Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Book Review: “Ashoka” by Charles Allen

Of course I knew who Ashoka was even before I started reading Charles Allen’s most recent offering on one of the greatest kings India has ever known. I am sure that almost all Indians do. What I expected to get from Ashoka was a detailed description of Emperor Ashoka, how he came to power and a list of all the good things he did after that famous change of heart and conversion to Buddhism subsequent to the conquest of Kalinga. What I ended up was something else. No, I wasn’t disappointed. Far from it, rather. Allen’s 400-page tome on Ashoka (that’s not including appendices, annexures or the elaborate index at the end) is not just a compilation of all that’s known about Ashoka. If that were to be the case, the book wouldn’t have run to more than 75 pages. Rather, it is a detailed exposition of how archaeologists, many of them employees of the East India Company and British Indian bureaucrats, motivated mainly by curiosity and a love for India’s history, dug around, came up with theories, some of them silly, and ultimately shed light on a man every Indian ought to be proud of: Emperor Ashok. Ideally, the book ought to have been titled "The Search For Ashoka The Great" or something on those lines.

As amateur British archaeologists started to unearth Ashoka’s rock edicts, they put forth various theories about him. Some of the early theories about Ashoka and the Mauriyan dynasty were downright ridiculous. For example, William Jones, a linguist fluent in 13 languages including Persian and Sanskrit, an Oxford graduate, a barrister enrolled at the Middle Temple Inn, a judge on the bench of the Supreme Court at Kolkata, took the view, after reading the Puranas in the original and examining rubbings of Brahmi inscriptions on various pillars erected by Ashoka, such as one found in Sultan Firoz Shah Tughlaq’s palace, that a conqueror or law giver from Ethiopia had lived in India around a thousand years before Christ. That was around 1789 and at that time, the world knew very little about Buddhism or of Emperor Ashoka. Later, more and more information flowed in, especially from Sri Lanka where Buddhism flourished and from China from where travellers such as Faxian (Fahien) and Xuangzang (Huen Tsang) had visited India in 399 CE and 629 CE respectively.

Until I read Ashoka, I wasn’t aware of the extent of Greek influence on the Mauryan Empire and its culture. Allen tells us that Chandragupta or Sashigupta, known to the Greeks as Androkottos or Sandrokoptos or Sisikottos, was a Vaisya horseman who served Alexander the Great as a mercenary, in which role he actually helped Alexander defeat horse people such as the Aspasioi and Assakenoi in what’s now Afghanistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. After Alexander captured Mount Aornos (modern day Swat), Sisikottos was appointed as governor of that area as a reward for various services rendered. However, as soon as Alexander turned around and started the long journey back to Greece via Persia and Babylon, Chandragupta united the local tribes and asserted himself. We are told that Chandragupta was probably involved in the murder of Philippos, the governor of Gandhara and within a few years of Alexander’s exit from India and his death in Babylon, Chandragupta started to capture territory held by Alexander’s satraps and also defeated the much despised Nandas. Allen tells us that Chandragupta’s minister and chief advisor Chanakya played a vital role in Chandragupta’s success, but Allen’s description of Chandragupta and Chanakya is a far cry from that given in Ashwin Sanghi’s Chanakya’s Chant. Chandragupta is his own man and Allen tells us that Chanakya stuck to him like a leech and played a moderating role.

Before the arrival of Alexander, the people living Northern India did not have an indigenous written script, though the famous grammarian Panini lived around that time. Allen suggests that Prakrit, the main spoken language of those days, was written in Aramaic until the Brahmi script was developed. Did Chanakya play a role in the development of Brahmi? Most probably he did, according to Allen. Art and sculpture is another area where the Greek influence is highly visible. All of a sudden, artefacts from that era show a great deal of Greek influence. Also, Greek mercenaries were employed by Ashoka and other Kings of that era.

