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Review: Ashoka

An account of how British colonial scholars rediscovered emperor Ashoka remains incomplete without the wider political context

books Updated: Apr 20, 2012 18:46 IST


Charles Allen

Little Brown

Rs 750 pp 480

Charles Allen is the author of a dozen or so books on the history of Europeans in India, many with the words ‘sahib’ or ‘raj’ in the title. His latest — Ashoka: The Search for India’s Lost Emperor — is about the rediscovery by British colonial scholars of the emperor Ashoka, who spread Buddhism across Asia and ruled much of what is modern India and Pakistan, around 250 years before the birth of Christ. By deciphering inscriptions on stone pillars scattered around the subcontinent, they reconstructed the story of one of India’s great rulers.

Allen’s mission is to rescue these stalwarts of empire from the clutches of “the late Professor Edward Said and his followers”, whose seminal work Orientalism he claims, hopefully, has been “thoroughly discredited”. Much of this will be familiar to anyone who has read Allen’s earlier book, The Buddha and the Sahibs. Certainly the detective work of figures like Sir William Jones or Dr Horace Hayman Wilson was remarkable, but what left me wanting to fling this book out of an Oxford-to-London train (an intention foiled by the sealed windows) was the author’s fatal inability to acknowledge the wider political context in which these “discoveries” took place.

From the middle of the 18th century, the East India Company controlled most of the subcontinent — by force. While earlier Hindu and Muslim rulers had destroyed relics for religious reasons, the British did so out of indifference. Early Buddhist statues were thrown into a river to make a breakwater, pillars were pulverised by military engineers, carved stone slabs burnt for lime and ancient inscriptions cracked out by glory-hunting, hammer-wielding colonial officers. A handful of Europeans preferred to study these objects rather than destroy them. Although Indians were central to the process of discovery, they were excluded from even the most basic recognition.

When the British first came to India, countless indigenous priests and scholars read Sanskrit. Along comes “amiable, gentlemanly and well connected Dr Wilson” — and our author labels him “the leading Sanskritist of the age”. If a European collects old scriptures, he is judged to be pursuing “a quite breathtaking range of intellectual pursuits”. When an Indian academic is mentioned, he is dismissed as a “native clerk”. When the same man, the great lexicographer Ramkamal Sen, becomes principal of Sanskrit College in Calcutta, Allen merely concedes he was “an able Sanskritist”.

Since important positions were open only to Europeans, the “clerks” would often find newly-arrived white men in their 20s taking credit for many years of their own research. This imbalance sails straight over the author’s head. When Allen introduces a new character, it is with a sentence of this type: “Like his contemporary in India, Marquess Wellesley, North was an aristocrat and an Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, man, and although he lacked Wellesley’s ambition he shared his view that the best administrators were men who aspired to work with the natives rather than over them.”

The colonial Orientalists were often monomaniacs, obsessed with trying to prove links between Indian culture and ancient Greece — stemming from the assumption that anything important in the subcontinent must have come from the West rather than from the East. As they gradually pieced together a more accurate historical account, they depended on finding documents that had never really gone missing: it was rather that the sources had never been made available in translation in an accessible language. A Russian scholar might translate an account written by a Tibetan monk on Indian Buddhism, or a French Sinologist might publish a 7th century Chinese pilgrim’s writings. The Orientalists’ achievement was one of synthesis and taxonomy.

The more interesting sections of the book come when Allen focuses not on imperial derring-do, but on events from antiquity. It is shocking to read of the early Islamic invaders of India destroying Hindu temples by the hundreds as they advanced towards Benares, and more shocking still to read of the burning of the library at Nalanda, which housed all of the sacred manuscripts of the Buddhist world. From what we know of Ashoka, he seems to have indeed been a remarkable ruler, with ideas about non-violence and political economy that deserve to be remembered. HG Wells called his reign “one of the brightest interludes in the troubled history of mankind” and said his name still “shines, and shines almost alone, a star”. Many of Ashoka’s symbols, like the four lions standing back to back atop a pillar, or the wheel of dharma, are part of the State iconography of independent India.

At the close of the book, Allen attempts to link today’s Hindu nationalism to the religious opposition to Ashoka, calling him a “a victim of Hindutvaism in one of its earliest historical manifestations”. Hindutva was a political concept developed in the early 20th century, at a time when all sorts of bizarre radical ideologies were being invented. Above all, Hindutva was a reaction against Islam and Christianity — faiths which did not exist when Ashoka was alive. As a comparison, it makes no sense.

Patrick French is the author of India: A Portrait