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Ashoka: The story of rediscovering the great king

Dr R Balashankar

Ashoka, Charles Allen, Little Brown, Pp 460 (HB), Rs 750

$img_titleThe story of King Ashoka has been told and retold several times, fascinated by his repentance at the moment of victory. He devoted much of his later life to the propagation of Buddhism not just in India, but farther into the south and south east Asia. Charles Allen’s Ashoka traces the history of the ‘rediscovering’ of the emperor by the British Indologists and historians.
Allen sets off by blaming Hindus for the decline of Buddhism in India — one of the most clichéd arguments — and connecting it inexplicably to the Babri Masjid demolition. But the story moves on. Grippingly Allen recounts the plunders carried out by various Muslim invaders, which wiped huge parts of the source material on the history of pre-Islamic India. Lost in these gruesome attacks were the enormous Buddhist sites and manuscripts. Hence the need to reconstruct Ashoka from fragments of information available.
The narration includes the raids of Mohammad Bakhtiyar, a commander of Qutb-ud-din Aybak, who set fire to Nalanda. The fate of the university was sealed with one question from the marauder. Did it have Koran? When it was answered in the negative, he ordered it be torched and all inmates killed. The operation was chronicled by his men: “The greater number of inhabitants of that place were Brahmans ... and they were all slain.” The burning went on for months. Nalanda then had three multi-storied libraries named Ratnasagara, Ratnadadhi and Ratnaranjaka. Bhaktiya’s Nalanda raid came after his many successes in other Hindu cities. In Benares, where according to the chronicler he destroyed a thousand temples and converted them into mosques. Later he destroyed two other places of learning in Bengal, flourishing Buddhist monasteries at Somapura and Jagadalala. The stories of loot, plunder and destruction by Muslim invaders go on.
The early British who came to India were traders and businessmen. But till almost the time of Macaulay, several of them were India-lovers, who attempted to understand India and its people. One such person was Sir William Jones. He wanted to write the history of India. But there was hardly any evidence of the pre-Islamic India, as a modern historian would understand. His quest to ‘fix’ a date took him to the Greek history, Alexander, his invasion on the western borders of India. Sir Jones made several conjectures and guesses and fixed the date of Ashoka as a descendent of the Maurya empire. Charles Allen goes on to describe in detail several of evidences collected, the interesting stories behind the emergence of them and how a jigsaw puzzle was being fixed. Of course, now we know that Sir Jones erred in his estimation and confused Gupta Chandragupta with Maurya Chandragupta. This mistake has been explained very well by Dr V Lakshmikantham and Dr J Vasundhara Devi in their book What India Should Know (Bharatiya Vidhya Bhawan, 2006). Jones worked on a backward logic. He zeroed in on the date of Alexander’s India campaign and looked for the corresponding Indian name, mentioned by the Greek writers. ‘Sandrokoptas’ was a name in Greek accounts. “If we can fix on an Indian prince, contemporary with Seleucus,” he declared, “they would have that common fixed point of history.” He fixed the Indian name as Chandragupta (Maurya), who lived at least 1500 years before the one identified by Jones. 
On with the story of Ashoka: The deciphering of the Brahmi script proved to be of great help, in decoding the rock edicts of Ashoka. While enthusiastic work was going on in studying the Indian history, the year 1837 became memorable for good and bad reasons. The Orientalists received a setback because Anglicists and Evangelists in Britain gained the upper hand in the form of Thomas Macaulay and Lord Bentinck.  The British government decided that English would be the medium of dealing in India and government funding for printing of works in vernacular was withdrawn. Several accompanying decisions were taken. People being posted in senior positions in India were being scrutinised and brainwashed about the supremacy of the White skin and their agenda in India was being set out clearly so that they would not ‘stray’ far. It worked. The British enthusiasm in Indian history waned, eventually, the Indians were being handed out tailor made versions of our history, that suited the convenience of the alien rulers.
The year 1837 also marked one of the fastest developments in Indological studies, with discoveries and deciphering of evidence coming at a very fast pace. “For students of Indian studies the year 1837 will always be remembered as the annus mirabilis of Indian historiography and philology; the year in which astonishing revelations came so thick and fast that there was no time to absorb the implications of one before the next had been announced.”
Allen’s narration concludes with ‘Ashoka in the Twentieth Century.’ The Ashoka story and his greatness caught the imagination of western intellectuals. H G Wells declared “Ashoka shines and shines brightly like a bright star, even unto this day.” Says Allen “Indian nationalists, looking for pre-colonial models of government, were quick to seize on this idea, among them Dr Radhakumud Mookerji, whose lectures on early Indian history at Lucknow University in the early 1920s became the basis for the first truly scholarly account of Ashoka and his times.”
There is this last chapter on the decline of Ashok dharma and Buddhism. The rediscovering of Ashoka is a fascinating story and Charles Allen has rendered it in style. There is plenty of material in appendix and notes. Alllen is a traveller, historian and storyteller and has authored books about India.
(Little Brown, 100 Victoria Embankment, London EC4Y ODY, sold in India by Hachette India).


