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REVIEWING ASHOKA: Breathing Life Back into an Emperor

The buzz around Nayanjot Lahiri's new biography of Ashoka (Permanent Black and Harvard University Press) 
is growing into a clamour.  Professor Kumkum Roy, historian at JNU, writes: 
The Mauryan emperor Ashoka has attracted the attention of scholars and laypersons with access to formal education for nearly two centuries since his ‘rediscovery’ in the 1830s. Nayanjot Lahiri’s work is the latest in a long, rich and diverse series of biographies of the ruler. It is significant as being the first major reassessment of Ashoka by a historian of ancient India in the twenty first century, also because it is explicitly meant for a general audience, and attempts to move, remarkably successfully, beyond a dry academic narrative.

And if you read this excellent review below, 
it'll be clear why.

Ashoka in Ancient India 
by Nayanjot Lahiri 

Steve Donoghue

As University of Delhi history professor Nayanjot Lahiri writes in her richly thoughtful new book Ashoka in Ancient India, the third-century BC object of her attentions stands out from the near-innumerable run of rulers, princes, officials, and emperors to a very marked degree. “The contrast with the archetypically self-serving politician,” she writes of the emperor Ashoka, “is so stark and rare that Ashoka arouses in historians a knee-jerk admiration virtually unseen in South Asia until the appearance of Mahatma Gandhi.”

In fact, that near-innumerable run of rulers tending to blend into each other raises all the more insistently the question of where Ashoka’s appeal originates (Professor Lahiri seems endearingly unaware that this appeal stops dead on the borders of her country and that Ashoka is as unknown outside of India as Ashurbanipal is unknown outside of Turkey; when it comes to name-recognition in Piccadilly, the Mahatma has the field quite to himself), and a significant and intriguing portion of this book is an attempt to understand that appeal. “In large part,” Lahiri thinks, it’s due to “his own keenness to appear to posterity as neither recondite nor imperious but instead as a flesh-and-blood emperor guided less by power than by compassion.”

That compassion was the result of the emperor, horrified by the carnage of his own conquests, adopting Buddhism and dedicating himself to becoming a merciful, enlightened ruler, someone who appears, from the records of his own time (many admittedly commissioned by himself), to be “the prototype of benevolence.” He made himself more accessible to the people he ruled than had any monarch in Indian history, encouraging the populace to petition for his wisdom or judgement on any manner of subject. Indeed, as Lahiri drolly puts it (this is, against all odds but wonderfully consistently, a funny book), “one is tempted to imagine the king’s eating and love-making interrupted by people with problems rushing in and out of his private chambers.”

In addition to some early Buddhist biographical tracts about Ashoka, he himself left behind many edicts carved in stone and erected in public gathering spots throughout his kingdom. Lahiri gives a full account of these carved edicts, sifts carefully through the ancient written sources, all in search of the man underneath the accretions of myth, and along the way, she does an understatedly effective job of dramatizing Ashoka’s entire world, from diet and entertainment to the royal peregrinations that formed so vital a part of keeping a big kingdom knit together:

Ancient India’s royalty travelled in style: that is what sculptural representations of large royal processions of chariots and elephants suggest. Some of the earliest such reliefs can be seen at Bharhut in Central India of the second century BCE, where historical kings figure. Prasenajiit of Kosala, for instance, is shown on a chariot drawn by four richly caparisoned horses with attendants and riders, while Ajatashatru of Magadha is depicted sitting on a state elephant with the others accompanying the leader controlled by female mahouts. Like military expeditions, the itineraries of travelling kings were presumably planned well in advance, with calculated halts on the way in villages, towns, and forests. The forethought that went into these expeditions was crucial because, to facilitate the movement of sovereigns and armies, travel tracks had to be made suitable for such retinues.

The result of all this careful, well-presented thought and research is what is certainly the best biography of Ashoka the Great ever written in English. “It is clearly not possible to write up Ashoka’s life in a way that meets modern biographical criteria,” Lahiri confesses early on in her book, and then, like a market conjuror, she proceeds to do what she’s just declared to be impossible. Certainly there have been longer biographies in 2015 of much more recent figures in history – presidents, Civil War generals, famous athletes and singers – that did, shall we say, a far less impressive job of bringing their subjects to life, despite having far more documentation at their disposal. It’s comforting to know, in fact, that the tenacity and the imagination of the biographer is still the deciding factor in books of this sort. Readers who know nothing of Ashoka – surely the majority of readers who will encounter this Harvard University Press hardcover with its bizarrely funereal charcoal-colored cover – are urged to let Lahiri make introductions.

PS by PERMANENT BLACK ---- Pity Mr Donoghue did not see the jacket of our edition, shown above.


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