their accuracy. They may relate events that were viewed at the time as clearly miraculous—visions in the sky, voices from heaven—but also as having actually happened. I emphasize that luckily, we as historians do not need to take a stand on the historicity of such events. What is important for us is that people believed that they had happened and acted accordingly.

I note that in talking about any religious group, we often make distinctions between history, tradition, and myth, but the lines between these are never sharp and are frequently contested. It is important to recognize, however, that tradition and myth are not the same; when historians use the phrase “according to tradition, . . . ” they are not saying that an event is completely mythological but simply commenting on the limits of their sources.


Merry Wiesner-Hanks is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is the long-time senior editor of the Sixteenth Century Journal, an editor of the Journal of Global History, and the editor-in-chief of the nine-volume Cambridge World History (2015). She is an author or editor of more than thirty books and nearly 100 articles that have appeared in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Chinese, Turkish, and Korean. This module was developed for the World History Commons.

How to Cite This Source

"Short Teaching Module: Emperor Ashoka and Buddhism," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/short-teaching-module-emperor-ashoka-and-buddhism [accessed December 8, 2021]