History of the Jews. They are too close to us

Dr R Balashankar

$img_titleA Short History of the Jews, Michael Brenner, Princeton University Press, Pp 421 (PB), $24.95

Jews in twentieth century are one of the most focussed communities in the world. More of than not in a negative tone. “They are frequently viewed above all else as players in the Middle East conflict, and their history is then often understood as the cause behind the escalation of this conflict.” But what is their “true” history?  Michael Brenner, Professor of Jewish history, attempts such a narration in A Short History of the Jews. “The golden thread that runs throughout this book is migration. Jews were not always wandering, but wandering has characterized Jewish history across all epochs and continents,” says Brenner. He begins the book from the mythical sources. He discusses the Bible and the biblical characters. “What we know about the earliest beginnings of the people of Israel comes only from its own sources, which are Biblical. Documents of other people that mention Israel during the first few centuries of its existence are extremely rare, and from the Biblical material alone we cannot derive any claims of historicity.”
Brenner discusses the emergence of the structure in the Jewish religious set up. The time when rabbis (teachers) acquired a prominence comparable to that which the priests had enjoyed before them. It happened after the period of Second Temple. “If priests oversaw the Temple service, rabbis were associated with study and legal interpretation.”
Jews were reduced to second-class citizens by the religions that came after it namely Christianity and Islam. While Pope Innocent III prescribed a garment patch to be worn by the Jews, Islamists, calling them dhimmis, charged them jizya, the protection money to be paid by them for their safety. This very much sounds familiar to the Hindus.  
Brenner makes an interesting observation. “In contrast to polytheistic cultures, monotheism is always about universal recognition. Peoples who themselves worship a variety of gods do not, as a rule, have any problem tolerating and respecting other peoples’ gods. But it was different for the monotheistic Jews, as it would be later for Christians and Muslims: If only a single God exists, this must be the true God, who ideally should be recognized by people everywhere.”
The book discusses the several migrations of Jews to various parts of the globe. In fact the chapters are titled along the lines of the movements of Jews. Some of the chapters are tantalising like ‘From Dessau to Berlin’ and ‘From West to East.’ Part of the story is also about the East European Jewish Dreams and American Realities, and the chapter ‘From Everywhere to Auschwitz’ deals with ‘Annihilation.’ The last chapter ‘From Julius Streicher’s Farm to the Kibbutz’ brings us up to date, ‘The Jewish World After the Holocaust.’
There are comparative table of countries and cities with largest Jew population in 1898 and 1930; in 1948 and 2006; and 1940 and 1948; This is a stark story in itself. There are substantial suggestions for further reading.
(Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540)

Myths in the making of Gods

Dr Vaidehi Nathan

Founding Gods, Inventing Nations – Conquest and Culture Myths from Antiquity to Islam, William F Mccants, Princeton University Press,  Pp 179 (HB), $35