Ashoka came to power after murdering his elder half-brother Sushima. Once he was in power, he killed off his remaining half-brothers, all ninety nine of them. Only one brother, Tissa, was allowed to live. Ashoka was a short, corpulent man with rough skin who was susceptible to fainting spells. He once burned alive all his concubines when he found out that they did not like to caress his rough skin. Most probably, he was already a novice or lay Buddhist when he launched his attack on Kalinga, but after the Kalinga war, he stopped all further violence and became very kind and gentle, though towards the end of his life. Ashoka had many wives. His first wife Devi was the daughter of a merchant and Ashoka’s children through Devi, namely Mahinda and Sanghamitra became Buddhist monks and missionaries. Ashoka’s chief queen was Asandhimitra and she bore his heir apparent Kunala. Unfortunately Asandhimitra died when Ashoka was in his mid-sixties. The replacement queen Tishyarakshita turned out to be clever and evil. Clever because she found a cure for Ashoka’s stomach ailment by finding a man with similar symptoms, killed him and invented a way of killing the worm found in the dead man’s tummy (with the despised onion). Evil, because she had Kunala blinded. Towards the end of his life, Ashoka went into a frenzy of donating every last bit he owned in the world to his favourite Buddhist monasteries and died an unhappy man.

Ever since Buddhism came into prominence, it had been at loggerheads with Brahminism. Brahmins opposed Buddhism because the two faiths competed for patronage. Brahmins also sought to co-opt Buddhism within the folds of Hindusim. Arab historian Abu-al-Fazl had written in his Ain-i-Akbari that ‘the Brahmans called Boodh the ninth avatar, but assert that the religion that is ascribed to him is false.’ In the 8th and 9th centuries, the Hindu resurgence led by Adi Shankara had decimated Buddhism. Allen takes the view that ‘some of the most famous Hindu temples in India almost certainly began as Buddhist structures, often incorporating Buddhist icons, either in the form of images of deities or as lingams. For likely examples – selected simply because they come from the four corners of the subcontinent – are the Badrinath shrine in the far north Garwal Himal, the Jagannath temple at Puri on the east coast, the Ayappa temple at Sabarimala in Kerala and the Vithalla shrine at Pandharour in Western Maharashtra.’ Islamic invaders dealt the final blow, putting many Buddhist shrines and universities, such as the university at Nalanda, to the sword and torch.

Allen goes a bit overboard is detailing how Ashoka is unsurpassed in the sub-continent’s history and how India hasn’t done right by him. True, Ashoka was the first person to propound the theory of ahimsa and his messages on the rock edicts carry a secular message and not a Buddhist one. Allen is angry that Ashoka is not celebrated as a great hero across the length and breadth of India and cites two important reasons for this state of affairs. According to Allen, many Indian historians did not like the fact that the Mauryan empire and various Mauryan kings, especially Chandragupta Maurya, were influenced by Greek culture and had benefitted from their interactions with Alexander the Great and his Greek/Macedonian army. Therefore, they did not glorify Ashoka as much as they ought to have. No, Allen does not say that Ashoka had any Greek blood - even though Chandragupta did marry Ambassador Megesthanes’s daughter, his heir and successor Bindusara was born of his first wife. The second reason for the non-glorification of Ashoka is, according to Allen, the rise of Hindutva, which doesn’t like the way Ashoka propped up Buddhism and downgraded Brahminism. Around the time of India’s independence, when a secular Nehru was in charge, Ashoka was good news. Ashoka’s chakra found a place on the Indian flag and Delhi’s best hotel was called Ashoka. However, after Nehru’s death, Indians stopped giving Ashoka much importance. Allen is certain that this is because Hindutva ideology which has been gaining ground in India, doesn’t wish to glorify a man who was very much influenced by Greek culture. Allen may be right to some extent, though I suspect bureaucratic sloth may have played as great as role as Hindutva ideology in the lack of attention towards Ashoka.


Vishal Kale said...

