The idea of the author to choose North Indian monarchs as the subject of his fiction must be lauded, as we are only exposed to historical fiction on South Indian kings and kingdoms so far. Readers would, therefore, welcome Siddharthan’s venture into writing about the life and times of Samrat Asokan.
The novel is divided into four parts – Ilavenil, Muduvenil, Mazhai and Pani - based on the Seasons. But they are only metaphoric representations of the contents. According to the author, historical events must form the sheet anchor for such fiction, and they should not be hidden or twisted in the narration.
While the first part deals with the young, intelligent Asoka, the warrior steeped in disciplined politics and a believer in equality is also portrayed as a young lover. Asoka leaves with his brother Charudutta to quell the riots in North-West region and joins his beloved Mriganayani after his return. The first part covers Asoka’s adventurous voyages across the Ganga and the Brahamaputra, and several characters are introduced such as brother Suseeman, mother Subhadranki, the escort Suryatheja, sister Hirangi and brothers Vidasokan and Dissa, Charudutta’s friend Chathurasenan and lover Mrinalini.
The second part ‘Muduvenil’ is full of palace intrigues, plots and sub-plots, following the demise of King Bindusara. While the queen Chandraprabha Devi insists on coronation of her son Suseeman, Asoka and his ministers prepare counter plans forcing Suseeman to escape. The Maurya army is divided into two and both try to capture Pataliputra. For four years, Asoka cannot be crowned due to disturbances. On the insistence of the ministers and the queen who refuses to come, Asoka marries princess Asanthimitha of Mithila and takes over the Maurya kingdom. While holidaying in Kashmir, Asoka falls in love with Padmavati, daughter of King Harisimhan and returns to Pataliputra with her. With the return of son Mahendran and Charudutta’s son Vimalakeerti to the palace after getting trained in warfare, Asoka concentrates on the governance.
When Suseeman dies in a war, his son becomes a young Buddha bikshu and Asoka feels, after listening to his sermons, he has a responsibility to spread Buddhism among his subjects. He establishes thousands of schools to educate all children without any discrimination of caste or creed. Rather than becoming a Buddha sanyasi, Asoka decides to spread the holy tenets of the religion. When the Kalinga king upsets Asoka’s plans, Asoka wages a war and at the end of battle for Kalinga, Asoka realises the futility of war that resulted in death and destructions and takes a vow not to resort to war anymore.
The third part ‘Mazhai’ deals with the spread of dharma after Asoka becomes a sympathiser of Buddhism. Asoka takes a pilgrimage to Saranath and Lumbini. The plans of his opponents to create mistrust among the followers of Buddhism get misfired. Asoka bans offering human sacrifice which was prevalent in certain parts, during yagna or yaga. An important event in the novel is the monarch meeting a young man Sanch. His father, killed in the Kalinga war, had narrated to his son that Asoka had vowed to abandon war, after he had realised that he was the cause for so many deaths. While installing a stupa in Vedisa, Asoka searches for the boy Sanch and inscribes his name in the stupa and declares the name of the place as Sanchi, after the boy. A delegation headed by Mahdendra Thera is sent to preach in Sri Lanka at the request of the Thambapani group and Mahendra leaves for Sri Lanka, with blessings from his mother.
The final part ‘Pani’ deals with the spread of Buddhism in other parts. There are no statues of Buddha, although he is worshipped by the people; they meditate before the Padma Peetam. Padmavati is happy that Sangamitra carries the message of Buddha, wherever she goes. When Asoka frowns upon the fine arts like music and dance that provoke baser instincts, Padmavati counters him. The section covers stories of Angulimalan and Amrapali and how they changed their lives, after their encounters with Buddha. The background for installations and inscriptions of Buddha’s teachings is vividly described.
One notable point of this monumental work is that the author has travelled widely to collect raw material for his fiction. The narrative style of the author is simple but impressive. For certain jargons of the period, he gives the meaning alongside without resorting to footnotes.
What was the secret behind the success of the Maurya kingdom? “It was established as per the guidance of Vishnugupta. Like Alexander the great, Samrat Chandragupta brought the country under one umbrella. In the path laid by him, Bindusara ruled the country with talented ministers, scholars and pundits of Dharma sastras and Asoka followed his footsteps. As Vishnugupta has described in his Arthasastra, the basis for prosperity is economic development” explains Somasuri, one of the characters.
Quotations from Bharatiar, Thirukkural, Rg Veda and the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha seem inappropriate in a fiction of this kind. Such extraneous interjections certainly hinder the narrative flow. As scholar Swaminatha Athreya says in his preface, the author’s intervention is needless and the novel should unfold only through incidents and characters.
The cover illustrations by Maniam Selvan are brilliant.
Keywords: Samrat Asokan