$img_titleHebrew, Islam and Christianity all three had the same origins. They shared their myths and forefathers. To begin with they all contested for the same geographic piece – the Near East the region lying beyond West Asia, for us. And they mutually fought pitched and gruesome battles, a war today Islam seems to be winning.
Islam, by all accounts is an invading religion. Its spread, right from the beginning, has been by the sword. And early on, when it established itself, the founders culled out accounts from the shared, common myth to modify it to give it a distinct twist as it were. This phenomenon of invented heritage lies at the core of William F Mccants’ Founding Gods, Inventing Nations – Conquest and Culture Myths from Antiquity to Islam. 
The Near East has been the conflict zone for centuries. Three major invasions can be sighted namely Greek, Roman and Arab. The conquerors and the conquered always reshaped their myths of civilisation’s origins to suit their positions. “The Greeks and Romans came to the Near East with a learned high culture, and native elites contested it, adopted it, or did something in between. But the conquering Arabs had no such comparable learned culture; consequently, the conquerors and conquered argued over the next three centuries about the content of not only “Islamic” but also “Arab” identity and scholarship.”
Says Mccants, “Although Qur’an is a “biblical” text in the sense that it draws heavily on the stories of the Bible, the Qur’anic conception of cultural origins is similar to that of the ancient Near Eastern authors: a beneficent sky god, Allah, gives culture—even ironsmithing—to humans. However this is not a revival of ancient mythology but the confluence of two Hellenistic developments.” Mccants fine-combs through the religious texts of the three religions, to describe the various theories presented by them on what all god gave. Magic, art, and science were all gifted. There are minor variations in each account to sound original.
Civilisation started, according to the Bible after the fall of Adam. However, “Mohammad draws on some version of these texts (perhaps oral) to prove his argument that God is the source of all civilization, an argument influenced by late-antique thought on divine providence. He makes this argument to justify either proselytizing among or conquest of non-Muslims, who have forgotten the source of civilization and thus deserve to lose it.” Mccants makes minute comparisons between the texts and makes several such observations on points of similarity and points of divergence. Then there is the eternal question ‘Who was First?’
Mccants says that the Iranians, a century after they were conquered by the Arabs started writing the histories of their pre-Islamic kings in Arabic. The kings were portrayed as inventors of arts and science of civilisation. Something similar happened in Greek and Roman conquests too. These, the author sees as an attempt to reiterate their national pride, though they accepted the conquerors. “Early Iranian Muslims preserved their culture myths in an Islamic frame-work to assimilate to the new order or to encourage the new order to assimilate to them… No matter what the framework, the culture myths were generally the same, underscoring the ambiguity of boasting about ancient cultural achievements…Later premodern conquests of the region did not lead to the same level of interest in culture myths.”
The book is an academic discussion on the way religions developed their “sources” to be passed on to the later generations. While they almost adopted the same material, shaping them to their convenience and need, the religionists themselves have squabbled over them. Who imposed what on who was decided by the shifting political power in the region.  William F Mccants  has delved deep into the subject, and analysed it scientifically. He does not pronounce conclusions, but presents the case. Serious, scholastic and heavy, the book has some of the translations of works the first time. Mccants is in the adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins University.
(Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540)

Balancing the business of life

Ashish Joshi

Business, Balance & Beyond, Azim Jamal, Jaico Books, Pp 195, Rs 250.00

$img_titleModern man is a confused being. Having to juggle home, personal and official life is enough to drive anyone insane in these trying times. As one famous author had put it quite succinctly-‘The trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be’.  So, what is to be done? Ergo, welcome to the world of self-help books. If you manage to hit the right note, the sky’s the limit in this industry. Sample this: Americans spent $11 billion on self-help books, and other similar products in 2008 alone! It has become a vast industry, this-each year it seems a new self-help guru appears on the scene exhorting the legions of the lost to eschew the material world and seek solace in the spiritual or to combine the two into a harmonious whole.
Among the better-known of these spiritual gurus is Azim Jamal. An inspirational speaker and author of the so-called Corporate Sufi series of books, the Canada-based Jamal won the Nautilus Gold Prize in 2009. His work has been translated into 10 languages and he has seen his books access the top slot on Amazon twice.
In Business, Balance & Beyond, Azim Jamal offers us his recipe on how to succeed in a hostile and competitive world, and to maintain a harmonious work-life balance. He gives examples of the Sufis, mystical mendicants who lead an austere life to attain fulfillment. Try to incorporate some of their practices to solve your problems, he tells us. The Sufi lives according to a strong code of ethics; he is a ‘person of timelessness and placelessness, living in the world but not of the world’. Live a life of balance-between home and work; between body, mind and spirit or even between materialism and spirituality-and you can achieve all your life’s goals, seems to be the overriding message of this book.
(Jaico Publishing House, A-2, Jash Chambers, 7-A, Sir Phirozshah Mehta Road, Fort, Mumbai-400 001).