Nice review... must read book. Thanks. As far as Ashok's neglect is concerned: how much do we know about the Chola dynasty of South India, who had trade links as well as territories in the east, and were a massive power? or of Harshavardhan? Vikramditya? The fault lies in our approach to our past!

Agree that Ashok the great did not -and still doesn't - get his due place in our history. In my opinion - he is right up there with Akbar as the 2 greatest emperors of our past

Vishal Kale said...

PS: Even this book has been penned by a westerner! What more can I say regarding our approach to history?

Winnowed said...

Vishal, I couldn't agree more with you.

Roshmi Sinha said...

Thanks for the review. But does it say anything about why there is a King Ashoka Temple situated on the King Ashoka Mountain in China. Or that nineteen pagodas built by Ashoka – supposedly enshrining the relics of Shri Buddha - are in China and named after him.

Does it also touch upon the belief held by several historians that Alexander the Great fought three major wars in his life and won two … and that the third one was papered over by the Greek historians – because he lost it – beaten back by the forces of Paurav (Porus) and the ancient Persians. That the story of his ‘magnanimity’ with Porus could very likely be a fantasy – to keep Alexander’s aura intact?

Does it mention about a Tibetan King sending his army to join forces with Chandragupta – in order to defeat the Greeks?

Does he write about the Nine Unknown?

Does he even discuss the possibility that Shri Buddha may not have preached a new religion at all? That his message was perhaps aimed at putting the compassion back into the Hindu faith, just like say Guru Nanakji came forth to put the martial spirit back into the Hindu faith.

Does he write about how the name ‘Hindu’ came about? Does he explain why Buddhism in India is of the docile variety?

‘Coz if you look at all the Buddhist nations today: China, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand – they are a martial race, and have quite effectively been able to rebuff the marauding hordes that came in from all sides.

Winnowed said...

Roshmi, thank you for your comment.

No, it does not say any of the things that you mention. You say that Shri Buddha may not have preached a new religion at all - That his message was perhaps aimed at putting the compassion back into the Hindu faith, just like say Guru Nanakji came forth to put the martial spirit back into the Hindu faith. You ought to read the Atheist Buddhist by Stephen Batchelor where this point is discussed at length. I have reviewed it here:

You say that Buddhism in India is of the docile variety. I am not sure about that. In the Buddhist nations you mention - China, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Buddhists form a majority. It is easy to be aggressive when in a majority.

Roshmi Sinha said...

Thanks for the link – will surely take a look.

About my query re: Buddhism in India being of the docile variety; let me reframe my question.

What I am trying to understand is this: isn’t there a possibility that Buddhism itself was responsible for its demise – in India? Have various groups of Buddhism not had intra as well as internecine conflicts – for power, for influence, for other materialistic aspects? Is there no possibility of Shri Buddha’s message being misunderstood/misinterpreted over a period of time – for whatever reasons?

What has been the impact of Buddhism – when it flourished – on society, over a period of time?

Imagine a society that sees waves of educated and able-bodied youth join a faith and influence others to do so too – over generations. What happens to the families, their dependents – young and old? What kind of people is then left for the administrative services, tax collection, security, military and medical services, in the teaching and legal professions and even available for matrimonial purposes?

Are these issues discussed in this book?

Winnowed said...

Docility, just like courage, is relative. We don't know if Indian buddhists were docile or if they became docile on account of their interpretation of Gautama Buddha's teachings.

No, these issues are not discussed in this book.

Roshmi Sinha said...

Well, as they say, history is never boring, only the teacher is. We can only speculate...

Shashank said...

Here's another contrasting review of the book.

This book seems more like an agenda than anything else, as has been the case with most books dealing with Indian history written by westerners.

Anonymous said...

