From EMPEROR ASHOKA OF INDIA: What Makes a Ruler Legitimate?
part of the series NATIONAL CENTER FOR HISTORY IN THE
© National Center for History in the Schools, UCLA.
I. Unit Overview
During the age of agriculturally based empires, various conquerors from the western Mediterranean to East Asia brought large areas of populations
under their own centralized authority. Gradually many of these conquerors came to
realize that although military might was necessary to gain control over an area, sheer force
of arms was not sufficient to govern effectively and ensure the loyalty and obedience
of one's subjects. The Chinese would say: "You can win a kingdom from horseback,
but you cannot rule from there." What strategies and policies besides raw force can
leaders use to maintain their control and authority and ensure that people feel they have
the right to rule and will obey their orders?
We will examine appeals for legitimacy, "the right to rule," based on such strategies
as heredity, divinity, charisma, tolerance, law, and appeal to moral authority. After
the rise of new religions such as Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, and
later Christianity and Islam, would-be emperors and kings had available a rich
storehouse of ethical and religious symbols on which to draw to try to establish a more
popular base for absolute rule. Newly victorious kings applied religious principles to
support claims that they were legitimate, resting their authority on a moral basis, not merely
on the exercise of military power and fear.
A brief introduction will show how ancient rulers typically rested their authority
on military force. Then we will examine that model of kingly authority to the
Mauryan empire in India (322-185 B.C.E.). We will compare the first Mauryan
ruler's appreciation of the Indian ideal of artha, meaning the "science of survival," with the attempt of the Emperor Ashoka (273-232 B.C.E.) to legitimate his government. We
shall look at both the historic Ashoka's strategy for ruling a pluralistic society and
the legendary Ashoka who emerged in the succeeding centuries. We will also explore
ways that rulers in both Southeast and the Sui dynasty in China tried to emulate both
the historic and legendary Ashoka to support their claims of legitimacy. (Note that in
some books Ashoka is spelled "Asoka.")
II. Unit Context
This unit focuses on the how rulers establish legitimacy, that is, make their subjects believe they have the right to rule. The historic period covered runs
from Alexander of Macedonia's consolidation of his conquests (later fourth-century
B.C.E.) to the rise of China's Sui Dynasty (581-618 B.C.E.), which appropriated Buddhist values and laid conditions for their adaptation in Korea and Japan. Establishing legitimacy is
a challenge for any leader or government. Therefore, the concepts examined here
are applicable to many periods of history, as well as to civics or government courses.
III. Correlation with the National Standards for World History
"Emperor Ashoka of India: What Makes a Ruler Legitimate?" provides
teaching materials that address the National Standards for History, Basic Edition, (National Center for History in the Schools, UCLA, 1996), World History, Era 3, Standard 2C (Persian empire) and 2D (Alexander of Macedonia); and
Standard 3C (Unification of China) and 3D (Mauryan empire). Also Era 4, Standard 1D (expansion of Hindu and Buddhist traditions), 3A (Sui & Tang Dynasties), and 3B (Chinese influence on Korea and Japan).
Because these lessons are organized around the thematic thread of political legitimization, teachers can use readings, activities, and insights from this unit as they
examine examples of legitimization addressed in other sections of the National
History Standards. The unit is also helpful in examining cultural diffusion and the spread of
IV. Unit Objectives
- To understand the concept of political legitimacy, what makes
people believe that the ruler has the right to rule, and that they should obey his
or her commands.
- To identify and understand some of the different bases of legitimacy such
as power, heredity, the ballot, and moral force.
- To identify and understand symbols of power such as a crown and
- To understand Ashoka's use of moral authority instead of military might
as a basis for legitimacy.
- To examine the meaning of the stupa and how it was associated with
political power and legitimacy.
- To investigate ways in which rulers in Southeast and East Asia adapted
the Ashokan model as a source of legitimacy.
V. Lesson Plans
- What Makes People Obey Rulers: The Question of Legitimacy
- The Early Mauyran Empire's Basis of Rule and Legitimacy
- Emperor Ashoka: Rule by Dhamma
- The Legendary Ashoka
- Ashoka's Influence Spreads to Southeast Asia and East Asia
VI. Introductory Activities
- Ask students in the class if they would obey you if you told them to:
- Read a chapter in the textbook and take a quiz on the information.
- Do the shopping for your family.
- Take off their shirts or sweaters and let you listen to their heart.
- Enlist in the army.
- Discuss why they would or would not follow these orders. What orders from
a teacher would they obey? What if a parent gave the orders? Who would they
obey for each of those commands? Why?
- Discuss what a teacher can do if a student refuses to obey. What can other
persons in authority do to make people obey their commands?
- Review historic examples students have studied of people obeying rulers such
as Pericles, Moses, or Pharaoh. Why did they do so? What makes the American
people willing to accept a new president and allow him to govern?
- Review examples of people ignoring or disobeying the government. What
were some historic examples of people revolting against rulers (e.g. Spartacus
against Rome, the French against Louis XVI, British colonists against George III).
- What happens when a large group of people refuse to accept the command
or authority of a leader or a government?
- Have the class brainstorm various reasons why people obey their rulers. That
is, what are some of the things that make people think a ruler has legitimacy? Ask
the class to make an hypothesis about effective ways leaders or rulers have to make
sure people will obey them.
- Introduce or review the idea of symbols and symbolic meaning. What
would happen if you burned an American flag or a Christian cross? What would
happen if you drew a swastika on the blackboard? What type of symbols might
convince people in a pluralistic culture that their leaders have legitimacy? Ask students
to brainstorm symbols of legitimacy, for example, uniforms people in authority
wear or titles used to address important people.
||Vedic Age, India|
||Era of Warring States, China|
|c. 630-533 B.C.E.
|6th century B.C.E.
||Gautama the Buddha|
||Achaemenid Persian Empire|
||Pericles in Athens|
||Alexander of Macedonia's Military Conquests|
||Mauryan Empire in India|
||Chandragupta Maurya rules Mauryan Empire|
||Shi Huang Di rules as First Emperor of Qin Dynasty|
||Chin Dynasty, China|
|206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.
||Han Empire, China|
|c. 100 B.C.E.
||Travel and Trade along Silk Roads established|
|1st century B.C.E.
||Split between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism|
|31 B.C.E. to 476 C.E.
|1st to 6th centuries C.E.
||Funan Kingdom, Mainland, Southeast Asia|
||Birth of Jesus|
|c. 100 C.E.
||Fujan Kingdom,Southeast Asia|
||Kushan Empire in India|
|29 B.C.E.-476 C.E.
||Emperor Constantine moves capital to Constantinople|
|1st century C.E.
||Spread of Buddhism to SE Asia|
||Buddhism first reaches China|
||Gupta Empire, India|
||Northern Wei in China patronizes Buddhism|
||Height of Sassanid Dynasty in Persia|
||Justinian's rule of Byzantine Empire|
||Buddhism arrives in Japan|
||Silkworm eggs smuggled into Byzantine Empire from China|
||The Prophet Muhammad|
||Sui Dynasty, China|
||Reign of Emperor Sui Wen Di , China|
||Reign of Emperor Sui Yang, China|
||T'ang Dynasty, China|
||Hegira (hijra), start of Muslim calendar|
||Korea united under the Silla Dynasty|
||Srivijaya Kingdom, Southeast Asia|
||Reign of Charlemagne, King of the Franks|
||Kingdom of Ghana, West Africa|
||Heian Period, Japan|
||Khmer Kingdom, Cambodia|
||Reighn of Suryavarman II, builder of Angkor Wat, Cambodia|
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