Ashoka The Great
Translated by JE Steur
Rs499 pp 1,080
No political figure of antiquity has influenced thought in Asia more profoundly than Asoka, the third emperor of the dynasty of the Mauryas, and the first ruler whose empire embraced almost the whole of India. HG Wells had this in mind when he stated that amid “the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousnesses, and serenities and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Asoka shines, and shines almost alone, a star.”
Asoka’s modern admirers are, however, not limited to those who write history but extend to those who have made history. Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in The Discovery of India that Asoka’s edicts on stone spoke to him “in their magnificent language” and told him “of a man, who, though, an emperor, was greater than any king or emperor”.
Writing about the life of a historical figure, even someone as charismatic as Ashoka, is difficult as it can hardly meet modern biographical criteria. In the case of medieval and modern rulers, much can be said about their life cycles and careers because these are delineated on a year to year basis in the sources. The persona of Asoka, on the other hand, is entangled in a web in which hagiography and legends are as prominent as history and archaeology. The challenge for historians has been in tracing out reliable threads from them.
Writing a biography of Asoka in the form of a novel is much easier, as the writer can selectively weave stories around slippery sources that a scholar would scarcely use. Wytze Keunig’s Ashoka (sic) the Great is one such biography. Written between 1937 and 1947, the original Dutch version was a trilogy and published in three volumes that have been put together in JE Steur’s English translation.
Unlike histories of Asoka that treat his ugly appearance as legend, in this book, it’s central to Asoka’s self-perception. As a prince, when Asoka meets Devi who later becomes the mother of his children, his first words betray this when he asks, “How ugly does the Princess Devi find the Wild Prince of Pataliputra?” Again, while there is nothing in the sources about Asoka facing the implacable opposition of Brahmin ministers in the court of his father, Bindusara, this account is full of dangerously hostile priests who are constantly and unsuccessfully machinating against Asoka. Such artistic licence is natural in this kind of work that ranges from Asoka as a teenager to his viceroyalty to Asoka as emperor and then as a king ruling his empire according to Buddhist principles.
The problem, however, is with the quality of the narrative that is neither gripping nor complex. From the outset, Keuning establishes a reverential tone about Asoka who is shown as fated to be the emperor of India as also an unblemished ruler, full of compassion and courage. In real life, though, Asoka could be disarmingly honest about his failures and limitations. We know, for instance, that in the royal kitchen, three animals were killed for curry even though he weakly promised that “these three animals shall not be killed in future”. Surely, Keuning could have shown the emperor enjoying peacock flesh on the sly even as he exhorted his subjects to desist from killing living beings? Threads like these could have helped create a flesh and blood ruler whose passions and fears, mistakes and hopes could often lead to unpleasant, if always significant, events. This would have humanised Asoka and made him more interesting than the hagiographic figure of an emperor living out his destiny that Keuning recreates for his readers.
Nayanjot Lahiri teaches at the Department of History, Delhi University.