What a brilliant review - almost feel I don't have to read the book now - it might just prejudice me! Seriously though I am quite excited about reading this book. I spent my childhood in the northern areas and was always intrigued by Ashoka whenever we drove past or climbed the rocks on which Ashoka's edicts were inscribed. Alas you can no longer do that as they are fenced in! This book seems to fill quite a few gaps in the sketchy information available on Ashoka. Could have done without the info on his physical apearance and rough skin though - thank God Bollywood did not know this before casting Shahrukh swept through the big screen with streaming hair and rippling muscles!
By the way what's with all this speculation on what this book may be missing and how sad that a non Indian has written it? Just the review gives an indication of the research and hard work that must have gone into the book.

Anonymous said...

You say; " ...just like say Guru Nanakji came forth to put the martial spirit back into the Hindu faith"

The message of Baba Nanak was one of spirituality, love & tolerance and had nothing to do with any martial spirit.

Winnowed said...

Anonymous, you are absolutely right. Guru Nanak did not teach violence. Like the Buddha, he found Hinduism too ritualistic and propounded a simple way of like. Sikhism became a martial sect/faith after so much persecution at the hands of the Mughals, especially the execution of the fifth Guru Arjun Mal by Emperor Jehangir. Please take a look at Romila Thapar's book on Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas. Here's a link to my review:

You could also read Khushwant Singh's History of the Sikhs. It comes it two volumes. Here are links to my reviews:

Anonymous said...

I read from here that Asoka did not exist:

I am skeptical too because why does it need to take British archeologists to discover Asoka in the first place if he is so great? Its like saying Julius Caesar were discovered by non-Europeans, Darius the Great were discovered by non-Persians or Qin Shi Huang were discovered by non-Chinese.

Vineeth More said...

Ashoka indeed in regarded as the most influential ruler in the History of India,so Mr.Vishal Kale ,Akbar stands nowhere near him in terms of the vastness of the empire he ruled and in any glorification of our Indian Civilization. Mughals nearly plundered India's wealth and the people too.Akbar was just an Emperor after Ashoka who unified Indians and ruled their hearts.
Mr.Author "U may write a Ton of pages about any great Historic figures about the way they look to their concubines and etc". Probably u cannot ignore that it was only under Ashoka that India became a superpower of the ancient world where the Greeks, Egyptians, Persians and east Asia stood nowhere near his might. Ashoka send doctors,teachers,architects,engineers as Ambassadors to Macedonia,Egypt and East Asia. He ruled the majority of Persia,so stop deriving sadistic pleasures out of writing about Foreign influences over India.U could have called it Cultural Exchange but u r just following your tradition of glamorizing European influence over Indian Might.
So we can better call that Greeks named Chandragupta and his son Bindusara in Greek as a sign of critical threats to Greek civilization. Alexander was killed by Chanakya if u dint knew this. Selecus Nicator-I never won India and exchanged his daughter( not Megesthanus)instead of 100 Chandragupta's old War elephants which he needed to stronghold his empire in Siberia and crush war revolts. This shows the Sign of prosperity of Ancient India.
So Mr.Author stop basking in an imaginary world of European Might which is all false and fake. Sorry if that hurts u but this is reality.
We feel shameless today that our country has been plundered by many West Asian forces like Turkey,Iran with Allaudin Khilji,the Mugals putting the country in deep shit and all the siphoning of wealth by British forces lately.This stigma on Indian Civilization has lingered all over in encumbering the glorification of any kind. So please don't spray salt over our Scars and Blisters.
""And Ashoka died a Happy man by donating many bits of his wealth on Public Welfare"".He had a rough skin but he wasn't Fat and Short. He was exactly the opposite.
He is liked by all of us,he had no Greek wife's instead had Greek ambassadors and travelers in his court. He was aware of Greek Civilization and the Hellenistic World as a part of Political Competitive Intelligence.But he was far too mighty to be touched any where near threats.So Please get your facts right before you throw dark light over them and expose to your world that loves to bask in self glory.

daya dissanayake said...

This review is just another piece of fantasy writing, just like the sources he quotes. just one or two points on this.
1. What evidence have they got to link Piyadassi of the rock edicts, with Asoka?
2.Is there any archaeological evidence that Asoka fought the Kalinga?