Ashoka, the great British discovery

Charles Allen’s aim in writing a biography of Ashoka is laudable. However, although we know Ashoka as the benevolent, paternalistic Emperor who respected all religions while promoting Buddhism, we still don’t know enough about his life to fill 400 pages. So instead of being a biography of Ashoka, Allen’s latest book is mainly about the British men-and they are all men-who rediscovered his existence. In fact, Ashoka is a companion volume to two of Allen’s earlier works on the history of archaeology in British India-The Buddha and the Sahibs and The Buddha and Dr Fuhrer. It really should have been called ‘The Sahibs and Ashoka’.

These sahibs embarked on endless adventures and explorations in some of the wildest and most beautiful parts of the subcontinent at a time when jungle was jungle and remote areas truly remote. It was these men who savoured the wonder of stumbling upon the secrets of Sanchi, Sarnath, and Amaravati, and of uncovering ruins from Afghanistan and the vale of Peshawar to as far south as Mysore. Allen has trawled the rich waters of archive and scholarship and truly communicates the thrill of discovery. His portraits of these intelligent men, largely enthusiastic amateurs, sometimes getting it right, very often getting it wrong and habitually dying of horrible diseases just as they are on the brink of great achievements, are impeccably researched and very well drawn.

Allen adds suspense by starting with a clean slate, as the sahibs themselves did, for they didn’t know that there was ever an Indian called Buddha or such a thing as a Mauryan Empire. We are not sure how they became lost to memory, but Allen argues that it was a combination of destruction wrought by Muslim armies and Hindus, a Brahminical conspiracy of silence and the weakening of the institutions of Buddhism themselves. Allen then presents his readers with the same set of clues that the sahibs of previous centuries had, as they set out determinedly to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of ancient India. He tells how manuscripts from beyond India’s borders began to be translated, and how eventually they were used to try to make sense of, and to locate, archaeological remains in India. Then there is the mystery of the edicts inscribed in Brahmi script that literally looked Greek to early epigraphists, and the story of Prinsep’s deciphering of the script and the ultimate identification of Ashoka as their author. One of the edicts was even recovered from a dhobi ghaat where it was being used to beat clothes on.

However, the relentless procession of sahibs, and occasionally their Indian assistants, does at times make the search for Ashoka seem like a marathon, and that too a marathon with no clear winner. The emperor speaks most clearly through his edicts, and Allen gives all of them in full as well as providing a complicated chapter where he attempts to make sense of the contradictory legends surrounding Ashoka’s life. But Ashoka himself remains a mystery, and perhaps this is why Allen feels it necessary to frame his book with uncharacteristic polemic.

He begins with a passionate attack on Edward Said’s, and Indian nationalists’, criticism of the Orientalists. For him, the need of the hour is to champion these much-maligned Orientalist sahibs. But this argument has little meaning in India, where the Archaeological Survey has just published a book written in celebration of its founding and its founders, including many of the men Allen writes about. Contemporary Indian historians, like Delhi University’s erudite Nayanjot Lahiri, take a very even-handed view of the Orientalists. Lahiri’s criticisms of them are in fact the same as Allen’s-for example, the destruction they inflicted on the historical sites they excavated.

Allen concludes by appealing for Ashoka to be better appreciated in the world, and in India. His claim that Ashoka created a nation state and a welfare state is going too far as these are modern, not ancient concepts. His revelation that before Gandhi there was ahimsa is also no revelation-after all, where did the Mahatma get the idea from? Allen also has trouble understanding the complexities of modern India and in particular its natural pluralism-perhaps due to blinkers of unbelief with which he appears to view Islam and Hinduism. He unfairly caricatures Gandhi’s Ram Rajya and paints a dire picture of communal relations in present-day Varanasi. For him, the Ram Janmabhoomi dispute was over the fortress of Rama. He also fails to see the difference between modern Hindutva, which attempts to unite Hindus, including Dalits, and has only had a limited appeal, and the widespread casteism of Ambedkar’s time that made Dalits untouchables. All these, and other strange comments, are unnecessary accretions to an otherwise informative and well-written book, and one that truly deserves praise for attempting to bring Emperor Ashoka into the limelight of the 21st century.


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