MK Kaw on Indian babudom

Ashish Joshi

Bureaucrazy Gets Crazier, M K Kaw, Konark Publishers, Pp 195, Rs 250.00

$img_titleA throwback to our colonial past, the Indian Administrative Services (IAS), is admired and reviled in equal measure. Times may have changed peoples’ career goals-once the ambition of most forward looking men and women was to either become an engineer or doctor or those who had the capacity to slog it out-get into the IAS. The advent of technology has thrown open a plethora of options in front of our ambitious graduates—they can pick and choose from a wide variety of disciplines—but if one thing has stayed constant it is the aim of getting past the notorious pre-IAS exam and landing the post of your dreams! Mired in red tape and the epitome of bureaucracy, the IAS is much sought after for the kind of power you can exercise once you get an official posting.
And if there is anyone who has seen it all through the hallowed lenses of the IAS, it is M K Kaw, the distinguished civil services officer who has penned several books and held a variety of senior positions, such as Finance Secretary, Member Secretary, Fifth Central Pay Commission, Principal Secretary to Chief Minister, etc. Bureaucrazy Gets Crazier is his witty paeon to the IAS—that forged his career and gave him much material for his oeuvre. The book lays bare the real goings on behind the corridors of power, the hypocrisy, the backstabbing, the games bureaucrats play to climb the greasy pole of success, the shenanigans of their political masters, the sordid stories of unaccounted wealth.
Bursting with humour on every page, the author has peppered the book with sundry anecdotes that bring out the many faces of the civil services. The reader is laid privy to the Machiavellian tricks that officers play to advance their own interests. As the author says, the service “symbolises the worst traits of bureaucracy—the red tape, officiousness, authoritarianism and arbitrary exercise of power”. He paints a rather unflattering picture of IAS officers as “smug, complacent, snooty, pipe smoking, public school products, having an urban, upper class elitist bias”. He pawkily christens the IAS as ‘Indian Avatar Service’, ‘Invisible After Sunset’—hilarious acronyms that capture the true spirit and flavour of this hidebound profession. The author also touches on the relationship between the officer and his political master—a symbiotic relationship if anything else—where each tries to feed off the other and obtain maximum benefit for himself.
Witty, erudite and a no-holds barred inside account of the elite IAS corps, the book can be read by almost anyone who appreciates good humour and has a passing interest in the civil services! This is one book which will have you in splits from the first page to the last. Guaranteed!
(Konark Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 206, First Floor, Peacock Lane, Shahpur Jat, New Delhi–110 049).


A modern day mystic

Ashish Joshi

Of Mystics & Mistakes, Sadhguru, Jaico Books, Pp 200, Rs 250.00

$img_titleThe life of modern man is a mess. Blundering in a kind of trance, almost half-alive at times, he has lost that spark, that indefinable something that makes his life so much superior to the lower animals. There is a serious disconnect between his spiritual and corporeal self. Of Mystics & Mistakes by the renowned spiritual visionary Sadhguru helps us chart a course that helps us connect with our spiritual selves for lasting fulfillment. 
He begins by urging us towards the path of realisation. As he so aptly puts it, Realization is not about inventing or discovering something; it is just about realizing who you are.’ The book is essentially in a question-answer format; where his disciples ask him questions ranging from the mundane to the intensely spiritual and the guru provides an answer in his own inimitable manner.
(Jaico Publishing House, A-2, Jash Chambers, 7-A, Sir Phirozshah Mehta Road, Fort, Mumbai-400 001).

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