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Updated: April 2, 2012 17:10 IST

Erudite, entertaining

PARTHA CHATTERJEE
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Ashoka by Charles Allen
Special Arrangement Ashoka by Charles Allen

In Ashoka, dry scholarship becomes a pleasurable read.

Charles Allen's Ashoka is an erudite, entertaining book on Emperor Ashoka or the “The King without sorrow” who “ruled over a united India some 2250 years ago”. He turned Buddhism into a “world religion and introduced moral concepts whose impact on Asia can be felt to this day”. But Ashoka's moral battle was won after a terrible crisis of conscience following the battle of Kalinga, the bloodiest one of the time, in which tens of thousands were killed.

Strange but true, Ashoka lay forgotten as a historical figure, quite literally buried under the sands of time, until the British introduced the discipline of archaeology and sent scholar-administrators to India to study Sanskrit and Pali and to learn from Hindu and Jain scholars the art of interpreting old manuscripts and, to perhaps, evolve a logical method of decoding the ancient past. Among the very first British scholars was Sir William Jones who came to Calcutta in September 1783. Jones died 1n 1794 but not before he had set up the Asiatic Society, modelled on the Royal Society in England.

“A new chapter in India's history had begun. The light of reason would now be brought to bear on Jones's sixteen objects of enquiry, leading to a new understanding of Mother India as ‘the nurse of sciences, the inventress of delightful and useful arts, the scene of glorious actions, fertile in the production of human genius.” One of the objectives of Jones's quest was to recover India's forgotten pre-Muslim history.

Unique achievement

One of the lasting achievements of the British archaeologists and their Indian colleagues whom they trained, was to bring to light the Ashokan world and its premier place in the history of human civilisation. Ashoka was the first ruler, possibly in the world, to espouse the cause of non-violence as a way of life and was a beacon to M.K. Gandhi who did the same in early 20 century India ruled by the British. Allen's book is strewn with the names of people who have persevered through the most trying hardships to unravel the hoary past and offer new perspectives in the interpretation of History. There is an oil painting , courtesy APAC, British Library, of Colin Mackenzie flanked by Jain and Brahmin pandits, after his appointment as Surveyor General. There are many reproductions of ancient sites and of reliefs on stone. Indian artists like Shaikh Abdullah, Murugesa Moodaliar, among others, are duly acknowledged for their contribution as are scholars Ramakrishna Gopal Bhandarkar, Dr. Bhau Daji and Bhagwan Lal Indraji, archaeologists Dr. Daya Ram Sahni and R.D. Banerjee. There are, of course, many others also duly acknowledged for their contribution in their respective disciplines. The stars from the British side are many but the two names that stand out are General Sir Alexander Cunningham in the first half of the 19 century and John Marshall in the first two decades of the 20 century.

Underlying thesis

Allen's subtle thesis suggests that it is over the debris of the previous civilisation that another built. The Jain and Buddhist civilisations were violently overwhelmed by that of the Hindus, whose claims to peace, love and harmony in our times is mythical. He wryly observes in his Preface: “The politicians who in 1991 egged on the mob that destroyed Babur's mosque at Ayodhya on the grounds that it was built over the Hindu warrior-god Rama's fort may be surprised to know 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 deities or as lingams. Four likely examples — selected simply because they come from the four corners of the subcontinent — are the Badrinath shrine in the far north Garhwal Himalayas, the Jagannath temple at Puri on the east coast, the Ayyappa shrine at Sabarimala in Kerala and the Vithalla shrine at Pandharpur in Western Maharashtra.”

Ashoka is an example of dedicated scholarship worn lightly. It is refreshing in its insights and is written with the same ease and elegance as his earlier books on India and the Indian experience. Profusely illustrated, this book easily bridges the gap between dry scholarship and its transformation into a pleasurable read. The reproductions, particularly of photographs, could have been sharper.

Ashoka, Charles Allen, Hachette, p. 480, Rs. 750.

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