Ashoka: The Search for India’s Lost Emperor, Charles Allen
If you were a kid growing up going to Indian schools in the 80s and early 90s (and even maybe today- I don’t know how much the textbooks have changed) you came across a few standard names in ancient Indian history. In no particular order- Alexander the Great, Chandragupta Maurya, Chanakya, Bindusara, Ashoka, Mahindra, Sangamitra, Pushyamitra and Harshavardana. At least these are the names I remember.
When you read ancient Indian history from a school textbook you get names and you get a set of dates. This guy ruled in this part from this year until that year. You didn’t question it. You also didn’t ask them how they arrived at the dates. All you wanted to do was to get through your history exam without messing the dates (which you invariably did anyway). The education system is designed uniquely to inspire hatred for subjects that could be fairly interesting otherwise- History and Geography being very notable examples. So like the million other factory fed students before me I just believed that history existed and was known. Of course how else could it have been? You just assume that like in most cases in the West history in this part of the world (even if it had not been well documented) had somehow been known and voila! you get a chronology. I believed that until I picked up Charles Allen’s book.
First, the title (unless you read the sub-title which incidentally is missing from the Indian edition) is totally misleading. This is not a book that gives you a continuous narrative about Ashoka’s life. In fact if that’s what you want you should probably skim to the last chapter which gives a quick chronology from Chandragupta Maurya until just after Ashoka. If you get into the book with the wrong expectations it is likely to disappoint you.
What the book is about (the bit about the ‘Search for India’s lost emperor’) is actually a narrative that spans about three centuries detailing the efforts initially of Europeans (Britishers mostly) but later of Indians as well in unraveling the history of Ashoka but also more broadly ancient India.
Imagine this- it took Sir William Jones, among many things a scholar of ancient India, many years of effort to pore over ancient records from the West (Greek accounts of the invasion of Alexander and afterwards) and to compare that with Sanskrit resources to finally arrive at a common chronological point in ancient Indian history through Chandragupta Maurya.
Reading this book and learning about the efforts of men like Sir William Jones, James Prinsep, Alexander Cunnigham and the others you realise that without their initiatives in exploring the history and antiquity of this country they occupied much of our own history- the thing that now defines our (Indian) identity would have been a lacuna.
We owe them a huge debt of gratitude for not only unveiling ancient stories but also imparting the spirit of conservation to locals. You want to cry when you read about horror stories where ancient monuments are pilfered for their material both by locals and by careless colonialists (they were not all enlightened souls with a passion for ancient history). You want to scream when you read about monuments broken down over religious differences. For example soon after Ashoka died, his Buddhist monuments were broken down by successive Hindu rulers only to be restored by later Buddhist rulers only to be broken down much later by other forces including invading Muslim forces in the 11th and 12th centuries. Not just monuments but libraries- the burning of Nalanda- what treasures the world would have possessed had this library survived. Instead we had to rely on Buddhist accounts from Sri Lanka and China (remember Fa Hien and Hieun- Tsang?) to reconstruct our past.
These were the thoughts that kept running through my head more than the narrative of Ashoka himself. After all we think we know enough about him (the same textbook arrogance). Battle of Kalinga, conversion to Buddhism, built good roads with trees on either side and hospitals. Sent his children to Sri Lanka to spread Buddhism (who would do that?????) and oh! don’t forget those lions you see everyday on any bit of cash you use or that chakra that you see in the Indian flag- all Ashoka- all this from our textbooks- we assumed that people always had history text books even in the 10th Century CE. Except they didn’t. Not in a way that resembled the historical method as we know now. That we owe to the Europeans.
How much more do we not know?