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.