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Ashoka: The Search for India’s Lost Emperor

Charles Allen

Little Brown

Pages: 460 Rs. 750

Defending the Orientalists — history as a detective novel

Charles Allen’s history of Emperor Ashoka is carefully researched & vividly told, but it suffers from a lack of academic rigour and his own absorptions, writes Benjamin Zachariah

Benjamin Zachariah  15th Apr 2012

harles Allen is, perhaps unfairly, best known as a purveyor of Raj nostalgia. Nothing as crude and aggressive as the Niall Fergusons of this world, of course, and it might seem strange that Ferguson is still counted as a professional historian while Allen must contend with being considered a talented amateur, subject to the condescension of the professionals, even as his (mostly) careful research and amiable prose drive his narratives into the hearts and minds of a lay readership. The subject of his most recent book, the emperor Ashoka of the Mauryan dynasty, seeks to return Ashoka, and Buddhism, to centrestage in thinking about India's past.

Two targets are pinpointed at the very outset of the book: intolerance, whether of a 'Brahmanical', 'Hindutva' or 'Muslim' variety; and the late Professor Edward W. Said, who is said to have 'vilified' the European Orientalists (p. xv), to whom is owed much of the world's knowledge about Indian, and Asian, pasts. The contrasting arguments, often implicit rather than explicit, that emerge from his study are that Ashokan Buddhism's tolerance is a lesson for India today; and (often more centrally) that the selfless work of the pioneering generations of British Orientalists paved the way for the rediscovery of this lesson, through the gift of the restoration of history. This makes the book as much a tribute to those Orientalists as to Ashoka, and at least in that sense marks a continuity with the Raj nostalgia genre for which he is best known.

That a misreading of Edward Said is at the root of one of these arguments is worth pointing out. Said did not so much 'vilify' the Orientalists as point out their role in shaping the main lines of the narrative of 'eastern' societies: that they are static, passive, unchanging. Until, of course, given the gift of 'history' by their colonisers.

Such quibbling notwithstanding, Allen's Ashoka is a gripping book, tracing the route to the reconstruction of the history of the great emperor through each discovery, though not before starting with the notional loss of that knowledge with the destruction by Mohammad Bakhtiyar, Qutb-ud-din Aibak's general, of the libraries of Nalanda and other Buddhist sites of learning in India. The heroes of the story, other than Ashoka himself, are the Sahibs who restored that history of the Buddha and his champion emperor to India; its villains, 'God's terrorists', to paraphrase the titles of two of Allen's earlier books. There are, of course, lesser villains: Horace Hayman Wilson, whose tenure at the Asiatic Society in Calcutta and subsequently as Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford resulted in a long period of denial of India's Buddhist past (Wilson was misled by his Brahman informants, and never recovered adequately from this initial brainwashing to be able to believe that so important an Indian emperor as Ashoka could have been a Buddhist). There are also lesser heroes: Firoz Shah Tughlaq, who salvaged two of the pillars bearing Ashokan Pillar Edicts without quite knowing what he was doing, but nonetheless in contrast to the destructive iconoclasm of his co-religionists (Allen mentions, without quite ascribing causal significance to it, that Firoz Shah was 'born of a Hindu mother', p. 8). These narrative strategies seem to imply an unproblematic absorption by the author of British imperial renderings of Indian history; Allen is not unaware of these dangers, stressing throughout his narrative the importance of Indian informants and collaborators, and eventually of Indian scholarship in its own right, emerging from the shadows to be full participants in what remained for a long time a set of European and British institutional and academic practices.

The contrasting arguments that emerge from his study are that Ashokan Buddhism’s tolerance is a lesson for India today; and that the selfless work of the pioneering generations of British Orientalists paved the way for the rediscovery of this lesson.

The narrative, then, is structured as a good detective novel ought to be, with the uncovering of clues and connections, the following of little leads, and the unglamorous work of collating texts, suggestions, inscriptions and archaeological evidence given ample space. In the end, when Allen allows himself to tell the story in its relative completeness, as Hercule Poirot might have done before the main players when he has solved the case, the story appears less than entirely convincing, to anyone who has done a course in Indian history, and certainly to specialists. Some of it is frankly speculative, and the demands of coherence have led to the sacrificing of the doubts that professional historians are known to observe. Some points of detail, perhaps unimportant to emplotment, have also escaped the author: the Babri Masjid was demolished by a Hindutva-sponsored mob on December 6, 1992, not in 1991 (p. xiii); the present site of Fort William was not the site of the original Fort William College (p. 121); a koti is ten million, not one (p.146); Chandragupta II was the second Gupta king with that name, therefore Chandragupta I is certainly not Chandragupta Maurya (p. 205); Kalighat was not the name of the village where Job Charnock founded Calcutta (p.  435).

The undoubted merit of the book, which will be uncomfortable to knee-jerk nationalists, is the attention paid to how much even the most narrowly xenophobic nationalists owed in their construction of history and of India's glorious past to British scholarship. Allen's claims, however, that Ashoka was Jawaharlal Nehru's model for a just ruler, and Ashoka's dhamma Nehru's model for an India with a 'strong, secular and centralised government' (p. 356); that Ashoka was 'the man who first forged India into a single nation-state' (p. 354); or that Ashoka's reign was the most peaceful India ever knew until 'the Pax Britannica of the British Raj' are quite unsustainable.

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