Book Review: Ashok The Great

Edited by: Monika Khanna

Mahaan Ashok… the Emperor whose name is drilled into our heads, our thoughts and our very being as Indians; Mahaan Ashok – the greatest among Indians; Mahaan Ashok… the only Indian to be honoured with a Title of Mahaan meaning Great; Mahaan Ashok…. Who has now become synonymous with Modern India through the Lion Capital; Mahaan Ashok… the man who first brought India under one yoke; Mahaan Ashok… The Mauryan Emperor of worldwide renown and fame; Mahaan Ashok, or Ashok The Great, the only known emperor (in my knowledge, at least) to renounce war as a state craft during his lifetime, and since… 

The current book under review is a collection of facts and articles about this legendary Indian, a name who evokes a tremendous feeling of pride in Indians of all hues and religions. The main scoring point of the book is that It looks extensively at the historical & archeological as well as the literary record, which is critical – since the Historical record may be incorrect (either due to deliberate misrepresentation like the First War of Independence in 1857; or oversight) – and corroborating literary references can be critical proofs – or can raise some damned uncomfortable questions. This is a vital point, as I shall connect up later

This is a book that covers almost the entire life of Devanampiya Piyadassi, also known as Ashok – the man who went on to achieve international acclaim as Ashok The Great, reconstructing his antececents, the dynastic line, his early childhood and his growing up years. It goes on to cover the period of his rule, as well as his personal relationships and descendents. It also covers in extensive detail the entire archeological record – his rock edicts and his pillars, give a translation of each, as well as the historical background. 

The massive extent of his empire is also covered, which extended into Afghanistan in the north-west, and almost the entire deccan plateau in the south, reaching upto what is now modern Bihar and Bengal in the east. The good part is that rather than focusing on military conquests, it touches upon the highlights of the military aspects, with detailed attention to the one military event that all of us know very well: the Kalinga War. This is what makes the book a fast and fun read; it is not a boring historical account – but rather a combination of a reference book on everything to do with Ashok The Great, and a fast and light account of his life. The book brings out hithero unknown aspects of his empire, and the international links and references that he had. For example, his emissaries visited Antioch, Athens, Alexandria, Bactria, Sri Lanka and Burma among others. He is known to mention several famous rulers in his edicts : for example Antiochus I of Syria; Ptolemy I of Egypt

The most interesting – and important part of the book is the extensive coverage it gives to the literary record, which brings out some minor inconsistencies with the historical record. The book looks at The Ashokaavadaan, The Mahaavamsa and The Dipavamsa among others. For starters, The Ashokaavadaan does not make any mention of the Kalinga War when describing Ashok’s conversion; The Ashokaavadaan is a first century Sanskrut work which brings to light a completely different version of Ashok. This does raise questions; for logically – any theory that does not answer all of the facts and events cannot be rightly called correct. 

This brings me to yet another book from my collection – What India Should Know – which makes a claim one would think to be impossible. And yet, the questions in the accepted version remain. In the words of the editor – “A very different Ashok comes to us in the Ashokaavadaan”. Is the Ashokaavadaan a complete fabrication? Or is it based on truth? Why is the Kalinga War not mentioned at all? The book will raise questions in your mind – who was Ashok really? Having said that, it will also answer a good many questions – you will come to know a lot more about the legendary Mahaan Ashok

The questions raised by the book in my mind may be fanciful; or they may be spot-on: but it cannot be denied that Indian History has been significantly altered by the Europeans. While there may be those who still contest the aging of the Ramayan and The Mahabharat; or indeed hold the Aryan Invasion as true – a look at The First War Of Independence will remove all vestiges of doubt. (This is the subject of one of my next 2 posts – The Butcher Of Jhansi). Thus, we cannot hold that whatever has been written is 100% accurate. 

But it is undeniable that the Literary record does not tally amongst itself, or with the Historical and Archeological Record. Interestingly, the current book also clearly mentions that no edict has clearly mentioned Ashok as Buddhist. Where, then, does the truth lie? Perhaps we shall never know – at least not in scientifically provable a form.. Moving on, the current book under review also examines the role of The Lord Buddha, and gives a fascinating direct quote by Him: “A hundred years after my death there will be an Emperor named Ashok in Pataliputra, and adorn Jambudveepa with my relics building 84000 stupas for the welfare of the people” ...

All in all, the current book Ashok The Great is an excellent compilation of all known facts of Ashok; it is inexpensive  @125/-; and is made interesting by the extensive black-and-white photographs of Ashok Sculptures, Edicts, Pillars, a Map etc which give it a lively feel. The fair and frank coverage of alternative viewpoints is also noteworthy, as is the detailed and non-judgmental mention of all literary records. All too often people tend to disregard the literary record – when in fact, it is equally important, as these books were being written as history was being created (Like Versaikar in Maazaa Pravaas – The Real Story Of The Great Uprising - 1857) or within a hundred or so years of the actual event, as the referenced works in Ashok The Great. As my next couple of posts will prove, all too often the literary records from those days trump established and accepted history. But that is another story, to be taken up at a later date…

Sad part is, we might never know for sure who Ashok really was. Personally, my initial response of “What India Should Know” is turning, albeit very slowly, to grudging respect, as this is the second area where their theories find eerie echoes in my mind.  And let me put on record: I read “What India Should Know” after Ashok The Great; the questions above occurred to me while reading the current book. Perhaps I might decide to review that book “What India Should Know” on my blog as well - perhaps this September itself…

Coming Book Reviews:
1. The Great Divide: India and Pakistan by India International Center; edited by Ila Pande
2. Operation Red Lotus – (The Real Story Of The First War Of Independence) by Parag Tope
3. Asian Juggernaut: The Rise Of China, India And Japan by Brahma Chellaney
4. Young Turks By Krishan Partap Singh
5. What India Should Know by V Lakshmikanthan / J Vasundhara Devi


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